Mummy, Mamoo, Maud Ellen, and Me



We were all refugees, of a sort, migrating from house to house, room to room, fleeing the past, present and future of each other.

My first home, at 1740 Jackson Avenue, belonged to my father’s mother, who rented the garçonnaire to tenants. I have no memory of the time frame; I will see my father four times, more or less, in my life. At some point, Maud Ellen, my mother, deserts my father and transfers the two of us to 2419 Chestnut Street, some six blocks away, my second home for thirty years.

“The Crisis Center,” as Maud Ellen refers to Chestnut Street, had belonged to the maternal family matriarch, Ellen Virginia Tobin White, called Mummy by the family. Originally purchased as a rental property, 2419 transforms into a warehouse for Mummy’s antiques and a harbor for the unwanted. My mother’s family moved to Chestnut Street in the 1940s; they lost their home on Octavia Street due to my grandfather Stamps Farrar’s alcoholism. Great Aunt Tita (one of my grandmother’s two sisters who had catatonia) was segregated upstairs but by the time I dropped into the story, she’d been shunted off to a Louisiana asylum.

The three of us—Maud Ellen, Mamoo, my grandmother, and I—live in the fourteen-hundred-square-foot downstairs apartment. Mamoo owns a fractional share; the rest of the house belongs to her two brothers, John and Sidney, who allow us to live “rent-free.” The upstairs, 2421, is rented.

Essentially, we’re squatters.

No one in my family drives a car. Bicycles are our primary mode of transportation. Maud Ellen rides a three-speed English Raleigh. Lore has it Mamoo once drove but by the time I’d arrived she’d lost her desire for self-navigation. Mamoo takes me to Dr. Neff, my pediatrician, for shots in a United Taxi Cab. For other outings, the Magazine Street bus and St. Charles Avenue trolley suffice.

On his few visits, my father Godfrey arrives on foot. Safer, I guess. I never see him anywhere in the vicinity of a car.

No one at Chestnut Street holds a regular job unless you call intermediary a job. The Nobel Peace Committee should have awarded my grandmother the prize for her colluding skills. Maud Ellen holds many jobs, none of longevity—she briefly becomes a secretary at the Rivergate Convention Center.

“Like working at Watergate,” she announces upon homecoming.

In fact, my two grandmothers and my father never held a day of gainful employment in their lives, and my mother’s sense of entitlement and her two-hour lunches regularly got her fired.

Maud Ellen’s last job is “superintendent’’ at 1304 Second Street, another family- owned property. An elegant 19th century southern Greek Revival raised cottage, 1304 Second Street, had been Mummy’s main residence. The family divided it into rental units after her death. The antique furniture inside it becomes a source of resentment as virulent as the War of the Roses.

The job title should have been “Snoop.” Maud Ellen lets herself into tenants’ apartments whenever she feels like it. I have a photograph from the ’70s taken of her in Jamie C’s apartment. She’s sitting in Mummy’s 18th century throne-like chair wearing a green kaftan she’d borrowed from me and her Cretan bead necklace. She’s desperately trying to look royal; her chin angles up disguising her wattle, but instead of appearing royal, she looks usurped. Great Uncle John had given the superintendent job to Maud Ellen as largess, his way of dealing with our “situation.” No one in the family had balls, proverbial or otherwise. Mummy emasculated allof her children.

We squeak by on residual payments from my dead attorney grandfather’s pension, small investments and life insurance. Oh, and the sale of family-owned antiques that Maud Ellen peddles sub-rosa. There is a significant supply of silver, porcelain dinnerware, family portraits and Civil War letters, the latter passed down from the Farrar side of the family, but which sooner or later go to auction and private sale. She has a criminal genius for elaborating provenance and keeps a cache of letters regarding such sales. The energy she exerts in the search for buyers and the cover-ups to Uncle John (Robin Hood Uncle John gave pieces of Mummy’s furniture to Maud Ellen and Mamoo as emotional payoffs) could have propelled her to the upper echelons of a Fortune 500 company or a small nation.

So we don’t have money or men, exactly. Well, we do have Uncle Isaac, our “crisis funder” in San Francisco, who sends a monthly check to Mamoo, and Maud Ellen’s posse of homosexual men friends and other men who do things for us—like drive. Oh, and Greeks. Greek sailors, I mean, but I’m getting ahead of myself, again.