My date from Alabama watched eight years ago, incredulous and perhaps horrified, as Anne Russell and I high-fived and jumped around and yelled like maniacs. New Orleans Saints running back Ricky Williams had scored a game-winning touchdown on the game’s final play, and Anne and I — watching from her den in Pass Christian, Mississippi — lost our minds in foot-stomping celebration.
But it wasn’t a contemporary — not a classmate or a cousin — with whom I was losing all dignity in front of a date I should have been trying to impress. Instead, Anne was 60 years old — and the coolest godmother in all creation. Songs, odes, entire books have been dedicated to mothers, fathers, brothers and grandparents. But godparents, even good ones, rarely inspire so much devotion. Anne, though, was special.
Not only was she a dear friend of my mother’s, but Anne also was the mother of my own most trusted friend, Hugh, born just 12 days after me. Five more wonderful siblings followed Hugh, the oldest — but casual observers could be forgiven for thinking there were seven Russells, not six, so often did Anne welcome me into their home. For several years the Russells lived just five blocks away in Uptown New Orleans, and I had virtual walk-in privileges at almost any time; later, when the Russells moved to the Garden District, their home served as the base for endless Mardi Gras parades, and accompanying merriment, two blocks away on St. Charles Avenue. It was in the Russells’ yard where across-the-street neighbors Archie and Olivia Manning taped the ESPN-famous home movies of a six-year-old Peyton perfecting his passing skills, and somewhere along the line Anne joined in Saints-fan lunacy with the same enthusiasm with which she approached virtually everything — enthusiasm total and unvarnished.
At age 41, with no training, while raising six children, Anne decided to turn an old pharmacy building into a restaurant for which she would serve (in the beginning) as the lead chef; within just a few years, Gautreau’s was universally rated as one of the very best restaurants in a city world-famous for its dining.
Anne also loved politics, but less (apparently) from any strong ideological convictions than from a fascination with the tableaux of interwoven, entertaining maneuverings for advantage. (For well over
a decade, without showing any approval of the possibility — I think Anne leaned right — she emphatically predicted that Joe Biden would be president one day. Scary thought.) She loved that my career ended up revolving around politics, and frequently peppered me with questions about all the “inside scoop.”
But long before that, and amidst eventually running not one but two restaurants and attending countless of her athletically inclined children’s sports events, she somehow carved out huge blocks of time for sojourns to their tree-shaded house in sleepy Pass Christian, about 100 yards from the beach. Between Russells and cousins and neighbors and friends, Anne kept track of a more confusing array of kids than most summer camp directors do. Tennis, swimming, board games, ping-pong, table pool, softball, kick-the-can, crawfish boils…somehow, Anne made sure we could do it all. Mostly, Anne had a knack for letting us feel like we were absolutely running wild even as she ensured that we stayed safe and (mostly) out of trouble.
Alas, Hurricane Katrina blew away every last vestige of the Russells’ house in Pass Christian. Not long after the storm, Anne was diagnosed with cancer. But that only led her to redouble her successful efforts to find the fun in life. She entered our fantasy football league — and she won it. She traveled to places she had never before visited. And she helped organize her 50th high school reunion.
Anne Russell died on August 8. Her family memorialized her on the beach in Pass Christian. And the Saints and both Manning brothers [at this writing] went through five weeks of this NFL season undefeated. This column is the best way I can figure to send Anne a very, very high five.