by Alise Wascom
My daughter was eighteen months old and sitting on my lap on the floor of the children’s section in Octavia Books in New Orleans reading board books when she looked up at me and said, “Banno,” for the first time.
“Banno,” she said, louder and more insistent. “Banno,” throughout the store. “Banno” on the ride home in the car. A kind of snack, I tried to guess? The name of a lovey? It wasn’t until we were home that night, reading from Twinkle, Twinkle ABC, on the page with the bear who “plays a banjo on his knee” that I finally understood.
“Banno,” she said, pointing. “Ro-Ro banno.”
I always understood that she would be a Southern girl, but I was not prepared for banjos.
At first, I thought that, certainly, she is just calling any string instrument a banjo. I played her YouTube videos of Spanish guitar, of Helen Gillet’s cello loops, but Rosemary only shook her head and said, “banno,” disappointed, or so it seemed, that she couldn’t make me understand.
And so I played her bluegrass. I played her Alison Brown and Earl Scruggs and she stayed glued to the computer, only stepping away to dance a little or lift her arms above her head with delight. And because she is my first and she is my only and I am a far more indulgent parent than I ever anticipated being, in two days an Amazon Prime box arrived at the front door with a red toy banjo inside, which she, sitting out on the front porch, strums or sometimes simply drums. Sometimes she just rocks it like one of her baby dolls and whispers, “Ro-Ro banno.”
I knew, intellectually, that I would have a Southern daughter, but I hadn’t fully imagined what that meant. My husband—her father—was born in New Orleans and grew up between Slidell, Louisiana and Auburn, Alabama and Pensacola, Florida; he considers himself a Gulf Coaster. When he first brought me down to Louisiana—in August, with a heat so wet and thick I thought I was drowning—he would point out flora and fauna like I was on safari: kudzu, monkey grass, ginger lily, magnolia, live oak; armadillo, pelican, alligator.
Once a check-out boy took a look at my Massachusetts driver’s license when I was buying wine and said, “Oh, you’re from another country.”
Once, after a long day of unpacking and setting up our little tin-roofed cottage, my husband took me out for po’ boys. “So it’s a sub?” I said and he said, yes, sure, but explained patiently and in great detail about New Orleans French bread and the whole matter of “dressed” or not. I thought I was fully prepared but when, exhausted from moving and more than a little homesick, I squirted out ketchup from the Heinz bottle only the discover it had been laced with hot sauce, I burst into tears. The ants were fire, the air was water, and even the ketchup was different.
Once I pulled over for a truck with flags stuck on the window, thinking he was part of a funeral procession, but it was just a college football fan.
In the five years that I’ve been in Louisiana I’ve had many firsts. First Mardi Gras parade, first brass band concert, first Sazerac, first French 75, and first time walking around on the street with them or any drink. First mirliton. First thin fried catfish. First second line. My mother-in-law made me my first gumbo (quail, shot by a neighbor friend); my father-in-law mixed me my first mint julep and even served it in a pewter cup. They gifted the baby her own miniature silver cup when she was born, engraved with her initials—a tradition.
My family, on the other hand, couldn’t stop sending knit blankets, fleece footed pajamas, impossibly soft, tiny sweaters. Rosemary was born in August and they were thinking about the impending fall and winter, neither or which, of course, were coming to South Louisiana, at least not the way my Northeastern family understood it.
I learned that the baby preferred to sleep out on the porch in her Moses basket, in nothing but a short-sleeved onesie, or maybe swaddled in a thin muslin blanket. The Boston ferns served as a mobile and the August heat, so wet and thick was, I imagined, not unlike a womb.
It rained for three days when she was born. My water had broke in a spectacular way, just like the movies, soaking through the towel and puppy pad my husband placed in the car on the way to the hospital, the water coming and coming, and, even though I was as big as a house, I couldn’t understand where it was all coming from. How even though it spilled continuously, I never felt lighter. Rosemary emerged exactly 24-hours later, vernix caseosa slick like the beeswax sunflower oil we use to moisturize our cutting boards, while outside lightning snapped and the clouds sat and emptied themselves. Only later we learned that 7.1 trillion gallons of water fell, enough to fill Lake Pontchartrain four times. First, the rain stopped and the sun came out, and we went home as a family of three.
The sun was deceiving; it made you think the worst was behind you, but the water was still here, still moving. The Comite and Amite rivers rose and crested, but so did the creeks and waterways and bayous that fed the river. And the water, looking for somewhere to go, kept moving South. By her one-week birthday, the rivers were at their highest point. My parents, visiting from Boston, here to welcome their grandbaby, went out for lunch and by the time they had finished their sandwiches and Abita Ambers, found all the roads back to our house flooded. I paced on the porch drumming the baby’s back while my husband on his cell phone and laptop tried to find some way to navigate them back, some route that the water hadn’t considered. It was a bright and beautiful day, and although Tangipahoa was mostly underwater, although people a few streets over were climbing into attics and onto roofs, our pink home just on the edge of downtown was entirely spared. You’d have never known there was a national disaster going on at all, save for the search and rescue helicopters flying overhead.
A five-hundred-year flood most agreed although some said it was a thousand-year occurrence. Historic, unprecedented. The problem was slow and hot: extremely warm air in the Gulf meeting with an extremely slow moving storm system. Some argued that the disaster didn’t receive national attention because the rain did not fall from a named storm. There is power in a name.
We did not know the baby’s sex before she was born, and so we didn’t know her name until she arrived. But luckily she was a girl and we had one at the ready; we had never been able to fully settle on a boy’s name and now, thankfully, didn’t need to worry about it anymore. Rosemary (ROHZ-meh-ree): derived from the Latin roots marīnus, dew of the sea.
My daughter recognizes the sound of the mosquito spray trucks that make their rounds in the summer. I’ve seen her stand on a plastic folding table and suck on crawfish heads, just like her father showed her. Like her father, she calls the stroller a buggy; boo-boos are bo-bos; she puts her toys up, not away. And when she says bye-bye, her voice lifts to the heavens on the second bye, her vowels elongated and lifted, buh-BAI, like a songbird. She’ll likely call a rotary a roundabout, call the highway an interstate, and when she shouts for her friends on the playground, she will holler, Hey y’all! A million tiny choices of phrasing and accent and words that will result in us, her and I, speaking different languages altogether.
What does it mean that my daughter is from a place that I am not when my daughter is from me?
Louisiana has one of the lowest state-to-state migration flows of any state or commonwealth in the union, even after Katrina. In other words, people who were born here tend to stay. People who weren’t, tend not to come—not to live, at least. To make a home, a life, to have a baby. But it wasn’t always that way. My ancestors from Germany landed in New Orleans, not Ellis Island. They landed and lived and had five children, who all died of yellow fever, after which they left and went to New York and my family has, more or less, remained in the Northeast ever since. Until I met this man and fell in love and, looking for somewhere to go, journeyed south. We married in his parents’ backyard under the jasmine vines. I found a pearl in one of the oysters his mother prepared, a sensation not unlike losing a tooth, rolling around on your tongue.
The threat for me—for us—wasn’t yellow fever, but Zika. Mosquito diseases, standing water diseases. But unlike my great-great-great grandparents, we were spared. So the child survives and we stay. We’ll stay until the brackish water meets us at our doorstep.
My daughter and I pick mulberries from the tree in our backyard; she fills her plastic jack-o-lantern from Halloween until she can’t lift it anymore on her own. A flock of cedar waxwings arrives, but there is more than enough for all of us. Our hands and feet are stained with the dark juice, and we make purple footprints on the back porch. As a child in New York, I used to pick raspberries at my grandmother’s house, and rhubarb, too, for pie. There is something magical about taking something from the ground to your kitchen and all the alchemy that happens there.
I remember those afternoons in New York while inside our raised, pink, Creole cottage I show my little girl how to soak the mulberries and skim off the tiny white aphids. Then she watches while I work at destemming. The fruit is fragile and spills and stains, but the warm cobbler later is worth it, and the cold cobbler, straight from the refrigerator, which her father and I steal bites of after she’s gone to bed, even better.
Back home, or the place that used to be home, there is still snow on the ground and no spring to speak of. And when it comes, I know it will just mean mud and pumping out the basement.
Will I be able to show my daughter the beauty of spring if she’s never had winter, I wonder. Will the blooming dogwoods and azaleas be enough, or do years of having stood at the bus stop stomping your feet and looking at your breath, years of ice dams and long dark days, years of washing road salt off of your dog’s paws, do they make the Louisiana spring brighter?
[Check out Alise Wascom’s back porch wisdom]