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Nonfiction by Lisa O'Neill
Before rice can be harvested, you have to flood the fields. The crops are planted in spring after the ground has been leveled and ploughed down. And when tall, green stalks of rice begin to sprout out of umber earth, irrigation systems cover the field with water. It seems unlikely that the way to make a plant grow would be to drown it, to suffocate it, but the rice likes the moisture. A layer of water is kept covering the fields until not long before it is to be harvested. Then the fields are drained.
Rice takes roughly a hundred days to mature. In July or August, Louisiana rice farmers use combines to cut the stalk and sort the grain. The latter process is called thrashing. Before combine machines were invented, the harvesting process was done by hand, using a wrought-iron sickle to cut and calloused hands to sort. After rice is cut, the crop is either placed in large steel silos that have individual driers or is taken to a drying mill to be put through machines that suck out the water.
Certain Acadian settlers who migrated from Nova Scotia to North Carolina and then to Louisiana introduced rice to the state. Initially, they grew rice for their family kitchens. Farmers opened their hands to scatter rice seeds in patches of marshland. Because of the haphazardness of this method, the crop that grew was called “providence rice.”
Commercial production in the state burgeoned in the mid-to-late 1800s. A New York Times headline from 1893 reads: “Rice growing in Louisiana: A New Source of Wealth Developed Since the War.” Louisiana, ideal for rice production with its warm climate and frequent rainfall, is one of the six rice-producing states. With five hundred twenty thousand acres of rice grown per year, the crop is now Louisiana’s top export. About eighty percent of the rice grown in Louisiana is exported and packaged as Mahatma, as Water-Maid.
My Paw Paw ran a rice mill for a while, after his job as school bus driver and before he owned a general store and shoe repair shop. He had to give it up because the powder from the grinding of rice affected his lungs. My Uncle Donald has run a rice mill since he was in his thirties. Often, when my parents and I would go to see family, we visited him at the mill. I remember an almost translucent film of white dust in the air. Stepping on metal grates in the warehouse, I breathed in the stale, substantial taste and thought of the meals that would come later.
My mom hates water. She has since she was a child. She doesn’t mind water from a distance, but getting up close makes her nervous. I remember childhood vacations when I would dive and cannonball into swimming pools, when I would roughhouse and jump off my dad’s shoulders. The closest my mom ever got to swimming was dangling her feet off the side. My swimming teacher was the one supporting me as I floated in the indoor, chlorinated pool at the Y.
A life defined, book-ended, segmented by water shapes someone. Some are shaped by water’s beauty. Some by its power. Some learn very early the kind of destruction water is capable of causing.
In August 1940, an unnamed hurricane came to Southwest Louisiana, bringing with her rains that filled towns like bowls. The waters flooded the streets of Gueydan, my mom’s hometown. She was six months old. Levees had been built to shield the small town and the surrounding fields from such a storm, but the water fell inside the levee walls and these manmade barriers, in a cruel bit of irony, were responsible for the town being devastated rather than protected.
The storm hit land in Cameron, Louisiana on the eighth of August and then stalled over Southwest Louisiana, drenching the landscape with rain, saturating the rice fields that had just been drained. In twenty-four hours, twenty-one inches of rain fell on the region. And in the days that followed, towns continued to be pounded, with the city of Lafayette receiving a total of thirty-eight inches.
Those who lived through the storm and its aftermath remember the scramble to get food and supplies and the arduous journeys by boat to places that had not flooded. When it became clear that the water would not soon dissipate, many residents of Gueydan, including my mom and her family, traveled twenty-five miles by boat to Abbeville, where they were put up in local schoolhouses and churches for weeks until the water finally receded.
Very few people died, because of heavy community organizing to rescue neighbors off of rooftops and transport them to dry land, but the landscape of the region was ravaged. The rice fields of Southwest Louisiana were ruined, leaving families and communities destitute. Farmers reported losses of fifty thousand livestock and seventy-five thousand muskrats, creatures raised and sold for their coats.
Eighty percent of homes and vehicles in the area were damaged by the floods. The flooding not only destroyed the fields but led to disease. The standing water bred bacteria and many contracted typhoid fever. Even if natives of the area did not have crops or animals, they lost what little they had.
Southern Louisiana is covered in water. Streams, canals, rivers, marshes, bayous. Water everywhere. When you look at a map of Louisiana, the state looks like it has complex capillary systems, strong veins that reach out and bleed into one another, thick and sky blue like the ones under my skin that appear effortlessly when I get blood drawn.
For hundreds of years after colonizers settled this region, the water was simply a reality, a fact, something to be accepted. The water barriers necessitated close-knit communities and then made those communities insular. Landlocked within the liquid dividers, Cajun settlers made do. The water provided a means to make a living and a way to feed their families, harvesting seafood for the table.
But in time, water was seen to be an inhibitor to growth, to progress, to seeing the world outside. Then came the bridges. There are over thirteen thousand bridges in the state of Louisiana. Ashton Bridge, Berry Bridge, Brazell’s Bridge, Broussard Bridge, Burry Ferry Bridge, Cane River Bridge, Carpenter’s Bridge, Child’s Bridge, Cloud Bridge, Coffey’s Bridge, Cote Blanche Bridge, Crescent City Connection, Double Springs Bridge, Faulk Bridge, Forked Island Bridge, Fort Pike Bridge, Foster Bridge, Galliano Bridge, Golden Meadow Bridge, Lafourche Gravel Point Bridge, Guidry’s Bridge, Hammond Highway Bridge, Harris Bridge, Hart’s Ferry Bridge, Hubbard Bridge, Huey P. Long Bridge, Jordan Ferry Bridge, Kendrick Ferry Bridge, Franklin Kincaid Bridge, LaCoup Bridge, Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, Lake Village Bridge, Lamothe Bridge, Lane’s Ferry Bridge, Leeville Bridge, Long-Allen Bridge, Low Water Bridge, Magnolia Bridge, Mary Cox Bridge, May’s Bridge, Lincoln McAdam Bridge, Moss Bridge, Natchez-Vidalia Bridge, Pendleton Bridge, Perry Bridge, Petry Bridge, Phillips Bridge, Pin Hook Bridge, Poche Bridge, Pratts Bridge, Purvis Bridge, Riceville Bridge, Robin Bridge, Rome Ferry Bridge, Seals Bridge, Simon Bridge, Smith Bridge, South Lafourche Bridge, Starns Bridge, State Line Bridge, Theard Memorial Bridge, Thompson Bridge, Tontons Bridge, Trajer Bridge, Twins Bridges, Vester Bridge, Morehouse Wagner Bridge, Jefferson Williams Bridge, Wilson Bridge, Woodlawn Bridge.
The Atchafalaya Basin Bridge, the seventh longest bridge in the world, stretches over eighteen miles across marshy water punctuated by the trunks and knees of green cypress. Built in 1973, it runs through the heart of Acadiana, referred to by Louisianans as “Cajun Country.” The bridge that crawls over the Manchac Swamp, also built in the 1970s, is the third longest in the world. Before these bridges were built, an arduous journey was required to access New Orleans from Acadiana.
I’ve crossed these bridges hundreds of times in my life. Through the blur of deep brown water and dark green trees, my parents and I traveled by car. Although born after the bridges were built and having no frame of reference for travel before, I do remember taking a single-car ferry to cross a narrow waterway, years before they put a drawbridge in. Only one vehicle could cross at a time.
We took these excursions from New Orleans, where my parents and I lived, to Southwest Louisiana, where my mom grew up, to visit family. As a child, I remember thinking of these trips as exotic, as a time to encounter a world very different from the world I lived in. This was a place where houses didn’t suffocate the land. A place where white birds covered the sky and rested on the fields. My mom showed me a plant that had a long narrow stem and something that looked like a thick brown hotdog on the end. Cattail,
she said. In this place, I ran more than I did at home, merely because there was room to run, cousins to run with.
My second cousin Delucey told me of a time when she was a teenager, back in the 1940s. Her brother R.J. had returned from the war. R.J. and Delucey and their sister Dot had gone into town to go see a movie. On the way back, elated from the energy of the night and the summer air, they started singing “You are My Sunshine,” in three part harmony. R.J. was driving and the car approached the one-lane bridge they always passed on the way home. He saw a car in the distance but he knew he would reach the bridge first—he thought in plenty of time to get off and let the other car pass. But when they got on the bridge, the other car was crossing too. R.J. hit the brakes and they all became mute as they felt the car teetering like a seesaw over the deep canal. The three started praying and slowly R.J. was able to maneuver the car back onto the bridge. They drove the rest of the way home in silence.
My mom was the only girl amongst three brothers. She was treated as one of the boys while simultaneously being picked on for being the only girl. They bossed her around and roughhoused with her and then they made fun of her for being too girly. Next to the family house on Main Street was an irrigation canal. Full of brown, dirty water, the canal was not meant for swimming, but the kids in town swam there anyway. One day while they were swimming when my mom was just a small girl, her brothers decided it would be funny to play a joke on her. On the count of three, they all jumped on top of their sister, holding her under the murky canal water. Shocked by the action, she ran out of breath almost immediately and felt the water begin to seep into her nose and her mouth. Seconds sped by—to her it felt like minutes—and by the time they let her up, she was choking. The fear instilled in that moment extended to experiences with water the rest of her life.
She went to the beach, but she would stay, bathing suit bone-dry, on the sand. She went to the swimming pool, but my dad was the one who got in with me. I only have one memory of my mom swimming in a pool when I was young. She will sit in hot tubs, where her feet always touch the bottom. Hot tubs feel more like taking a bath anyway.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that between approximately eight to eighteen percent of Americans suffer from some kind of phobia. People who are aquaphobic have a persistent, abnormal fear of water. Even though they might rationally realize there is no imminent danger, they may avoid swimming or even being close to deeper bodies of water because their physical fear of it is real. Sometimes the fear links back to a traumatic experience with water, such as a near drowning. By the time my mother was three, she had already experienced enough to make her distrust water. She would experience more.
We lived in New Orleans, and when I was small, I remember staring at the brown water that rose to the top cement step in front of our home. Sometimes, it would even lap against the wooden threshold that connected the steps to the front door. I have a picture of my mom holding me as a toddler on that step with the water reaching up towards her ankles. I have a picture of myself standing in our street at age ten wearing pajama shorts, a t-shirt, and galoshes, holding an umbrella, water up to my knees.
Flooding was something you thought about in New Orleans. You had to when you lived in a town eleven feet below sea level. A soup bowl, some called it. Any sight of severe rain and the cars would begin to pile up on the grassy neutral ground, the New Orleanian name for the median, of Claiborne and Napoleon avenues. We lost our maroon Camry to severe flooding when I was ten. When I was twenty-four and attending my ex-boyfriend’s senior music recital at Loyola University, my car flooded with a foot of water in a severe thunderstorm, ruining the electrical system. Those of us attending the recital had heard the rain falling outside but its severity was muted by the requiem being sung by the chorus.
It wasn’t until the levees broke following Hurricane Katrina that flooding moved from a threat, an inconvenience, and a potential financial setback to a life-altering experience. I was living in San Francisco at the time, another city surrounded by water but one that faced a different natural catastrophe.
“What about earthquakes?” my mom had asked me worriedly when I initially told her of my plans to move to California.
“Mom, we have hurricanes here. What’s the difference?”
“Well, it’s what you know I guess,” she replied. “I know what to expect with hurricanes.”
A year before the storm when I was living in San Francisco, a colleague, who also had family in New Orleans, sent me an email link to a study describing exactly what would happen if a strong hurricane were to hit New Orleans. The study talked about the elevation of the city and the horrible disrepair of the levees. There were video graphics that showed the step-by-step inundation of the entire city. “Scary,” we muttered to one another. And then, in August 2005, we watched the news together and gave updates when we heard word from home. My parents had already planned to go see family the weekend the storm loomed for the annual Gueydan Duck Festival. They had packed a change of clothes and some toiletries and left on Friday, three days before the storm hit. Remembering how I had begged him at some point to take family photos with them during an evacuation, at the last minute, my dad reached up to their highest shelf in their bedroom closet and pushed all the sweaters and jackets off. Then, he took some of our photo albums and put them up there.
When the storm made landfall on Monday, I called my parents throughout the day. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief after my dad talked to our eighty-five-year-old neighbor, Mr. Jack, who had stayed behind. His report: “No water on the street at all here.”
Hours later, the levees broke and filled that same street with over nine feet of water. We know this because our house was raised five feet off the ground and there were watermarks at four and a half feet inside, when the water finally settled. Mr. Jack had to be taken out of his home by boat to Belle Chase naval base and then on Al Gore’s private jet to a VA hospital in Tennessee. My parents had to evacuate once more when, less than a week later, Hurricane Rita moved towards Southwest Louisiana. The rest of my mom’s family went with them, and they watched on television to see Holly Beach, a regular vacation spot, leveled to concrete slabs.
I don’t think it’s fully possible to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it what exactly it means to lose your home, what it means to see a place so rich with memories covered in mold, what it means to see your entire city covered in water, what it means to see your sixty-something parents cry like children as they face rebuilding their lives and livelihood all over again. I don’t think it is possible to fully explain that kind of loss. My home—a living, breathing thing—had died and a piece of me died with it.
Not long after the storm hit, I had a vivid dream that took place in my childhood home. I walked in through the front door. I could hear my shoes clack across the hardwood floors. I could see the fireplace and green velvet couch in our living room, where my parents were sitting. When I woke up, I had to jolt myself out of the comfort that my brain had created, had convinced me still existed. Which was the dream and which was the reality?
I saw the house for the first time about a month after the storm. I had insisted, against my parents’ objections, that I join them to go through the house. After a flight into Houston from San Francisco and a six-hour drive, I pulled onto our street. Telephone poles leaning over. Houses with dingy watermarks seven feet high. A road absent of cars. Limbs of trees scattered in the street. The blue house where I grew up.
My parents had just paid off the house three years before. I remembered them putting away money carefully so we could go on family vacations and so I could attend a good university. And still, my dad sealed the envelope with the clear plastic address window before sending their mortgage payment back the day after the bill came into our mailbox—every month for twenty-three years.
On the day Mom and Dad paid off the mortgage, the three of us went out to dinner to celebrate. Now, three years later, we reunited at the ruins of the house to search through what was salvageable of our possessions, now a moldy, sopping mess.
A growing heap of furniture and appliances, covered in mud and mold, was piled in front almost as high as the house’s gutters. I parked the car in my neighbor’s driveway and met my parents outside on what was our front lawn, now a jumble of pavement and weeds. My dad came up to me and gave me a hug. My mom looked at me and started to weep.
“I’m going in,” I said.
“We’re going with you.”
I put an industrial gas mask and some gloves on, and we went in through the side door. When I saw the inside—the brown watermark four and a half feet above the floor, the living room sofa and chairs discolored and in disarray from being left wherever the water had dropped them—I stood in disbelief.
The three of us worked in silence, recovering what we could and taking breaks when we could no longer stand the stench. My mom’s silk blouses hanging in the closet were damp and stained green; my college literature books were piles of mush, disintegrating further when I went to move them; and photographs were now indistinguishable rainbows of blotted, blended color on four by six paper.
The quilts my Grandma and Maw Maw had made rested in the bottom of my mom’s oak dresser. My Grandma was a talented seamstress. The sight of her laying out fabric, straight pins in her mouth and yellow measuring tape around her neck, was as familiar to me as the slight dip in her nose from where she had a cancerous mole removed, the way she always smelled of gardenias when she pulled me into her for a hug.
My mom reached in with her gloved hands and took the quilts from the house even though they were a sopping mess, even though we could smell the rank infestation of mold mixed with canal water through the industrial gas masks we all wore. She refused to give them up. Later, she washed them over and over, scrubbing green and yellow stains furiously until, finally, they were almost as good as before.
We could only take so much. Decisions about what could be saved seemed moot in light of what had been lost. After a few hours of sorting and stacking and wiping, we left the house for my cousin and his friends to gut. We had the family photo albums (although not my parents’ wedding album, not my high school albums or the detailed scrapbook from my study abroad in Italy), some books (but not the family Bible my mom had inherited, with the names of all our ancestors and identifying information about them), some artwork (but not the oil painting that I made during my senior year of college).
My parents and I returned two years later to sort through the attic before they sold the house to The Road Home, the fiscal agent of funds for Hurricane Katrina victims. From the outside, the sky blue house with cloud-colored shutters didn’t look that much different, except for the stump remaining from the sweet olive tree, the yellow spray paint in a diagonal cross on the door from when the rescue workers did their search. No bodies found here,
their markings said. The inside was a different story altogether. The house was gutted, with rusty nails and screws scattered on the hardwood floors atop the thick layer of dust from the sheetrock had been torn out.
The skeleton of the rooms we lived in remained—wood and brick and mortar bones. A few details reminded us of the house that used to be there—traces of cream-colored wallpaper lingered above where the water settled at four and a half feet, curtains still hung in the wooden windowpane of the room that was mine. I watched my mom—white hair matted to her forehead, her face flushed from the heat—walk through the house. Passing under the wooden doorframe to what used to be our hallway, I reached up and pulled on the string that opens the attic hatch.
I situated myself, holding a pair of scissors in one hand and tucking a flashlight under my chin. Tearing through boxes marked “Lisa” with permanent marker, I found homemade books tied together with ribbon that contained scrawled narratives and crayon illustrations tied together. I found old tests and report cards. But I also found items never intended to be seen by me—the change for Mrs. O’Neill from the second grade trip to the zoo; notes from my mom to her gynecologist with questions to ask about her period since they were trying to have another child, something I never realized they wanted and something that never happened; letters from my dad addressing struggles I was having as I faced adolescence and, from time to time, the meanness of other girls.
As I went through these things, items that had been a part of my childhood but not part of my experience, I found myself overcome with a sense of the love my parents had for me. First time parents, they were trying their best to be conscientious about the child entrusted to them. The love in the PTA meeting agendas, the saved Father’s Day cards, and ugly crayon scrawls on loose-leaf paper. It permeated through the musty attic smell, through the sweat that soaked my t-shirt, through the pain of what was lost.
My parents moved to a rural community called Prairieville. With the help of family and a low-interest loan, they bought a house there. When I arrived at the house for the first time, there was a banner my dad had made on the computer: “Welcome Home, Lisa.”
Later, when back in Louisiana almost four years after the storm, I found myself immensely sad and once again angry. But this time, I was not only angry at the federal and local government, for their inefficient planning and action after the storm, or the Army Corps of Engineers, for their mismanagement and poor construction of the levee system. I was angry at the water itself—angry that it had destroyed the ease of being home. Not only were my home and the physical reminders of our lives destroyed but so too were the intangibles: for me, the ease of socializing with friends was gone, the inability to run out for a quick cup of coffee or drinks when I was back visiting my parents; for my parents, being part a community where they had built connections, where they were known. Now visits to New Orleans were highly orchestrated. Now, I had to make arrangements when staying in my hometown—had to sleep on couches, on floors, in guest rooms. When I tried to prepare a meal at my parents’ new home, I clumsily shuffled through cabinets and began slamming the wooden doors in frustration. I didn’t know where anything was. Now, everything in my life had to be charted out, planned, and remembered again. The place that had once been for me the most comfortable, where I instantly felt at home and like myself, had changed without my say, without anyone’s say.
My small struggles and frustrations at having to live differently after the storm were only a reminder of what was happening in the city at large. Friends at Hope House, the community center where I formerly worked, told me they had eighty-seven calls in one day from people who were about to be evicted from their homes and apartments. Every day, the phone rang from nine to five with people who needed help with utilities, rent, baby food. The City Council had voted to tear down public housing that held over 4,000 units, housing that was undamaged by the storm but, instead, damaged from years of neglect from the Housing Authority of New Orleans. I was there at the meeting when police refused to let former public housing residents in, when police needlessly tasered people outside who merely voiced their right to go into the public meeting. Years after the storm and people were still suffering so badly.
It is clear to me that those who question whether New Orleans should have existed in the first place or should be rebuilt have never really seen the city. Maybe they don’t feel a personal connection to the place where they were born or the town where they live. I have never understood that because it seems so unnatural to me to live in a place you cannot appreciate and understand. We don’t live in places because they are convenient or safe or free from natural disaster. We live in places because we have to. We live in the places that allow us to thrive. We live in the places that live in us.
When I visited Southwest Louisiana this July with my mother, the area was experiencing a drought. There had been very little rain all summer and the impact was beginning to show. Without grass for his cattle to eat, my uncle had been going through stacks upon stacks of hay. The rice fields were taking longer to harvest because the wells that were the source of irrigation for the fields were dry. The rice would be harvested, but the quality would be questionable.
I didn’t understand the way rice grew, so at some point when we were driving with my Uncle Logan, my mother’s youngest brother, we pulled the car over. “This is Emery’s field,” he said, referring to an older cousin. Getting out of the car, I walked to the edge of the road where a field of rice was about to be harvested. I pulled off a piece of the light green stalk. I took the stalk over to him, and he showed me how it was brownish yellow at the top and green at the bottom. “Fifteen days,” he said. Once the bottom had turned as well, the stalks would be cut. I moved my finger across the pods and freed some of the unripe rice, turning it over in my fingers. Then, I took the piece of rice stalk and tucked it in the back pocket of my journal.
Before my mother and I had arrived in the area, there hadn’t been any rain in over a month, but in the five days we were there visiting family, we saw lightning streak the sky and rain sheets cover our windshield, making it difficult to drive at points.
Mom and I stopped by my Uncle Donald’s rice drier to say hello. He told us about the difficult season, about the lack of water and his worries about the rice crops. We told him that this was hard to believe given how much water had fallen since we got here.
“Well, thank God,” he said. “We really needed this rain.”
We left the drier and continued to drive. Watching the water pound the windshield, I was reminded of summer thunderstorms throughout my life in New Orleans. There was a reassurance in them. In the morning, the sky would be sunny. In the afternoon, it would rain. The rain fell hard, but in about twenty to thirty minutes, the rain would stop and the sky would clear. What was left were the puddles on the ground, the humidity in the air, the smell of drenched earth and wet pavement, and the reminder that the water would be there long after the rain stopped falling.
A native of New Orleans and current resident of Tucson, Lisa writes and teaches creative writing and composition at The University of Arizona and Pima Community College. She has also developed curricula for and taught creative writing workshops with incarcerated students at juvenile and adult detention centers through the Tucson-based program Inside/Out. Lisa graduated with her MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Arizona and presently serves on the board of Casa Libre en la Solana, a literary nonprofit supporting writers in Tucson. Her work has most recently been published in drunken boat
. At her blog The Dictionary Project
, an ongoing manuscript, she writes posts inspired by one dictionary word, selected at random, each week.
Volume 2, Issue 1
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