I mentioned earlier that when my sister returned to New Orleans last October, I went with her to help clean out her flooded house. The water had receded by then, but everything in the house was still wet.
There were two things we hoped to salvage from our childhood home: the family photo albums and Dad’s story.
At least 20 albums containing hundreds of photos taken during the 1950s, 60s and 70s usually were kept in the guest room. Some prints were 3 ½ x 5, others were in the old square Brownie camera format. All were attached to black pages with corner mounts and captioned with silver ink in Mom’s beautiful handwriting.
Some photos I remember, in no particular order: my sister and I as ring-bearers in a cousin’s wedding; me and the boy cousins on the ramp at Grandpa’s camp; me, my sister, Mom and sometimes Dad in various groupings on trips to San Antonio, Pensacola, Washington DC, St. Augustine, Dallas; a certain young trombonist in the Jesuit High School uniform; me naked on a bed at age 1 or less. Most of the albums were on an upper shelf in the closet, above the water line but right in the path of spreading mold and humidity, locked for weeks in the hot, closed up house.
Some albums were solid bricks, others held pages that when pried apart revealed little squares of wet, psychedelic mush. Some stuck together. All were beautifully captioned. Not one contained a recognizable image.
I wasn’t aware of Dad’s written story till a few years ago. As the Parkinson’s began to affect his brain power, he decided to write about his life while he could still remember it. He trusted my sister to help him and made her promise not to share his writing till after he died. She took the promise very literally and wouldn’t even show it to me.
At some point she began to transcribe his story onto paper and computer. As she hastily collected items for her evacuation from the path of Katrina, she skipped that folder. “We always come back in a few days” and you can’t take everything. It was safe on the computer desk, above any likely flood level.
Two close friends were the first to enter my sister’s house after the water receded, a week before her return. The story was at the top of the “what to try and save” list. They didn’t find it during their first two visits.
On their third visit (my first), one of our friends found the folder. We carefully opened hand-written and typed pages. Each was readable, none were stuck together. Thank God for little miracles.
Over the next few days of removing muck there were other surprises. I found several pocket-size diaries kept by Mom. They contained little glimpses of the early days of her marriage and our lives. Some entries: Ann Marie weighs 24 pounds today; the weather is gloomy and cloudy; Benny had the day off today. Dr. Duffy visited. (Remember when doctors made house calls?)
Mom seems to have been the premiere family packrat. She collected many things, but the most unusual find was a newspaper ad featuring cousin Harry. An Oldsmobile dealer ran a series of warm-and-fuzzy ads in the 1970s, featuring behind-the-scenes non-salesmen employees. Harry was their accountant. Harry died a few years later at a very young age, and Mom apparently laminated the saved ad. I found it staring at me in a mound of wet muck near some of the ruined photo albums.
Perhaps another found item is family ties. Through the tragedy of Katrina, the tense process of locating cousins and Mom, the death of Mom, the shared news of evacuations and damage, our family has become stronger. I might be the biggest beneficiary of this, however, because I have been one of the biggest loners. I distanced myself from my relatives and New Orleans, not because I didn’t like them but because I wanted something I didn’t think I could get by remaining there.
Right before my dreaded 50th birthday I began to reconnect with family and friends from the past. I wanted to learn how they turned out and what they were doing. Beneath the surface I believe I also wanted them to learn about me, to see my successes, to understand that I appreciated them.
And, like both of my parents, I am a packrat. It must be a family trait. My aunts and uncles who did not live in New Orleans apparently collected photos and mementos, including some that were sent to them by my parents over the years. My cousins still have those photos and they took the time to dig them out, scan them and send them to me and my sister.
Now we have some of the lost photos, but more than that, I have found my family. Reluctantly I thank Katrina for that.
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