I awoke this morning to sub-zero temperatures and a sneezy-weezy head cold. Is it any wonder that I am looking forward to my upcoming trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras? After 12-plus years of celebrating fat Tuesday, this will be my first in a couple of years. It’s meaningful. I can’t wait. Quite by coincidence, I came across this touching (and true!) story this morning as I shivered over my coffee mug:
In the year 1768, escaping the poverty of France and imprisonment on an English ship, a young French immigrant landed at the port of New Orleans determined to make a success of himself in the new world. Ambitious, hardworking, driven and full of ideas, a young Julien Poydras stood ready to make a noise in Louisiana at any price.
As the Fete de Mardi Gras, 1769 approached, young Julien was ready. With an empty belly and a head full of ideas, Julien resolved to use the celebration as a business platform. He’d be masqued; no one would notice his poverty. He’d be rubbing shoulders with the best families in New Orleans. This was not a party for Julien, it was an opportunity!
As it is to this day, Mardi Gras 1769 was filled with romance. The city overflowed with music and wine, celebration and a sense of joyous abandonment that verged on the reckless. Julien, however determined, succumbed to the magic of the day. He met a lovely girl. They danced and drank and fell in love. Julien vowed to go to her family and ask for her hand as soon as the 40 days of Lent had passed. Through letters, they promised to stay close to one another and they did. Julien left New Orleans right after Easter bound for her home on a bayou of West Baton Rouge.
He must have been planning even as he trekked past the walls of Rampart Street and through the swampy country that surrounded the little city. He must have planned how he’d use her dowry to establish a home and a business for the two of them. Imagine his disappointment when he reached the address she’d given him. No family plantation met him at the end of his journey, only a tiny ramshackle fishing hut. He knew no dowry would come with the lovely girl and, though he loved her, Julien was practical. He turned and, with a broken heart, walked back to New Orleans without knocking on the door.
But her letters continued to come. She was sure some misfortune kept Julien from coming. She wrote for a year, the hope gradually draining from her letters. So touched was Julien that he decided to go back to the bayou to find her, dowry or no. This time, he was greeted by a funeral wreath on the door of the humble shack. The people on the bayou knew little of her, only that she’d had no family at all. They took him to her grave. It was marked with a little stone on which was inscribed simply “Dormir perdida”, “sleep, lost one”.
Julien de Lallande Poydras never married. He was named the first delegate from the Territory of Orleans to the United States House of Representatives and amassed an enormous fortune, much of which was endowed upon his death to an asylum for women, a home for orphaned girls and, most importantly, provided dowries to the many poor and nameless women who immigrated to the Territory of Orleans. Women from the bayous of West Baton Rouge received dowry cheques from Julien Poydras right up until the middle 1950’s.
There is a major street in the Central Business District of New Orleans named for him and next to it…one named Perdido. Together at last.
Happy Mardi Gras!