Bonita Thornton, 76, rose Saturday morning and put on a suit, a cream-colored hat and an elaborate green sash reading Money Wasters. Later in the day, her dear friend for decades, Lois Nelson Andrews, would be laid to rest in a similar sash.
Andrews, a cultural icon who helped to start two social aid and pleasure clubs, raised a family full of musicians and helped revive the New Orleans’ baby doll tradition, died Nov. 10 after a battle with lung cancer.
Thornton had mixed emotions as she and her granddaughter drove to Andrews’ funeral at the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts.
“How could I be so happy and so sad at the same time?” she wondered, as she viewed her friend lying in a vivid green, metal casket. Sorrow ran through her, but so did years of happy memories – detailed memories, as always, which is why Andrews gave Thornton the nickname Elephant.
For years on Sundays, Thornton would get in her silver convertible, pick up Andrews and head for the one of the city’s weekly social aid and pleasure club parades. The two of them also paraded together in the Money Wasters club, and Andrews helped start two clubs, the Lady Money Wasters and the Dumaine Gang.
“Everything Lois touched turned to gold,” Thornton said. “She could dance for 7½ hours on her knees and somehow not get her pants dirty. She was one of the kindest people in the world.” In recent years, Thornton’s granddaughter, Megan Carson, 33, had begun to parade with Deja Andrews, Andrews’ youngest daughter.
That’s how 6th Ward friendships often are, said Merline Kimble, whose family goes back five generations with Andrews’ family. All during the week leading to the funeral, Kimble struggled to come to grips with the loss of Andrews. “I loved her like a sister, and I’m going to miss her forever,” she said.
“She meant something to everyone,” said Saturday’s emcee, Barbara Lacen-Keller, who co-founded the Lady Money Wasters with Andrews. “She had a spirit that embraced everybody.”
Twenty years ago, with the baby doll tradition all but defunct, Andrews and Kimble donned satin dresses and restarted the Gold Digger Baby Dolls, single-handedly prompting a citywide renaissance of the century-old custom, which is now kept alive by more than 20 groups.
But the baby doll revival is only a fraction of what Andrews did, said Ed Buckner, who heads up the Original Big 7 social aid and pleasure club. “She may have been physically tiny, but she was a true giant for the culture,” he said.
In the early 1980s, Buckner said, Andrews organized her children and a few other children and launched the All-Star Brass Band in her apartment in the St. Bernard public housing development. She also acted as a parade grand marshal, a rarity for women. She had enough natural balance to dance on top of a coffin as it was suspended in mid-air.
“We may never see anyone dance on a casket again,” Buckner said. “And if we do, it’s because of Lois.”
Civil rights fighter Jerome Smith recalled how Andrews, encouraged her young sons -trumpeter James “12” Andrews III, drummer Terry “Buster” Andrews, trombonist Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and grand marshal Bruce Nelson – to parade up and down Dumaine Street near the Tremé Community Center, which Smith ran. Over the past week, he was proud to see her children hosting almost nightly second-lines to honor their mother. “They’ve been rolling,” he said
On Saturday, her children gave her a parade send-off that will go down in New Orleans history books.
The Tremé Sidewalk Steppers raised her coffin into the air dozens of times, and at one point put it on the grass of Tuba Fats Square on North Robertson Street, where her children Troy and Deja danced on the top of it. A sprawling brass band – hundreds of musicians – followed her coffin’s horse-drawn carriage through the streets of Tremé and down North Claiborne Avenue to Hunter’s Field, where the coffin was again raised into the air and spun around while a motorized hearse waited to receive it for the trip to Mount Olivet Cemetery.
At that point, Wayne Kendrick, 62, made his way through the crowd to lay his hand on the coffin and say his last goodbye to his friend of 50 years, one of the most authentic people he’d ever met. “She was never fake in her life,” he said, choking back tears. “If it wasn’t real, she wouldn’t tell it to you.”
At the cemetery, Andrews’ children, grandchildren, nephews and their friends played for her again, over and over, until the cemetery’s workers came forward to open the crypt and slide in the green box. James Andrews pointed his trumpet at the sky and Troy Andrews did the same with his trombone, playing “A Closer Walk With Thee.” When the song was over, James thanked the crowd.
“Give her a hand – My mama, Lois, y’all,” he said. Then his voice got soft, as he looked back at the crypt and said his own goodbye. “We love you, my darlin’,” he said.
Lois Nelson Andrews, a cultural icon who led countless processions as grand marshal — usually dressed in a tuxedo — and helped revive the ba…
CORRECTION: A photo caption accompanying earlier versions of this story misidentified Dorothy Hill.