What's dis, Mommy?" My 4-year-old hands me a mud-crusted plastic pearl.
"It's an old Mardi Gras bead," I tell her.
"From me, or from Daddy?" she asks.
Her father grew up in the same house where we live, and she knows she can find "treasures" from Daddy's childhood in the garden, like marbles, bottle caps or the bones of a dozen long-deceased pets. Beads are the most common find, and the garden soil is packed with the colorful baubles. Don't even get me started on what's underneath the house.
To say this is important to me as a parent sounds weak. Yet it's actually hundreds of little moments like this scene that are why we're raising our kids here. In a nation like America, where transience is the norm and abandoning your parents to follow ambition is common, people in Louisiana are different. Most of us never want to leave. We stay close to our families and friends forever, and if we do travel nationally we find ourselves looking for the expat community as if we're foreigners.
When I decided to come back to New Orleans after a year away (the post-Katrina year), I got wrapped up in the renaissance like everyone else. Fueled by the rush of the city's near-death experience, I thought we could fix everything. But the reality started to creep in around the time I got pregnant. The mommy chemicals rapidly had my brain's ticker flashing: unsafe living conditions.
Before the kids were born, the only things that scared me about New Orleans were getting robbed at gunpoint and insurance bills. But after the kids arrived it was anxiety-attack-of-the-week time. Parenthood in general spikes your awareness, of course, but now I was worrying about getting carjacked with an infant and a toddler in the backseat strapped in like astronauts — for their safety. Or getting a gun waved in my face while walking with a stroller in broad daylight (I stopped concealed carrying because rummaging for a gun in the bottom of a diaper bag during a holdup is embarrassing).
Then there's the annual hurricane preparation panic where my husband and I debate whether we'll pack and evacuate or stay and pray. Apocalyptic urban scenarios don't really scare parents as much as the prospect of being stuck in a car with sleep-deprived, starving, soiled and screaming preschoolers for 31 hours.
And those are just the life or death situations. It took education to make me wonder if we'd made a mistake and should leave town. Being quite middle class, we can neither part with the extreme expense of private schools here, nor live with the thought of turning our children's futures over to the abysmal Orleans Parish public schools. This leaves us with charter schools. And waiting lists. And experimental classes. And second-guessing. My children currently are in a brand-new French immersion charter school. It's better than I'd hoped, but it also has growing pains — something I wouldn't need to deal with even one parish away.
Then I think about when they're older and start walking these streets independently. Will I have prepared them enough for this unique urban wild?
There's also the "little" things, like the busy street on which we live, where one clumsy toddler move will have them splattered on the grill of a city bus. Or the lead in the playgrounds and school buildings. Or my favorite, "Why does the water smell funny?" Yes, we drink the tap water. We're all in.
I'm not apologizing for my suburban upbringing and its subsequent anxieties. My husband may have grown up in the city and knows how to be vigilant while looking nonchalant, but I didn't learn those skills. I grew up in a swampy subdivision in St. Bernard Parish where you were more likely to die from a snake bite, boating accident or oil refinery explosion than an armed robbery. So yes, sometimes I do ponder selling out. Like other concerned parents, I could rent my house and move to the suburbs or another state where all this drama doesn't occur. We could go someplace where things aren't so inefficient and expensive, where there won't be education experiments conducted on my kids, or where corrupt police officers and politicians are the exception, not the rule.
No place is perfect, but there are places that are far closer than New Orleans. So why do parents in New Orleans stay put?
Because there are no beads in other gardens.
Because misaligned wooden screen doors in other places don't make the same slap-shut noise. Because my "mom-n-'em" aren't "downa road" just anywhere. Because I have more than 200 years of family buried six feet over in this city, and I still bring flowers and let my kids play "house" in the tombs. Because we sit down to a meal with others for hours. Because no houses on my street look the same. Because I can grab French bread in the grocery and still get excited when it's warm. Because ... I believe.
When I see a fleur-de-lis, I feel joie de vivre. And this is what I hope my children will learn. Like Henry David Thoreau said, I want them to live deliberately. I don't want them to come to death's door and discover they never really lived. We all have priorities, and for those of us who choose to stay in New Orleans to raise our children, what is good here outweighs what we fear.
To some they're muddy beads, but to us they're pearls.
Andrea Dewenter is a freelance writer and blogger, who previously worked in public relations and broadcast news. She lives in Uptown New Orleans with her husband and two preschoolers. You can follow her at www.pistolette.net and on Twitter: @Pistolette. She is conducting a survey on her blog asking parents about their concerns surrounding child-rearing in the city and why they have chosen New Orleans as home. Dewenter will present her findings at the Rising Tide conference Sept. 22 at Xavier University.