“I turned, at that point, to John Bowlby, known principally for his work on the mother-child attachment, but who also had seminal insights into the relationships between people and their near environments. Bowlby thought this near environment so important, he called it ‘an outer ring of homeostatic mechanisms,’ as important to life support as the physiological homeostasis inside the human body. In Bowlby’s terms, this near environment was an important object of attachment.”
-from The House of Joshua, by Mindy Thompson Fullilove
Mindy was one of my professors and mentors (my only mentor, really) when I was getting my MPH at Columbia. She’s probably the most original thinker I’ve ever encountered. When I went to her classes, I used to silently pray for my fellow classmates to stop yammering…because it was so much more interesting to hear Mindy talk. (They never did. Oh well.)
Anyway, I didn’t have Mindy or her work on the psychology of place in mind when I started noodling around with the Louisiana idea, but somehow all roads seem to lead back to her. I’m totally fascinated with her comment, above, which appeared in her first book, The House of Joshua, in which she explores the place stories of her own family.
Her later work has focused a lot on urban renewal and the physical displacement of African American communities, and the destruction that wrought—psychologically and physically—on these people and their descendents. More recently she’s been drawn into stories like the post-911 mess, which she called “an attack upon the landscape,” and Hurricane Katrina.
But I digress. John Bowlby was a British psychologist who among the first to get the field away from notions of Freudian fantasies and talk about relationships as the foundation for who we are. I read and thought a lot about his work when I was working on The Empty Room, because I was interested in the notion of siblings as attachment figures. (I believe they are, but Bowlby and most psychologists since still focus on the mother-child bond. Wrongly, I think—but that’s another story entirely.)
Bowlby’s idea, in a very small nutshell: Secure, stable parents and secure stable bonds create secure stable “attached” kids. Anxious, depressed parents create the opposite kind of parent-child bonds and poorly attached kids.
But what if we extend the figure of attachment to include a place—the home where you grew up, the hometown where you grew up? What happens to you—emotionally, and in terms of your identity-- if you move away or they get destroyed? What happens if your environment is unstable?
It’s interesting, when you start thinking about how mobile our society is….And when you start thinking about next generations, and “homes” in generic suburbs that sprang out of nothing…what impact does the moving, the loss of ancestral environments and growing up in placeless suburbs have on us?
My mother grew up in DeRidder, Louisiana. Her childhood was full of sweltering summers and southern food. Radios played country music. Fig trees grew in her backyard, and hens—which often wound up as dinner—clucked around there, too. (She still shudders at the memory of her grandmother wringing their necks.)
Saturdays she walked ten minutes to “downtown,” where they had TWO movie theaters, and, for the price of less than a quarter, watched a double feature—a western and a Hollywood flick—as well as cartoons. She knew just about everyone in town, and they knew her. (One of her elementary school teachers became known to her, forevermore, as “Aunt Esther.”)
She lived with her grandmother and grandfather, in a boarding house my grandmother bought with the insurance money from her first husband’s death in a lumber mill accident. My mother’s mother, Aurelia, had divorced my mother’s father when my mother was still an infant, and gone off to nursing school in New Orleans, and from there to make a life for herself. A child didn’t fit in too well with that plan, so my mother stayed behind in DeRidder.
When my mother was 16, Aurelia re-married and sent for my mother. It was a difficult move, partly because Aurelia was difficult. But my mother went off to college a couple of years later, anyway. She went to William and Mary, where she met my father, a New Yorker. They got married after graduation and eventually settled in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of D.C. That’s where I was born and raised.
Bethesda was rich in…what? Roads. Roads that led to more roads and strip malls laced with donut shops and grocery stores and aerobics studios. And big indoor malls featuring generic stores like The Gap and Bloomingdales and food courts. And houses that looked alike. All the houses on our block looked just like one another. Cookie cutters, my mother used to say. Every once in awhile, someone would do something different—like put a deck on. But before long, everyone else would admire the improvement and do it, too (they already knew how it was going to look). Sameness begot sameness, it seemed.
We lived there because it was close to the hospital where my father, a doctor, worked, and where my brother was later hospitalized.
There was no local food. No local music. No local culture. No one, aside from the people on the block, would know you by name. It was a place, like most suburbs, that had grown up out of convenience and necessity. People who worked in D.C. needed an affordable and relatively close place to live.
But it’s finally occurred to me that growing up in placeless place like this might be one reason I pine so much for Louisiana, which seems like a REAL place. When my parents finally sold the house in Bethesda, in fact, I could have cared less. What was there to hang onto? The houses were still the same on our block, but the people had shifted—the older ones, who didn’t need close proximity to D.C. or public school, had passed the torch (and their houses) on to a new generation of young families.
I had already moved to New York, a place rich in sense of place. But the thing about New York is that there are two kinds of people here—natives, and those of us drawn here from another part of the country for one reason or another. And after the thrill of adopting the city wears off a bit, that non-native status does eventually beg the question: What am I? In my case, the most accurate answer would be that I’m a native Bethesdan. But that thought leaves me absolutely empty. I don’t think so. I think there’s a void where my roots should be.
Wow. Just got back from the documentary “Trouble the Water,” which tells the story of the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the 9th ward, largely from the perspective of ward resident Kim Rivers Roberts and her husband, Scott.
From what I gather from hearing her interviewed, she’d acquired a video camera, which was probably hot, the week before the storm. She and her husband and a handful of neighbors stayed behind during the storm because they couldn’t afford to leave. You watch as Roberts roams her neighborhood, taking before shots, and then the rain starts, ultimately you see what they saw from their attic---a torrent of water running through the streets, rising up through their houses. There are literally waves in the water.
They make their way out, and at some point must meet up with the directors of the movie, who decide it would be smart—and it is—to follow the Roberts as they navigate their lives post-Katrina. It’s artful and stunning and upsetting and inspiring. That the film makers happened to stumble upon this couple, who would have just been sweaty faces in the crowd of the T.V. footage we all saw from afar, was such a gift. They are uneducated. They sold drugs to get by in their pre-Katrina lives. They are also insightful, funny, warm, thoughtful and heroic in their drive to move forward and to help those around them.
The movie ends showing footage of the 9th ward, still devastated, a year after Katrina. Meanwhile, the downtown of New Orleans, the touristy part, is going strong. No one seems to care about the people who made the wider environs of New Orleans their home. You have to try hard not to feel outraged for these people.
A special bonus of this film: Music by Kim Rivers Roberts, an aspiring rap artist. This woman has a knack for storytelling. One of her songs is called “Amazing.” It starts “You don’t have to tell me that I’m amazing.” It’s nice that she doesn’t need to hear it, but she is. I hope I’d be as tough, warm and strong if everything I owned and knew were wiped out, and most of the world didn’t seem to care.
Honestly, I don’t even get why Louisiana has this hold on me. It wasn’t always this way. When I was a kid, my family rarely made the trek down there to visit the southern relatives. (My brother was hospitalized for 8 years, and traveling meant leaving him—not something anyone was eager to do.)
And save for one adventurous aunt, my Louisiana relatives weren’t much into traveling. I can count the number of times we visited—us there, them up here—without exceeding the digits on two hands. And my mom never really talked about her relatives, or growing up there, much. In fact, there wasn’t much evidence of this piece of my family heritage in my life at all.
Once, as a kid, I remember lying in my usual spot in front of the TV—probably watching Star Trek—when my mom appeared at the top of the stairs, holding something out to me. She’d been frying bacon for dinner, and on impulse, had fried a piece of bread in the bacon fat left behind. It was, she said, a taste from her childhood. She seemed pleased with herself. But it’s the only time I ever remember her making any food related to Louisiana.
My father’s family food—Italian American fare—dominated our table. And I always identified with my father’s family growing up. It was cool to be Italian. In fact, I always wished we were more Italian, somehow. That we spoke it, or could claim closer ties to the homeland than we did. (It was my great-grandparents who came over…and no one kept in touch with the family that stayed in Italy.)
But still, we knew were the family was from, there were signature dishes, the recipes for which were passed around the relatives, with much arguing over who did them best.
In contrast, my Louisiana heritage always seemed vague and fragmented, hard to get a handle on. Ask my mother what we were, on her side, and she’d rattle of a distressingly long list of possibilities—English, Irish, Scottish, French. It was all very vague and unsatisfying. Nothing you could glom onto, like Italian. Nothing that could allow you to say “this is what I am” or “I’m half this.”
Maybe that’s what’s bugging me. I’m missing a piece of my identity. I’m only half Italian. What’s the rest of me? Whatever it is, even if it’s an amalgam of ethnicities, the key to piecing it together is Louisiana, where they were all forged together.
It has occurred to me to wonder why I care so much about this. There are plenty of people, all around me, with similar stories, who don’t seem to pine, as I do, for their roots in this way. The way I feel reminds me of the way people who are adopted seem to search for their parents, and through them a piece of their own identity. I don’t put my situation on par with theirs. But I do seem to need to connect, more than most, with this piece of my geographic identity.
It makes me think of the X-Files, and that slogan that followed Mulder around “I want to believe.” Except in my case, it’s “I want to belong.” But in a place like Louisiana, I’m not sure that’s possible, as an outsider. And there’s no denying that, despite the entrée of my mom’s origins, that’s what I am.
I’m trying to figure out what Louisiana means to me.
It’s the place my mother was born, in a town called DeRidder, in the western part of the state. It is the place my grandmother, Aurelia, who was Scarlet O’Hara’s bleach blond twin, was raised, too. And her mother, Anne—my great-grandmother. There’s a tiny cemetery, the Creel Family Cemetery, in Reeves, a tiny town not too far from DeRidder, where the Creel family farm used to be. Anne was a Creel. She moved to DeRidder—a metropolis compared to Reeves, but tiny by most standards--with the insurance money from her first husband’s death. She ran a rooming house, in which she raised Aurelia and Aurelia’s brother, LaRue. And, for a time, she raised my mother, as well.
But I digress already. The point is, this family is, or was, so rooted, so of a place. In that tiny cemetery are generations of extended family. And along those back roads, you can find other family cemeteries, too. How often do you see that? My mother ended up moving north when she was 16. She went to college in Virginia and married a northerner and settled in the north. Or the relative north. I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. And I grew up with a sick brother, which meant we couldn’t travel often. And my southern relatives weren’t, for the most part, the traveling type. So I grew up not knowing them, or Louisiana, well. And because of that, I think there’s a part of my mother, and grandmother, and myself, that eludes me, too.
Here’s what I think: I think this is a story about identity, and the identity we get from place. We inherit that identity from our parents and where they, and their family of origin, are from. So what happens, what does it mean, when so many of us get geographically further and further away from those places or origin? In my case, it’s also a story about north and south…because, though these people in the south are my family, though this place is part of my heritage, I’m not sure I can know it, by virtue of the northern latitude where I grew up. Can a northerner truly understand a southerner—even if they are members of the same family?
This was brought home to me recently, as I talked with my mother about LaRue, who she, and thus I, called Brother. I was telling her that, when we were down for Aurelia’s funeral, I kept trying to get Brother to tell me stories about Aurelia, growing up. I really just wanted to know more about her, and why she was the way she was. (I’ll get to the way she was in a future post.) But he was evasive. Just kept wiggling the toothpick in the corner of his mouth, looking straight ahead as he drove us down the back roads of Louisiana, en route to see one relative or another. “I don’t know Shug,” he’d drawl. (Shug was short for sugar.) My mother said, “Well, it’s kind of a southern way with outsiders.” Touché. And ouch.
Because I wasn’t an outsider. But then again, I was. I am. So where does that leave me?