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A New Orleans original: Stories about my mother

Editor’s note: New Orleans, a city where eccentricity is an asset, is brimming with unique, beautiful characters and their respective stories. NolaVie contributor Folwell Dunbar reveals vignettes of his mother — a feisty New Orleans original.


Jane Moulin Dunbar (photo courtesy Folwell Dunbar)


My mom lived in a tiny apartment in the Lower Garden District. I worked only a few blocks away and would occasionally drop by for a quick bite. One day I walked in and found my mom sitting silently at the kitchen table. She was wearing her signature black lipstick, a navy blue bandana and, even though it was dark inside, tortoiseshell sunglasses the size of sea turtles. She had a cigarette in one hand and a fountain pen in the other. She was staring intensely at a row of pictures and jotting down notes. The pictures, which had been cut out from milk cartons, were of missing children. There were at least a dozen. When I asked her what she was doing, she said, “I’m studying.”

“But why?” I asked.

“You see son, many of these kids are much older now. If I am to find them, I have to imagine what they would look like today.”

She had a point.

Wrestling strategies

There were about 30 of us on the Duke wrestling team. We worked out every afternoon for about two and a half hours. Just before practice one day our coach pulled us all together. I assumed it was for a pep talk before our upcoming match against Wake Forrest.

He had a large cardboard box. He said, “Gentlemen, apparently we received a care package. It’s addressed to the entire team. It’s from Folwell’s mother.”

I simultaneously blushed and cringed. He ripped open the box and poured the contents onto the mat. There were about a hundred individually wrapped Dracula teeth. The card from my mom read: I thought these would make you look more intimidating.

It was signed with black lipstick,: xoxo Jane.

Cooking tips

My mom never approved of anyone I ever dated. She was a tough, occasionally brutal critic.

When she met Lucia, who would eventually become my wife, she immediately launched into her usual interrogation:

“So Lucia, do you cook?” she asked.

“Not really,” Lucia replied. “I actually prefer to go out to eat.”

“Do you type?” my mom asked, glancing over at her vintage Smith Corona typewriter.

“Not really,” said Lucia. “I have to do a lot of hunting and pecking.”

“Well then, do you sew?”

“No,” she said, “but my sister does.”

“So Lucia,” my mom testily demanded, “WHAT DO YOU DO?”

“Apparently Jane, I make your son happy.”

My mom smiled. She had finally met her match.

About a week later, Lucia received a package from my mom. It contained several boxes of JELL-O, a wooden spoon and an apron. It also contained her calling card with her name crossed out. On the backside she had written: In case you get confused, there is a 1-800 number.

Sure enough, there is.

If it weren’t For You

We had a chance to celebrate Mother’s Day just before my mom died. My brother, sister and I took her to Galatoire’s, her favorite restaurant. At the end of the meal she ceremoniously clanked her wine glass with a butter knife bringing the entire establishment and a few folks on Bourbon Street to attention. In a melodramatic voice, her favorite kind, she exclaimed, “Children (pause for effect), if it weren’t for you (another pause accentuated by a muffled cough), I wouldn’t BE a mother.”

As always, she was spot on.

My mom was a New Orleans character lifted from the pages of a Tennessee Williams play. She could have easily held her own with the likes of Blanche, Maggie or Stella. Jane Moulin Dunbar was a New Orleans original.


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