Today would have been the 71st birthday of my mother, Diane Cucinello Torres. It's been almost four years since her passing, and even now the thought of memorializing her seems otherworldly and strange. The idea that she's no longer with us is still shocking to me, and the realization that among other things, I'll never hear her generous laugh again from the other room is more than likely why I've waited so long to revisit this topic.
But as the story goes, six months before Hurricane Katrina, and one month to the day after my father's passing, my mother suffered a debilitating stroke that left her bedridden and in a state of mental regression. During this time, most of which was here in Alabama, there were good days and bad days, and the good days were almost always highlighted by stories of old New Orleans. My mother was a bit of an amateur historian when it came to the Crescent City, and as the few years we had together here went by, she would love to tell both myself and her nurses alike about how her and her friends would take the streetcar into downtown on a Saturday afternoon to shop at all the big department stores. And one doesn't have to think hard to imagine the scene with all of its period automobiles and wardrobe, the image of a group of young girls from the 1950s dressed in their best, huddled together at the malt shop with bags from D.H. Holmes and Maison Blanche scattered at their feet. Yeah, that was my Mom. She knew about all the old restaurants, from Antoine's to Brennan's, from Court of Two Sisters to Tujague's (the latter of which I remember going to as a very young boy), and one always got the impression that she'd lived the New Orleans experience all of her life, was truly a resident of the city in every way.
And she would go on to tell the nurses and I about the family that we had who settled into the old Italian section of the French Quarter, and about how she used to visit them during her downtown shopping trips as a little girl. These particular stories always brought up conversations about her side of the family, which unlike my father's side, was scattered with aunts and uncles that lived until just about my own teenage years. And they populated her stories like something out of a historical novel, vivid and colloquial as she spoke with her heavy New Orleans accent. The nurses used to ask her, "Mrs. Diane, say 'New Orleans' for us," to which she'd smile up at them and say, "Nawlins!"
As a real estate agent through most of the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties, Diane was a member of the Business and Professional Women's Club in our home parish of St. Bernard for many years, and prior to that, she worked for the St. Bernard Parish courthouse under Sidney Torres, a position that would prove to be a fateful one as Sidney arranged for her and my Dad's first date. After that date, according to my godmother, Teddy and Diane were like teenagers. They were married in 1968, and four years later, I was born.
I've mentioned that I believe I've inherited certain real-life skills from my father, and it has been my longtime assumption that I've inherited a certain type of imaginative trait from my mother, one that is directly related to storytelling, and more so, to stories about New Orleans. It was my mother who I could talk to about movies, books, and music, about my favorite directors, writers, and rock stars alike, and it was my mother that took me to the movies and bought me the books and the records. She instilled a love of the city in me from very early on, one that has been a thread of fascination for me when thinking about her, all the way up to the point where we both discovered Anne Rice at right about the same time, loving the rich tapestry of the novelist's stories, and as always, prompting my mother to tell me more stories of her own. She always supported every endeavor into the arts that I undertook, and like the photo I've written about in my father's memoriam piece, one of the only surviving pictures that I have of my mother was one of her holding a copy of The Petrified Christ in Barnes & Noble, the picture almost a bookend to the one of my father doing the same thing.
They both now sit framed side-by-side in my office.
And it's those pictures that I look upon regularly when I need reminding, reminding that grief is always more of a personal process than anything else. The truth is, in no way would Teddy and Diane want me to live in a perpetual state of grief. My parents dedicated their lives to the sole purpose of protecting me from harm and pain, much in the same way I was devoted to protecting them from the same in their final years.
Why would any of us want to stop now?
Happy Birthday, Mom. I miss you. And don't worry … I'll take the stories from here.