On a sweltering August morning we sat in the famous old square. The path was quite and still as she patiently sketched. It was a perfectly serene morning for this artist endeavor.
Her hair fell below her shoulders as the stagnant humidity sucked it up into a wavy curl. The lines of her face were faint but they traced her life. The face was of a woman well beyond her years. Sun spots dotted her hands from endless years of exposure.
She continuously asked me to look forward. You see, I am incapable of sitting completely still. She mixed charcoals and gently stroked the paper. She was perfecting the peachy tone of my skin. Her eyebrows would move up with each movement of her hands. I thought this was a facial gesture I should mimic. In my mind, I thought I would appear younger in the drawing. In the end, a youthful appearance did emerge on paper but my raised eyebrows had little influence on the outcome.
In the shadows of the previous evening, Jose and I briskly strolled by Jackson Square. Over the years, this path has been well worn with our foot steps. We were rushing to our dinner date at a local favorite, Irene’s. The pastel and charcoal drawings caught my eye from afar. They were smooth in appearance and subjects took on a childlike glow. A woman collected her work by sliding the pages into cardboard tubes. She was a new sight upon this old stones street. I was drawn to her and her works of art. Without hesitation, we made a date for the following morning.
The three of us chatted as Jose' and I sat for our double portrait. We shared bits of our lives and became instantly acquainted. It was as if we had known each other for an eternity. We swapped stories about travel and the many wonders of The Big Easy.
In the mists of our chat it was revealed that she was a Birthmother. A vagabond artist of the 60’s and 70’s living in New York and around the country. She relinquished 2 children in hopes of giving them a better life. She was a cross between Joni Mitchell and old school Bette Midler in looks and demeanor. As she shared her life’s story, we laughed and joked. I also noticed something familiar within her deep empty gaze. It was a look I had seen before in my own birthmother’s face.
Her stories were fascinating. She had lived in abandoned buildings and seen many facets of life. Her unconventional ways of living and coping were intriguing and mesmerizing.
The most amazing part was the resilience that resided within her soul. During a bought with homelessness, she began to put a charcoal cross on her forehead. This was not a sign of religious significance but a signal for those that surround her to back off. This tiny cross kept undesirables at bay. Her theory was, “if I appear crazy it will keep all the pimps, junkies and other crazies at a distance.” All in all, her theory worked and she survived that low point of her life.
As years passed, we would run into our charismatic artist and fellow member of the adoption triad. She would sketch sitting on the path of Saint Peter Street. She was a fixture on the outskirts of the famous square and a matriarch among the other artisans.
Our portrait was completed in 1998 and many things have transpired since then in the Crescent City. Jose and I have come and gone countless times to this jewel of the south. It was a second home to us for many years before the hurricane of 2005. It has become a beloved city in our minds but one we abandoned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In the past six years, I have thought of this allusive artist and birthmother often. I walk past her work daily and it reminds of how our paths crossed. I have searched the Internet and called art co-ops throughout the area. It seems she disappeared like the flood waters from the storm.
This summer our family will travel back in time. We want to introduce our son to this quaint European City within the US Boarders. Our plan is to visit our old haunts and the New Orleans we dearly loved. We are also desperately seeking Nancy Davis. She was the unforgettable artist that touched our life and continues to live within our hearts.