We finally met Nadine, and now we understand. We'd known her husband David for a little while. He'd come up I-5 to Tacoma from Vancouver several times to sub in our Traditional Jazz band, Combo de Luxe. (www.combodeluxe.net ) on clarinet and sax. David was a perfect fit, recommended by our cornet player Chris Tyle. They had both played this music we love, the classic jazz of the 1920s and '30s, for many years in New Orleans, the city of its birth. Easing into our lives like a warm magnolia-scented breeze, came this tall eloquent gentleman from the South, and we knew we'd be friends forever. He hadn't been in our house for five minutes when we first heard of Nadine. They'd been married for twenty years and he was still smitten. "I really want you to meet her," he said to me. "You two would get along."
David is a sensitive, thoughtful and appreciative person, in a way that transcends manners. His personality is revealed in everything he does, as a musician and as a human being. Every note he plays must feel like a dove let loose into the world with purpose, carefully chosen to guide the human heart to some new place of meaning. We see who he is in the way he talks to our dog, as if she is as important as anyone he's ever met. He does or says nothing without intention and kindness. But it is when he speaks of Nadine that he radiates pure love.
Last weekend my husband Dave and I headed "down south", as far as you can go in Washington State that is, to the city of Vancouver on the Columbia River, for a two day music job. David was playing with us, and he'd invited us to stay at his home. We'd gone directly to the gig and had played awhile, when there in the crowd was a lovely redheaded woman he obviously knew. At the end of his solo he took a breath and smiled and said, "There's Nadine!" There she was indeed, tapping her feet in time to the music, smiling at all of us with genuine warmth, and even before I finished playing the song I knew I liked her.
After the job we followed them home, uphill from the river, through a beautiful area of wooded neighborhoods, where rhododendrons, flowering trees, and spring bulbs contrasted with all the green. When we turned into their driveway it was to find ourselves surrounded by a sea of tulips and pots of ranunculus, as a welcome, and that was only the beginning. On the other side of that door was a piece of Louisiana in the Evergreen State, complete with more Southern Hospitality than I had ever known, and at the center of it was Nadine. She'd come home with bags and bags of groceries, even though we'd planned to take her out to eat while David played another gig that night.
"Oh I just decided at the last minute, I'd make some Jambalaya." she said, with a native Louisiana accent that could have soothed a baby to sleep in minutes. Real authentic Louisiana Jambalaya! We couldn't wait. That's when the coffee pot went on and the stove was heated up, and the aromas of green peppers, onion and tomatoes, sizzling sausage and warm roasted chicken began to waft through the room. All that homey kitchen noise was background music to good conversation, while their sweet dog Jasper supervised. David went upstairs to change for his gig while she cooked. Pretty soon I was helping by chopping vegetables while she stirred and a happy feeling came over me, of having done this so many times before in my life with the women in my family. She could have been a sister. When it was done we sat down to a meal I'll never forget, and it seemed like all the color, warmth and flavor of the South, the appreciation for good food, the appreciation for life, were before me on my plate.
Nadine, this sophisticated lady, successful business woman, and charming hostess, grew up on a Louisiana farm. She worked hard in the hot sun, picking their own cotton alongside her mother. "But nobody could pick like my mother," she said. "She was FAST." Some of that very same cotton filled the two old quilts I would sleep under that night, stitched together many decades before, by the strong and loving hands of a mother now passed away but still very present. I was shown an old photo of a very young woman with the hair around her face combed back and up and pinned in a 1940s style. That night I would think of her, and how time is only relative, as I lay there warmed by those quilts and my new friendship with her daughter.
After dinner David left for his gig and that was when my husband and I really had a chance to get to know Nadine. We listened, fascinated, while she told us all about her childhood, one that taught her the down home values and comfortable grace we saw, and the ten years she spent as the cruise director on a riverboat, living and working on the Mississippi River. David had worked on the riverboats for years too, as a musician, and that was how they'd met.
We laughed our heads off, hearing her funny stories of those crazy times and characters she'd known, like the dishwasher from the galley who would be called upon to say a few lines in a show (everybody, included Nadine did double duty) and would walk on stage in his apron and dripping rubber gloves. She told about how she not only directed the cruise, but also had to sing and dance in musical productions, and show movies like "Gone With the Wind" and "Showboat" on a white sheet in the dining room, because they didn't have a screen. Then there was the time they "blew the stacks" while she was on deck, and her white dress was instantly covered with black soot. She told us about the "Cat House", a bed and breakfast place along the river, where guests got a real cat with their room.
In the midst of all this hilarity Nadine remembered that she still had some notes from a talk she'd recently given about those days, and scrounging through the recycling bin in the garage, she found them, and read more to us, describing her job:
"where you meet Alex Haley, Ken Burns and BB King all on the same cruise"
"where you arrive in a town to be greeted by the mayor and all of the city dignitaries, complete with a brass band, because you are the attraction"
"where you only work half a day-of course that's 12 hours!"
When she finished, those notes were headed for the recycling again, but I begged her to give them to me. Just this morning I sat down to really read them over again, and saw even more on those pages. It was about David and their wedding. She was the first person he'd met when he boarded the boat in Cincinnati. Soon after, they were assigned to two different boats but became engaged in Memphis and married, her notes say, "when the two boats made a rare appearance together in Natchez, Mississippi." I'd seen a photo on the wall, among the many paintings of riverboat scenes, of a bride and groom kissing, with a riverboat crowded with cheering passengers in the background. It was them, David and Nadine!
Quoting Nadine's notes:
" People magazine heard about our wedding on this famous boat and thought it would make an interesting story. They sent a writer and a photographer down from New York and the photographer posed us out on the "stage" dangling over the river right out in the middle of the Mississippi River! Passengers from both boats lined the decks and we were dazzled by a barrage of flashes going off.
After the photographer was finished the two boats landed side by side at Natchez-Under-The-Hill, the most infamous town on the Mississippi River! The marriage was performed by a judge from Natchez who was two hours late because it was his first ceremony and he couldn't get to his robe. It was locked in a closet in the court house and the janitor, the only one with a key, was gone fishing!
When it was time for the boat to leave we stood on the bank in the early December darkness as the boats, lights twinkling on the water, slowly cast off."
Sitting there at the table this morning, drinking my coffee, her notes in hand, I finished the page reluctantly. I felt like I'd been there on the Mississippi with them. I could see those twinkling lights. I do believe a bit of that twinkle was absorbed by David and Nadine, because I've caught a glimpse of it in their eyes.
How many of us truly appreciate what we have? How many of us are wise enough to savor what a good Jambalaya represents: a richness of flavor, an act of love, good times, memories, a passion for life and all it offers the senses and the heart? How many of us stay in love forever, treating each other with respect and tenderness always, remembering how we felt when the lights of a riverboat twinkled on the water?
I will not forget my weekend "down south". I hope to remember its lessons and should I forget, the look in David's eyes when he says his wife's name with remind me, like the old song, "Louisiana Fairytale". We finally met Nadine, and now we understand.