Ninth Ward

By: Jewell Parker Rhodes

Sunday




They say I was born with a caul, a skin netting covering my face like a glove. My mother died birthing me. I would’ve died, too, if Mama Ya-Ya hadn’t sliced the bloody membrane from my face. I let out a wail when she parted the caul, letting in first air, first light.

Every year on my birthday, Mama Ya-Ya tells me the same story. “Lanesha, your eyes were the lightest green. With the tiniest specks of yellow. With them eyes, and that caul, I knew you’d have the sight.” Mama Ya-Ya smacks her lips and laughs. Afterwards, we always have cake. Chocolate. Today, I’m twelve. I’ve eaten three pieces of cake.





Mama Ya-Ya’s eighty-two. Half blind now, she’s still raising me ’cause my relatives won’t. I have a whole family full of uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, grandmothers, and whatnot. They live in Uptown. Richer than where I live, the Ninth Ward, New Orleans. Less than eight miles apart. It might as well be the moon. Or Timbuktu, wherever that is.

Mama Ya-Ya says my family is scared of me. “Everybody in Louisiana knows there be spirits walking this earth. All kinds of ghosts you can’t see, not unless they want you to. But you, child, you see them. You’ve got the sight. It’s grace to see both worlds,” she says as we wash our birthday dishes, sticky with bits of jambalaya.

“Better you be an orphan, your family thinks. Better crazy Mama Ya-Ya raises you,” she says, sucking air through her false teeth. “Fine. I’m old school. Don’t care nothin’ about folks who dishonor traditions as old as Africa. I’ll be your mother and grandmother both.”

And she is. I love her more than anything in this whole wide world.





I love saying “Mama Ya-Ya.” Her name sounds so bright and happy, just like Mama Ya-Ya is.

And I love how Mama Ya-Ya says my name—“Lanesha.” Soft, with the ah sound going on forever.

Lanesha—that’s the name my mother gave me. Last word she said before she died. I don’t remember hearing it. But I imagine she said it then just like Mama Ya-Ya does now.

Upstairs, I sometimes see my mother’s ghost on Mama Ya-Ya’s bed, her belly big, like she’s forgotten she already gave birth to me.

Like she’s stuck and can’t move on. Like she forgot I was already born.

Just like my Uptown relatives forgot today was my birthday. They always forget.





Me and Mama Ya-Ya wrap the leftover cake in foil. Mama Ya-Ya shuffles towards the living room. I follow her like a shadow. We have been together all day long.

Gardening, we cut sunflowers for the kitchen table. We chopped ham and onions for the jambalaya; then we played cards while the rice cooked. I squeezed lemons for lemonade while Mama Ya-Ya frosted the cake. A perfect day.

I say, “I wish I could see my father. Dead or alive, don’t matter.”

“Lanesha, I don’t know who he is. Or where he is. Or if he still is. Your momma died before she could say. Maybe she didn’t want to say. Don’t know. She weren’t but seventeen. One of them beautiful, light-skinned Fontaine girls. Proud of their French heritage. Uptown’s finest to be sure.

“I think your momma fell in love with a Ninth Ward boy. Rich girl, poor boy. He must’ve been darker, too. For you are a fine brown, Lanesha. Like pralines.”

“Maybe they were secretly married like Romeo and Juliet,” I say. I like the idea of my parents holding hands, being brave, and exchanging rings.

I learned about Romeo and Juliet in school. We don’t have Shakespeare plays, just these little booklets that tell us about the plays. Synopses, my teacher calls them. I don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore, but if I did, I’d ask him to bring me a whole set of Shakespeare books. The real ones, with the real words Shakespeare wrote. Then I wouldn’t have to take the smelly bus to the city library.

The bus also takes me uptown, but not as far uptown as my relatives live. I think about riding further and further, walking up to their house door, and knocking, but I don’t. I get scared that they may not answer.

Instead, I go to the library and try to read The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, but it’s too hard. I looked up tragedy in my pocket dictionary. Mama Ya-Ya gave it to me for my birthday last year. TRAGEDY: A CHARACTER IS BROUGHT TO RUIN OR SUFFERS EXTREME SORROWS. I check out the movie Romeo + Juliet for me and Mama Ya-Ya to watch. Hearing the words in the movie, I still don’t understand everything. But I can see Romeo and Juliet’s love, see how their families fought.

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