Nearly thirty years ago, I was riding on a streetcar, heading downtown on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was Easter Sunday, and I was searching for a church service vaguely reminiscent of the one I knew would be taking place in my hometown church.
While I was riding, swaying right to left in that peculiar rhythm found only on streetcars, I was idly thumbing through my mail, occasionally closing my eyes to enjoy the wonderful sounds of the streetcar as it stopped and started. This sound is completely unique, and it is hard to describe if you’ve never heard it, but it will instantly spring to your mind if you have, even if it was twenty years ago.
I have always loved to ride the streetcar with all the windows wide open and the humid breeze blowing through. I love to ride simply as an avid voyeur of other streetcar riders—some headed to work or school, others riding just for the thrill. I have never been bored in my encounters with streetcar riders.
Like everyone else, when I am in New Orleans, I am partial to certain streetcar drivers. I like the ones who carry on monologues—occasionally directing a comment to one of the regular riders, always challenging traffic that risks being crunched crossing the streetcar’s path, harassing latecomers to hurry up or wait ten minutes for the next streetcar. I particularly like the tour-guide information, offered gratis to all, full of fascinating historical fact, interesting bits of legend and local gossip, and some remarkably credible lies.
As usual, I was not to be left alone with my thoughts on this trip. I was happily ensconced, with a whole wooden seat to myself, my elbow propped on the window and my chin in hand, anticipating the joys of Easter brunch, when my reverie was interrupted by an Easter bonnet in the boldest of color hues and its owner, who managed to squeeze her generously proportioned self into the seat next to mine. It was tight fit. Long ribbon streamers from her hat kept flying into my face.
I crammed myself into the corner as tightly as possible and began reading my mail. In it was a card from a boy I’d been dating—the particulars of which I no longer even remember. After scanning it quickly, I snapped it closed before my seatmate had a chance to finish reading it over my shoulder, crumbled it into a ball, and shoved it down into my bag.
“Oh, you shouldn’t do that!” my seatmate admonished. “You can’t just throw it away! You should save it for your pity-part box.”
All the while she offering me her unsolicited advice, the streamers on her hat were flying wildly about her head in punctuation of every word. The hat was evocative of something I couldn’t quite place. I finally decided that the ribbon had come off a Mardi Gras float. Without a doubt, that hat was parade quality.
Intrigued by a woman self-confident enough to wear that hat, I said, “Okay, I’ll bite. What is a pity-party box?”
Clearly, this was the opening my fellow traveler had been waiting for in all the years she had been riding streetcars and making Easter bonnets.
“Every time you get a letter, something special from someone you love, you put it in a special box. One day you’ll be old like me, and when you’re feeling low, you’ll take out your pity-party box, and you’ll feel happy,” she promised.
Naturally, I didn’t keep the card. I didn’t even start my own pity-party box until after my children were born, when I couldn’t bear to throw away their treasures in crayon, paint, and marker. But that was just he beginning.
I have notes in that box from my grandmother who is long dead. When I see her strong, scrawling handwriting on her monogrammed stationery, I can actually hear her voice in my head.
I have notes from the saddest and happiest moments in my life. There is something in there from almost every person I have ever loved, people who are a constant in my life and those who have died or drifted away.
Perhaps it is a deep-seated love of the written word, but nothing brings to me a sense of presence more than a person’s handwritten words, and nothing reduces me to tears faster than a handmade valentine. My pity-party box is a huge shoebox decorated by my child to hold his valentines when he was in preschool.
Over the years, I have sometimes thought of the Easter bonnet lady on the streetcar and hoped she was as comforted by the odd bits in her box as I have been by mine. I’m glad I eventually took her advice. So far, I haven’t felt the urge to wear an ostentatious Easter bonnet, but if I feel so moved over the next few years, I want you to know that I’m not above it. I don’t rule out much of anything these days.
*Thinking about all my NOLA friends today with Hurricane Isaac coming ashore, so I thought I’d post this excerpt from my first book, SWAG: Southern Women Aging Gracefully. Be safe and enjoy!