George and I attended a friend’s annual Lundi Gras party at Commander’s Palace this afternoon, where we donned gold paper crowns, listened to Dixieland jazz, and dined on turtle soup and bread pudding soufflé. It was decadent and joyous, and the famous restaurant echoed with song and laughter. But unknown to anyone around me, I was thinking of neither Carnival nor Super Bowl revelry, but rather of a party far more important in my world: a birthday party.
Mignon McClanahan Wolfe, my mom, was born seventy years ago today. She grew up in New Orleans, lived in Sumter, South Carolina, Dover, Delaware, the Orient and Europe, moved to the beaches of north Florida’s gulf coast for twenty-five years, followed another dream to Highlands, North Carolina, and returned finally, in 2003, to a jewel box Acadian house in Abita Springs, Louisiana.
Her parents named her ‘Felix’ because they wanted a boy, and the day she turned eighteen (and received a draft notice) she changed it to ‘Mignon.’ “I’m named after a French actress,” she used to say.
She was a Chemistry major at LSU when her pony tail flipped over her head onto her bunsen burner and caught her hair on fire. And she gained fame as the first student ever to use the lab shower, when her experiment exploded, disintegrating her clothes before her classmates and burning the skin under her watch nearly down to the bone (prompting her switch to the ‘safe’ major of Fine Arts, despite the fact that she had never picked up a paint brush).
She was the kind of person who named her clothes ‘The Mermaid Outfit,’ ‘The Marilyn Dress,’ or the ‘Renaissance Blouse.’ Her tooled leather belts said “Mignon” amidst roses and bluebonnets; her jazz class leotards were turquoise and purple with matching frilly skirts; and she prided herself on the way her ‘heart-shaped behind’ looked in her Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. She wore flowers in her hair, bows on her sandals, and rhinestones on her fingernails. I wanted to be exactly like her.
She was single from the time I was six years old, and her dating life was a regular part of the drama around our house. There was Captain Napp the pilot (oh how I wanted her to marry him!), Russ the psychiatrist, Tom who owned a magnificent sailboat, Bob the Lt. Colonel, Mike who drove the monster truck (and carried a step stool in the back just for her), Pete the brown-noser (always trying to win over me and my sister with gifts of prom dresses and such), and I guess that’s a long enough list, lest I tarnish her reputation. (pictured, Key to My Heart by Mignon Wolfe)
She listened to Don Williams, Charlie Rich, and Donna Summer as she brushed her long hair, and once dressed, she sat at the piano, playing as she awaited her date:
Starry Starry Night
Paint your palette blue and grey
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.*
Once I reached dating age, we’d meet afterwards for late night horror movies in her bedroom, sharing the details of our dates on commercials during The Fly (as we squirmed in chorus, “Help me, Help me….”), Night of the Living Dead, or The Raven. We laughed ourselves silly despite the plotlines, as she reminisced about the rather repulsive (but beloved) Morgus the Magnificent, while convinced that our current hostess Elvira would pop out of her low-cut black gown at any moment.
She wanted to be tall and thin, but instead she was five feet, four inches and struggled with her weight all of her life. Rarely was she as disappointed in me as when I slouched. At five feet, ten inches in the tenth grade, I fought with my mother about what I saw as an awkward, freakish height. Yet somehow she convinced me to parade around our house in her heels, with a book and glass balanced atop my head.
She was immensely clever and generous in all things. She couldn’t type or sew, but somehow she managed to pluck out my school papers on a typewriter from a board over her bathroom sink (lest the typing wake me and my sister if she sat all night at the dining room table), and my Girl Scout patches magically appeared on my sash within a day after I earned them.
When I called her crying from school one day because a wounded bird lay beneath a bush at my bus stop, she canceled appointments and left work to race home. I found the bird later that day nestled in a towel in the corner of her bathtub, where it remained for several weeks until it felt well enough to fly out our window.
And when she went into the hospital with pain in her hip, she took me aside before her x-ray and told me that if she didn’t make it, I should find Chesley Adler (whom she knew from Chesley’s father’s jewelry store, where my mother worked) and tell her that her jewelry designs are beautiful and that my mother believes in her talent and potential.
….and so I did.
(pictured, Spring Bouquet an oil painting by Mignon Wolfe, followed by George Rodrigue’s tribute to her, Mignon’s Flowers, a mixed media and silkscreen based on her painting)
Here’s the confusing thing: if I couldn’t even share this invisible birthday girl with our table of party-goers today, then why share with you? I guess because I owe it to her. And because I should have written about her when she could read it. And because I’m vain (I mean, who do I think I am, Rick Bragg?). And because the therapy and psychics and meditation just made me hope for closure. And because I should have taken her to Ireland and Egypt. And because I thought it was all routine, and because I didn’t question the doctors. And because I mocked her belief in fairies and angels and UFO’s. And because I rolled my eyes behind her back over something stupid that last week. And because as my sweet sister managed to choke out and yet state succinctly on the day of our mother’s funeral:
“You know, Wendy, Mom was really neat.”
And because you too are invisible, and there’s a chance that some of you, maybe all of you, who read this in a room as quiet as the one in which I write now (blissfully filled with only the soft sound of my husband, now the same age as my mother when she…, breathing in and out as he sleeps beside me), knows exactly how I feel.**
“But I could have told you Vincent
This world was never meant for one as
Beautiful as you.”*
In 2010, the year that dreams come true, my dream is the impossible one. And yet…
There is a painting I found among my mother’s things that I’d never seen before. It’s only two hands, painted in blue. It hangs in my closet, and sometimes I place my hands on hers and I think she’s there.
Happy Birthday, Mom. God I miss you.
** “What’s the matter with you? I mean, you think you’re the only one to ever shed a tear” (Loretta speaking to Ronnie, Moonstruck, 1987)
*Lyrics from the song Vincent, by Don McLean
For related posts see “West Jeff: Passing the Hours” from Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans and “Looking Back” from Musings
47 thoughts on “Mignon’s Flowers”
Oh Wendy, I just remember how much you simply loved your mom when you were in college, and I know so much of her is in you. My heart hurts for you and Heather. Reading your words, I actually sobbed! What a beautiful way to honor your mother.
So much of what you wrote reminded me of my Mom. I lost her 4 years ago and I still think of and regret all of those things about traveling and rolling my eyes… ect. ect. Maybe the two biggest things women never warn each other about are how crappy meopause is and how hard and never ending it is to lose your mother.
I wore the Saints Blue Dog pin you gave me below my Rex favor today when I went to Commander's for Lundi Gras. I hope you had as much fun as I did. Sorry to have missed you there. Dell
I don't even want to think of my Mom going away. She would miss so much and would be missed just as much.
I roomed with Heather in college and always thought Mignon was so "cool"! And insightful.. Heather used to say she always said,
"Worry is a useless emotion". This was usually in response to an Art History test I didn't study for or a boy who didn't call. And I've quoted it many times over the years, for bigger and more important scenarios. Reading this makes me want to be the kind of Mom to my daughter who would write this when I'm gone. Thanks for sharing, it just refocused my day.
Wendy, your great capacity to love and appreciate your Mom is in itself a tribute to her. To have such wonderful memories to cherish is a gift. You have encouraged us to create lighthearted, warm memories while time still allows. Thank you for sharing so beautifully and encouraging so gracefully.
Wendy….that was beautifully said!! I remember all those things about your Mom. She was such a beautiful person inside and out. I cherish those years that she lived in Abita Springs and we became closer that ever. I still envision in my mind the last time I saw her before she went into the hospital. I gave her the biggest hug and told her how much I loved her. I, too was looking at Mignon's Flowers yesterday and thinking about all those wonderful times we had together growing up. There are times when I feel her presence. I truly believe that she is watching over me and giving me guidance. Aunt Mignon may you rest in peace and I hope you and Grandma are enjoying each others company. I love you both and miss you dearly…..Kelly
I don't know you or your Mom. I am a huge fan of Blue Dog and your husband's art and happened to stumble across this, but I wanted to tell you this tribute to your Mother warmed my heart. What a beautiful way to honor her!
Wendy! I shouldn't have read this one at work! I've been crying and crying! You have so much of your mother in you and you continue to honor her in the most amazing way. she would be so proud of both you and Heather.
Wendy, When my kids roll their eyes or mock me I know it is them becoming them and, not me. that is how it happens, and I feel like I have done my job well… in those moments. Your mom did her job better than "well." Where ever she is she is bursting with so much pride and so much love for you. Love, amanda
Wendy, what a gorgeous, lovely post. Your love for your mom bursts through every word.
My Dear Wendy, I am swimming in all that you have just said and have only nice peaceful and memorable thoughts of our Moms thanks to you putting it all so perfectly in such selected prose. Your Mom does live on in You and Heather so for as much as you are able relish in that transfer. Naturally, my lower lip came up over my upper one and was not able to say anything when Tony asked–what is it?
You have made the rest of my day able to be a thoughtful and softer one and I miss my Mom also so very, very much.
In the meantime Lundi Gras it is and Ash Wednesday and then and then—–
Lots of Love, Barbie
I miss you mom too….especially the UFO stories. She and I had a little too much wine one night at your place on Beverly and she told me some doozies. Thing is, I believed her.
Wow- I love these posts. I'm so fortunate to have such a wonderful sister who can put into words what I can not.
I left early this morning with swollen eyes for the float ride and returned tonight to find these beautiful comments. I am stunned especially by those of you who don't even know me or my family and yet responded with such sensitivity to a stranger's story. I feel inspired and, in some ways, liberated, as I confessed some of my weightiest guilt to a huge anonymous world out there.
That reminds me, Angela. I think Heather altered that quote just for you and your tests. As I recall, Mom used to say, "Guilt is a wasted emotion." (On the other hand, maybe that version was just for me. HA). Another one of her favorites was "Nothing in life is fair, Girls." heavy sigh
And Kelly, your comments brought me to tears once again. Perhaps I'll risk our reputations and jot down some of our stories for an upcoming blog and see how that goes over.
Thank you, all of you, for reading this blog and commenting and allowing me this cathartic experience. I don't know how on earth I'm going to tackle Clinton and Dudley LeBlanc and Jazz Fest Posters, along with all of the other promised (but relatively dry) artsy blogs on my to-do list. Then again, if I really put my mind to it and take a few risks, I can spice them up.
My very best to all-
So beautifully written, Wendy, and very touching! What an amazing soul you have 🙂 I admire your love for your family and friends.
What a nice tribute! Your love for her will grow deeper the longer she is gone. Mine left me almost 6 years ago and I am always pained on her birthday each September.
Nice to see I'm not the only one.–Tam
This is beautiful. I can't put into words the feelings it brought to my heart.
I am so moved by your words and the tiniest details that you remember about your mother that are now her legacy. I lost my mother-in-law last year. She was the Queen of Mardi Gras! We were at Commander's last Friday to honor her,and it was so fitting. You have inspired me to write down the small memories…. the details…. because all too soon they will be lost. Thank you for sharing yours 🙂
I am so deeply moved by this beautiful story about your Mother. Your words are so personal, thoughtful and a touching expression of such honest love.
You have inspired me to reflect about my own Mother, our relationship and what makes her a "neat" person.
Thank you so much for sharing your special memories with us and for reminding me to appreciate what is all around me right now.
All the best…
Jennifer Walker Dove
(An old AT friend)
So many wonderful letters! Thank you again for writing in. Jennifer, it is special to hear from you after all these years. I hope you are doing well-
I know how much your Mom meant to you. I also know if she were here she'd say that you and Heather were the best daughters any mother could ask for.
I just happened on your blog and this post. It has been 17 years since my mom passed. Your post reminded me of her and the fact that I miss her as much today as I did the day she died. Thanks for sharing.
Hi KT — Of all of my posts, this one was by far the most personal and yet so many people relate. I appreciate your reading my blog and commenting. Wendy
Mothers and daughters. Such a complicated love affair. I guess because I owe it to her. And because I should have written about her when she could read it. I completely understand the regret and the fact that it probably would have been impossible.
I only recently found this blog and I am enjoying getting to know you through your writing. This piece is beautiful. Thank you for opening your heart.
Thank you for reading, Julie, and especially for your thoughtful words. It comforts me enormously when I realize that this post touches people that didn't even know her-
I just read your post "Mignon's Flowers". I met your Mom in Destin some time around 2002. I was the guest speaker for the Destin Womans Club monthly meeting and she was a guest that day. I was busy getting the presentation ready and she came over and stroked my hair and said that it remined her or her daughter's hair. We began to talk and my computer came on for the power point presentation. I had downloaded the Katrina Blue Dog as my screen saver for the presentation. (He's my hero!) She saw it and tears came in her eyes along with a huge smile. She told me that she was your mother. I explained to her that my brother in law Edwin Everett, from Fort Walton, was an old acquaintence of yours and I hoped to one day meet you and George. Unfortunately I was hurried along by the program director and I didn't get a chance to talk to her again. But in those very few brief moments with her I knew that she was a very special person and that she loved you very much. I am so sorry to hear that she has gone. I say this all as I have been deeply grieving this morning for my father, who died in August 2007.
Best wishes to you,
Hi Kaye, Thank you so much for your heartfelt email and relaying this story about my mom. As irony would have it, George and I attended the funeral of a dear friend today, and so the timing of your message made it all the more moving.
Ed was one of my closest friends in high school, and as often happens with such friendships, if I saw him today I believe we'd pick right up where we left off.
Please accept my sympathy with regards to your dad. It's endless, isn't it? The loss of a loved one.
Thank you again for writing in and for sharing your memory of my mom. I hope to meet you one day-
Hello Wendy… I was directed here by Richard Phelps who told me he shared a bit about me to you..the visually challenged writer. I read this and found myself thinking about my own mom who passed away almost seventeen years ago but whose memory is still as fresh and vital as it ever was. Mom was my champion and my strongest supporter… believing always there was nothing I could not or should not accomplish if I wished to. Two of my brothers shared my visual difficulties and for them too she was the mother tiger who protected her cubs while at the same time she gave us encouragement and confidence in who we were. Thank you so much for the heartfelt smiles and memories this brought me…
Myrna D. Badgerow
Hi Myrna, Thank you so much for your kind message and your beautiful words about your mother (I love the 'tiger' reference). Wishing you and yours a beautiful holiday season – Wendy
Hi, Wendy. This is such a nice piece about your mom. Even though I'm reading it almost a year after you wrote it, I am grateful that I found it. I met your mom when she worked for the printer in Fort Walton Beach and she used to call on me at the University of West Florida since I was responsible for buying printing.
We had frequent delightful chats (and yes, I heard the UFO stories). On two different occasions, she brought me a couple of posters for exhibitions in Munich and Frankfort that featured interesting blue dogs. (This was in the late 90s. I had never heard of the blue dog, but I liked and kept the posters, and they now hang in my room, guarding my bed.) Later, she told me that her daughter was engaged to the blue dog artist and had gone to Europe to open his gallery in Germany.
I was sad when she came one day and told me she was moving away to North Carolina because I enjoyed her visits so much. Needless to say, I think of her often because of the gift of the blue dogs.
I've always wondered about the posters because I've never seen them anywhere, not even in your catalog of Rodrigue works.
Hi C. Marse – Many thanks for writing in. I always enjoy hearing from people who met my mom. Those posters, the few that are left, that is, are in our archives. They commemorate exhibitions that occurred while I was in Europe. They were promotional posters, never offered for sale, which is why they don't appear in the books. As I recall, George was especially pleased with the one from Frankfurt (the one with the red background). I'm trying to recall off the top of my head, as I haven't looked at them in some time.
I'm so pleased that my mom gave you the prints and that you are enjoying them. Many thanks again for your kind words-
September 13, 2011
I am prompted to write you because my husband and I knew your mother and father, Buddy, so well for our years at LSU and following that when we lived in Baton Rouge. Your mother and I had such fun times at LSU and she helped to introduce me to Louisiana . I was newly arrived from St. Louis. Buddy was a fraternity brother of my then boyfriend later husband , Karl. We all had great times in New Orleans where I would stay at your grandparents in Algiers. Sometimes we went out or joined your uncle Jackie in New Orleans. Jackie insisted on giving me a Hurricane glass. Mignon was the Maid of Honor at our wedding in St. Louis. We had so many more memorable times. Mignon will always be etched in my memory.
Carmen Pranter Kammann
Hi Carmen — It's great to hear from a friend of my parents. I so appreciate your writing. I've missed my mother a great deal. You may enjoy a few other stories. Here's one about my dad: http://www.bestofneworleans.com/blogofneworleans/archives/2011/06/15/for-my-father
And here's one about my mom and Grandma Helen: http://www.wendyrodrigue.com/2010/11/looking-back.html
Also, my sister Heather, who lives in Tallahassee, keeps a great blog about her family and their adventures and speaks often of our parents: http://adventuresofabmxmom.blogspot.com/
Our dad now lives on a farm at the Florida/Alabama border, and Uncle Jack lives on a ranch in Pleasanton, Texas near San Antonio. They're both still charming the ladies.
All best to you, and many thanks for your sweet words-
Wendy, I've been searching the web for info on your Mom. I hope you remember me fondly – Rita Lance from our Ft. Walton Beach days. Your musing on your mom really touched my heart, and I'm so sorry to hear she's gone – I had hoped to reconnect with her. I found a picture of you on Gambit, was so happy to see you looking well. I would very much like to get in touch with you and hope you feel the same. Would love to hear how Heather is doing, and hear more about your life. Remember when I attended the gallery opening in Carmel and bought a Blue Dog poster? It's hanging over my mantel in my little home now. firstname.lastname@example.org
Hi Rita — I can't tell you how special it is hearing from you . I'll be in touch by email sometime in the next few days so that we can connect by phone. Of course I remember you fondly 🙂 – Wendy
What wonderful memories of your mother…makes me feel almost like I knew her too :))
I knew your mother and considered her a friend in the brief six months period when I lived in Fort Walton Beach in 1981. She was such a vibrant, fun, caring woman! I am so thankful and knew her and met her sweet daugthers Wendy and Heather.
Thank you, Brenda – It's wonderful to hear from you! I can't tell you how much it means to both Heather and myself that Mom's friends keep in touch. I hope you are well and happy, enjoying a beautiful winter in Tennessee- Wendy
Thanks for sharing. I'm going to go hug my mom now. And maybe even my dad.
I was privileged to have known Mignon and relished her unique personality. We would meet at the lakefront on Sunday mornings for a lazy breakfast and great conversation. I enjoyed her gracious hospitality,and generous nature. Her "poppy fields" grace my living room. Thanks for the memories.
It's so good to hear from you, Rae – like hearing from Mom herself. She adored you and enjoyed your friendship. Wendy
What happened at the xray and what happened to your mom? She is BEAUTIFUL talented and special.
I always wondered what happened to Mignon, ,so when I heard of George's death, I found your blog. I know about you and Mignon from our beloved Hildegard Laumann, who was like a 2nd Mom to me for 12 years. She shared many stories about you and Mignon, her visit to Florida when you were small, your visits to Germany and your travels to Munich, etc. for George's exhibits. She extolled your beauty–esp. the long, beautiful legs! Your time spent with her brought much joy…She was my son's Godmother along with Ludwig. Hildegard gave me your Wedding Portrait before she died & have it in my bedroom. I miss them both so much! I'm sure you do, too. I'm so sorry for the loss of your Mom and George. Funny how two people who never met know so much about each other! Keep your childlike enthusiasm & outlook on life! It intensifies your beauty even as you age…Take care-
Thank you, Jane, for this unexpected and tender message. I hope to meet you one day in person. All best to you and yours, Wendy
I have often wondered what ever happened to Mignon Wolfe, and today, I decided to google her name and came to this beautiful post. I am so sorry she passed away so young. I knew your mom through ECPR club we were both involved in when she was working for Vista Print. But I actually don't remember her for work, I remember thinking what a remarkable and colorful person she was! I don't remember the event (some time in the early 1990s) but I was at her house and she was giving me the "tour". I remember, we walked in her bedroom and there was the most beautiful angel painting above her bed. I was enthralled with it and asked her who painted it. She proceeded to tell me she had painted it because the angel had come to her in a vision ~ she had no choice, she HAD to paint it. I was just mesmerized with the piece and how "matter of fact" she was recounting her experience. I also recall how she told me she was going to quit working and live in artist commune one day! I admired her boldness and artistic flair. Years later, I lost our second daughter and I kept remembering this conversation with your mom about the angel. It comforted me in some odd way. Fast forward several more years, I am now living in Tennessee pursuing a career as an artist. My mind often wanders back to Mignon and her angel painting as I paint my angels thinking of my sweet daughter. I was hoping to find her and tell her about her impact and see where she was living and doing. I am sad I will never be able to have that conversation, but I am glad I found you to share my thoughts. I hope in some small way it comforts you to know how special other people thought she was. Light & love, Kirsten Reed
Thank you, Kirsten, for your dear words. I'm touched by your memories of my mom, as well as by your own experiences and observations in art and life. The very best to you, truly- Wendy Wolfe Rodrigue
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