The Olympia Brass Band played “Didn’t She Ramble” after my mother’s body had been “cut loose,” as the saying goes in New Orleans, placed in the mausoleum she and her best friend had built together. As customary in New Orleans, the band played a dirge, “A Closer Walk With Thee,” on the way to the entombment. Then, turning from the grave, we celebrated the life:
Didn’t [s]he ramble . . . [s]he rambled
Rambled all around . . . in and out of town
Didn’t [s]he ramble . . . didn’t [s]he ramble
[S]he rambled till the butcher cut [her] down.
The mourners formed the second line behind the band and the family—what there was of it—marching or dancing to the syncopated rhythms, waving handkerchiefs and twirling umbrellas in the hot mid-April sun. Everyone knew this was the way it should be. Though she grew up in the Mississippi Delta south of New Orleans, Ruth Fertel was born in New Orleans and had thrived there, reigning as one of the great restaurateurs in a city of great restaurants.
The brass band celebrated the considerable rambling she had managed. I had just done the same in my eulogy. A good friend, who knew of my conflicts with my mother, told me later he had a moment of panic when I rose to give it. I didn’t know which speech you would give, he laughed. I knew either one could have been honest.
Ramble she had indeed. And not often in ways most would count ordinary. One night at dinner, in the late 1990s, five or so years before, my mother announced that she and Lana had purchased a plot at the prestigious Metairie Cemetery and would build a tomb together. For almost thirty years, Lana had worked hand-in-hand with Mom to develop the advertising and the Ruth’s Chris brand. As Mom’s empire grew, Lana not only worked for the company but also became part of it, owning franchises in San Antonio and Toronto. But I was stunned. There goes Lana again. She would be family for eternity, setting a new benchmark for BFFs everywhere.
My next thought however was, well, after all, it’s the first indication Mom’s given that she’s mortal, so, hey, don’t stand in the way.
Mom took me to see the cemetery grounds. As we walked among the tombs, Mom noted departed customers. He liked his filet medium rare. She liked her martinis up. We arrived at the twenty-seven-foot plot, under moss-draped cypress trees. Mom liked the nearby lagoon where the ducks’ swimming let her imagine she might hunt her way through eternity. Maybe you should bury me with the 12-gauge Beretta. She hoped the spot’s beauty would encourage visitors to linger. I know you’re all going to love visiting me here. The cemetery was once the site of the Metairie Race Course founded in 1838; a century or so later, Mom became the first licensed woman Thoroughbred trainer in Louisiana’s distinguished racing history and shared a stable of horses with my dad. Maybe we could install a betting window? she added.
I pretty much forgot about this folie, until I got a call from a friend in the funeral business. His family had been burying mine for three generations. He had just passed by the Fertel- Mausoleum. It’s the most elaborate tomb to be built in New Orleans in fifty years. Which is saying something, he added unnecessarily. Outside, three colors of granite, bas-reliefs, pilasters, and granite benches. Inside, a stained glass window with an angel trumpeting Louis Armstrong’s most famous line: “It’s a Wonderful World.” And space for three on each side. The art department at Lana’s advertising company, had designed it.
No doubt it was Lana who conceived the “tomb picnic,” too, soon after its completion. Lana’s instincts as a publicist did not sleep. Two hundred guests were invited for the “blessing of the tomb.” A large tent for the occasion was sited on the lagoon’s bank. It was monsoon season and torrential rains began promptly as we settled into our greasy barbecue chicken and ribs. If there’s a tomb picnic for anyone on the planet that should not have bad food, I grumbled to my friends, it’s my Mom’s tomb picnic. The band was a sleazy white party band from Fats Domino’s Ninth Ward that played all the favorites that Fats and Frank and Elvis made famous, lo, these many years ago—but I wish they had been walking from New Orleans! If there’s a city whose tomb picnic should not have bad music, it’s New Orleans.
As the torrents continued, the lagoon almost overflowed. Soon we were surrounded by a moat, shielding ourselves from the downpour as best we could, removing our shoes and socks and plashing around as the water encroached. Father Bob Masset, a Holy Name priest and bon vivant who had been enjoying Mom’s steaks on his parishioners’ dime since the ‘60s, parted the seas with his jokes and his benediction. Father Bob liked his ribeyes rare, she announced when she took the mic. Lightning struck close. She jumped and the sound system crackled. Have I offended Somebody? she wondered. Her death in 2002 was still three years off.
Rumor had it the tomb had cost $750 thousand, “the most expensive shotgun double in New Orleans history,” a friend quipped, “Question is, Randy, will you be buried there? and who will be on top, you or Lana?” I begged him to stop conjuring such images. Lana’s got heft.
The next day, beneath a banner headline, “Tomb Share,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune covered the party for “Ruth Fertel’s ultimate retirement spot.” A large photograph showed Father Bob and Mr. Davis, who had been sculpting my mother’s beehive hairdos since 1964, dancing a jig before the tomb with Ruth and Lana.
Since our cities of the dead are on the tourist beat, almost immediately tour busses added the Fertel tomb to their itineraries. But word got back to Mom that another rumor was making the rounds. Some New Orleanians took the double tomb to mean that Ruth Fertel was gay. For once, it was Mom who was stunned, almost to silence. Then simply, “Well, let them think what they want.”
I was proud of her.