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Shell with Halo: A New Orleans East Family Mystery in 13 Parts, creative nonfiction and artwork by Alyssa Chase

TW: child sexual abuse

“There are things you don’t know—things I want to tell you,” my mother said. 

I nearly dropped the spoon I’d been using to dish yams into Tupperware. 

My mom, on her annual Thanksgiving trip to my house in Indianapolis, stammered when I asked her about and the origin of her mother’s dirty rice stuffing. Her childhood in New Orleans suddenly seemed like a tender spot, then this. 

“I want to talk to you and your sister at the same time,” she said. 

One month later, in Kansas City for Christmas, I sent my husband and kids over to my sister’s house and hung back at Mom’s condo, where my sister joined us.

In my mom’s small, suddenly quiet kitchen we knocked around with mugs and teabags and the kettle on the stove, busywork to take the edge off the awkwardness. 

What was she going to say? We’d never had a meeting like this. In fact, our mother’s way of talking tended toward stream-of-consciousness. She gave voice to every thought, and we knew her every worry—or so we believed.

We arranged ourselves in heavy wooden chairs at the familiar dining-room table, somehow perfectly squeezed into the bright, tiny room. My mom’s eyes had a coy look, but the rest of her face seemed chiseled with resolve. 

She had told this story before, to a few of her friends, she said. She hadn’t told us because our dad had asked her not to, but now it was time. So, while we held our lukewarm cups of herbal tea, she said the words that would change our childhood forever:

“We left New Orleans to get away from my father.” 

My mother had always been different from other women I knew. In old photos she perches on divans in perfectly cut dresses and dainty cardigans, self-consciously poised for the camera. Petite, with coiffed blonde hair and gaping green eyes, her expressive face made up just so, she had the look of both a vamp and a frightened girl. 

I’d always seen her as something else: ambitious. In New Orleans, she went to art school in the French Quarter. She rented a studio in downtown Kansas City for a time, turning out large cityscapes in oil. For years, she worked as a freelance illustrator and deftly managed the swirls and eddies of that life. 

On her own again after my dad died, she seemed to lose her grounding. Those girlish eyes reappeared in her face, yet she quickly shifted her focus to the business of surviving. Within a year of my dad’s death, she’d sold the house, bought a low-maintenance condo and found a part-time job. 

I grew up in New Orleans East, so close to Lake Pontchartrain, the scent of it filled my mouth. Every breath tasted of marsh grass and live oaks, barnacles exposed at low tide and smoke from tugboats on the Industrial Canal just a couple of miles away. 

My maternal aunts, cousins and grandparents lived a short walk from my family’s house. Old live oaks lined their street—a cool, dark cave even in the middle of the day. Spanish moss hung low enough to touch, but my parents told me not to touch it. Bats made their homes there and might bite. 

All along the road, black water seeped in the ditches; white clamshells mixed with mud and rust-colored leaves between sidewalk and ditch and road, as if the lake had brought them, and the land were part of the lake, and there was no such thing as solid ground.

A shell-paved walk along a vacant lot led to the old St. Maria Goretti church, where I’d sneak away from Mass early with my sister, our feet crunching shells as we ran to our grandparents’ house next door, where our grandfather waited in the kitchen with a box of McKenzie’s doughnuts, blue eyes sparking in his rugged face, his round French nose just like our mom’s. 

I haven’t lived in New Orleans East since I was eight years old, but one winter the shapes of clamshells started to appear in my paintings. Fields of white paint glowed like the white-shell lots where I used to skip and stomp in patent-leather shoes, dawdling with my parents or relatives at bait shops and snowball stands. Turquoise washes and splatters of blood-red ink revealed shadowy hulls like the shells in the cement driveway where my grandpa boiled crabs in a big black pot, shells that seemed to call to me—a reminiscence of my early life, and something more I couldn’t name.

I longed to see shells again. I spotted them in the corners of old photographs, tiny bits of roads from the past. I found one in a canal on a Florida vacation. But when I asked an aunt in New Orleans to send me some Louisiana clamshells, she couldn’t find them. On trips, I searched for them myself—in my old neighborhood, on the levee, at the boat ramp under the Seabrook Bridge. I found only asphalt, knots of tangled fishing line, a mimosa seedling poking between the cracks. What had happened to the shells? I wondered if Katrina had washed them all away.

I read about the shells—studies from the Corps of Engineers, articles in the Times-Picayune.  I remembered as soon as I skimmed the reports: Those shells were the hulls of clams dredged from the lake. Soon after I left New Orleans in the ’70s, the dredging had stopped.

Part of my childhood stopped, too.

The rangia clam (Rangia cuneata) lives under the mud at the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain. With its muscular foot, it takes root in the mud, where it hides from blue crabs and black drum. To feed, the clam extends a tiny siphon up through the mud to the water above. It takes in phytoplankton and silt and filters out what it doesn’t want. Through this filtering process, suspended particles bind together and nutrients are retained. Then the clam releases clean water and compact debris through its siphon. 

Indigenous people, likely Choctaw, once ate rangia clams, discarding the shells in heaps known as middens. Louisiana historians write that the shell middens scattered along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain created land where there had been no land before, solid ground in the marsh that would become neighborhoods like the one where I grew up. 

European settlers didn’t eat the clams, and efforts over the years to rid the mollusks of their muddy, musty taste and market them as “Cajun clams” never really took off.

In the 1930s, shell dredgers began to pull millions of rangia clams from the lake. The clams’ chalky shells made good cement, good roads and parking lots. That’s why my memories brim with shells: They were everywhere, an endless beach of white. 

In 1972, the year before my family left New Orleans, beaches on Lake Pontchartrain closed due to polluted water. On Lakeshore Drive, where concrete stairs lead right into the lake, “No Swimming” signs appeared. “My dad used to throw his net there,” my mom would say. “It came up full of shrimp.”

In the early eighties, scientific studies showed that dredging shells from Lake Pontchartrain caused turbid, toxic waters. Pollution from runoff and sewage was already on the rise, and dredging made it worse. The dredgers stirred up the lake bottom, sucked up its ecosystem, then spewed the toxic spoil back into the lake. They also removed millions of natural filters: the clams.

By 1990, shell dredging was banned, despite the industry’s $34-million-per-year economic value. 

Now the clams are back. They stabilize the lake bottom, rebuild the fishing grounds, feed the crabs and birds. When I learned what the clams could do, I painted a clamshell with a halo—rays of sun jutting out like piers. Thanks to the clams, the lake is recovering. Yet I know now that for me it can never be the same, just
like my neighborhood by the levee can never again be the home I thought I knew so well. 

My mother told me and my sister about intrusions in the bathroom, the bedroom—even the family room. Her family was one of the first she knew to own a TV, which her father made with a kit from Popular Mechanics. While her mother and four-year-old sister watched test patterns on the screen, her father would spread the Times-Picayune over his lap and hers, then his fingers would wander. When my mom felt a lump rise below her, she didn’t know what it was—she was just eight years old. She said this happened regularly, mostly on weekends. “My whole family was in the same room,” she said. “How could they not notice?” 

My mom remembers her dad taking her to his bedroom to watch the Olympics. She would have been 13 then. “I remember looking at myself in the mirror on the door and thinking: “Is this how fathers teach their children about sex?” my mom said. “I didn’t think it was right, but nobody said anything.”

Once, at her Catholic high school, my mom’s father pulled up outside and honked his horn like a teenage beau. The nuns noticed something was wrong—my mom had started pulling out her eyelashes and watching them fall to her desk, but she was afraid to ask for help. Finally, at a class retreat, she spoke to a priest who suggested she say “stop.” She did, and her father did stop, but he “kept trying.” Years later, my grandfather started stopping by the house while my dad was away on business trips. 

Psychiatrists say it’s often difficult for abuse victims to recall traumatic experiences in a narrative way—their memories are more like physical and emotional imprints. That may be why my mother’s stories seem muddled. She has trouble recalling exactly when she was first abused or when it stopped. She doesn’t know for sure if she “had a breakdown” before or after we left New Orleans, or even what “having a breakdown” meant, although she’s clear about the chain of events that sparked our family’s move to Kansas.

In New Orleans, my parents had decided to build an addition to our modest house. It would become a home office for my dad and an art studio for my mom. My dad chose his father-in-law for the job because it would save money, and because my grandpa was an excellent builder. He also lived just a block away. My mom tried to make a case for hiring a different contractor, but she wouldn’t say why. “I had grown up with it and kept it a secret so long, it became a way of life,” she said. And my dad liked my grandpa. He looked up to him. 

A master builder, my grandpa had taught my dad about home construction and furniture-making.

He shared access to boats and gear for hunting, fishing, crabbing and shrimping. My grandpa was the kind of man who repaired torn shrimp nets with his own knitting needles. 

His visits to our house to work on the addition made my mom increasingly uncomfortable. Even though she’d married and had children, her father spoke to her “like a girlfriend” when they were alone. She had a new worry, too—my sister and I were close to the age she’d been when he’d begun abusing her. “It got to the point I couldn’t stand it any longer,” my mom said. “I’d have tremors and shakes.” 

Over her teacup, my mom told me and my sister about a hunting trip my dad had planned with our grandpa around the time she told our dad the truth. “I worried they’d be out on the marsh and he’d shoot him,” my mom said. Did she mean my dad would shoot my grandfather or the other way around? I couldn’t imagine my dad shooting anyone, but as a girl, I’d seen my grandpa shoot crows in his backyard with a pistol loaded with birdshot. That memory welled up when I saw the fear in my mother’s eyes. For years, she’d been threatened—conditioned to keep quiet. Her father had told her the people she loved would die if they knew their secret.

When my mom told my dad about her father, he canceled the hunting trip. My dad loved New Orleans and never really wanted to leave it, but when we boarded the plane for Kansas, he knew there was good reason for the move—something more than just a new job. 

In all those years, my mom never asked my grandma or anyone else in her family for help, and my grandma never offered. This truth contrasts with my memories of the woman I called mawmaw, the woman whose voice I hear when I think about lullabies, a low voice crooning dodo, dodo. I feel my grandma’s lips on my check, hear her call me cherie

I followed my grandma around her kitchen and watched her sew my clothes. She made gumbo with okra and tomatoes from her garden and crabs we’d caught with my grandpa in the lake. I captured lizards in her atrium, which was filled with bromeliads and birds of paradise. Lemon, fig and satsuma trees grew in the backyard—my grandpa used to hold me up to pick fruit—and my bare feet slapped on the cool terrazzo floors of the house he’d built. Before we left New Orleans, I saw my mom’s parents almost every day. This new picture of them cancels all those memories. 

My mom says my grandma once told her about an uncle who coddled her in his lap. “I have a feeling that was her way of getting at the stuff going on with me,” my mom said. Was that my grandma’s only message of support? To let my mom know that, in that family, and in that culture, fondling girls just happened? It was somehow okay? 

I used to pester my grandma about family history, and she’d tell the story of her father-in-law, the “old grandpa” who still spoke French and lived in the country, where my grandparents had moved during the war. She said the old man fed my infant mother so much watermelon from the field, she got sick and nearly died. “He thought he owned the kid,” my grandma said. “He thought he could do whatever he wanted.” 

That, apparently, was how men treated children, at least in my extended family. The women didn’t seem to do much about it. My mom told me that one time she screamed when her father took his fondling too far. Her mother came running to the master bedroom, but her dad said they were just “playing around,” and nothing changed. 

Historians write that in sixteenth-century Europe, some adults treated children as “sexual playthings.” In 1953, when my mom was 11 years old, Alfred Kinsey reported that one in four girls under the age of 14 experienced sexual abuse, including fondling and incest. Today’s official stat is more like one in 10 girls 17 and under.

My mom didn’t have that kind of context or the knowledge we arm girls with today. Her silence—and her mother’s—seemed to induce a kind of torpor. My mom put her energy into her artwork—and wishing her dad would “find another woman and leave.” That never happened. But my mom finally left New Orleans, and her family, and the culture that drew her in like a tide, as a woman of 32.

Years after the Christmas meeting with my mom, in New Orleans again to show my then 19-year-old daughter where I came from, we stopped at a little beach on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain. I took off my shoes and walked on the trucked-in sand. Like a girl, I waded to my knees in the murky water. All around me, rangia clamshells had washed up to the shore, the way shells do naturally. I filled my pockets with shells, running my fingers over the smooth, clinking forms—real now, yet so much like the glowing shells that had filled my mind so long. I pictured the shells with the clams again, back in the mud where they belonged, invisible but always at work. 

When we visited Metairie Cemetery, I showed my daughter our family crypt. In New Orleans, it’s common for all the members of a family to be buried in the same aboveground tomb. In the Deep South climate, the crypt heats up like an oven, and the dead are quickly reduced to bones. A yearly shuffling of the remains makes room for the newest casket. This leads to a long list of names even on modest-sized mausoleums. 

On the face of our own crypt, I showed my daughter the origin of her name. It was chiseled into the granite right in front of us: An ancestor named Alexander born in 1873, and her own great-grandfather Alexander—my mom’s father—born in 1920. Alexandra is my mother’s name, too—a name that goes back in the family a century or more. My mom will never join the pile of bones inside that tomb. We won’t either. 

We left New Orleans, and my mother kept her secret. She never told me and my sister the real reason for our move because she wanted us to “grow up clean”—to feel secure and confident in our family. 

By moving away from her family, my mother broke a pattern that could have echoed through generations. In the light of that truth, my memories crumble into chalk. I see the shadows now. 

Leaving New Orleans made my mom feel safe, but every time our family took a trip back, she collapsed. It always happened at the end. After we loaded up the car and backed out of my grandparents’ driveway, my mom would burst into a crying fit that went on all the way to Little Rock. Even as a kid, I knew something was wrong, something bigger than typical family tension or the strain of leaving a place she loved. I wasn’t sure how to ask about it once the crying stopped.

Throughout my adolescence in Kansas City, while my dad traveled around the Midwest during the week, my sister and I would shake our mom awake and bring her cups of coffee so she could drowsily drive us to school. At the Christmastime meeting, my mom talked about those years, when suicidal thoughts led her to seek help from a Freudian psychotherapist. That’s when she started talking about what had happened. At her doctor’s suggestion, she arranged a showdown with her family. With her mom and sister on the telephone line, she confronted her dad with what he’d done. She said he called it “just playing.” Once again nothing changed, and to this day most of the family members who are left revere my grandpa. They treat his old wrenches and drills like sacred objects.

“He was still my father,” my mother said, clearing her throat and swallowing a mouthful of tea. Despite what he’d done, she had found a way to accept him, like she accepted her mother’s silence. Our family culture endured, though distance from it helped my mom survive.

So has a kind of filtering. My mother takes in what the world gives and finds a way to make it hers. She talks in a stream, like flowing water. She lets go of worries and dark memories. She takes risks and forgives people I have trouble forgiving. In this way, she finds freedom. She creates something new. These tendencies are so much a part of her, I had never really noticed them before. Just like no one noticed rangia clams until they were gone. Until they came back.

Now I can understand the world my mom created. Removed from her family, she’s somehow still a part of it. She kept what she wanted to keep, though she’ll never move back to New Orleans, no matter how much the Kansas snow leaves her longing for satsumas and Spanish moss. 

To accept the truth about my mom and her family means letting go of the myth that sustained me for so long—clamshells underfoot again, a bright delusion. The truth is more complicated—just like a single clamshell drawn from life is more complex than a made-up glyph. When you look closely, you see furrows and hollows. You see evidence of what once lived inside.

Learning my mom’s truth drove me to learn more about my family, to explore those shadows. My cousins told me that, during the Depression, after my great-grandmother’s husband left her for a silent-movie-house pianist, she sent my grandpa and his sister to live with relatives. My grandpa stayed with a priest, who they suspect may have molested him. My aunt lived with relatives—an uncle who molested her, a relationship that extended into her adulthood. There’s the story of a boy raping his younger cousin at a family gathering. The powerful “played” and the weak kept quiet. And all of it happened within the wrought-iron gates of our homes.

A clam is spineless, as seemingly insignificant as my mother’s voice—or mine. Yet in less than day, one rangia clam can purify a bucket of polluted lake water. A million clams could clean a lake. Clams have collective power, but they have no voice. They quietly maintain their world, no matter how dirty the water gets.

The truth is difficult to look at—just like it’s hard to look at an open clam. The fleshy glob rouses every connotation of that word: Clam is slang for vagina, for phlegm. Those words make people squirm. 

Is that why I’ve waited to tell my own children my mother’s story? Learning the truth could alter their foundation, just like it did mine. Trauma can pass from one generation to the next, taboo and shame echoing in unpredictable ways. Could the story of my mom’s family damage my kids’ self-confidence? Am I waiting to speak because, like my mom, I want to “keep them clean”?

Many people do speak up. We know what their voices can do. Yet most abusers still run free. Stats show the prevalence of sexual abuse, and we know it often goes unreported, especially within families. No one in my family has been counted in a study. Abusers lead households, companies and nations. They perpetuate myths, and we keep those myths going, along with the unnatural imbalance between the powerful and those they harm.

A myth is a kind of armor, a shield that keeps reputations clean, at least on the outside. The truth is murky, a lake where we all get dirty. I’ve shared my mom’s story with close friends and felt their awkwardness and silence. Who wants to talk about abuse or incest and the scars they leave behind? Instead they ask for my recipe for red beans or shrimp creole.

And I carry around my mom’s story—our family secret—like a shell in my pocket. I feel its textured surface, pockmarked as a gnawed-down bone. As it curls into the cup of my fingers, images swirl into my thoughts—Lake Pontchartrain, shell-lined roads, a girl perched on a chair. I lift the shell to the light. Ridges rise up, chalky and white, and the polished underside glows like flesh, pinkish and lined with blue veins. 

The shell reflects color. It waits like a blank piece of paper. 

About Alyssa Chase

Alyssa was born in New Orleans, raised in Kansas City, and has lived in Kansas, Missouri, New York, Indiana, and Europe. She earned her MFA in poetry from Butler University and also holds a bachelor's degree in studio art from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Her poetry has been published in The Indianapolis Reviewand The Greensboro Review, among others, and her journalistic work is frequently published in an Indianapolis magazine called Kit. Alyssa runs her own freelance writing and editing business. She lives in Indianapolis with her husband, Rob Rebein, a pair of beagles, and two adult children who come and go.