Sunday, March 14, 2010

Magnolia's Memories

            Friday night I went to Magnolia's Memories, a cemetery tour sponsored by the Foundation for Historical Louisiana.  The tour takes place at Magnolia Cemetery at night and visitors are guided by "spirits" dressed in white robe and wings.  The paths of the cemetery are lined with luminarias and musicians -- harpists, fiddlers, mandolin players -- play unobtrusively in the shadows.  Five or six stations are set up throughout the grounds, with spectator seating and footlights.  Local actors perform scenes from the lives of people who are buried in Magnolia Cemetery.  This year there was Sarah Morgan who wrote a civil war diary and her brother Harry who was killed in a duel; Cecil Morgan (Sarah's nephew) who fought to bring Huey Long to justice; and a police chief who was killed by one of his fellow officers in 1911, played by friend and colleague, Mike Katchmer.    

            My first trip to Magnolia's Memories in 2007 was such a moving experience, not because of the dead, but because of the living.  At the last station, the life of Scotsman John Hill Jr. was reenacted.  A bagpiper introduced him and a kilt-wearing actor came on stage.  But in the shadows beyond, a dark figure roving between the tombstones caught my eye.  I couldn't be sure if I was seeing a person or a phantom, but I couldn't take my eyes off it.  At the end of Hill's performance, the figure stepped out of the shadows.  It was a woman with auburn curls dressed in a dark Irish cape, and when she lifted her face to the spotlight, I thought, "Wow!  That looks like Nikki!" 
            But it couldn't be my friend Nikki, I told myself.  Nikki was too stressed out with work and being pregnant and taking care of two teenagers and a baby.  And Nikki would never have the confidence to sing in front of all these people.  But sing she did, the most moving a capella Scottish hymn.  Her beautiful voice rose above the rustling leaves of the live oak trees and the traffic rushing by on Florida Boulevard.  When she was finished and the tour was over, I walked up to the woman and said, still in disbelief, "Nikki?  Is that you?"  "Joey! I didn't know you would be here!"  I told her how beautifully she'd sung and how everyone would remember her performance.  And I thought to myself, this is a new start for Nikki, a dear soul who had had her unjust share of bad luck, bad health and bad relationships.
            A few weeks later, I sat with Nikki in front of our office building as she waited for a ride.  She was quite unwell.  When her ride came, I escorted her to the car, never dreaming that in the night Nikki would have a stroke.
             She was in the ICU of the hospital when doctors discovered that she also had leukemia. I visited Nikki  four times, and each time she improved a little.  She went from being unable to talk to asking if we could pray.  So on my last visit I led us in prayer, and God truly guided my words.  It was the last time I would see Nikki.  A month after her stroke she died, never having left the hospital.  She was 34 years old.
            I was in Germany when they had the memorial service.  They say Nikki's oldest daughter sang the same hymn that Nikki sang in the cemetery that night. 
            And Friday night, March 12, 2010, I went on the cemetery tour again.  At the end a woman with long dark curls dressed in an Irish cape sang the final hymn, accompanied by a folk quintet.  She looked exactly like Nikki.  I don't know whether that's just what I wanted to see, or because Nikki's spirit is still among the tombstones of Magnolia Cemetery.  

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