Take Me to the Mardi Gras

It’s Mardi Gras! Fat Tuesday! The final day of Carnival season excesses before we start the long haul through forty days of penance and denial on our way to Easter Sunday.

As many of you know, I’m from Citronelle, Alabama, which is just north of Mobile, where the very first Mardi Gras was celebrated in 1703. Every year, we’d go watch the parades in downtown Mobile, catch MoonPies and beads and doubloons and plastic cups, dance along with the high school marching bands, and spend the whole day enjoying the revelry and celebration with a few thousand of our best friends. While each and every time we went was special in its own way, there are three Mardis Gras that stand out in my memory as being extra special.

The first was February 26, 1974. That’s the day Daddy called us from Cyprus, where he was stationed in the Navy, to say that he’d be coming home for good in April. Mama, Granny, Baw, and I were so happy that we got all dressed up and headed to Mobile to celebrate. We watched the parades from in front of the Athelstan Club on St. Francis Street, Baw holding me on his shoulders so I could see since I was only four and a half. I remember the huge, colorful floats going by and the Krewe members dressed in shiny, satin costumes and masks showering us with beads and doubloons. This is the first Mardi Gras I remember attending and many of the details are fuzzy. What’s not fuzzy is my memory of how elated we all were that Daddy would soon be home.

The next Mardi Gras that stands out to me was February 7, 1978. By this time, Brother had come along, and since he wasn’t quite two years old, Daddy took me to Mardi Gras — just the two of us. It was freezing that year, much colder than it normally is in South Alabama in February. I remember Mama dressing me in two pair of socks, pajama bottoms under my jeans, undershirt and shirt and sweater, coat, gloves, hat, and scarf. And even though it was so abnormally cold, Daddy and I set off to Mobile. We watched the first parade from Bienville Square and then went to Three George’s Candy for a sweet treat and to warm up a little.

It seems like it’s always windy in downtown Mobile, and when it’s really cold, the wind off Mobile Bay will cut right through you. As Daddy and I walked back toward the old Merchants Bank Building where he worked to get a good spot for the next parade, I looked at the time and temp sign on the corner. It was 14 degrees! The wind was whipping down St. Francis Street. When Daddy and I got to the bank building, he had me stand behind him in a little corner where a pilaster jutted out so that his long overcoat would block me from the bitter wind until the parade came. But when the floats finally rolled by, we were right out on the street to catch our share of MoonPies and beads. Despite the miserable cold that year, I remember that day as one of the best Mardis Gras ever — that day it was just the two of us.

Over the years, many more Mardis Gras came and went. All were fun (how could Mardi Gras not be fun?), but the next most memorable one doesn’t come until February 28, 2006. Sonny was not quite seven, and we were living in Birmingham. I decided to take him down to Citronelle for a visit with my parents, and Mama and I planned to take him to see the Mobile Mystics parade for his first Mardi Gras experience. It’s a nice, Saturday afternoon family parade. The weather, however, was spitting rain and it was pretty chilly, but we put on our raincoats, packed our umbrellas, and headed off to Mobile. We took him to Three George’s Candy, which by this time had become part of the tradition, for a sweet treat and to warm up. We bought lots of serpentine and “poppers” from the street vendors. And we went to save our spot on good old St. Francis Street by the old Merchants Bank building, which by then had become a Regions Bank.

We stood near the time and temp sign waiting for the parade, and much like that Mardi Gras with Daddy, the wind was blowing hard off the Bay between the buildings. Although it wasn’t below freezing, it was pretty darn cold and wet, and Mama and I put Sonny in a little corner where a pilaster jutted out and stood in front of him so our long coats would block him from the wind and rain. Of course, when we heard the first sirens and drum beats, we hurried out to the street to claim our spots. And much like I did at my first Mardi Gras, he stood there in awe as the enormous colorful floats rolled by and the beads, doubloons, and candy rained down on us.

It’s been a few years since I’ve been to Mardi Gras, and I won’t be at the parades today. I’ll be at work. But I’ll be thinking about standing in a corner of the bank building where the pilaster juts out. And I’ll be thinking about hearing the first sirens and drum beats and finding my place on the street. I’ll be thinking about dancing to the beat of the marching bands, jumping over a police barricade to get a plastic cup, wearing all the beads I can catch, and eating all the MoonPies I can shove in my mouth. In my mind, I’ll be at Mardi Gras.