Saturday, August 31, 2013

Seven – rewritten for Eight

Things are pretty good in my life right now, for the most part, but some old feelings return right around September 1st each year.  I go through a little slump for a couple of days but my feelings usually resolve into something good.  This is almost exactly the same post I wrote this week last year and I’ll share again.  Thanks for visiting. 

I am struggling with a few things this week.  For one, I can’t believe August is already over; what happened to June and July?  For another I had a ten-hour work day yesterday, which mostly consisted of finishing projects that were all overdue; I hate missing deadlines.  And of course the week was filled with concerns about Hurricane Isaac.  As far as I know, all of my friends and family in the New Orleans area got through the storm with little or no damage.

And I miss Mom.

I can’t believe it has been seven years already (now eight) since she died.  That week was filled with repeated attempts to get in touch with my sister, who had evacuated in advance of Hurricane Katrina.  Phone service was sketchy and it took several days to get reach her by phone.  Those same days were filled with repeated attempts to find out what happened to my Mom and the other residents of the nursing home where she lived.  That facility was in the suburbs of New Orleans and did not face the same serious flooding issues, but they did have water in the building after the storm.  They had NOT evacuated, so now they were dealing with loss of electricity, lack of fuel for a generator and no way to adequately feed or treat the residents.

The nursing home moved their residents across the street to a hospital for a few days but that wasn’t working out very well either, so they put some of them, including my Mother, in “transport” and moved them to another facility in the northern part of Louisiana.  I learned all of this via a chat room on a New Orleans TV station web site and finally found a phone number at the new location.  Late in the morning of September 1st, after hitting redial hundreds of times, I was able to get through at which time I learned Mom had died a few hours earlier.

Mom was a remarkable woman and I know I did not appreciate that when she was alive.  She was very independent but followed the expected path of her generation.  She quit her job when she was six months pregnant with me and never returned to work.  If she was of my generation I know she would have reentered the work force.  She and my Dad were not exactly alike yet they were completely in sync with each other.  They respected each other, even when disagreeing.  They loved each other till the end and showed it in little ways like holding hands and just spending quiet time together.

They both liked travel, but Mom was more adventurous.  On one of their ‘senior bus trips’ Dad stayed on the bus while Mom joined several passengers on a short walk onto a glacier, just to say she did it.  Mom was a story-teller and I’ve said many times that she was the inspiration for my storytelling habit.  She was curious, opinionated and tolerant.  She was in some ways horrified by parts of my life and would give me her opinion about them, but she accepted it all. 

Mom was also a great role model for creative aging.  She took art classes in her 60s and more at a senior center in her 70s.  I have two of the only five of her paintings not destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.  She kept up with current events by reading the daily newspaper as long as she could.  She loved being around people and did her best to talk with other residents and staff at the nursing home.

If you are a regular visitor to this blog you have probably seen the next part, but I think it is worth repeating.  I delivered this short eulogy at her funeral.  My sister and I decided to make that ceremony a celebration of her life, and it pretty much sums it up.

When we met with Father Ralph a few days ago, he pointed us in a wonderful direction for today.  He said this should be a celebration of your Mother’s life.

My sister and I are so lucky to have had her as our mother, and there are so many things we could say about her.  But in my mind, four things stand out above the rest:

1)      She had a great sense of humor …. She loved a good laugh.  One of my sister’s last memories of her was a few days before Katrina.  Mom was sitting there at the nursing home laughing.  My sister doesn’t really know what she was laughing at, but she was having a good ole laugh.
2)      Mom loved to travel.  And with the evacuation to north Louisiana and her return here in this casket, she traveled more during her last three days of life and the weeks since her death than she had traveled in decades.  She is probably having a good laugh about that right now.
3)      Mom paid me and my sister the greatest compliment a mother could pay a child … many times.  She married late in life, especially for her generation, at age 39.  She told us many times that her life really didn’t begin till she was in her 40s, when she had us.
4)      One of the most important things in life is family.  Up until the last year or so, she kept up with what was going on in your lives … the cousins, your kids, your grandkids.  The Mary Kay sisters, the red car ... she even got to ride in the red Mary Kay car and she was aware of things that day.

And it means a lot to my sister and I that you are here sharing this day with us.

Mom, we love you.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Deafening Sound of Quiet

No birds.  No barking dogs. No rustling of leaves in the wind.  The only sound during most of my visit was the distant rumble of front-end loaders scooping up soaked discarded household debris from front lawns.

It is hard for me to believe that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans eight years ago this week.  Eight years!  Six weeks later I was helping my sister discard her still wet household belongings, most of which were destroyed during the three weeks her house sat in ten feet of stagnant water.

My strongest memories of that week are the smell of mold and the absence of sound.  I wore a mask, gloves, jeans and a long sleeved shirt to protect myself from the mold as I entered the house each day.  In the middle of the afternoon, when I could no longer stand the heat, humidity and sadness, I changed into clean shorts and a t-shirt out in the open in the back yard.  I was alone most days (my sister was at work most of that week, one of the lucky few whose job had returned) and there wasn’t anybody around to see me in my underwear; the next closest clean-up crew was a block away.

Everything had that moldy smell, including the few items we could salvage.  I washed my work clothes every day, hoping the smell didn’t travel with me to my cousin’s suburban house where I stayed that week.  I dropped off ‘keeper’ items at my sister’s friend’s house each day but the smell lingered in my mini-van for weeks after my return to Maryland.  Months later my sister sent me a package of mementos she had found.  As soon as I opened the box that smell hit me. For more than a year I would regularly wake up in the middle of the night with that smell in my nostrils, imagined no doubt but my brain perceived it as real.

The house I was cleaning is the one where we grew up.  The pre-Katrina neighborhood sounds included children playing, dogs barking, cars taking a speedy short-cut down that street, air conditioners working hard to beat the heat, birds chirping in oak trees, mosquitoes buzzing at dusk.  None of those sounds filled my ears during that mid-October week in 2005.  The lack of those sounds was louder in my head and my heart that the heavy machinery of rebuilding or the police cars broadcasting curfew orders as sunset approached.

New Orleans is odd, quirky, unique and resilient.  People who never lived there provided a cacophony of commentary questioning the wisdom of rebuilding and predicting the death of the city.   Those of us who understand the nature of the place knew better.  NOLA natives like my sister and most of my family knew that one day the sound of chirping birds, barking dogs, mosquitoes and jazz would eventually replace rumbling of dump trucks and the sobbing of loss. 

For me though, this week always brings back memories of that moldy smell and the deafening sound of quiet.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

It’s For All of Us

The ‘I Have a Dream’ speech fifty years ago today was a turning point for all Americans not just black Americans.  It was a partly improvised 17-minute oration that cited history, scripture, politics and economics as it challenged the United States government to live up to its founding principal of freedom for all citizens while at the same time challenging demonstrators to remain calm but persistent.

Many white people of mid-boomer age who grew up in the South in the 1960s might think the speech and the 50th anniversary activities are not for them.  In my opinion, that view is like saying that the freedoms our country is built on are only for white people.  And sadly, that was true for a large chunk of our history.  Our Declaration of Independence declares that we are all created equal but for much of our history only white men could vote.

I grew up in a racist environment.  Many family members were racist and some still are.  I won’t repeat some of the ‘beliefs’ we were raised with regarding blacks and other races.  I will say that I always struggled with the idea that other races were anything less than equal but I didn’t challenge those things very much as a kid because I didn’t know anything else.  My neighborhood was entirely white.  I am certain that the first black person to ever enter my family’s home was one of the people we hired to help my Dad with his Parkinson’s-related issues in the 1990s. 

My parents slowly changed some of their attitudes towards black people after spending time in close proximity with them.  It is amazing what you can learn about someone by having a conversation.  My mother and one of the older ‘sitters’ talked about children and grandchildren.  During ten years of sitters, only one of them was male, a black male, and my Dad had conversations with him about some guy things including carpentry.

The 1963 speech by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. painted a picture where all races and creeds would live the American Dream together.  Are we there yet?  Yes in some ways, no in others. Every citizen has equal voting rights.  Every citizen has the right to jobs regardless of color … in theory.  In practice there is probably ongoing racism, sometimes unintended, sometimes blatant but secretive.  Multi-racial couples and families are still an oddity in some parts of the country, especially in rural areas like the one I recently moved away from.

A sad aspect of the celebrations this week is that so many talk shows and Facebook posts have politicized Dr. King and the whole civil rights movement of the mid-20th century.

A positive aspect of the celebrations is that a white former President from Arkansas and the current black President from Chicago could share the stage and each give a speech standing on the very spot where Dr. King stood fifty years ago.  Today was for all of us.

I can't even imaging what this moment felt like to the Obamas today ...