About Joel Scott Cognevich
SNAPSHOTS OF HOME
I grew up in Plaquemines Parish in a small rural community known as Buras. Metaphorically, one could say that I am from the seed of an orange and an oyster, or in the Slavic language, od semena oranžna in ostriga.
We lived on the opposite side of the mighty Mississippi River from Ostrica. From the top of the levee on the west bank of the river, I could see Ostrica, and I remember watching the red, amber and green lights on the boat lock change, signaling boats to stop, approach or go, opening the east-west passage between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, via Breton Sound. To this day, I have never visited Ostrica, nor have I journeyed through these locks.
Ostrica originally started as an oyster camp for many Slavic oyster fishermen in the early 1800’s, due mostly to its proximity to the oyster-rich reefs that grew in the brackish waters on the muddy bottom of nearby Quarantine Bay. As a child I did not know that the word ostriga translated to oyster in the Slavic dialect; taking on the current spelling likely because that is how it sounded to the Anglo-American ear. This was the gateway to the prime oyster beds that was once one of the livelihoods of my ancestors.
Ostrica was also the location of a quarantine station that processed many passengers arriving by ship from the old world. This is where my third great grandfather began; the “Ellis Island” of the Cognevich family’s arrival to America.
All along the rich Mississippi delta soil in Plaquemines parish once grew dark green-leafed citrus orchards; from its northern most boundaries, along the thin ribbon of flat fertile terrain, as far south as dry land stretched. This thin ribbon of land was oriented predominantly north-south. Land ownership resulted in strips of land of varying widths that bordered the Mississippi River to the east and stretched west to the marshes. Small roads usually bordered either the northern or southern side of these swathes and often took on the name of the family that owned and lived on the property.
I lived on Cognevich lane, on the same land once owned by my great grandfather. Originally there was only one main house that fronted the river while the remainder of the property was used to cultivate orange trees. During my years there, the old homestead still stood, but the land had been further subdivided and more houses built along the lane. From my third great grandfather down to my great grandfather, farming oranges was yet another means of income. Unfortunately by the time I was born, many of these farms did not exist, including the one that once thrived along Cognevich Lane. On the neighboring property to the north grew a few remaining oranges from years past. In the spring, the breeze became orange blossom-scented when these citrus trees were in bloom. Like most white colored flowers - the gardenias, the jasmines and the tuberoses, the distinctive aroma of the citrus can be overwhelming. But the sweet taste of the cadmium orange-colored fruits that followed in the fall were well worth any sniff or sneeze.
My idea of home relies on memories from my childhood, many based on traditions and customs I grew up with. Often, these memories are not triggered by notable events, but by quite minor things. Simple things, like a warm bowl of gumbo; collecting pecans on an autumn day; rain pouring from the sky after a long hot summer day; eating well-seasoned boiled crawfish; being frightened during a violent summer thunderstorm; picking and filling buckets with blackberries and having blackberry dumplings that same evening. Those are just some of the things I think of when I think of home. Things that make me feel comfortable, welcome and warm inside.
Growing up in a small town in southern Louisiana, it seemed as though everyone knew each other, or at least who your parents were. Meeting someone for the first time often began with “Who’s your Momma?” Once that was established, that link told the rest of the story. You didn’t always know someone by their real name, as nicknames were common. I grew up with a nickname, Co Co, given to me by my grandfather. Most of my relatives knew me by that name; some still call me that today. It makes me feel welcome.
There are certain people you will always remember, not because you knew them well, but because of their mysterious or eccentric ways. Three people I will always remember from home are Pompy, Uncle Boogie and Go Yo. Pompy was the cemetery caretaker. I remember watching him work as I cavorted in the school playground next to the cemetery. My great uncle is another character I remember well. Walking to my grandparents’ house, I would often see Uncle Boogie sitting on the edge of his porch, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. He seemed so old, frail, and somewhat grumpy, yet he always greeted me. He didn’t know me by common name or nickname, but by association to my father. My dad he called Nun, so I was Tee-Nun. My two brothers and sister were also called Tee-Nun. He simply knew to whom we belonged.
Probably the most eccentric person I recall is one I never really knew. Odd as that may sound, he was, and still is, a mystery to me. I knew him only by the name we called him, and when I say call, that is literally what we did. Many weekends during the summer months my family would pack up and travel by boat to our camp on the bayou. Along the way, we would navigate by Go Yo’s camp, and it was then that we would call out his name. He always managed to wave back as we floated by, sometimes with a piece of cloth on the end of his walking stick, as though he were surrendering. I was always intrigued to know that what took us an hour to travel by motorboat, he paddled manually in his pirogue. That’s all I knew about him.
A typical year was filled with events based on local traditions and customs. Whether marking births, deaths, or the years in between, each was celebrated with equal enthusiasm. And it always seemed to end with everyone in the kitchen: the place where many meaningful interactions occur amongst friends and family. Christmas, the biggest event of the year, is when many of my relatives gather for one big feast. All the dishes available might insinuate that cooking and preparations had gone on for days; but in reality, most were started and completed that very same day. That day the kitchen is the busiest room, all burners on the stove occupied, the oven full and every inch of the countertops camouflaged by a pot, pan or dish. At some point during the preparations it seems that each and every person is impelled to go into the kitchen, before the meal is served, to snitch a sample. Few manage to get in and out without getting their hand slapped or bottom stung with a towel. Once in the kitchen, there is one thing that everyone deems important, and that is to stir the contents of one of the pots on the stove. Not that you know what is in the pot: you just have to give a stir!
My memory of home emerges not just from joyous times, but from tragic events too. The day a tornado danced by is as fresh in my mind as if it happened yesterday, yet I was only four. My mother, sister and I were in the kitchen preparing hamburgers for lunch. I remember the alarmed look on my mother’s face as she stared out of the kitchen window. She grabbed my sister and me and walked us briskly to a closet in the corridor. At the same time, our telephone started ringing. My mother proceeded to answer the telephone. My sister and I sat on the floor in silence in the small dark closet, and my sister, who was afraid of roaches and bugs, was more concerned about them than what was taking place outside.
After what seemed to be an eternity, my mother returned and told us that a tornado had whirled very close to our house, destroying the house next door. Fortunately our house suffered only minor damage and we were safe. The other tragic event vividly fresh in my mind happened on 17 August 1969, the day that Hurricane Camille destroyed our house and took with it many of our belongings. Although these natural disasters destroyed all or part of our house, we still had a home.
If your native tongue is English, you may think living in the United States is easy, as it is the national language. Yet there are many areas that have been influenced by certain cultural heritages, resulting in different colloquial expressions. The style of language that I grew to learn was vastly different from that of someone who lived in Mississippi, New York or California, or even other parts of Louisiana. Of course we could communicate, but some of my expressions meant little or nothing to an outsider. To say to someone that you are going to ‘pass by his or her house’ did not mean that you were simply going to walk by or drive past. It meant that you were physically going to stop and visit. One of my favourite phrases was ‘to help pick up the table’, which meant to help clear the table. After dinner when Mom asked that we ‘help pick up the table’ often my siblings and I would each grab a corner of the table and lift it off the floor. I laugh about these simple language differences now, but they help paint a view of my home.
Autumn may change the colour of leaves and winter may fade those colours to grey, but my memories of home will live forever. Certain people, places and things will always remind me of home, along with the traditions and customs that I grew up with. They all contribute to that feeling of being comfortable, welcome and warm inside.