“Cleopatra?” the barista shouted as he put the cup of coffee on the bar.
“It’s Cleotha,” the elderly woman replied, grabbing the cup with her name conspicuously misspelled. “Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty . . .”
If she hadn’t been in a hurry, Cleotha would have preferred to get her coffee from 7-Eleven or Dunkin’ Donuts. She never understood why seemingly intelligent people would pay more than five dollars for an average cup of coffee created by a self-absorbed twenty-something.
On this day, however, necessity forced her to the boutique 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 both in New Orleans and poverty. Delivered at home by an elderly neighbor who claimed to be a midwife, she spent the first few minutes of her life wrapped in a filthy blanket on a floor she had to share with the ever-present cockroaches. Her home, situated on Cleveland street, was a classic shotgun-style house, narrow and rectangular, no more than 12 feet wide. The rooms were arranged directly behind one another with a hallway that went from the front to the back, uninterrupted. 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 always been run down.
Her father had been a soldier. That was the beginning and end of the knowledge of her dad. In truth, Cleotha wasn’t even sure if that was true. Her mother was a drug addict and had traded sex for drugs for most of her life. When Cleotha would share stories of the pitiful wretch that bore her, she would say her mother had only given her three things of value: her name, which meant glory; a pearl necklace passed down from her grandmother, 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 into Mississippi: she was never going to 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 agent's sincere reply, as Cleotha looked distraught.
It didn’t take long for Cleotha to find her seat, sit down, and fasten her seat belt. She had requested and received an aisle seat and was fortunate to have an empty space between her and the businessman who peered out the window before falling fast asleep. Cleotha had ample room to her left and right. Yet, as soon as the door to the plane had closed, she felt trapped.
Cleotha 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 rarely made eye contact unless it was to show off their longest finger. But not Cleotha. She meandered from place to place saying hello to as many people as she could. The tightness of the city was 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, against her better judgment, but she had been hurt 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 and her greatest love, but she was also the source of the same kind of pain and for the same reason.
The birth of Hanniel, meaning gift of God, was a surprise to say the least.
Cleotha had escaped the slums of New Orleans and made a good life for herself in New York. A cook by trade, she brought authentic southern fare from The Big Easy to The Big Apple.
In less than five years, she was running her own kitchen in the heart of Manhattan. A few years later, she opened her own place. With no family to speak of, the restaurant became her closest companion and the diners her children, but there was a loneliness that comes from not trusting anyone, a cruel side effect of being the offspring of a drug-addicted liar.
Given the choice, Cleotha wouldn’t have decided to start a family. After all, motherhood is a young woman’s dominion. Alone through her 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, she had given up hope of having a child, but fate had a different plan. At 50, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
A single mom and a business owner, Cleotha had precious little help raising her daughter. Even as a 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, and by age thirteen, she was helping prep the kitchen and cook the meals. What had been a struggle initially had become a perfect mother-daughter relationship until Marty came into their lives.
Marty, a friend of one of the busboys, 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. The young girl saw none of Marty’s flaws—all she saw were his piercing blue eyes, his perfect white smile, and his broad shoulders. At first, it was just flirtations accompanied by the occasional trinket, but Marty was playing the long game, and soon the young girl gave in to the older man’s seduction. Hanniel, the bright, beautiful, talented daughter who was Cleotha’s greatest joy, soon followed her boyfriend, becoming a drug addict who practically lived on the streets.
Cleotha did everything she could to save her daughter. She paid for rehab, loved her through overdoses, and, above all, prayed for her constantly. She stood by Hanniel without judgment until one day while Cleotha was getting ready for work, she noticed her grandmother’s pearl necklace was missing.
It didn’t take long to find it.
Hanniel had pawned it two blocks from the restaurant.
Cleotha bought her own necklace 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.
The last time Cleotha had seen Hanniel was through the peephole of her front door when the strung-out wretch pounded ceaselessly, crying to be let in. When a neighbor called the police, Hanniel ran down the stairs, into the street, and out of her mother’s life.
It wasn’t long before Cleotha discovered Hanniel had moved to the one place Cleotha hated more than drug abusers: New Orleans. Cleotha knew this by the postmarks. The first batch of letters asked for money, the second for forgiveness, and the third went unopened.
A hard life had made Cleotha a hard woman. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the picture postcard, she might have never seen Hanniel again.
The most recent postcard wasn’t a scenic view of New Orleans or a cartoon crawfish saying, It’s butter in Louisiana. The postcard was a picture of a baby, no more than a few months old and with eyes and a smile exactly like Hanniel’s. The address was in her daughter’s distinctive handwriting and the note read: This is your granddaughter. Cleotha instinctively knew it was an invitation, one she would not—could not—refuse.
The next day she purchased a plane ticket to New Orleans.
Cleotha didn't have a plan—she had no idea what was waiting for her in New Orleans other than a baby and a story she knew she needed to hear.
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. 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. However, like so many bad parts of the past, when one is forced to go back and reflect, all that is remembered is the good.
Back on the streets of New Orleans, Cleotha 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 once loved. She was also thinking about her new granddaughter, and for the first time, she felt the thrill of seeing Hanniel again.
The sights and sounds and memories were so intoxicating that 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 reverie. Cleotha’s eyes widened as she looked at the sign above the beautiful restaurant she now stood in front of. A freshly painted sign read: “Cleotha’s Place.”
The restaurant 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, a server burst through the kitchen door with a plate full of delicious crawfish. For a split second, Cleotha could see Hanniel in the kitchen, busily preparing the dishes to be served to her patrons.
Cleotha broke down into tears.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Cleotha heard as a server sped by her on the right.
“Coming through,” came the voice of another as she passed quickly by Cleotha on the left.
“Mamma, is that you?”
Cleotha turned to the voice she longed to hear just in time to be embraced by her daughter.
Through teary eyes, Cleotha looked at her Hanniel for the first time in ten years.
“Come with me,” Hanniel said, taking her mother’s hand, leading her to a small office in the back of the restaurant. Once there, Cleotha sobbed as Hanniel picked up her phone and made a call.
“Honey, my mom is here. She’s really…” Hanniel’s voice trailed off as tears started to flow. “Can you bring Grace here? Please come quickly.”
Hanniel hung up the phone and turned to her mother. “Mama, I am so sorry I hurt you.” Stopping mid-sentence, Hanniel saw the pearls hanging from her mother’s neck.
“You bought it back! I searched all over the city but I couldn’t find it. You have it. Mamma…” Hanniel latched on to her mother in the same way she had done as a child.
They both wept until the door opened again, revealing a handsome young man holding a child Cleotha instantly recognized as her granddaughter.
“Mamma, 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. “And this is Grace. Grace means undeserved favor.” Cleotha took the baby from Jackson, aching to hold the child in her arms.
“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 were. I am so proud of you.”
Cleotha’s visit lasted just two days, but they were two days that changed three lives. At the airport, as Hanniel waived goodbye, Grace, unimpressed by all that was going on, reached up and played with the pearl necklace which now adorned her own mother’s neck.