Sometimes the right words, from the right person, at the right time...can change everything. If someone had told me then that gazing at a painting and moving just a few hours south would change me and everything I thought I knew — so profoundly, so deeply - I wouldn’t have believed it. But it happened.
I came to a point in my predictable life where I knew I wanted more. With each muffin I served up, each coffee I poured, each beep of the cash register, each fake glued-on smile, I felt myself withering. The sad, peeling wallpaper in the dive I worked in often seemed to match my soul. I felt every way that a person could feel diminished. Invisible. I loved it there, among the mountains and trees and lakes, the red-shouldered hawks. But it was my home. My history, my childhood was there — too many years of gray clouds.
I grew up in a small town not far from Albany, New York. I did all the normal things, everything that you would expect. And I’d always end up right back where I started. A nice normal life. I even went to college at the state school. I started a degree in Liberal Arts, because I had no idea what I wanted to do. And I didn’t for years. I got stuck in the land of maybe someday and never made any big changes. I was a creature of routine, waiting for a big job with a big paycheck and benefits to find me. Waiting for the right guy to find me. Waiting, always waiting. In the meantime, I plodded along amusing myself with simple and safe things; as many of us do. I lived in my fantasies, in an imaginary future, while real life and with it so much precious time, crept right by, just outside my window.
Some time in my thirty-ninth year of life, something was starting to change in me. Here’s a little backstory: my mother left us when she was thirty-nine. Her mother left when she was thirty-nine. I thought perhaps the women in my family had been cursed, and they could only endure domestic bliss until time ran out, and the alarm sounded sometime in the thirty-ninth year. The trouble was...I was single. I had no children, family, or life of my own. I still felt the need to break out, but out of what?
My mother, the illustrious Olivia A. Jolivet, called “Liv,” was a jazz singer from New Orleans. And she was audacious back then, the stories tell me. Stunning. Dark brown wavy locks that flowed past her shoulders, deep, dark eyes that could dismantle any being; man or woman, young or old. They held a thousand secrets, even from me. She was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen up close and to hear her sing, was to be reborn in beauty and art. While I’ve only heard stories about her singing jazz in nightclubs, I used to listen to her sing in the house all the time. There was a certain melancholy and passion in her voice that was wrapped up and tucked away -- and only seemed to come out when she sang. She sang a version of Summertime that took my breath away. It was so smooth and easy. Sultry. Sweet. Yet heartbreaking at the same time.
I was about twenty years old when she left. I was still living at home then, so I witnessed the breakdown in their marriage. Although, she would say that the marriage didn't fail, she just grew beyond it as she reclaimed herself. I never knew what that meant when I was younger; I desperately wanted to meet the right person, settle down, fall in love...all of it. It was everything, or so I thought. I will tell you that she broke the mold. She was not like the other moms I knew. She was independent, highly creative, and unconventional. She insisted that I use her last name and not my father's. She didn't take his name either; she said she could never be known as Olivia Brown: “the sound of it has no pizazz.” Mom was all about pizazz back then. Her name held excitement: the feeling and color of the French Quarter, generations of struggling musicians with Creole in their blood, beauty and magic in their souls. I always had to correct my school teachers when they called my name.
"Anna Jolly-vet," they would bellow, looking across the classroom.
"Present," I would say. "And it's Joe-lee-vay. Ah-na Joe-lee-vay." They just stared and made notes in their attendance lists.
My father worshipped my mother, he loved her tremendously. But deep down he never felt that he deserved her. It was both sweet and sad.
“How did you guys meet,” I asked one night when I was a teenager.
“Well, I was on leave down there, and my buddies and I went bar-crawling on Bourbon Street. I was drawn to her, Ana, right there on the street. Her voice carried out into the air, everything smelled like beignets and booze. The street was lit up, and the damn tourists…” Mom covered her face, unable to stop laughing. “What?”
“Well, you were a tourist, dear…” He smiled and nodded.
“I suppose. Anyway. I heard her sing and I had to see what beautiful creature was making the sounds I heard. And we got to talking after that…” He reached out for Mom’s hand. “And that was it. History.” Dad was beaming, but I remember a slight nervousness or disapproval of some kind on Mom’s face. I never gave it any thought, but years later it would all make sense.
My father was and still is a simple, easy-going sort of person. He was a creature of habit, he craved routine. Looking back, it's no wonder that my mother felt stifled. The pines and fresh air and predictability of upstate New York were a far cry from New Orleans. But she made it work for as long as she could. She had me when she was only twenty years old and before she left, she told me she didn't regret anything.
"Sweet girl. I love your father, I always have. I wouldn't have married him and had you if I didn't. I thought I could slow down and settle into a simple life. Bake. Sit in rocking chairs. Fill a deer feeder. Learn to cook..." Her eyes gazed past me into oblivion, while she stroked my hair.
"You did cook and bake, Mom...and you always took great care of me," I reassured her. She nodded, and laughed quietly. "You seemed happy..."
"Ana. Do you know what an interior life is? When you live in your imagination? For so many years, that was exactly what I did. I was numb. I would tuck you into bed, kiss your father, and retreat into my dreams. Where I still sang into the wee small hours, winked at handsome men, ate buckets of crawfish...all the while dressed to kill. I'll be forty soon, Ana. Forty years old. I've got to live some more of my life before time runs out on me...can you understand that?" She had her hands on my shoulders and was piercing into me with those big, brown eyes of hers. "Just promise me Ana, promise you will live. Find your passion and live it. I love you." She kissed me on the forehead and walked out the door and into a taxi. "And you're sure you won't come with me," she asked one last time. No. I couldn't. Not then.
I told her I understood, and at the time...I thought I did. But her words didn't hit home until much later. When I finally started to live my own life.
I knew for myself, that if I stayed in that place, in those memories, I would always be "Sweet Ana." Ms. Jolivet, the blonde girl with the big brown eyes and piles of books who coddled her father, disappointed her mother, and dated the same kinds of men — who were usually unsuccessful musicians. And they eventually moved elsewhere. But I stayed. I couldn’t see it then, but I was in a deep hole; a dark abyss. I merely existed in a muted world, not knowing that I could live and bleed in full color. Out loud. Passionately. Authentically.
Real change takes time; a lesson I learned painfully through the past year. The initial catalyst feels like a slap in the face, or a stark realization, jarring you from the slumber of a monotonous life. And it’s never too late.