Dear New Orleans: you took me in. At a time when you were still so bruised, splintered, fractured, frayed, and I showed up with nothing to offer except my eyes, ears, a pen and a notebook—you pretended you could use me. Don’t hurry away, you said. Stay awhile.
I couldn’t stay a while; I had teenagers back home. But I could and did return six times. My husband had something more to offer: his camera. What I did was to try to help him tell, not the story, but A story, a small story we happened to stumble across, about what happened to New Orleans, ten years ago this week.
Our small story was about the post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding of a church that is home to both New Orleans’ deaf Catholics and a Spanish-speaking congregation in a neighborhood layered with immigrant history. Creole, German and Italian-American carpenters, plumbers and skilled volunteers of every description showed up to help. Many of them had grown up down the block. Many had lost their own homes to Katrina. Volunteers from out of town, including a Seattle crew, were there too. Our small story became a documentary film called The Church on Dauphine Street. One of the first places it aired was on the New Orleans PBS station, WYES, whose studios had been badly damaged by Katrina. When we asked if the station wanted to air it again in honor of the tenth anniversary of the hurricane, they declined, saying people in New Orleans are trying hard to look forward right now, not back.
I get that. We made our first trip to New Orleans in April 2006, just a month after my mother died. My grief was still raw. One of the first things I wrote in my journal about New Orleans, which I had never before visited, was this: “Oh Mom, you would’ve loved New Orleans. Because it feels so much like another country.” My mother loved to travel. And I remember vividly the moment I stepped off the plane in Louisiana, the smell of cooking fires mixed with hot, humid air instantly reminded me of Haiti, where Mom and I had both been, two decades earlier, to visit my sister in the Peace Corps.
This is another world, I thought. And another world is what I need right now.
As we drove into the city, I shook off that swoon. This other world I had entered was a whole landscape of grief, gaping and gashed. Why did I smell cooking fires? How many homes were still without gas or electricity? It had been eight months since Katrina. Reminders of death and loss were everywhere—in the spray-painted numbers on empty houses; in makeshift memorials; in the eery silence of block after empty block.
By 2010, when I last visited, many—but certainly not all—of those destroyed blocks had been cleared away. But five years later, Mayor Mitch Landrieu is far from ready to pronounce his city fully healed. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports Landrieu said, quote: “Communities have to find a way to get stronger, and Katrina showed us we’re not as resilient as we need to be, and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
I feel lucky to have witnessed one story of New Orleans getting stronger. And lucky to have been a part of it, at a time when I needed to get stronger.
Registration is open for Introduction to Memoir Writing at Seattle Central College. Starts November 2, 2015. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!
Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Seattle: Saturday, August 29 at Seattle University.