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Carmelita, 1952

‘Little Theatre,’ a work by Carol Pulitzer, draws upon the rich diversity of New Orleans to recapture a memory from childhood.

Carmelita was the color of a latte; today I might call her Carmelatte as a joke. But 60 years ago I was a stupid little girl and had some crazy notions.

Like one time I went up to the attic where Carmy was changing. The shock when she removed her slip, to see her breasts weren’t white! In my mind, no matter what color your skin, private parts were always white. See? Stupid.

Carmy was a Creole, some black, some French and Spanish, very proper, unmarried Catholic lady. New Orleans is still a Catholic city. It has plenty of schools with names like King Louis the Fourteenth and Jesus Our Lord Middle School. I always thought it was funny that the King of France took top billing.

I was the child Carmy never had and went with her everywhere, to stay overnight with her family, shop, and go to church.

Every Saturday she’d tell my mother we were going downtown to the movies, but every Saturday instead we would go to the big Catholic church behind The Roosevelt Hotel. I loved that it was about 8 degrees cooler than outside, the mammoth interior, gorgeous stained glass, quietness and darkness. A stepped wrought-iron tray held flickering candles and Carmy would always let me drop a coin into the bowl and light one with a little prayer. Then I would dip my fingers in the holy water, cross myself, tap tap forehead to chest, tap tap left shoulder to right shoulder.

Holding hands we would walk the long red carpet between the pews up to the gold encrusted statues in front, tap tap… tap tap, curtsy, turn left, take a seat and be quiet for a few minutes as Carmy fingered her rosary beads. It was fun, it was spectacular, magical, and it never occurred to me that not every Jewish child did this. Carmy loved me too much to let my heathen soul burn in hell.

Mom was throwing another big party, this time with a Chinese theme. She did lots of exotic hors d’ouevres like shrimp toasts from recipes in Thoughts for Buffet. All the fine and rich Jews were there.

It wasn’t surprising that mom brought three of the women up to see my new bedroom she’d just redecorated. The tiny blue and white flowered wallpaper matched the quilted fabric on my bed, the bed I fell out of every night.

The surprise was that at the exact moment they walked through the door, they found Carmy and I kneeling bedside, saying prayers to Jesus, crossing ourselves, tap, tap, tap, tap.

I’ve always felt those church days were a gift. Unlike many Jews, I enjoy being in churches and decorating my house full-on Christmas. And you don’t have to be Christian to know Jesus was great. Still, when it comes to Easter, I uneasily join my tribe at a Chinese restaurant followed by a movie.

New Orleans writer and visual artist Carol Pulitzer contributes to NolaVie. This article, ‘Carmelita 1952,’ was a semifinalist in the 2011 Walker Percy Prize for Short Fiction, sponsored by the Walker Percy Center for Writing.


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