ALL SAINTS DAY
In New Orleans, where Roman Catholicism has shaped the culture, All Saints Day is taken pretty seriously. People flock to our unique above-ground cemeteries to clean their family’s tombs and vaults. (The more literal minded folks say this is in preparation for All Souls Day.) This year, that custom will take on an added poignancy because some of the cleaning is necessitated by damage from Katrina.
I don’t have any graves to spruce up, so I choose to observe All Saints Day by thinking fondly of the one real saint I knew: my mother. Okay, I know what you’re thinking; everybody thinks his or her mother is a saint. But my mother really is. (She even has one miracle, but that’s another story for another day.)
Betty Bursley was born to an old New England family, a direct descendant of Mayflower pilgrims. Her father was a landscape architect for the United States Park Service, and she grew up primarily in Cleveland and Richmond. Education was valued in the family, and my mother earned a degree in biology from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. During World War II, she met and married a handsome lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers, Hugh F. Rankin. After the war, Dad went back to school, and wound up becoming a professional historian. Throughout graduate school and beyond, my mother worked (mostly clerical jobs), helped entertain Dad’s professional colleagues, served as Dad’s typist and most-trusted editor, and raised three sons. She was not only our mother, but was also the best teacher any of us ever had. There was little about the world around us that my mother could not explain and help us understand.
Eventually, the family came to New Orleans, where Dad joined the faculty at Tulane University. Faculty pay in the fifties being what it was, my mother needed a job, and she became the secretary for the newly formed Jazz Archive (now called the William Ransom Hogan Archive of New Orleans Jazz) at Tulane’s Howard Tilton Memorial Library. She took notes at jazz funerals and second-line parades, assisted the curators in conducting oral histories, and helped organized a priceless collection of recordings, sheet music, photographs, and memorabilia. She developed a passion for the music and a genuine love for the musicians. Despite no academic background in musicology, Mom eventually became an associate curator of the Archive.
After retiring from the Archive, my mother (by that time known as “Big Mama,” a nickname she acquired partly because Dad had been dubbed “Big Daddy” by his graduate students) took on several volunteer positions with various groups. In the early eighties, she heard about a fledgling community radio station, WWOZ, which needed volunteers. For the uninitiated, WWOZ plays a wide variety of genres, but specializes in the musical forms that help to define South Louisiana. My mother started out typing letters and stuffing envelopes, but somebody soon realized the resource they had, and she was thrown in front of a microphone. For the next several years, Big Mama hosted what became known as the “Moldy Fig Jam,” a popular 90-minute program of Traditional Jazz and Ragtime on Saturday mornings. Mom took enormous pleasure in sharing her love of New Orleans music, and included far more background on the musicians than could be found anywhere else on the radio dial. After decades of being known as Hugh Rankin’s wife, she was now an internationally known personality (WWOZ’s web feed has made it a world-wide favorite).
Of course, the fact that she was a nice person who had a knack for teaching others what she knew did not qualify her for sainthood. The remarkable thing about Big Mama was the nature of the lessons she taught. And the best way to explain that is to write about her parting lesson.
During a heart operation in the eighties, Big Mama received some tainted blood, and contracted Hepatitis C. It went undetected for years, until she eventually started having active liver disease. My mother expressed no bitterness, and she blamed nobody. She faced this problem as she faced everything in life, good or bad: with equal parts optimism and acceptance.
In late 1997, Big Mama’s liver began to fail altogether, and she spent the next few months alternating between improving and falling into hepatic comas. Whether she was conscious or comatose, my brothers and I, and often our wives, were at the hospital a lot: reading to her, helping to feed her, or just spending time. She had a spell in the middle when she was alert, happy, and as full of life as anyone could hope to be. We talked for hours about lots of things: philosophy, religion (Mom was a lifelong Presbyterian; I am an Episcopalian), music, politics, and whatever happened to be going on in the world. It was important small talk, because no matter what plans we made, the unspoken reality was that she probably wasn’t going to be coming home.
Sure enough, Big Mama fell into another hepatic coma, from which she clearly wasn’t going to come out. A few days before she died, I got out the Bible from which we read during her last alert interval. Struggling to figure out what to read to her, I went to the assigned readings of the day listed in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer I had left in her room. One of the readings was the familiar exhortation by St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
There could be no more fitting passage to describe my mother’s relationship with her family, her friends, and the world around her. I looked up and saw my mother sitting upright in bed nodding her head. Her meaning was clear: “That’s it; that’s all you need to know.” She put her head back onto her pillow, still beaming a beatific smile. That was the first time in almost a week that her head had been off of the pillow or that any expression could be discerned on her face. It was the last time she communicated in any way.
My mother passed away on February 24, 1998, as I held her hand and my wife, Sym, stroked her hair. (In a last act of kindness, Big Mama held on until Sym could get there so I wouldn’t be alone.) Of all days, it was Mardi Gras morning. We were at Touro Infirmary, a hospital just a block off of St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. Along the Avenue, families were gathered to celebrate life as it can only be celebrated in New Orleans. I like to think Big Mama, hoping to second line one last time, wandered around until she found the Irish Channel Corner Club making their annual “march” downtown to the beat of the Paulin Brothers Band. I can only hope the band was playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”