Ghost of my mother along the Atchafalya

by | December 2020 A (Day 3)

When my mother heard the news we were moving south, she remembered pecan pralines and dirty rice, bayous and shrimp boats, and dark heavy drapes shut against stultifying heat.  She remembered nowhere to live along the Atchafalaya, U-boats staining beaches black with oil, and shipyards swarming with war workers. She remembered the tin roof of the side-yard, shotgun house where she lived with my father. She remembered Morgan City and World War II. She was a western girl, raised in a Oregon, and these were days before air conditioning.

She remembered hurricane warnings, and instructions to fill the tub with water.  She remembered reading, forgetting, and bathing in the tub water.

She remembered fevers and rickets, Oysters Bienville, and not to wear red. She remembered Huey P. Long, Leander Perez, and parlor doors sliding shut on women while men retired to their after-dinner smoke and conversations about politics, leaving women to conversations about babies. She remembered the thickness of boredom.

Her sister remembered the fifty-girl Girl Scout troop my mother led, and the boys club she worked to build and how she garnered the support of the local priest, and the local Mafia, and the company my father worked for constructing floating dry docks for the ships transporting all the goods of war.

Her sister remembered the political acumen it took to ensure that no credit went to her––not male, not Catholic, not southern.  And I remember how the year we moved South she was diagnosed with the cancer that killed her.

 

9 Comments

  1. Bud Smith

    Martha,
    This is stunning writing, I am going to print this out and put it in a folder where I keep some of the sharpest short fiction I come across so I remember that anything is possible with writing and when form and style and vision come together it all transcends. That’s what writing like this does. It reminds me that we are all here on a earth a short time and we can know our own histories to a certain extent but the great mystery still abounds around us. Goddamn. There’s so many good lines in this but it adds up to something thrilling, the whole much bigger and deeper than the sum of its parts. And that ending … wow “Her sister remembered the political acumen it took to ensure that no credit went to her––not male, not Catholic, not southern. And I remember how the year we moved South she was diagnosed with the cancer that killed her.” I’ll keep an eye out for more of your work out in the world

    • Bud Smith

      I’d just like to clarify a little more about what I like so much about this piece: I feel it is a succinct portrait of what it means to leave in America over a span (of change, however incremental) of years. I can see and hear and taste and fear and be bored by the south and I can know that Oregon wasn’t much better, just that it didn’t have hurricanes. And to have a child grow up and want to return to a place that a parent has felt like that have been the victor of by fleeing — damn, that is powerful. I’ll be thinking about this for a long time. Stunning title and these opening sentences killed me: When my mother heard the news we were moving south, she remembered pecan pralines and dirty rice, bayous and shrimp boats, and dark heavy drapes shut against stultifying heat. She remembered nowhere to live along the Atchafalaya, U-boats staining beaches black with oil, and shipyards swarming with war workers. She remembered the tin roof of the side-yard, shotgun house where she lived with my father. She remembered Morgan City and World War II. She was a western girl, raised in a Oregon, and these were days before air conditioning.

      • Martha Jackson Kaplan

        Bud, Thanks for all the comments. Very appreciated. One thing that I think is flawed in this piece I see from your comments. This line I need to fix–She was a western girl, raised in a Oregon, and these were days before air conditioning. I meant to illustrate that the Gulf Coast was powerfully unpleasant to someone raised in Oregon, because it lacked air conditioning. I see that the way I linked those points in the sentence led to misreading. I’m going to fix that, but it’s late and I’m very tired. Much of this week has been taken up with a covid scare here in the family– gah! All good now, tests negative as of late last night.

        I wanted to thank you. I’ve taken 2 of your workshops and both have been fruitful, spurs to getting the writing done. I’m usually very slow.

        • Martha Jackson Kaplan

          Here’s the original:
          She remembered Morgan City and World War II. She was a western girl, raised in a Oregon, and these were days before air conditioning.

          Here’s how I’d edit it:
          She remembered Morgan City in the days before air-conditioning, and she was a western girl, raised in eastern Oregon, daughter of a poet and a newsman.

  2. Lisa Moore

    Wow Martha, this is amazing. What masterful use of details. It doesn’t feel like fiction. It feels real. I appreciate the shift from the mother’s memories to the aunt’s memories toward the end. You give us a more objective view of the mother, things she seems not to have shared herself. The ending hit me right in the chest. Just beautiful. Lousiana is one of my favourite places and your piece does a wonderful job of recalling the food, the geography, the weather there.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Martha Jackson Kaplan

      Lisa, Thanks for this. I’m knocked out, but there is one thing–– the thing is, it doesn’t feel like fiction because actually, it isn’t. Our move south was from Seattle to Houston, but Houston once was, maybe still is, a weird cross-roads of Louisiana migration, Tennessee migration (down through East Texas), Texican, Mexican, parts Central and South America, and north Texas, Yankee, and West. But the years my folks were in Louisiana were there in childhood stories and in food, My mom learned to cook in Louisiana. You should see the cookbooks from that time. Couldn’t resist sharing this. Thanks for the comments

  3. Amy Barnes

    Wow! From the title to the ending line, this is just a succinct picture of place — physical and familial. With each detail, we see and feel and taste memories. It’s a hard thing to pinpoint what Bud is talking about above. I once took a bus tour of a small town during a Southern festival (ham or jelly or something nonsensical.) The tour guide on the bus told us where she had her first kiss and which houses were the original places the “workers” lived in and where her granddaddy (the boss) lived and then dropped us off at an AME Zion church where the congregation was lined up to serve us baked goods and sell knitted hats and scarves. Your story evokes like that bus ride — the things we know and don’t know, what each thing means to each family and time period and space.

    It does feel like it could be CNF — I’m guessing there is some truth in it, like there is in most fiction. But you have a masterful hand at telling us the story. And then there is that last line that culminates it all. Pulls it all into a tiny vortex that makes it all drill down to the illness and death but with us looking in and knowing that it is so much more than that. Poignant and gut-wrenching. Thank you for sharing!

    “And I remember how the year we moved South she was diagnosed with the cancer that killed her.”

  4. Neil Clark

    So beautiful and evocative, Martha.

    My favourite lines are “She remembered the thickness of boredom.” and “Her sister remembered the political acumen it took to ensure that no credit went to her––not male, not Catholic, not southern.” but the sum is even greater than its parts.

    I don’t know much about the geography or history, but I felt like I was there. Then that ending hits like a ton of bricks. Fantastic.

  5. David O'Connor

    So good! I love–She remembered the thickness of boredom.–and so much more. I bet you could go long with this one, just keep the “she remembers…” and keep up with the fine details. I love the word Atchafalaya, too. Great work. Thanks for sharing!

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