When I got into agricultural journalism 16 years I embraced the thought of being a farmer. Well, farming is not one big Mardi Gras, you know. There’s weather and a whole bunch of other stuff, but mainly weather.
Anyway, as below freezing temperatures approached the remaining satsuma orange trees in my wife’s Baton Rouge garden, we hightailed it out into the sleet to harvest the last of the fruit. We had a bumper crop this year and it seemed a shame to leave them out in the freeze. Anyway, I prefer fresh squeezed orange juice instead of frozen. Don’t you?
Here’s a short story called “Empire Satsumas.” Empire is a community at the southernmost tip of the Mississippi River down in Plaquemines Parish. They grow citrus as a commercial crop down there. The story is about a woman who makes lemonade out of her orange trees.
By Sam Irwin
For some, a $112 ain’t a lot of money. Not me. Back in the 7th Ward, where I come from, $112 could be the difference between life and death.
Most of us that came back to Empire after Katrina be tied to this town by blood or land. Me, I fell in the ‘nowhere else to go’ category. I’m an outsider. I married into Plaquemines Parish. My husband Aldus had a river boat service. He’d haul pilots to the freighters, take tourists fishing out Southwest Pass and do deckhand work on the barges every now and then.
He did two dumb things, according to his mamma. One, he married me, a black woman. Two, he got hisself drowned by Hurricane Katrina.
Mamma Kate was upset about Aldus marrying a black woman, but she had no call. Her blood was Isleño. She be almost as dark as me. She never warmed up to me when Aldus was alive and barely tolerated me when I came back. She was happy enough to see her grandbabies, though. She loved them grandkids, color and all.
On my way back to Empire after the storm, I picked up some donated clothes at the fire station up in Belle Chasse. I found enough clothes for Wiley and Maria and put ‘em in a plastic garbage bag. There was an old Navy pea coat on the stack. I don’t know why I picked it up — you don’t need no winter coat down river. It never gets cold enough. Guess I got it ‘cause my daddy had one when he was in the Navy. My mamma had a picture of Daddy dressed up in the pea coat, on the deck of a ship floating out in some icebergs. I threw the two bags in the trunk of my Caprice. Kids used the clothes; never even brought the coat inside.
There wasn’t much to come back to, only a washed out lot and an acre of satsuma trees. Aldus loved them damn trees; he worked in the grove when he had spare time. I didn’t pay much attention to the trees, but I sure paid attention when the lawyer from the Maritime Association brought me the deed to the property.
“Miss Ruby, this is your land now,” he said. “If you’re not staying, I could handle the sale for you.”
“No, sir,” I said. “That’s my piece of dirt now.”
And it was my dirt. Mine. Didn’t matter it was being squeezed up against the Mississippi River by the Gulf of Mexico. I was determined to hold on to it. I was 29 years old, fifty pounds too heavy, takin’ food stamps, and now the proud owner of ocean front property. My mamma and daddy never owned no land.
FEMA bought me and the kids a trailer. They perched it up on some ten foot stilts and built a deck on the front end. It was right next door to Mamma Kate’s. Don’t know how it happened but Mamma Kate’s house was alright. Somehow or another, a horse was put down on her front porch by Katrina’s waves and the old nag rode out the storm without a scratch. Everybody said it was a miracle the horse survived a week stuck up on the porch without food or water. The government came and got her down from the porch and brought her up to Belle Chasse.
They never found Aldus. He had tied his fishing boat up in a slough off one of the passes —he’d done it before and his daddy done it too. This time, the Lillie Mae got smashed into a thousand pieces and Aldus was gone.
I got Wiley and Maria in first grade and kindergarten up in Port Sulphur next school year. It was an hour bus ride there and an hour back. They cried, but they got used to it. I got me some jobs cleaning houses up in Belle Chasse, but I signed up to get my GED.
We didn’t have no satsumas that year, the salt water took them. But next spring the trees greened up. I came back from work the day after Mardi Gras and saw Mamma Kate trimming grass around my trees. She was wearing a red bandana tied around her head, and her gray hair was up into a bun.
“Mamma Kate, what you doing?”
“Girl, you got to get this grass trimmed so you can put down fertilizer.”
“What I want to be putting down fertilizer for? There must be two hundred trees out here. I can’t be wasting my time in this grove like Aldus did. I got me a job and two babies to look after.”
Mamma Kate didn’t look up or nothing. She just went on to the next tree with her sling blade and hacked at the weeds. “I guess you won’t mind if I work it then.”
“I guess not.”
“And I guess you won’t be needing the five thousand dollars I’m going to make from this crop neither.”
I never connected them trees with money. I thought Aldus just tended them for fun.
“Aldus told me he gave away them satsumas to the deck hands and tourists. That he just growed them trees to give the satsumas to his customers, Mamma Kate.”
Mamma Kate just swung that sling blade back and forth like it was a third arm.
“Aldus ain’t around no more and what I see is some kind of damned miracle passed over this land here. Look around. You see anybody else with trees? No. Salt water killed ‘em, that’s why. The Lord put that old horse up on my porch and graced your trees for a reason and if you ain’t going to take advantage of what the good earth is giving you, I sure as hell will.”
Mamma Kate moved over to the next tree, swinging that old blade like a pendulum on a grandfather clock I seen once in a movie. I got mad. What the hell this old woman doing on my land, tending to my trees?
“Mamma Kate, I don’t know much, but I do know this. This here is my land and these are my trees.”
The old lady stopped the sling blade in mid-air. “Alright, girl. Yep, this is your land and I’m trespassing. But what you going to do? You ain’t nothing but a lazy city girl collecting food stamps. That’s all y’all learned in them goddamned projects. How to collect welfare.”
I took the sling blade from her and started hacking at the weeds at the next tree. “I ain’t lazy.” I swung the blade as hard as I could and hit the clump of grass too low. The recoil shocked me up to my shoulder. “And don’t tell me nothing ‘bout no food stamps. You getting ’em too.”
Then I saw something I never thought I’d ever see. That old lady face cumpled up and tears rolled down her cheeks. She let out a yowl like I ain’t never heard before.
“Goddamn it, Ruby, just goddamn. As if it ain’t hard enough down here. When Harold was alive, we ain’t never had to take no charity from nobody, government neither. We had ten acres out yonder full of the best satsumas around. Betsy took that, but still we got by. Then Harold died and the money he left me wasn’t near enough. Aldus helped me with his satsuma money and I made do. Katrina came through and took him and everything except this green acre and you and the kids. You and the kids and these damn trees is all that’s left of my life.”
Maybe I felt a little ashamed of myself. Whatever it was, right then I knew things was different between me and Mamma Kate. Sometimes, things happen that you ain’t got no words for, and you know the Lord is working on you.
From then on we worked hard. We cut all that grass by hand and bought fertilizer on credit from the Begnauds up in Belle Chasse. Old Mr. Begnaud, he the biggest grower in Plaquemines Parish. Real nice, but kind of gloomy.
“I’ll extend y’all credit but it’s just a matter of time before the next hurricane washes it all away,” he said. “Why don’t you let me buy you out, Miss Ruby? Y’all could come up here and work for me in my fruit stand.”
“Mr. Begnaud, if Katrina can’t kill us, I guess nothing can,” I said.
County agent by the name of Ray Broussard gave us an old lawn mower to keep the grass down. He even rounded us up some irrigation stuff he got from growers who just walked away from they salty groves. I patched the holes with duct tape. It was still leaky but it worked. Ray told us our well water was good ‘cause he tested it hisself.
The real hard part was the spraying for fungus and bugs. Ray found me a five-gallon back-strap sprayer. Took me a week to spray all them damn trees. I was a spraying fool. I cried every day for a month because it hurt my back so much, but it had to be done.
“Mama, why are you crying,” Maria asked me.
“Because it’s hard to take care of yourself when you don’t have nothin’, little girl,” I said.
“You got me, Mamma. When I get big, I’m going to take care of you,” she said. And that made me smile.
I lost twenty pounds in two months and I had a crop by Thanksgiving. We put a sign out on the river: Empire Satsumas. Skippers would send their boats over to buy a bag or two. I set up a stand in the yard too. Not much of a stand ―just a table with a spray paint sign.
What we couldn’t sell at our roadside stand, we wholesaled to Mr. Begnaud. Me and Mamma Kate cleared a thousand dollars that first season after the storm. For the next three years me and Mamma Kate harvested our satsumas and got off the food stamps almost all the way. Folks helped us ‘cause they saw we was trying. The gas station in Celeste gave me gas on credit. Mr. Begnaud gave us all his citrus learning for free, and Ray was always finding us some donated spray.
Last season’s crop was our best yet, and I saved up enough for a better car I saw up in a Belle Chasse lot but for some reason I didn’t spend that money. Mr. Begnaud was being cautious with his new plantings. “Things are going too good, Ruby. I don’t like to be a pessimist but it’s just going too good.”
New Years came around and me and Mamma Kate started pruning trees and replacing the dying ones. Mamma Kate was losing her sass and slowin’ down, but for a lady pushing eighty I guess she was doing alright. Maria got the flu at the end of January and I couldn’t do much to make her feel better ‘cept give her popsicles and baby aspirin. Then Wiley came down with a stomach ache that got so bad I had to leave Maria with Mamma Kate and take him to the emergency room in Belle Chasses. It turned out to be appendicitis. There was a problem and I didn’t leave that boy for six days. I never watched no TV so I didn’t know what the weather was doing ― that was Mamma Kate’s job.
When I finally packed Wiley up in the Caprice, it was freezing cold. I only had on an old LSU sweatshirt with holes in the front and back. I never seen no weather like that since I moved to Empire. It don’t never get cold at this end of the river.
It was almost dark when I got Wiley home. I put him to bed and went looking for Mamma Kate. I found her next to the orange grove building a bonfire from the wreck of a neighbor’s house. She had the sprinklers on and spraying into the tree branches but the north wind was blowin’ that mist down Hwy. 23.
“Mamma Kate, what you doing?”
“Hard freeze! I gotta save our trees,” she shouted.
By the time I got to Mamma Kate she was shivering so bad she just passed out in my arms. I carried her up the steps to my trailer and went to run a bath but my pipes was already froze over.
“Wiley! Maria! Get in the car! We got to take Mamma Kate to the hospital.” I pointed that Caprice in the direction of Belle Chasse and hauled ass. I ran out of gas but I was close enough to the gas station to coast in. I got out in the cold and motioned Earl to turn on the gas pump. He waved to me come inside.
I yelled back, “Mamma Kate’s dying,” but he was already waiting on another customer.
I ran inside. “Earl, I need some gas.”
“Sorry, Ruby. Big Al said I can’t let you have none ‘til you pay what you owe.”
“How much I owe?”
Earl looked in the credit notebook. “$97.”
“We got to have just one more tank on credit, Earl. I promise I’ll pay it all back.”
“Nope, can’t do it. Big Al said he’d fire me if I give you any more gas without full payment.”
“You son of a bitch!” I yelled. I ran back to the car but couldn’t find my purse.
“Mamma, you left your purse at home,” Maria said. “I saw it on top of the TV.”
I looked in the back seat. Wiley was cradling Mamma Kate’s white head in his lap. Her shivering hadn’t let up.
I slammed the door and sank to my knees in the gravel lot. “Lord, help me right now or I’m going to kill Earl if he don’t give me some gas.”
I stood up and a blast of north wind stole my breath. “I ain’t killing nobody if I freeze to death.” Right then I remembered that Navy pea coat. I opened the trunk and felt around ‘til I found the plastic bag. I reached my hand inside and touched the rough wool. I put the coat on and ran back inside. I went to the cooler and grabbed a bottle of Strawberry Hill. I meant to brain Earl with that bottle.
Earl turned around and saw me. “Two-fitty for the wine, Ruby.”
“Uh, OK.” I reached inside the pea coat like I was looking for money. I felt some paper inside. When I pulled my hand out the pocket, I was holding a crumpled up envelope. Inside was a hand-written note, a hundred dollar bill, a ten and two singles. Someone with a very nice cursive script wrote, “Hope this money helps.”
That $112 saved Mamma Kate’s life.
Sometimes, things happen you just ain’t got no words for.