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‘Ninth Ward’ tells tale of spirit-seer in New Orleans

In "Ninth Ward," 12-year-old Lanesha is not like the other girls living in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. An orphan, she is cast aside by her “uptown family” after her mother dies giving birth to her. Rejected by her peers for her ability to see spirits, the only constant in her life is Mama Ya-Ya. Taking in Lanesha and raising her as her own, Mama Ya-Ya is an elderly but fiercely loving caretaker who acts as both her mother and grandmother.

SundayThey 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 = MeTen times.

I like practicing cursive. It makes me feel grown.

Excerpted from "Ninth Ward" by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

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