A Life In The Family

Posted: Jan 24, 2007 12:01 AM

The voice on the answering machine was that of my favorite cousin — a sweet, always assuring voice I’d known since earliest childhood. It was just as slow and Southern as ever but this time you could hear the strain and hesitation in it, not just the always present consideration.

It was the voice of a woman with many calls still to make and many details still to arrange. I could see her face in my mind as I played the message again and again.

"Hi, Paul, this is Janice in New Orleans. I’m afraid I’m calling with some sad news. Uh, Dad hadn’t been doing well for a while, and it was a steady decline, and, uh, this morning, he died a little before breakfast. We didn’t come back from the funeral home until late this afternoon, and I’ve just spoken to the rabbi, and made arrangements, so I just wanted you to know, I don’t expect you to come in, but I wanted you to know. We’re going to have dad’s funeral Tuesday at 11 here, and, uh, I’ll be talking to you another time. Hope all is well with you. Bye-bye."

I can’t say I was shocked. Just regretful that I wouldn’t get to take Pinky to Galatoire’s one more time. It’s an old lesson mortals tend to forget: Never hesitate to follow up on a good impulse. We really don’t have all the time in the world. We have very little, really.

The shock had come a couple of months ago — was it Thanksgiving or Christmas? — when Janice had called to say thanks for some Arkansas peanut brittle I’d sent her. (The best thing about sending holiday goodies to family is you get to hear from all of them.) When I’d asked about Pinky, she’d told me that they’d moved him from Assisted Living at the retirement home to Nursing Care — and he needed help to get into his wheelchair.

Pinky in a wheelchair? Impossible. Pinky unable to get out of bed? Outrageous. Couldn’t be. Not if you knew Pinky, and I could swear just about everybody down there did. I told Janice I couldn’t believe it.

"But, Paul," she said, "he’s 98!"

I didn’t care. He was Pinky Gardsbane! Indestructible. He’s always been around. Always will be. He’ll always have one more story to tell, one more sure tip to offer, one more fine vintage to sell, another steak to grill, another fund-raiser to organize for the synagogue or the high school cheerleading squad. . . . I refused to believe he wasn’t the same old Pinky he’d always been.

That’s when I heard Janice laugh, or maybe sigh, or maybe both.

"Paul," she said, "that’s exactly what everybody else says when I tell them."

And there were a lot of everybody-elses. At the funeral, the stories flowed like the wine Pinky used to sell all over Louisiana — wholesale, retail and just for the heckuvit.

No one could think of a time when he wasn’t in sales, although there was a story about his working for the Long machine back in the ’30s in some vague capacity — one that required him to augment his considerable persuasive powers by carrying a sidearm. It was probably just a story, but with Pinky one never knew. The only thing certain is that no one who ever met Pinky, and a lot of folks did, ever forgot him. Or could.

It was my father who brought Pinky into the family, which hasn’t been quite the same since. To an orthodox Jew like Ben Greenberg, there was something scandalous about an eligible young man who’d reached the advanced age of 29 and was still single. Especially since my father had a nubile cousin waiting in Chicago.

And so Cousin Ann was invited down to Shreveport, there was a watermelon party out in the country at Rose Hill Lake, and nature took its course with only a wink and nudge from Ben Greenberg-and from the womenfolk.

As I understand it, there was considerable discussion beforehand about the new, form-fitting bathing suits just coming into fashion in the summer of ’37, and about just where attraction ended and impropriety began. In his late 90s in the nursing home, Pinky was still talking about how Ann looked in that bathing suit. Hence Janice and her whole row of siblings.

Some 50 years after that day at Rose Hill Lake, I would attend Ann and Pinky’s golden anniversary party in a ballroom high atop the lights of New Orleans, along with their children, grandchildren and greats. My father had known it would work out. A born shoemaker, he could always find a match for a single. And he never made a better pair than Ann and Pinky.

The happy couple would spend a number of years raising kids in a small town on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River where the fishing was good and Pinky ran what may have been the littlest liquor store with the biggest gross sales in those parts — at least until Mississippi went wet. I’m sure everything was on the up-and-up because Pinky always went by the book.

His book, anyway.

If there’s anything meaner than a fellow who’ll vote a town dry and then leave, it’s got to be a whole state that’ll vote itself wet without the least consideration for those who sell spirits just across the state line.

Which is how Ann, Pinky and family came to leave lovely Tallulah, La., and wind up in New Orleens, Land of Dreams.

My favorite Pinky story dates to his attendance at my own wedding to the daughter of an always convivial but quite proper Waco, Tex., banker. That’s when I overheard my new father-in-law, Mr. Robert E. Levy, inquire of the small, rotund guest at his side: "And Mr. Gardsbane, what is it you do?"

I was interested in how Pinky would describe his friendly little enterprise by the side of the river, visualizing the long line of 18-wheelers I imagined must pull up every night to be loaded with good cheer for all those thirsty folks in only technically dry Mississippi. That’s when I heard Pinky’s always upbeat, confident, high-pitched, very Looziana voice respond: "Why, Mistah Levy, I’m in trans-po-ta-shun." And I have no doubt he was.

The whole extended family was there for the ride out to the little graveyard by the side of the Mississippi where we buried Pinky next to Ann.

It was much like the first part of any jazz funeral in New Orleans: slow and solemn. The rain poured down and the traffic clogged. It was as though the world were conspiring to hold onto Pinky as long as it could.

Then, with the kaddish said and all rituals duly observed, the tempo mounted on the way back — as at any jazz funeral. And every Pinky story we told topped the other. He would have liked that.