[My poem in response to the 11th prompt from Two Sylvias Press. Here’s a link to Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong doing the song of this poem’s title]
What reaction do you get, I wonder, when you name your birthplace?
Not likely to be the reaction I get.
I am soon 72:
Attended four or five
(I lose count) universities
Earned three degrees
Lived in three countries
Worked in four
Taught in several universities
Married more than once
Divorced more than once
Raised children and stepchildren
Watched grandchildren grow up
Taught Sunday School
Led Bible studies and women’s retreats.
And never once,
When I answer the question
“Where did you grow up?”
Never once, has anyone ever said,
“New Orleans? Where is that?”
What they say is:
RED BEANS AND RICE!
THE FRENCH QUARTER!
HURRICANE KATRINA – SO SAD!
I LOVE NEW ORLEANS!
MY FAVORITE PLACE!
I grew up on Havana St.
in a quiet all-white neighborhood
just a block from the London Ave. Canal
(that flooded the neighborhood
during Katrina and its terrible aftermath
But I was long gone by then
and the neighborhood was no longer all-white).
I went to St. Rose de Lima kindergarten
St. Leo the Great grade school
St. Joseph Academy high school
Just about every Sunday
we visited the Big House
filled with great aunts
and my tiny New Orleans great-grandmother
who spoke only French
(though the family was generations in New Orleans)
And always sat in her rocker, crocheting.
We visited my Jeanerette great-grandmother —
not so tiny and always moving —
almost as often.
We took the ferry
across the Mississippi
because there was no bridge
to visit my father’s father
and his second family.
We went to the carnival grounds
at Pontchatrain Park
ate cotton candy
and rode the ferris wheel.
We had fried chicken
and fresh donuts
from MacKenzie’s Bakery
every Sunday after church.
We watched white banana boats
on the river.
We had one floor-furnace for heat
and no air conditioning:
we tried to fry an egg on the sidewalk —
Every summer we failed.
We got beignets and café au lait
from Café du Monde and Morning Call;
We ate my mamman’s gumbo
and mom’s red beans and rice;
Dad took us to the parades
every Mardi Gras season
and we shouted,
“Throw me something, mistah”
as the amazing floats rolled by;
we stayed up late on Mardi Gras night
to watch the meeting of Rex and Comus
and then got up early to go to church
to get ashes on our foreheads.
We rode our bikes and played hopscotch;
We jumped rope and skipped rocks;
We did homework and said our prayers.
But no one ever asks.