The return of the Grand Duchess

My pal Jen has remarked to me on more than one occasion that I have not spoken of my friend the Grand Duchess in more than a year. I protested each time, insisting she was wrong, but after checking my notes, it turns out she was right.

So, this week, I walked over there and dropped a note in the metal letter box with that distinctive fleur de lis scrollwork. As always I posed a query as she liked it- to the point:

Dear Duchess,

I am interested in any thoughts you have on statues.

I had noticed her windows had been closed and so I assumed she was on one of her east/west trips (“never South or North my dear; there’s been entirely too much traffic in THOSE directions over the years”) and would have to wait a few weeks for a reply.  Yet, within a week, my monosyllabic upstairs neighbor (trust me- it’s a good thing) grunted at me while handing over a letter, “Yours,” and I somehow knew who it was from.

If I didn’t, the envelope with the intricate handwriting gave it away, or maybe it was the verbena scent with the formal note inside inviting me up for a cocktail and a chat.

When I rang her bell, I had to wait an inordinately long time for Miss Maude to come down to greet me and lead me up the circular, wooden stairs to the second floor room. However, once I arrived, there was already a rum and satsuma juice with grenadine and fresh lime juice waiting for me.

Her usual creme de menthe was next to her straight-backed chair and as soon as I noted it, the Duchess came in the room and warmly welcomed me. She very formally introduced me to her newest cats,  Zorita and Betty, the Ball of Fire. Since all of her cats are named for burlesque dancers or Roman generals, I assumed the former.

What should be done about the statues of Lee and Davis?

(long pause) Statues are erected by and for the wealthy. Those who feel strongly about them are those who believe in wealth.  Therefore, it seems obvious that to find private accommodations for their statues will be easily accomplished by those interested.

What should be done about the Liberty Monument?

(Direct gaze from her. Seemed to be judging my facial expression, but with no clue as to hers. After waiting for a long while, I realize she was not going to respond. You’d think I would be clued into this by now but her willpower to not answer always takes me by surprise.)

Do you think there should be new statues in place of those removed?

 We believe that statues of men are a thing of the past.

Do you think we should rid our city of all traces of slave owners named for streets or buildings?

(long thoughtful look out of the window. long silent sigh.): As the name of many of our relatives, including yours my friend  (she courteously nodded at me) likely contain history of deeds against our nation’s rightful leaders, how can we erase it all? Our people did these terrible things to others and cannot be separated from them. It is better that we acknowledge those wrongs and use our time to repair the damage rather than try to ignore them.

In any case, we believe that any public mark of the Confederacy leadership is ill assigned to our village and should be stricken from its illustrious history.  They cared little for us and left us as spoils.

Better to tell of all of our people and ancestors. Why not talk of the water and its changing path and what that means? That is real. It has shaped us. Or talk of the music and those who gave it to us that heralded these modern times we live in today. Or of the food, or of the architecture, or of the athletics that so many prize. All of those come from our efforts to connect to each other to learn from our neighbors and friends and their experiences. That is our heritage.


With that, she rose and offered me a tour of one part of her ephemera collection, carefully preserved in glass boxes along the hallway leading out. She pointed out letters from New Orleanians over the last 300 years where I counted well over two dozen languages represented. She had translations in a bound book on its own stand and pointed to this page from a  woman visiting New Orleans more than a hundred years ago:

Dear Momma,

I have arrived here and am happily ensconced in Elizabeth’s lovely 2nd floor rooms. She has been very gracious in showing me about the village. The babble of language is positively heady as is the wide selection of food from areas still unknown to me. This  is truly  a country flowing with milk and honey just as we learned on Sunday. I hope someday I can make my life here, and experience more of the world while among friends. 

About DW

New Orleans resident, writer, activist. Public market consultant.

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