As a young child, storyteller Diane Ferlatte moved with her family from rural Louisiana to California in search of greater equality and opportunity. But her family never lost its love for the south, and the regular trips home inspired this story.
CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
This time of year when we like to take a break from today’s environmental news and take a moment to share in the ancient means of communication – storytelling. And this year our theme is about the one thing many of us do during the holidays – travel to the place we call home. Home is the place where, as Robert Frost put it, “when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” And, indeed, there is something of the imperative in all the stories we’ll hear today from our three guests as they share their homecoming tales.
I’d like to welcome Jay O’Callahan. He’s a storyteller from Massachusetts. And he’s here with a tale about returning home for his sister’s wedding, and how a giant blizzard transformed that celebration into a day that no one soon forgot. Glad you could make it, Jay.
O’CALLAHAN: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: Also joining us is André Aciman, a writer and teacher at the City University of New York. And he’ll be telling us about how and why the city of Rome became his adopted home. André, thanks for being here.
ACIMAN: Thank you for having me.
CURWOOD: I’d like to start our round of storytelling, though, with Diane Ferlatte. Thanks for joining us.
FERLATTE: My pleasure.
CURWOOD: Diane, now I know you’re from Oakland, California these days, but your story’s about growing up in a much different place – rural Louisiana.
FERLATTE: Well, my family has been living in the South for a long time. I mean, they went from slavery to sharecropping, and from sharecropping to any kind of work they could find. And my grandfather, who was a preacher, was the first member of our family on my daddy’s side who was born free.
But, as a little girl, I spent a lot of time at my grandfather and grandmother’s house in Alexandria, Louisiana, a small little country town. And back then on Peabody Street where they lived, it seemed like everybody had a porch to sit on. And everybody on Peabody Street knew me. Whenever I went anywhere, folks sitting on their porches would always say, “Hey!” whether you were coming or going. You see, that’s the way it was in the South. You couldn’t pass anybody without somebody saying “hello.”
But now, summertime in Louisiana was hotter than hot. In the evening we used to sit on the front porch for hours laughing and talking, telling stories, while trying to catch a cool breeze. And the screen on the porch kept the bugs out, and, believe me, in Louisiana there were plenty of bugs and I was scared of every one of them, too. But, you know, even though I didn’t like the bugs, I did like their singing at night.
My folks didn’t have much education, but they were tough. They knew how to make do, just like most folks back then. Just about everything they ate came from their garden or from fishing in the bayou. And everybody in my family could cook, too, so you know we had plenty of good eatin’. And our favorite thing to eat was hoe-cake bread. You made it the same way you make biscuits but instead of rolling out the dough and cutting it, see you’d make a ball and you’d pat it down in the skillet and cook it slow until it was done. Mm-mmm.
Well, back in 1945 when I was born, things were different in Louisiana, because even though my daddy was a skilled bricklayer and a plasterer, because of the color of the skin and Jim Crow he couldn’t get this job and he couldn’t get that job. Couldn’t sit here, couldn’t sit there. Couldn’t go through this door, couldn’t go through that door. But that’s the way it was. And because of the way things were in the South, many black people started leaving the South. And my family decided to leave, too. And my aunt, who had already moved to California, she told my daddy, “You ought to come to California. There’s more work out here.” I didn’t want to go to California. But before we left they had a party for us. Everybody on the block came. I never will forget. It rained that day, too. Tears were flowing. But my daddy, he put us on a train and we headed up to California. I was nine years old.
When we got to California, we had to live with my aunt and her family in Oakland. It wasn’t hot like Louisiana. It was cold, and it was summertime, too. And I remember she didn’t even have a front porch to sit on. But as soon as my daddy got a job, we moved out and got our own place. It didn’t have a front porch either. And when people walked by your house, I mean, they hardly even looked at you.
At first I didn’t like California, but my cousin lived right behind us and that helped a little. But it was different. The one thing I liked though, there was no bugs bitin’ you. But, you know, at night I did miss the sound of the bugs singing. And when we went to the movies we could sit anywhere we wanted to, we didn’t have to go to the balcony. And when me and my momma got on the bus and I headed for the back, she said, “Oh no, baby, it’s okay to sit up front.” And my daddy, he got more work than he ever got in Louisiana.
We all were beginning to like California, even getting used to the weather. But it still wasn’t the same. I’m sure it wasn’t the same for my momma and daddy either because every summer, guess what? My whole family would drive thousands of miles all the way back down to Louisiana. Can you imagine that? Driving thousands of miles across the desert in all that heat with no air conditioning.
Now, the first time we went back to Louisiana we had been living in California for a year or so. I had gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that one time when we stopped to get gas I almost walked into a bathroom that had a “white only” sign on it. I don’t know what upset me more, the “white only” sign or that big bug I stepped on and squashed trying to run back to the car. And my daddy would say, “Girl, those bugs won’t hurt you. You scared of everything.”
But every year when we went back to Louisiana, it was always the same, just as I remembered it. I mean, everywhere you looked there was something green growing, and it smelled different, too… the smells of moisture from the swamps and humidity and mold grass just filled the air. And when we finally turned the corner on Peabody Street going to my grandfather’s house, everybody was stuck waving and yelling, “Hey, glad to see you again! Oh, you back home, huh? How long you gonna stay this time?” And when we parked the car and my daddy stepped out, some folks could come over and shake his hand, laughing and talking, and people would hug my momma, and kids that knew me would come running over to see me and my brother.
But then the screen door would open and my aunt, who we called Nanny, would come out and she’d say, “Let me see you kids! Come here and give me a kiss. Ooh, look how you’ve grown. Come on in the house, I’ve got something to show you.” And what she had was my favorite thing too: a big cold piece of watermelon. Mmm. And electric fans in the house blew the smell of cornbread baking, fresh fish frying from the kitchen, ooh, all the way to the front porch. And with the smell of rain in the air, it smelled like home. And it was home because. before long, the front porch was just full of people laughing and talking.
But well, as we got older, my brother and I didn’t always go back to the South every year. I guess we thought we were just too citified for that small little country town. We had changed. But so did the community on Peabody Street. Some people leaving and some dying. Even my grandmother was gone. Only my grandfather and my aunt Nanny were still living in our house on Peabody Street.
But that was enough for my daddy, because every year he went back, and always the cheapest way too: driving. One time he talked me and my new husband into driving down there with him. First time my San Francisco-born and bred husband had been in the South, and he didn’t know what to expect, especially since he’s white. You should have seen the surprise on my 104-year-old grandfather’s face when my husband walked into the house. All he could say was, “Who that boy?” And my Nanny, who was caring for my grandfather, took to my husband like he was family, and he was. And before long, they were out together fishing for catfish on the bayou, she was cooking him hoe-cake bread for breakfast, and he was fixing buttermilk for Papa and sitting on the porch laughing and talking like he had always been there.
Well, that year my husband got a little taste of what we missed and why we went back. And I realized what I had been missing, too. I realized that there’s no substitute for roots and family. I missed the slower pace of life, you know, taking time to talk to one another, and, of course, the good food like red beans and rice, jambalaya, crawfish, file gumbo, and, of course, what was famous in our house, hoe-cake bread. But we always had to beg to get Nanny to make it. But if you begged long enough, sooner or later she’d be patting it down in that iron skillet.
A few years later, after my grandfather had died at the age of 107, Nanny got sick right before Christmas. And my daddy drove straight down to Louisiana, put Nanny in the car and drove her to Oakland, California so we could take care of her. When we left the doctor’s office it didn’t look good. I mean, she was very sick. But she was able to be with us in our home for Christmas. But soon she was back in the hospital again, and then we got a call saying that we’d better come, it didn’t look like she was going to make it. And there we were, all standing around her bed, and you know what I was thinking: hoe-cake bread. I told her, “Don't you die on me. You better get up and make me some hoe-cake bread.” And don’t you know she had the nerve to try and laugh on her deathbed. It was funny but it was her last laugh. And ever since, we have been trying to make hoe-cake like Nanny’s, but we haven’t got it right yet.
CURWOOD: Storyteller Diane Ferlatte. We’ll be right back with more tales about coming home. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
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