I've always been proud of the French side of my family, the LaRoes. My
father was named Cecil LaRoe Wesley for his mother's family. We
named our son Robert LaRoe Silvey. Even our granddaughter, Katyana
LaRoe Hall, preserves the family name.
I studied French for two years in high school in anticipation of the time
when I would visit relatives in "the old country." Unfortunately, the
closest I've come was a layover in Charles de Gaulle Airport on our way
to Italy and muddling through some Voltaire. I never was able to speak
more than a few sentences of the language, and that with an excruciating
West Texas accent.
Still, I always felt a special connection with New Orleans because of its
French heritage. Even though Lousiana adjoins my native Texas, I never
visited New Orleans until 1991, when I was invited to speak for a
women's retreat hosted by the Hickory Knoll Church of Christ. At first,
it seemed far from what I expected, no moss-shrouded live oaks, no
richly flavored seafood. I stayed with the Laguna family in a regular
house in a regular neighborhood. The first meal I had there was at a
The retreat, which was held across Lake Pontchartrain via the causeway,
had a Mexican theme and featured a big Mexican dinner prepared by the
What I failed to understand was that my experience was more basically
New Orleans than I realized, a warm mix of hospitality, flavor and variety
that is with me even today through the gifts the women gave me: soup
mugs with recipes for Seafood Gumbo and Creole Jambalaya printed on
them, a package of perfectly-flavored dried beans and a gray-green slate
tile from an old roof hung with yarn and bearing a print of the Rue Royale.
My first real sense that that New Orleans was not your
typical American city came as I walked down Bourbon
Street, washed by waves of jazz pouring from every
I'd long appreciated jazz, our most influential native
American music. I love its beat, its syncopation, its
freedom, the democracy of its solos and the fact that,
however far it seems to wander from its initial theme, it
always manages to return to a satisfying conclusion.
The city is so low and its water table so high that
traditional burial is impossible. In a heavy rain, caskets
would pop out of the ground. That's why graves in
New Orleans are above ground, as seen in this historic
picture of graves being decorated for All-Saints Day.
Some are mausoleums (right background), while
others are individual tombs, looking like miniature
buildings ranged in tight blocks, the so-called Cities of
the Dead (left foreground).
One of the most frequently-visited tombs in New
Orleans is that of Marie Leveau, the 1830s Voodoo
Queen. Leveau was known for her intricately
wrapped seven-knotted tignon or headcovering.
Voodoo originated in the West Africa nations of
Benin, Togo and Ghana, and was brought by slaves
to the city. Voodoo practices include spirits, gris-gris
or talismans, dried animal parts and sacred dances.
Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the most popular
celebration in New Orleans. Held the last Tuesday
before Lent, it is celebrated with costumes, masks,
dances and parades.
In the late 1700s, the French celebrated Mardi Gras
with masked balls. Later, krewes, or neighborhood
societies, began designing floats for the parade,
which developed into a tourist attraction in the
A few of the gracious women from the Hickory Knolls Church of Christ.
I'm fourth from left.
Beignets and coffee at the Cafe Du Monde
Buddy Bolden's Jazz
Historic Mardi Gras