Excerpt: Acadian Waltz:For many, the course of an entire lifetime could be summed up in a few defining moments, but moments do not choose your path. There was always an indescribable force lurking inside of us that shaped our destiny. Whether this motivation was the result of fear, longing, or in my case, guilt, it haunted our being and oversaw our every action. Like a constant voice inside our heads, this energy gave each of our lives direction.My inner voice was hugely influenced by the city where I was born. Built at the bend in the Mississippi River and tucked behind protective levees, New Orleans nurtured a peculiar world infatuated with the Catholic rituals of sin and penance. Therefore, it should be no surprise that those of us who endured in this swamp-ridden land below the level of the sea had mastered the art of sin. In fact, we turned it into something of a tourist industry. It was the penance part that many of us had not quite gotten a handle on. But God, in his infinite wisdom, wanted to make sure that we were always reminded of our heavy feelings of culpability. That was why he created the greatest guilt-making machine of them all—the mother.
Mine was named Claire Mouton Gaspard Kehoe Schuller. My mother’s first husband, Etienne Gaspard, had been her high school sweetheart. Etienne was known for running touchdowns, shrimp boats, and little else. Their marriage ended the day my mother first laid eyes on Clayton Kehoe at the criminal court house, where she had gone, yet again, to bail her drunk husband out of jail.
Her second husband, the late Clayton Kehoe, had been a prominent attorney in the city of New Orleans. Mother’s current husband was a Jewish jewelry maker named Lou Schuller. Lou was not as influential as Kehoe had been, but infinitely more skilled with gold and diamonds, which invariably pleased my mother to no end. But my mother had always insisted that it was Clayton Kehoe who had swept her off her feet from the first moment their eyes met.
“Your father,” Mother would always say. “Had the sweetest way of talking, and he always knew how to treat a lady like a queen.”
My mother was nineteen and my father was thirty-two when they married. It was a happy marriage, with lots of parties, many friends, and eventually the arrival of me, Nora Theresa Kehoe. I was named after my mother’s favorite saint and my father’s favorite movie star.
Marriage to my father must have agreed with Claire. She enjoyed being the wife of a well-connected New Orleans attorney, and thrived on the social circuit of parties and political gatherings. Even after my father died when I was fourteen, she would still meet with her old friends from the various political groups around the city, and pound the pavement for many of my father’s former colleagues who were running for office. But that all ended when she married Lou Schuller.
At fifty-five, Lou was dumpy, chubby, bald, and had the personality of a matzo ball. But Lou had the money to keep Claire in the lifestyle to which she had made herself accustomed, even after all the insurance money my father had left ran out. In the beginning of their marriage, Lou tolerated my mother’s love for the social scene, but he soon grew tired of the endless cocktail parties and political fundraisers, and reined in Claire’s activities. Now, after fifteen years of marriage, middle-aged, and trying to cope with the passage of her youth, my mother had found a new venture in which to place all of her efforts; me. Or more to the point, my marriage to some man, preferably wealthy, in the hopes of attaining the beat all and end all of middle age—grandchildren.
“You’re thirty now, Nora. It’s time to meet a man and settle down. Why haven’t you found someone? It can’t be all bad out there,” my mother began one Sunday morning in March"