Tomorrow morning, the construction company will arrive at our hundred-year-old home in mid-city New Orleans, and some strong men will move out shiny black kitchen appliances and the world’s heaviest television and truck them over to Common Ground where they’ll be used by Lower Nine families who are rebuilding after Katrina. Then the contractor will stage our house for what we hope will be a five-month renovation. Back in our new and updated kitchen just in time for Christmas dinner is what we’re hoping for but everyone I talk to tells me to multiply the months by 100%. Right now I don’t want to think about ten months and I’m going to err on the side of optimism and good ju ju because we haven’t started yet and already I want my house back.
We bought the place in August 2002 after falling instantly in love with the little reading room downstairs, and we thought at first that it was a Sears home, but the Sears kit house historian, after I sent her a photo, told me it was too fancy. It still has the feel of a house that was shipped in pieces. Lots of kitschy details that look like junior versions of columns and moldings you might find in an Uptown mansion. It’s 3,500 sf counting the recently converted (by owners before us) attic where our son, Andrew, spent his teenage years and where his father and I will live for these next few months. Until Andrew leaves for college in late August, we’ll all be sleeping and dwelling up there together. (We used to call sleeping in the same room “the family camp”, but that was before Andrew started coming in at 1 a.m. after being out with his girlfriend or his buddies. Once he’s in the house, safe, I imagine it’ll be that same complete peace I feel when my boys are resting just inches away from me.) The attic is a nice space, almost 1,000 sf, but it’s taken twenty sessions of hands-on-hips to get Andrew to move his piles of clothes and CDs and PS3 games and shit off the floor where he swears, “It’s easier to find them, Mom” and into the boxes he’ll use to carry those things to the University of Texas. I will miss him, but I’m ready for him to go as long as he doesn’t forget to come back home and not just for holidays like the first Christmas we will have in our new and improved house. (Think it, say it, will it.)
For the last three weeks, we’ve been slowly tossing towers of New Yorkers and Harpers and Atlantic Monthlies and Time and Men’s Health and shelter magazines, and going through clothing and shoes and toys and books and CDs, the worn out furniture from our first marriages, and what wasn’t ruined or thread bare we gave to Goodwill and Malcolm’s older sons. A storage container on Carrollton is stuffed with the less valuable things that will be put back into the house. Things it wouldn’t grieve us to lose if another hurricane hits and the levees fail again. The living room is piled high with art and photographs and Important Papers and sofas and tables and chairs, lamps, tchotchkes, whatever we could fit in there, because it’s the one room that isn’t going to be worked in so the contractor’s assured us that everything in there will be visqueened and then sealed off and that sheetrock dust won’t get into our stuff.
Our house is on Esplanade Ridge and we didn’t flood during Katrina but our neighborhood did – from a few inches to ten feet – as the bowl that is my city filled with dirty water. Mid-City was under water for three weeks, and when Malcolm checked on the house in late September, (with a special access pass he’d been issued from the governor’s office), he had to empty a refrigerator and freezer that had been sitting in high heat. We’d taken the meat with us when we evacuated to Jackson. Malcolm said it was rotten ice cream and frozen vegetables that left a smell in his brain that he still can’t forget. So we don’t keep much in the freezer anymore, and we won’t ever leave town during a hurricane again with food in the fridge, or just the clothes on our backs, because from Jackson we went directly to Houston for four months so Andrew could go to high school there with 400 kids from his flooded high school. This much I know: You don’t always know when you’re going to get back home.
The editing that Malcolm and Andrew and I have been doing is a privilege; our friends and family who lost everything to water didn’t have a choice about what to pitch, donate or save. I didn’t lose Andrew’s baby pictures, or the VHS tapes of his first hair cut, Pre-K graduation, first Holy Communion, which I can’t watch, formatted like they are, but I have them to convert. I have my memories of my life with this family I love so much, but I also have artifacts, images, drawings, macaroni Christmas ornaments, proof that marks the years together, evidence that we did the things we remember doing.
Over the last thirty years since college, I’ve collected almost 1,000 books, and they’re safely tucked into boxes where I can find them. We’re going to have wall-to-ceiling-bookshelves in the den upstairs, and those boxes will probably be the first ones I unpack because those books need an alphabetical, genre-driven home and it will have been too many months since I had them close by, not to read just then but to read and re-read one day.
So, on tap to renovate is our kitchen and three bathrooms, all of which are from the 20s, and while we’re torn up and breathing plaster dust, we’re going to reconfigure the flow upstairs because our home was once a boarding house for jockeys at the Fair Grounds, which is a half-mile away, and so the second floor is mostly a landing with lots of doors to small rooms that spin off and don’t seem to know about each other. Right now, today, everything feels like hope and promise and timeliness, but I’ll be back every few days to document the set-backs and victories and doldrums as we set out for not this, but, rather, a stiff-winded sail over to the isle of great water pressure and book-laden shelves and a kitchen that’ll be a magnet for friends and family and the returning Andrew.
Meanwhile, we drift through empty rooms, missing a place to sit and drink coffee, talk and read, but pleasantly reminded of how the house looked when we first walked in and fell in love.