“Cleopatra?” the barista shouted as he put the cup of coffee on the bar, turning to work on the next order.
“It’s Cleotha, Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty . . .” the elderly woman replied, who had been waiting patiently for her much too expensive beverage.
If she hadn’t been in a hurry, she would have preferred a cup of coffee from a 7-11 or Dunkin’ Donuts; however, necessity forced Cleotha to the self-important coffee shop situated on the corner of the block where she had lived most of her adult life. She had a plane to catch and a granddaughter to meet, so she held her tongue, grabbed the cup, and hurried out the door.
Cleotha Jackson had been born in New Orleans, spending the first twenty-five years of her life in poverty on Cleveland Street. Her home, if you could call it that, had been a classic shotgun styled house, narrow and rectangular, no more than 12 feet wide. The rooms were arranged directly behind one another. A person could literally stand at the front door and shoot a shotgun right out the backdoor if they had a mind to. Cleotha had no idea when the house was built, but on Cleveland Street, every home looked as if it had been built run down.
Her father had been a soldier. That was the beginning and ending of the knowledge of her dad. Her mother was drug addict before it was fashionable and had really only given Cleotha three things of value: her name that meant glory; a pearl necklace that her mom said represented Cleotha’s great worth; and the finest Cajun recipes in all of New Orleans.
“Will you be checking any bags?” asked the airline agent. The question made Cleotha chuckle out loud. She had made a promise to herself 52 years earlier when her Greyhound bus crossed the state line taking her out of Louisiana and into Mississippi that she would never return to New Orleans. Circumstances had forced her to break that promise, but she wasn’t about to stay longer than necessary.
“No, I just have my carry on and my purse,” she responded politely. “A few days in New Orleans is all I can take.”
“Enjoy your flight,” came the sincere reply, although She was pretty sure it also came with a quizzical expression as Cleotha looked distraught.
She had never been claustrophobic, not in her tiny room as a child and not on the crowded streets of her adopted home, New York City. Most native New Yorkers scurried from place to place as if the sidewalks were made of hot coals. They very rarely made eye contact unless it was to show off their longest finger. But not Cleotha. She would meander from place to place saying hello to as many people as she could. The tightness of the city became a swaddling comfort to her. Knowing this, she couldn’t understand why the cabin of the 747 was making her chest tight and her breathing labored. It made no sense until she realized it wasn’t the plane that caused her distress—it was her destination.
Cleotha’s relationship with her daughter was a lot like her relationship with New Orleans. She loved them both, against her better judgement, and yet she was also repulsed by both equally. New Orleans was her birthplace, but it was also the source of visceral pain caused by her troubled mother. Similarly, her daughter Hanniel was her blood, but she was also the source of the same kind of pain and for the same reason.
Hanniel, meaning gift of God, was a surprise to say the least. Cleotha had given up hope of having a child, but just like Sarah in the Old Testament, well beyond the normal age, Cleotha at 50 gave birth to a baby girl. She couldn’t have been happier. She had escaped the slums of New Orleans and made a good life for herself in New York. A cook by trade, she brought her tastes of the south to The Big Apple. In less than five years, she was running her own kitchen. The restaurant was her companion and the diners her children, but there was a loneliness that comes from doubting everyone, a cruel side effect of being the offspring of a drug-addicted liar.
Hanniel’s father never knew he was to become a dad. He wasn’t very important to Cleotha, and she didn’t want to share her new gift. It wasn’t easy being a single parent and running a bustling eatery. Even as a small child, Hanniel would spend her evenings in her mother’s kitchen. Before she was old enough to read, she knew Cleotha’s recipes by heart. By age thirteen, she was helping prepare meals and had become a genuine asset to her mother. Their mother-daughter relationship was unusually perfect until Marty came into their lives.
Marty was the friend of one of the busboys, and he never worked an honest day in his 25 years. He was rough, uneducated, drug-addicted and had an eye for the sixteen-year-old daughter of the head chef.
Hanniel wanted to be responsible, she wanted to make her mom proud, but she also had a weakness for Marty. Before she turned seventeen, she was practically living on the streets. Cleotha did everything she could to try to save her daughter until one day when she was getting ready for work, she noticed her pearl necklace was missing.
It didn’t take long to find it.
Hanniel had pawned it at the shop two blocks from home. Cleotha bought her own necklace back from the pawn shop, turned off Hanniel’s phone, and changed the locks on the doors. The first part of her life had been ruined by her good-for-nothing mother. She wasn’t going to let the last part be ruined by her equally useless daughter, even though the thought of estrangement made her physically sick.
The last time she saw Hanniel was through the peephole on her door as the obviously strung out wretch pounded ceaselessly and cried to be let in. When a police officer arrived, Hanniel ran down the stairs, onto the street, and out of her mother’s life.
As if to give her mother the finger, Hanniel moved to New Orleans. Cleotha knew this because of the postmark on the letters from her daughter. The first batch asked for money, the second for forgiveness, and the third went unopened. A hard life had made Cleotha a hard woman, and if it hadn’t been for the picture postcard, she might have never seen Hanniel again.
The postcard was not a mass produced scenic view of New Orleans. It was a picture of a baby, no more than a few months old. The address was in Hanniel’s distinctive handwriting and had just two pieces of information. The note read: This is your granddaughter, and the return address was written in red. Cleotha instinctively knew it was an invitation, one she would not refuse. The next day she purchased a plane ticket to New Orleans with the intent of going just long enough to bring her new favorite little person back to New York.
New Orleans is the kind of city you can recognize without seeing. Walking through the French Quarter, one’s olfactory glands are inundated with the wonderful smells of crawfish etouffee and jambalaya and the unique and wonderful dialect is a cross between southern drawl, Cajun twang, with just enough French to make it sing.
There was nothing Cleotha wanted more than to hate walking down Bourbon Street as she followed the GPS on her phone, but just like so many bad parts of the past, when one is forced to go back, all that is remembered are the good times.
She wasn’t thinking about her mother; she was thinking about old friends, warm summer nights on the bayou, and the heartbeat of the city she instinctively felt was her home. She was also thinking about her new granddaughter, and for the first time, she felt a degree of anticipation for seeing Hanniel again.
The sights and sounds and memories were so loud Cleotha almost walked past the place she had been looking for since she received the postcard.
“Arrived,” announced an automated voice from the phone in her left hand, breaking her trance. Cleotha stood in front of a beautiful restaurant, ironically called “Cleotha’s Place.”
Flustered and foggy, she walked into the establishment, unsure what she would find, but with a sense of excitement she thought impossible 24 hours earlier.
The restaurant, apparently known for its delicious take out fare, was packed with customers waiting on their orders. Cleotha recognized the smells instantly. It was as if someone had moved her own restaurant 1300 miles south.
As she scanned the room trying to take it all in, a server burst through the kitchen door with a plate full of delicious crawfish, but more importantly it revealed a view of the kitchen where for a split second Cleotha could see Hanniel busily preparing the dishes that were being served to her patrons. The sight was too much and Cleotha burst into tears. In all the commotion, Cleotha didn’t see Hanniel sprint out of the kitchen and to her mothers rescue.
Through tear-stained eyes, she looked at her daughter, really looked at her for the first time in almost ten years. Although wanting to speak, when her mouth opened, no words came out. The next few minutes were a blur, and truth be told, Cleotha couldn’t really remember how she got into the small room in the back of the restaurant. Once there, she sat and sobbed while Hanniel made a phone call.
“Honey, my mom is here. She’s really…” Hanniel’s voice trailed off as tears started to flow freely. Composing herself, she finished: “Can you bring her here? Please come quickly.” She ended the call and turned to her mother. “Mama, I am so sorry I hurt you. I want you to know I tried to go buy back your pearl.” Stopping her sentence in its tracks, she saw the pearl hanging from her mother’s neck.
Hanniel rose from her chair, intent on giving her mother a hug, but was interrupted by a knock on the door. she reversed course immediately and opened the door where a handsome young man stood with a child Cleotha instantly recognized as her new baby granddaughter.
“Mama, this is my husband Jackson. We decided he shouldn’t take my last name because then he would be Jackson Jackson.” The three of them broke out into spontaneous laughter at the musing. “And this is your grandbaby. Her name is Grace. Grace means undeserved favor.” In an instant Cleotha was on her feet and taking the baby from Jackson.
“Hanniel, she is the most precious thing I’ve ever seen,” Cleotha said, turning her gaze towards her own daughter. “She’s as precious as you are. I am so proud of the woman you’ve become.”
Cleotha’s visit lasted just two days but it was two days that changed three lives and was the first of many. At the airport as Hanniel waived goodbye to her mother she reached up and held the pearl necklace which now adorned her neck. Her mother had passed on her most precious possession and to Hanniel it meant she had truly been forgiven.