The Mother Lode of Moxie
A palm reading gone wrong imparts a lifelong appreciation of aging and kicks off a hunt for feisty role models. Bay St. Louis turns out to have more than its fair share.
- by Ellis Anderson
I never saw Artie again, but although I tried to laugh his prediction off, the doomsday clock he’d started in my head could not be diffused. The sense of immortality that is a young person’s birthright vanished. I collected mottos like “Live each day as if it’s your last.” It was the “Be Here Now” era anyway, so I had plenty of cultural reinforcement.
On my 20th birthday, I raised a glass to Artie. I’d jumped right over the nick in my palm and was now a contender in the marathon. Since living to a ripe old age was now a possibility, I began seeking out feisty role models, women along the lines of Katherine Hepburn – plain-spoken, strong-willed, and focusing on adventure rather than arthritis.
My aunt Blanche led the pack. Well into her eighties, I’d drive her down scrawling mountain roads to trespass in abandoned farmhouses and hike up trails to historic family home sites. I befriended Miss Pearl, another woman in her eighties, who strolled around my French Quarter neighborhood daily to visit housebound friends. Carmencita, who ran a soap shop on Chartres street was my idea of perfected senior refinement, yet one day she chased a thief down the street until she caught him, then demanded her money back. She got it.
Soon after I moved to the Bay, I discovered it was the Mother Lode of Moxie. Some of my favorite spirited role models over the years have included Camille Tate and Dovie Mayes, Joanie Noel, Virginia Wagner and Myrt Haas. The late artist Dorothy McLemore became a dear friend. She reminded me of an elegant, aging Audrey Hepburn, yet the way she could time a well-placed expletive when she was all fired up was entertainment at its finest. I always laughed very hard when she cussed, but I wouldn’t have wanted to stand in her way.
Once, the well-known artist Ilona Royce Smithkin visited Camille and Dovie in Bay St. Louis. Ilona has painted portraits of the likes of Tennessee Williams and Ayn Rand, and her charisma and confidence had not diminished with age. She made the rounds on Second Saturday wearing fantastic false eyelashes she’d created from her own flame-colored hair. The eyelashes were about as long as she was tall. Her bearing, as well as her style, made it impossible to overlook the tiny octogenarian.
The last time I saw her was over a decade ago. I caught up with her last week, by phone. She’s still living in New York City, still painting and, at least once each day, climbing the three flights of steps to her apartment. Ilona stars annually in a popular Provencetown performance named in her honor: The Eyelash Cabaret. When we talked, she was looking forward to wowing audiences again this summer. She’s 95.
But I only met Ilona a few times, while Celestine Labat was my friend. She was 99 when I met her and she didn’t pass on until 2002, when she was 104. In those five years, I learned about aging with elegance at the feet of the master.
During that time, I found out that age doesn't necessarily dictate decline. For instance, even though I was sixty years Celestine's junior, her memory was much sharper than mine. With activities and exchanges with people packed like sardines into any given week, I’d forget what we talked about during our last visit. “Teeney” would remember every nuance of our conversation. She savored rather than gobbled experiences.
She also taught me by example that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself. I was introduced to her by my dentist from New Orleans and his wife, Dr. Wellington and Judy Arnaud. They were old family friends of the Labats. Beforehand, Dr. Arnaud described Celestine to me as "the shy sister." Her two older sisters, Inez and Portia, had dominated the active social scene of the household, while Teeney was retiring and reserved. Yet the 99-year-old woman I met that day bantered easily, was a vivacious hostess, and conversed confidently on current events and memories from her childhood. The Arnauds, who had known her for decades, seemed surprised at the metamorphosis. In the eve of life after her older sisters had passed on, Celestine rose to become the grand dame hostess of the family house on Easterbrook.
She eventually shared her oral history with artist Lori Gordon, whose quilt project about Celestine and the Labat family wound up in the Smithsonian. On occasion, Celestine would consent to other interviews and speak to groups like the local Rotary. She’d always bring down the house when asked to reveal her secret for aging well.
I never married, she’d say. Men age you.
Her real secret was never mentioned, but I figured it out from watching her. If an aging person is fortunate enough to enjoy relatively good health, they have a several choices. Fold your hand or keep playing? Withdraw or reach out to others? Give care or accept it?
It’s probably easier to go with the giving decision, if - like Teeney - you’ve made a lifetime habit of it. She made course corrections, but the goal remained the same. While she couldn't stir the batter to make the famous Creole cakes she liked to bring to the sick or bereaved, she'd ask someone else to mix in the nuts. That sweet confection still tasted rich with compassion and comfort to those who received it.
In her final year, she spent a spell in Dunbar Village, a local "nursing home" after a “procedure.” I joined her for dinner one evening and at the end of the meal, she stood and began pushing the wheelchair of a feeble fellow diner back to his room. Nurses rushed to relieve her. I’m fine, she said, waving them away. I’ll get him there. I know where he lives. The man was probably thirty years her junior.
In the last month or so of her life, she was confined to her enormous four poster bed, yet when visitors came, she was the one to dispense words of comfort and kindness. In between guests, she worked crossword puzzles. She didn’t stop giving until she no longer drew a breath.
Seeing how richly Teeney lived until the end, I wince when I hear anyone bemoaning growing old. The younger whiners act as if age is a disease instead of an experience to be treasured. They make me mindful of loved ones who never had the opportunity to get smile lines around their eyes.
So I’m fantastically grateful for that AARP card - it sure beats the alternative. And I’m indebted to my many uppity women friends who have led the way - especially Celestine. And I’m even glad Artie passed briefly through my life, inadvertently gifting me with an appreciation of age instead of an aversion to it.
I still have so much to learn. For one, I'm wondering if Ilona will show me the secret to making those eyelashes.
A few of my feisty role models
*Artie Rudelmann is not his real name