By Amani Jabbar-Esa
The sweater is bluish-lavender in color, made of a soft lamb’s wool. Impossibly tiny—a reminder of how small human beings start out. Four miniscule mother-of-pearl buttons serve as a closure at the neck. The area along the neck and shoulders is knit into a tight weave, but the arms and body are woven in a loopy, loose pattern—a testament to the knitters talent. The tag inside proudly states, “From the needles of Naima.” Naima is my mother’s sister-friend, and therefore my “aunt.” Naima originally knit the sweater for my older sister, about 26 years ago. After my sister outgrew it, it was saved until I was born. I then wore the sweater for my appointed time.
My mother then put it away, perhaps she harbored a wish to have another little girl, but she was only granted boys. So, the sweater was saved for years—not long in geological time, but significant in the life of a human being.
The week before Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf, as my mother and I were sitting in the living room of my parent’s home, my mother handed me the sweater without any pomp and circumstance. She simply stated, “You’ll need this in a few months.”
I was a little surprised, “Is this…,” I trailed off.
“It’s the sweater Naima knit for Sadiqua. Don’t you remember? You wore it, too. Now your baby can wear it.”
I did remember the sweater, not from my baby-hood, but from pictures and oft-told tales. Two of my older brothers now had children, and the fact that my mother chose to save the sweater until it was my time to be a mother was a little surprising. The gesture also held an uncharacteristic touch of sentimentality.
“What if I have a boy?” I asked the question not because I felt I would have a boy, but because I was suddenly at a loss for words.
My mother made a noise that was cross between a snicker and a cough. “You’re having a girl,” she announced.
“Ummi…how do you know that?”
“I can tell just by looking at you. You’re having a girl.” This statement enraged me.
My mother has a habit of assuming that she knows me better then I know myself. Suddenly I was determined to give birth to a boy, if only to prove her wrong. I held my tongue though; I was deeply touched by the gift of the sweater. What is it in human nature that makes us desire to leave something to our children? A good name, faith, money, homes, heirlooms…they all add up to a child’s legacy.
“Hello…,” my sleep clouded voice is answering the phone.
“Amani! Why are you still asleep?! Don’t you know that the storm is coming?” My
mother’s voice is like a douse of cold water.
“Where is the storm coming mother,” I ask sarcastically, “Is it coming to my house?”
“Look, turn on the news. We’re leaving in an hour if you guys want to come.” CLICK—
my mother has hung up on me, again.
I look at the clock it is 6:02 am. I reach over to wake Jibril, but I realize that I am in
“JIBRIL!! Where are you? What are you doing?”
I enter the kitchen. My husband is dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, and jamming sodas
and snacks into our white Styrofoam “storm” cooler. There is no need to turn on the
news. It’s obvious that we’re leaving.
“What do you think I’m doing? I’m packing. We have to get out of here. This storm is gonna make landfall by tomorrow morning.”
I roll my eyes dramatically. Since when did everyone decide to be so preemptive?
“Yup…that’s the same thing they said about Ivan…Have you spoken to your
“Yes. They’re taking the I-10 to Shreveport.”
“I just spoke with my mother. They’re probably going to Florida.”
“Let’s go with them. I’m not in the mood to do battle on the I-10 like last time.”
I remembered the last hurricane season, when we had attempted to evacuate for Hurricane Ivan. My husband and I had spent 6 hours driving to Baton Rouge, and eventually turned around and came back to New Orleans, after the storm took a dramatic turn towards Florida. Mother Nature hadn’t even been kind enough to give us some rain to ease the stifling heat.
That night, upon returning to our nearly vacant neighborhood, a group of young men began to bang on our front door. They wore dark colored clothing, and one carried a stick. My husband had gone outside and asked what they wanted. They fled. We assumed that they were looking to take advantage of those who were fortunate enough to have a choice about whether to stay or leave.
I ran into our bedroom and took down my overnight bag. I began to cram in clothes, shoes, and toiletries. I then grabbed my wedding album from the top of my dresser, and our insurance papers from our filing cabinet.
I shower, and get dressed. I am somewhat surprised to discover that the top button of my jeans will not budge. Hadn’t they fit just a few days ago? I tried covering the ugly truth with a long t-shirt, but my belly was still visible. I then threw on a black and brown abaya; the long, loose over garment covered the evidence of my swelling belly and breasts. I was happy to be pregnant, but I was not happy to show the world my burgeoning body. I don’t look pregnant yet…I simply look like I had put on weight.
I begin to search the house for my husband again. I find him dismantling his computer and putting the tower on our dining room table.
“What are you doing,” I ask.
“I’m putting this stuff up in case it floods.”
Eventually, we had finished our meager attempt at preparing for the storm. As we left the house I passed our couch. On the couch lay the sweater my mother had given me just days before. A fleeting thought passed through my mind: Maybe I should take it just in case. I decide against it. I don’t like traveling with important things. It had been hard enough to convince myself to take the wedding album.
Upon arriving at my parent’s home—only a few blocks from my own—I was surprised to find that nearly my entire family had pulled together for this evacuation. For my father this was the first time he had ever evacuated for a storm. Upon entering we were assaulted by the din of my five brothers’ voices. My two sisters-in-law, niece and nephews were also there. I try to remember the last time we were all assembled together, but I come up empty. Yet, there is someone missing.
“Did you call Sadiqua,” I ask my mother.
“Yes. She is going with friends to Houston,” is my mother’s reply, “She must think this is an opportunity for a road trip.” I smirk. It is just like my sister to leave the rest of the family and opt for friends at a time like this.
I gradually become aware that my mother is staring at me. “What,” I ask, “What are you looking at?”
“Nothing…it’s just, your breasts are so swollen. They look like they got bigger since yesterday.” Leave it to my mother to say something embarrassing as though she is talking about the weather. I ignore the comment. “What,” she continues, “It’s only natural. Your body changes when you get pregnant. The baby takes over your entire body. It’s a natural occurrence.”
“How long will it take to get to Orlando,” I ask no one in particular, an attempt to end the conversation with my mother. I assume that we are going to my grandparents’ house.
“We aren’t going all the way to Orlando,” my father replies. “By the time we get there it’ll be time to turn right around and come back. I ain’t driving all the out there to stay a day or two.”
Soon it is time to go. We assemble in a circle outside, and raise our hands in prayer. My father leads the prayer; he asks for nothing more then that we return home safely. We all cram into four cars and start our caravan towards Florida—not Orlando, but Pensacola.
“The water level in the city of New Orleans has now crested since the failure of two of the cities levees,” an indifferent news reporter blandly states the facts of our city’s dire predicament.
“What does ‘crested’ mean,” my younger brother asks.
“It means that the water in New Orleans is the same level as the water in the lake,” I answer.
All fourteen of us are huddled in a hotel room in Pensacola, Florida. The television is tuned to CNN. As I glance around the room, I realize that each person present has a different expression. My husband looks pensive; he rests his head on his chin, and scratches his beard thoughtfully. My mother looks miserable—I can only imagine the thoughts that swirl through her mind regarding our city, what plans are formulating in her head. Her eyebrows are furrowed and her eyes are slightly red. Everyone is shocked and surprised by the condition of our city.
When we had gone to bed the previous night, Monday, we thought that we might be able to return home within a day or two. The storm had passed, and it seemed as though New Orleans’ luck with hurricanes would continue to hold out. Besides some wind damage, the city looked pretty good. Upon waking, we realized that the situation in New Orleans had gone from “not too bad” to indescribable. Since daybreak, we watched the water levels in the city continue to raise, people calling for help on rooftops and balconies, and the government’s haphazard rescue attempts.
The next morning we rise early to drive the rest of the way to my grandparent’s home in Orlando, FL.
Arriving in Orlando cemented something for me. It wasn’t until we were settled in my grandparent’s home that I allowed myself to shed tears over New Orleans. In a hotel room, it was easy to imagine that we were simply on vacation, but cramped in my grandparent’s home, twelve adults and four children, it became clear that this was no vacation—at least not one a sane person would have planned.
The scene continued to repeat itself, the same news footage, and the same phrases delivered dryly from the mouths the reporters that could care less about the city of New Orleans. “The situation in New Orleans is dire…Over ten-thousand residents wait in the Super Dome to be rescued…Many residents have turned to looting…” One day I erupted, “Aren’t you all sick of watching the same stuff over and over again. OK, the city is bad!! Haven’t you seen enough??”
“If you don’t want to watch it, leave,” one of my brother’s retorted. None of my family members seemed to share my outrage. They watched the footage again and again as if there was something new to be discovered.
I walked out of my grandparent’s living room, and my husband followed me. In the room that we shared, I began to cry, the kind of uncontrollable sobs that usually come from children and irrational individuals. My husband tried his best to comfort me with the usual--“It will be alright,” he said, “Don’t upset yourself.” I stopped crying abruptly—something felt strange. I strained as if I was trying to hear something, when actually it was something I felt. “What is it,” Jibril whispered. “I…I think I felt something. Like a poke from inside.” Suddenly, and just as fleetingly as before, I felt it again. My baby’s first movements. Then I was crying and also laughing a little. I know my husband probably thought I was a crazy woman. I explained to him what I felt, and he tried to feel it also, but I suppose the baby had tired itself out because I didn’t feel it again until several days later.
In those days and weeks following Katrina’s destruction, it often struck me how ironic nature could be. Nature could be overwhelmingly beautiful in its order…a newborn baby, a flower, a changing leaf…all of these were examples of nature’s beauty. Yet, it could also bring destruction, suffering and death. All of which were witnessed in the days following the storm. Yet…what did we expect? We all knew that New Orleans was a city below sea-level. Yet New Orleans’ levees were sub-par. A hurricane is a natural occurrence, just like pregnancy and childbirth are natural. It is up to man to prepare for nature’s wrath, as nature gives plenty of warnings. Like the nine months that I have to prepare my mind and body for a baby, New Orleans had plenty of close calls to prepare itself…yet when the time came we weren’t ready.
I learned two months after Katrina hit that my home would have to be demolished, and there was little that I could salvage. But one of the few things my father was able to pull from the wreckage was the sweater my mother had given me. To me it came to represent a starting over for me just as much as it would mark a beginning for my child.