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.
The party scene is my favorite. Juliet is dressed so fine in the prettiest long, flowing gown. She wears white angel wings. Romeo wears a silver, glittering knight’s suit with a sword.
They just look at each other from across the room and fall in love.
I think that’s what happened to my parents, too. They must have gone to a party and while the DJ was spinning records, they fell in love. Everybody else cleared the floor, watching my folks dance fast, slow, even hip-hop.
One day, I’ll be able to read all of Shakespeare’s words and understand everything he’s saying. Like star-crossed, which doesn’t mean stars zigzagging across the sky. It means “doomed.”
My parents were star-crossed. That’s why I think my mother is still here, upstairs, a ghost in Mama Ya-Ya’s bed. She’s waiting for the day my dad — ghost or not — claims us both.
Once we’re in the living room and Mama Ya-Ya is settled in her favorite chair — all soft with a blue lap shawl — I say, “I memorized some Shakespeare. Want to hear?”
“Course I do.” She gives me her full attention.
I stand on the old living room carpet, imagining I’m onstage. My hands stretch wide, and I imagine I’m speaking to the whole world. Even if it’s only Mama Ya-Ya watching me. I say, “For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” Then, my hands over my heart, I bow my head.
Smiling, Mama Ya-Ya claps, long and hard. “Oh, Lanesha. Your mother and father made magic when they made you.”
Mama Ya-Ya sits back in her chair. Mama Ya-Ya is so tiny, and the chair almost swallows her. Her feet barely touch the floor. Her hair is silver and her skin reminds me of a walnut, all wrinkly brown. On the wall above her head is a picture of her favorite president — William Jefferson Clinton.
Mama Ya-Ya closes her eyes. She does that a lot now. She reminds me of a clock winding down. Her head tilts; her body relaxes in the chair like a balloon losing air.
I take out my birthday gift, a package of sparkly pens Mama Ya-Ya has given me. I pull out the purple ink pen and write:
Romeo + Juliet = Me
I like practicing cursive. It makes me feel grown.
Lanesha Mama Ya-Ya
I like watching Mama Ya-Ya sleep. Sometimes, she twitches with dreams.
If I wanted to wake her, all I’d need to say is “Oprah” and she’d be wide-awake, hollering for her Coke-bottle glasses and for me to turn on the TV. But we’ve celebrated a lot today. She should rest. Every day this summer, we watched Oprah. Mama Ya-Ya says, “Oprah is a southern girl. That’s why she’s got so much sense!”
I like it when Oprah laughs and when she talks about love. I think she must love everybody she knows. I always wonder, if she knew me, would she love me?
This I know for certain: Mama Ya-Ya loves me as the day is long. She is the only one who loves me through and through. When I’m too dreamy, when I don’t finish my chores, when I’m grumpy and sad, Mama Ya-Ya just hugs me a long time. Even when she scolds, she finishes with a hug.
When she holds me that close, I can always smell Mama Ya-Ya’s Vicks Rub and Evening in Paris perfume. Vicks Rub comes in a green bottle and smells of eucalyptus and menthol. It smells cool and tickles my nose. Evening in Paris is in a midnight blue bottle and smells warm like trees mixed with magnolias. It seems like the two would smell bad together, but they don’t. No one makes Evening in Paris anymore. “Soon it’ll all be used up. Like me,” Mama Ya-Ya says every day, dabbing perfume behind her ears. I always shake my head.
This morning, though, Mama Ya-Ya frowned at the mirror like she could see some other world inside it. “Mr. Death is losing patience. He’ll come and ferry me down the Mississippi. I’ll put on my feathered hat. Wave like I’m in a Mardi Gras parade.”
I don’t like to hear Mama Ya-Ya talk like that.
Mama Ya-Ya’s chin is on her chest. She is fast asleep, dreaming.
I put my purple pen back inside the plastic case. I stroke Mama Ya-Ya’s hand. Her head lifts; her eyes flutter.
“Mama Ya-Ya, let me help you to bed,” I say.
“You are a good child.” She pats my cheek. “Did you have a good day? A good birthday day?”
“Yes, ma’am.” It was a good day.
Mama Ya-Ya leans on my right arm. Her cane is shiny ebony with an ivory skull on top. Her fingers wrap around that skull for dear life. We walk slowly — inch by inch, step by step, to her small bedroom (my mother’s ghost is gone). Her bed is a high four-poster with white sheets and yellow quilt. Lace curtains hang limp over the two front windows. There isn’t any breeze. Just stuffy heat and fading sun. Striped green wallpaper covers the walls.
On the nightstand is a glass for her false teeth and blood pressure pills, cod-liver oil, and rosemary leaves. She puts the rosemary in tea to calm her arthritis.
Mama Ya-Ya’s altar is in the far corner. It is a small table filled with flickering candles and statues of Catholic saints and voodoo gods. Her rosary cross is silver, with sparkling blue beads. Next to a plate offering the gods beans and rice is her black midwife bag. The bag is never opened and it never moves. But I know Mama Ya-Ya still touches her bag. She keeps it cleaned, locked with all her birthing stuff inside. Always ready.
I slip Mama Ya-Ya’s black clodhopper shoes off her tiny feet.
“I should be putting you to bed,” she says.
“It’s my turn,” I say, smiling. “’Sides, I never had a baby doll.”
Mama Ya-Ya chuckles. “Are you saying I’m a baby doll?”
I burst out laughing. “No, ma’am.” My cheeks are warm. The thought of Mama Ya-Ya as an overgrown doll tickles me. “Got you,” I say.
“You sure did, Lanesha. Me, a baby doll. Hah! Go on, now. I can take care of myself. Me, a baby doll.” Mama Ya-Ya is puttering, taking her nightgown out the drawer and laying her glasses on the nightstand. She is grinning, muttering, “Baby doll. Big windup toy. Chatty Cathy.” She is happy. Laughing.
“’Night, Mama Ya-Ya.” She doesn’t hear me.
I skip across the hall to my room, happy that I made Mama Ya-Ya laugh.
I plop down on my bed. I love my room.
This summer, Mama Ya-Ya let me paint the walls different shades of blue. One wall is Robin’s Egg Blue. Another, Ocean Blue. Another, Blue Sky. And the wall behind my headboard is Blueberry. I used a rolling brush and it was as easy as rolling pie dough: Back and forth. Up and down. Turn around. Roll the roller in the pan. Back and forth. Up and down. Over and over and over.
My hands were blue for a week. Pieces of my hair, too. I didn’t mind.
I lie back and stretch. The ceiling is bright white, like my bedsheets and comforter. I promised Mama Ya-Ya I wouldn’t get ink on the sheets or dirt on the comforter. And I haven’t. It’s the prettiest room in the whole house!
My room does have puzzle pictures on the wall. I like tiny puzzle pieces with colors on them. I like trying to figure out where they fit. Mama Ya-Ya and I have finished several puzzles together, and some I’ve done all on my own. Afterwards, I glue the pieces together and hang them on the wall. There is a puzzle picture of wild flowers — all yellow, red, orange, and white in a field. There is a picture of a monkey, too, hanging upside down from a tree. My favorite is the picture of a steamboat churning up the Mississippi. I think I’d like traveling by water. Unlike dirt, water seems alive, moving and shifting, always making lapping sounds against the boat and shore. On the right wall, above my dresser, I have a picture of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, all lit up with lights. I like it because it looks like a Christmas tree. It took me months to fit all those itty-bitty pieces of light into something beautiful.
Outside, the sunset has turned from orange to purple. I still have math to finish. It’s the third week of school and I want to get ahead.
I grab my math book. I love flipping through the pages. Squiggly marks everywhere. Plus, +, equal, =, less than, <, greater than, >. Alphabet letters. Numbers.
Since I was at least three, Mama Ya-Ya always said, “Signs everywhere, Lanesha. Pay attention.” And I did. Do.
I learned three apples could be the number 3. In math, the apples can even be a y or an x. Squiggly marks can be symbols. “A sign for something that is more than it is.”
If I was blind, I could even rub my fingers over dots. Braille, it’s called. Raised dots, like pink candy on white sheets, can tell you what elevator button to push, or what door leads to the GIRLS’ BATHROOM, or tell you a story like The Three Little Pigs.
My new English teacher, Miss Perry, and my math teacher, Miss Johnson, both talk about symbols.
Romeo + Juliet
Word and math signs mixed.
But I like Mama Ya-Ya’s signs best: “Ladybugs mean good luck”; “The Little Dipper means freedom. Its handle is the North Star”; “The color blue means strength and friendliness. Happiness.”
Whenever Mama Ya-Ya talks about colors, she’ll put her hands on her hips, cock her head, and tease, “Who loves blue in this house?”
“Me,” I always say.
Doing laundry, cooking, cleaning, Mama Ya-Ya keeps teaching me every day.
“Dreaming about alligators means trouble,” she said this morning. “Numbers mean something, too. Not just math, Lanesha. Three means life. Eight means power. Four means hard work in this here world. The material world. Put them together and they can mean something else.” She smacks her gums. “Put 4 and 8 together and it equals 12. That’s spiritual strength. Real strength, Lanesha. Some people doubt it because they can’t see it on the outside. Like butterflies. To most folks, they seem delicate. But the truth is, butterflies keep changing, no matter what, going from ugly worm to hard cocoon to strong wings.
“Always look for the signs, Lanesha,” she said. “Even flowers. Magnolias mean dignity. Beauty.”
Magnolia trees grow all over our neighborhood. The big trees, with their buttery white petals, bloom sweet all spring.
If Mama Ya-Ya were a flower, I’m pretty sure she’d be a magnolia.
I lean back into my pillows, take out the purple pen, and write in my math notebook.
8 + 4 = 12
All marks — signs — written in my best cursive. Symbols of me.
Who cares about a stupid Uptown family?
Mama Ya-Ya + Lanesha = Love
Like a butterfly, I am strong.
Excerpted from Ninth Ward by Rhodes, Jewell Parker Copyright © 2010 by Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Excerpted by permission.
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