Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Home Can Not Be Replaced

Place that was home is really irreplaceable
Anne Rochell Konigsmark - For the Journal-Constitution

Sunday, September 4, 2005

We took diapers, water and dog food. We took a wedding album, a baby book, my husband's watch --- a wedding present--- and my best jewelry. It was before dawn on Sunday morning when we stuffed our Honda CRV with a bag of toys, a laptop, two flash drives, milk and juice, a dog bed, a Pack n Play portable crib and our son's most precious stuffed animals. The last things to go in were Gus, who is 18 months old, and our dog, a 100-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback named Lula. She perched precariously in the back, atop a cooler and a suitcase. I brought no shoes except flip-flops. My son had no long pants. My husband forgot to pack a belt. I did not take the journals and diaries I've been keeping since I was 9, orthe boxes of photographs, or the family silver. I didn't take an address book, or a calendar, or any of my first-edition books.

I made the bed. I folded some napkins and washed a glass. Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, I joked. A sandwich bag full of boiled shrimp sits in the fridge. The garbage can and the diaper pail are full. But one week after evacuating from New Orleans, I have learned something: It's not about the house. For the first few days after Katrina hit, as New Orleans began drowning beneath brackish waters, I would spend my days thinking up things I had left behind. How could I forget my address book? Why didn't I pack any of our three cameras? Where is my grandmother's locket? Then something changed. I noticed that when people would call to say it looked as though our neighborhood might not have flooded, I would be uninterested. So the house is there. The roof --- 100 years old and made of brittle slates --- is surely gone, which means it will rain inside for weeks. No, just say it. Months. And who knows which of my former neighbors has taken up residence inside, or torn the place up looking for what? A TV they can't plug in? I imagine them drinking our case of 2000 Bordeaux, or wearing my clothes.

I dream about the looters every night. But even that is not about the house. When we got in the car that Sunday morning, we took a last look at our home,> a double shotgun cottage we had just painted yellow. The celadon green shutters were fastened tight against the 8-foot windows and our bright red door. We spent weeks choosing those colors. We drove past Parasol's, the neighborhood po'boy joint where literally, everybody knows your name. We drove in darkness down Washington Avenue, through the heart of the Garden District, past mansions and an above-ground cemetery and Commander's Palace. We turned onto St. Charles Avenue and drove quietly under the canopy of live oaks that line the most beautiful main street in America. We merged onto I-10 and sat there for an hour, listening to reports that the highway was hopelessly clogged. Fortunately, we are regular visitors to what we call "Cajun Country," that mystical region west of Baton Rouge where a seven-course meal consists of a six-pack and a link of boudin sausage.

We knew a back way and we took it. We arrived in Opelousas in four hours. On Monday afternoon, my husband began planning to go into New Orleans on Wednesday to survey the damage. On Tuesday morning, as the floodwaters surged into the city through broken levees, we packed up our things and began driving again. It was time to be with family. It was time to come back to Atlanta. I sit in the basement of my mother-in-law's Canton home, a spacious and loving place where I can pass Gus into the eager arms of his grandmother while I begin to sort this out. We don't know if we will ever return to New Orleans. As the e-mails pour in steadily --- from Houston, Long Island, Chicago, Jackson, Miss., Baton Rouge, Phoenix, North Carolina, California--- I feel as though my life has exploded, and the pieces have landed all over the country. I went shopping Friday. As I drove down I-75, I couldn't stop eyeing license plates, searching for someone from Louisiana. I WAS DESPERATELY LONELY in a sea of Georgia tags.

I went to Lenox Square,feeling ike a Lilliputian inside that vast shopping hive. A radio station was having a Red Cross fund-raiser outside. I put a dollar in the bucket and mumbled, "I'm from New Orleans." They smiled and handed me a strand of Mardi Gras beads. No thanks, I said bitterly, these are what we in New Orleans call the cheap beads. My unsaid (and ludicrous) message was, You don't understand about bead hierarchy. You're not from the city that collectively smiles smugly every February, wondering what the rest of the nation is doing while we line St. Charles Avenue with our coolers and our crawfish and our kids, waiting for the floats and those magical throws. Black and white, rich and poor, we gather along the parade routes for the best 10-day party in the world. So many people think it's all about boobs and Bourbon Street. I have never been to Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras.

Do I sound angry?

You should have seen me when Dennis Hastert mentioned bulldozers. You should have seen my husband when the service person at Cingular pronounced our beloved city "gone." "It will never be the same," she said. Lady, he wanted to shout, like you even know what it was? Do you even know what shell ginger and sweet olive smell like? Have you ever been sitting at dinner when a brass band just bursts into the restaurant for fun? Do you even know that we count off our seasons as shrimp, oyster, crawfish and crab? Do you have any idea what it means, to miss New Orleans?

So I wandered from store to store, mindlessly purchasing a belt for my husband, a crib bumper and long pants for Gus and shoes for me. In J.Crew, a woman heard me say my ZIP code, and approached me. She too is from New Orleans, and lives not far from me. Of course, because New Orleans has only one or two degrees of separation, within two minutes we had figured out several people we knew in common. She owns a store on Magazine Street and has two school-aged children. She was headed to North Carolina to be with family. She didn't know if she would return. "Well, I hope to see you on Magazine Street again one day," I said. And I burst into tears. There I stood, in my flip flops, surrounded by bags of meaningless replacement items, mourning what may never be replaced. That is what it's about.

Anne Rochell Konigsmark is a former Journal-Constitution staff writer.


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