Thursday, July 2, 2009

Another Lesson Learned Courtesy of Katrina

In March 2006, just after Mardi Gras, I sent a letter to Linda Caillouet, a columnist with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. She is a native of New Orleans and moved to Little Rock a number of years ago.

Her childhood home was destroyed in the federal flood that followed Katrina and she often wrote about it in her column. I had been in New Orleans to work on the house for several weeks when it hit me that I felt like I was home; New Orleans had never felt like home before. Prompted by this self-revelation, I felt like I should let her know about some stuff. The following is an email I sent her:

Dear Ms. Caillouet:

I’m sorry I missed seeing you in New Orleans during Carnival. My friend, Annette, found me on the Parc St. Charles balcony as Rex rolled by to tell me she had just met a columnist from Arkansas. She couldn’t remember the name of the newspaper – she was focusing all her concentration on throws and breathtaking floats. I thought you might be that columnist, at least I hope so.

Please accept my family’s deepest sympathy for your and your parents’ losses. We have many friends and acquaintances from Lakeview and Arabi and New Orleans East, so we know the depth and degree of those losses. We also know survivors’ guilt, having suffered relatively minor storm damage and no flooding or looting.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is MoogieP and I’m a fan of your column. I’m also sort of your geographical mirror image, living most of my life in Little Rock then moving to New Orleans in 1999 with my husband. He took a job at Entergy’s corporate headquarters and found our wonderful 1906 Victorian house in uptown, but I didn’t move full-time until 2001 so that our younger daughter could graduate from Hall High and I could continue teaching Business Law at UALR. It was a 2-year long distance romance, complete with a split-custody arrangement of the two dogs, you know? Anyway, we’ve been back living in Little Rock since our August 28th evacuation, first at our son’s home, then in a one bedroom apartment with the two dogs, two sets of golf clubs, a bicycle, and all the hunting and fishing gear. We still are uncertain of where and when we go next, but we’re miraculously fortunate to be able to visit our home in New Orleans from time to time to sleep in our own bed and cook in our own kitchen.

My daughter-in-law called last week when I was in New Orleans working on the house to tell me that you wrote in your column that you planned to be at Fat Harry’s on Endymion Saturday and Bacchus Sunday, but I never got over there to introduce myself to you, even though our house is only two blocks up, on the river side. The reason I never made it to Fat Harry’s is the main purpose of this letter – to enable me to indulge in a small cathartic expression of the Katrina-Rita saga from the perspective of a non-native resident.

Simply put, I miss New Orleans and I didn’t fully realize it until this last trip home. I’ve been so comfortable in my extended reunion with family and friends that I’ve suppressed how much the Big Easy has wormed itself into my soul. It’s now a part of me despite its oppressive humidity and indeterminable number of mosquitoes and inexplicable politics and LSU Tigers instead of Arkansas Razorbacks.

I really miss New Orleans and I didn’t know it until I heard the bands warming up on Napoleon Avenue before every parade that rolled uptown this season. So, I didn’t want to miss even a single moment on the neutral ground with my daughters and their friends in an attempt to weave my way through the crowds of families to get to you at Fat Harry’s on the Avenue.

I didn’t want to miss seeing how much the neighbors’ triplets, now three years old, have grown – their parents always set up next to us and allowed us to help shepherd them. I didn’t want to miss watching the enormous family nearby speaking some variety of eastern European dialect and enjoying their first carnival. I didn’t want to miss a hug from neighbors or a tail-wag from a neighbor dog I haven’t had the chance to see yet. I wanted to sit and contemplate the sunlight glinting off of beads dangling from the just-budding crepe myrtles and scarred live oaks. Beads belong in those trees and they’ve been painfully absent for six months.

I didn’t want to give up a single minute watching my sweet, geriatric dogs basking in the sun on the front porch, without leashes, after having been cooped up in that little apartment for so long. I didn’t want to skip playing “Winter Wonderland” on the piano, simply because I could. I wanted to try to cook chicken on the grill that my husband had lashed to the fuse box on August 27th, hoping it wouldn’t overturn as it had during Hurricane Cindy earlier in the summer. I wasn’t sure if it would work even if I could untie the ropes, but I needed to try.

I didn’t want to miss a single moment pulling weeds in my herb garden and I wanted to use as many dishes as I could in the kitchen, simply because I could. I didn’t want to miss a morsel of the red beans and rice my neighbor spent two days cooking even though her foot is in a cast. You see if I missed those moments as they happened, I would miss them all the more later.

So I never made it to Fat Harry’s; but I did get to experience all those moments. Plus, my daughter gave me the Willie Nelson doubloon she caught from his float in Bacchus; and I was able to watch in awe as Orpheus rolled into and paraded around the newly-reopened Convention Center on Lundi Gras, now a site of joy and tradition instead of despair and hopelessness; and I caught 2006 medallion beads from Zulu on a beautiful Mardi Gras morning on the other end of the balcony where you met my friend. Or maybe it was a beautiful Mardi Gras afternoon because, as usual, Zulu rolled really late. Something else usual.

I’ll return to Little Rock later this week after meeting with a glazier and the awning contractor – finally! I’ll return to Little Rock for awhile, aware now that no matter where we wind up, I’ll always miss New Orleans. Aware also that I must find some way to help her re-build from afar.
This was probably the grandest, safest, most joyous Mardi Gras I’ll ever experience, even though most of the City remains battered and broken. I know that you and I can never forget this Carnival season and the way New Orleanians have retained their own unique spirit, humor, and determination. I hope you were able to enjoy this visit to your hometown; I know I did.

Oh, and the grill worked like a charm. Now if I can just find a brick mason . . . .

My best to your parents as they re-build their lives in my hometown.

She replied and we have corresponded often. I finally got to meet her in person last year while I was evacuated for Gustav and Ike.

I pray I don't get another chance to evacuate this year. More installments to come . . . .

1 comment:

  1. These Katrina posts of yours really tug at my heart, Moogie. I'm glad you were spared the worst, but realize times were still tough.