In 1994, my entire family traveled to Washington, DC, to witness my father, Okla Jones, II, being sworn in as a Federal Judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. Less than two years later, he would succumb to Leukemia, at the age of 50. Since then, my mother and I lost touch with my father’s side of the family. Outside of the occasional phone call or Facebook message, we really didn’t communicate with each other too often. For years we had been planning to visit the place that held so much history, and so many memories; but for various reasons, we weren’t able to commit to the trip – until now.
On the first weekend of December, my mother and I traveled to Natchitoches, Louisiana, in order to reconnect with my family and to attend the Festival of Lights Parade; but it became so much more. Our excursion to my father’s birthplace began on a rainy Friday afternoon. The entire day was cold and gloomy – a stark contrast to the warmth that we felt inside the home of my cousin Jameka, and my Aunt Yvonne. The conversation was filled with stories of the times that we spent together over 20 years ago, along with the realization that our lives had changed so much since the previous time that we had seen each other.
So many thoughts go through my mind whenever I interact with my father’s father – Henry Jones, Sr. He was a man who never said much, but he always commanded attention. The “thing” that many great leaders possess – an aura, so to speak – covers my grandfather from head to toe. On that damp Friday evening, my mother, aunt, cousin and I walked over to his home; and my anticipation had reached a level that I had never quite felt before. I always have a nervousness about seeing someone whom I haven’t seen in some time. “Are they still the same person?”, “How much have they changed physically?”, “What would they say about me?”, are some of the questions that I ask myself. The amazing thing about this situation was that my grandfather hadn’t changed at all.
Although our reputations preceded each other, this also was my first time meeting my Daddy Henry’s current wife, Helen. She was a very compassionate woman; she was the one who opened the door and immediately embraced me. “I have heard so much about you, it feels so good to finally meet you,” she said with a smile. I was happy that he had found true love again, so many years after my grandmother had transitioned into the next life. After we sat down, my grandfather and I reminisced about the many basketball games we played in my backyard in New Orleans, LA. At 92 years old, his memory was still “sharp as a tack,” and his physical health was astounding. What I saw in him that day was the vision that I pray to have for myself one day. He is of sound mind and body, and consistently surrounded by people that genuinely love him. That, is my definition of true happiness.
As the night progressed, he told to me to retrieve a suitcase from one of the back rooms – and to my surprise, this suitcase contained history that could last several lifetimes. Vacations, obituaries, family functions; anything that you could imagine, my Daddy Henry had documentation of it. I continued to delve deeper into the photos, and the things that I saw brought tears to my eyes. He kept every newspaper clipping, interview and picture dealing with my father’s rise to prominence in the legal field. Every. Single. One. Many times, I forget how proud he was of his eldest son; I hope that my father is as proud of me as his father is of him.
December 1st, 2018.
The culmination of this entire trip coincided with the day of the Festival of Lights parade. After getting an early start and an amazing breakfast provided by my aunt and cousin, we traveled to downtown Natchitoches in order to set up shop for the oncoming parade. About an hour before we left the house, my father’s best friend and my Godfather, Alphonse Martin, texted my mother to tell her he was on Cane River for the weekend. I hadn’t seen my godfather in years, and he decided to come out the Natchitoches at the same time as we did. Fate, I tell you. Catching up with my father’s closest friend was both nostalgic and comforting. We had the rare opportunity to talk about old times and laugh about fond memories, all while enjoying the parade as it passed us by.
As a side note, it was here where I first learned about Clementine Hunter. She was a self-taught black folk artist from Natchitoches, who lived and worked on Melrose Plantation. She is the first African-American artist to have a solo exhibition at the present-day New Orleans Museum of Art. My mother is a huge supporter of her work, and it was refreshing to connect with her on yet another level. The gift shop, Plantation Treasures, contained some of her original work, as well as some of the paintings of her grandson. Clementine Hunter’s journey from slavery to prominence reminds me so much of my father. Although the extremes are entirely different, there are similar parallels in their ability to take humble beginnings and turn them into unbelievable successes.
The most captivating moment of the evening was its climax, the fireworks show right before the lighting of the city. Lasting about 30 minutes, the different emotions that I felt during this time were surreal - amazement, love, happiness and the feeling of being one with my fellow man. There were hundreds of people in attendance from all walks of life, but for some reason, while viewing those hypnotizing fireworks; I felt a oneness with them all. Even the people that weren’t there with me physically – lost loved ones, friends, etc. – I felt their presence, too. Being able to share that moment with the people that I love is something that I hope everyone can experience at least once in their lifetime.
Whether I realize it or not, Natchitoches is a large part of who I am. My calm demeanor in the face of immense adversity reminds me of the serene atmosphere of Northern Louisiana. My mother and I made a promise to ourselves and our family that we would never go that amount of time without visiting again. Family and love, two morals that have always been in my prevalent, but reinvigorated by the events surrounding the weekend of December 1st. It was then where I vowed to never forget the things that are important in life, and you shouldn’t either.