There are bouquets of flowers everywhere and people all dressed up in the middle of the day. Everywhere you look is something good to eat or drink. In the center of everything is a lady beaming out from her star-shaped earrings, her bluebird dress, her pearl necklace. Why, you'd have to look closer to realize that Gloria Smith is in a wheelchair. The room's too happy for a wheelchair.
Gloria Smith is here among the roses and ice cream because most of her nine kids wanted everyone to know that, at 75, she's still reckoning with motherhood. One day at a time, maybe 20,000 of them, just like this one. Being the one everyone looks to. The Mama.
Antoinette Wilson is one of the kids. She waves a hand at all the others, all the cops, all the grandkids, crowding around Gloria with their Kalimar Autowinds and their Coolpix cameras. "Mama spoiled us all," Antoinette says.
Well, maybe. Maybe not. All the kids took home some of the blue ribbons that life offers: doctor, lawyer, judge, banker. And, of course, most conspicuous here and today, the four strapping men in the two-toned blue uniforms of the NOPD. The Smith brothers -- Darrell, Angelo, Ricardo and Patrick -- are only the second quartet of siblings in police history.
But like all families, the Smiths took home some of the broken shoestrings that life sometimes has to offer, too. Daughter Rochelle Ramsey has cancer and so does her sister, Antoinette. And then there was daughter Virginia, who died of cerebral palsy when she was just 13.
And Edward Smith Sr., the man from New York who Gloria married, he who picked up so many jobs and bore them without complaint. He died when there were still seven children at home and the youngest only 3.
"Daddy would get our names mixed up. He'd yell, Stop! I know you live somewhere in this house!'" Ricardo remembers. And then the memory-smile is gone. "I think having seven kids at home eased Mama's pain."
There, at home, with things at their worst, was where Gloria Smith was at her best. Staying sane in the chaos of motherhood, she took care of the Gentilly household from breakfast till supper, then turned things over to Edward Jr. and his sisters while she went to Metairie for a night shift.
They held together, the family did, even if sometimes all the kids wore the same clothes (couldn't afford to have kids squabbling over styles, so everyone got the same thing) and got out and got a kid job as soon as they were able. And the older ones took plenty of care of the younger ones and would do most of the shopping at Schwegman's Gentilly where they would caravan all their grocery carts together and make a sort of Smith Family Wagon Train.
But most amazing of all was that Gloria Smith got her family through all this without any of them giving up or giving in to sadness or madness or a hundred things that hard-pressed people surrender to every day.
"We were living on Gentilly Boulevard, just off Republic Street," says Gloria. "The railroad was nearby, and sometimes the guys riding the rails would end up in our yard, and I'd make 'em a scrambled-egg sandwich and coffee. And my kids would ask why. And I'd say, "Strangers are friends you haven't made yet."
"She was very conscious of her role as a shaper of character," offers Eddie Jr.
It is a role Gloria was shaped to play. She grew up in the Seventh Ward and "my mama was an old-fashioned New Orleans Catholic. She was a seamstress and when we got home from school, she had things all planned out -- and we'd never dream of challenging her."
Gloria went to Corpus Christi and then to Xavier Prep and an unforgettable senior prom. "My daddy loved to dance," she says with a chuckle, "and then he stayed till it was time to drive us home."
Police Chief Eddie Compass shows up with his wife and daughter. Ricardo is his driver/bodyguard, and he and Darrell went to school together. The chief hands Gloria a little bouquet of four roses, one for each police son. "This is the lady that can call the chief anytime and ask for a chocolate snowball -- and get it."
Everybody laughs, and for the umpteenth time, the minicams roll. Then the room begins to slowly empty until there is only the wheelchair, the beaming lady in the bluebird dress and her son Darrell. Then there is this moment, this mother-and-child moment. The lean toward, eyes closed, lips finding cheeks. That huge and tiny signal that I am here and I am loved. Those who don't have it in their lives can only guess at it and probably burn big chunks of their lives doing just that. Guessing at it.