Dispatch From New Orleans
My grandmother is a born storyteller. I concede that your grandma can probably spin a yarn, too, but did she co-host a local TV show called Let's Tell a Story in the 1950s? I didn't think so. My grandmother's specialty is New Orleans history. I'm thankful, then, that I can sit down at her kitchen table today and listen as she tells the biggest story in the history of New Orleans. I'm not so thankful that the biggest story in the history of New Orleans washed away her old kitchen table.
My dad's parents—I'm going to call them Ganee and Papa, but you can call them Lil and Irv—have been married for 57 years and lived in the same house in the Broadmoor neighborhood of Uptown New Orleans for 55 of them. If the city were a saucer, you'd find Broadmoor at the bottom. Before the land was developed in the 1800s, it was a 12-acre lake. Even though the area suffered chronic floods, the house, most of which is on pilings 3 feet off the ground, never took on any water. Not during Hurricane Betsy or Camille, and not during the torrential May rains that seem to come every year. Before Katrina, they had never left the city on account of a hurricane.
With Katrina bearing down, they wanted to check into a hospital so Papa could have access to oxygen. But at 4 a.m. on Sunday, with the storm set to make landfall the next morning, Ganee, Papa, and my Uncle Sidney drove to Baton Rouge to stay with a friend of the family. A few days later, Ganee, Papa, and Sidney flew to Houston with nothing but a few days' worth of clothes and some medicine. My parents were already there—they had gone before the storm to help my sister move into a new apartment.
In their hotel room, they watched the fires and the floodwaters on TV. Ganee says she never thought they would lose their home—the ground-level family room might get flooded, but the rest of the house would be fine. I tried to look in on it when I was in the city reporting in September, but the water was too deep for my rental car. My Uncle Louis eventually made it by car and boat. He called his parents in Houston, crying, and told them that there was water everywhere. When the news came, Ganee was the one comforting my sister.
Because of all the mold, Papa's doctors said it would be too dangerous for him to live there. A few weeks later they sold the house to a developer. My uncle, parents, and sister carried out what wasn't moldy: books, photos, china, clothes, linens. When I came home for Thanksgiving, the house was pretty much empty. On our last trip inside, I took an LSU lunchbox, my sister took a stuffed turtle, and my dad took their carved wooden headboard, which now hangs on a wall in my parents' house.
Ganee, Papa, and Sidney moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Houston that came courtesy of a friend of my aunt's. The place had been a bachelor pad; the kitchen contained 20 boxes of pasta but no pots or pans. ("I've never seen so much pasta, not even in a grocery store," Ganee says.) It was important for her to start entertaining, even with this rudimentary kitchen. Ganee's first instinct is to show appreciation—she told me to make sure to mention how nice everyone was in Houston, and that the drug store gave them a free month of prescriptions. Mostly, she shows appreciation by having people over for dinner. She always hosted our family events: Friday-night dinners, Passover seder, Thanksgiving. A few days after alighting in Houston, she had 18 people over for dinner. Soon after that, she started having weekly Friday-night dinners for displaced friends and relatives.
They moved back to New Orleans at the end of January. My parents—who had moved back into our house in November—found Ganee and Papa a small, two-bedroom place on St. Charles Ave., one block away from the apartment they moved into after their honeymoon, 57 years ago. Sidney's staying there, too, while his house gets repaired.
While they were in Houston, Ganee turned 77 and Papa turned 86. She says neither of them ever considered staying in Houston, that she wouldn't want to be anywhere else. But most of the time she doesn't feel like she's in New Orleans. A beloved neighbor died shortly after they evacuated. Her friend Myra is still in Houston. She still gives out her old address and phone number by mistake. Ganee doesn't want to look at her old house. They've driven by once since they came back, and they didn't slow down.
There are a few familiar things in this place. Some of her embroideries are on the wall, and five books of the Bible that belonged to Papa's father are on a shelf under the television. I ask Ganee if there's anything she misses. She's initially reluctant to say. "I miss my dressing room. That was my inner sanctum. I had a house with a husband, three sons, and a male dog and that was the one place where I could go and be feminine." The list keeps going: She misses her hair dryer, too, and her big freezer, and her kitchen window, where she used to stand watch for visitors and look over her garden. She misses her wedding album, which had photos from her wedding and her parents' wedding. She misses all her books and a piece of paper that had my sister's first writing on it, a letter to Peter Pan.
We're eating homemade apple cake—Ganee is thrilled to finally have her cookbooks back—when the complex manager's husband comes in to fix the garbage disposal. Ganee stops the interview, gives him a piece of cake, and asks him what happened to his house. He tells us that his house in Lakeview had water up to the roof, that he had just finished building a screened-in back porch before Katrina, that all of his family in St. Bernard Parish lost their homes. Ganee's not just a storyteller—she's a listener. She knows when to stay quiet, when to chime in with the name of the levee that broke in St. Bernard. She asks if he's going to stay in town, and he says that, honestly, he and his wife are looking to get out as soon as possible. "We're too old to relocate," Ganee says, "but if I was your age, I probably would."