Not Another Katrina Story

There was nothing particularly special about the neighborhood. There were no historical buildings, no famous landmarks. It was home to a small shopping center, not unlike the strip malls you find anywhere in the United States.

The only difference at this moment was that it was under water. I stared at the picture of this familiar strip mall on The Times-Picayune website. At that moment, the picture seemed like my only connection to the real world. I had just completed my move from New Orleans to Gainesville, Florida a week ago. Now I was looking at what I had left behind. Water had risen all the way up to the Rite Aid sign.

There was a time that sign was a controversial symbol. When Rite Aid bought out the local drug store chain K&B, many residents were upset, myself included. K&B was one of my favorite places to go as a kid to scope out Halloween costumes in early fall, and of course, to buy chocolate éclair ice cream. That was the reason most people liked it – for the store brand ice cream. It was rumored that Rite Aid was going to continue to sell it, but after a few months, the ice cream disappeared from the shelves and was never replaced, at least, not with the beloved K&B brand. Eventually, we got used to Rite Aid, but in typical New Orleans fashion, people kept the memory of K&B alive by wearing t-shirts, buttons, even Mardi Gras beads, featuring the old store’s classic purple oval logo. The store was gone, but never forgotten.

At the other end of the strip, next to the Pizza Hut, was a P.J.’s Coffee – a local chain that managed to stick around, though this location didn’t hold the best memories for me. When I was a senior in high school, the boy I was dating took me to that P.J.’s and told me he wanted to talk about something important. I thought he was going to say that he wanted to be exclusive, to make me his girlfriend. After all, just a week earlier he told me that my kiss made him tremble, but we hadn’t yet had any discussion of this being a relationship. We grabbed an outdoor table, and as he began to talk, we were interrupted by a stranger with three dogs who asked if I would mind holding onto the leash while he went inside to get a cup of coffee. So there I was, holding onto three strange dogs, while the boy I thought was about to become my boyfriend told me, “I’ve come to think of you as a sister.”

I almost dropped the leash.

He went on to tell me he just wanted to be friends, and, not to worry, he would still take me to my prom. Gee, thanks ole buddy.

It’s not my fondest memory, but it makes for kind of a funny story, fitting the cliché: someday you’ll look back on this and laugh.

Even the parking lot itself held memories for me. When I was first learning to drive, my parents took me there after the stores had closed, and I practiced pulling in and out of parking spaces. Then I practiced driving up and down the strip center, from the drug store to the coffee shop. Driving in a straight line was a challenge for me, but if I did OK with that, I could drive home, only a few short blocks away.

Looking at the photograph on the newspaper’s website, I knew it was true. If the water had reached the Rite Aid sign, my old home – where my parents still lived – must be flooded to the ceiling. I didn’t know where my parents were. They had chosen not to evacuate, and until I saw that photograph, I was probably in as much denial as they were about what was happening.

But I don’t want to tell another Hurricane Katrina story. I’ve read more than I can count. I’ve heard the political slants, the conspiracy theories, opinions of ignorance and insight. I’ve heard the tasteless jokes, the horror stories, stories of inspiration, redemption, tragedy, courage.

After a while, I became sick and tired of all of it. I was tired of dwelling on the past, and I didn’t want to hear any new opinions. I even went through a phase where I avoided telling people where I was from, because I wanted to avoid the inevitable Katrina conversation.

It was just as so many New Orleans residents learned to ignore outsider opinions and get on with what they needed to do – whether that meant rebuilding their homes, cleaning up their neighborhoods, moving to a new city, or even burying their loved ones. There comes a point where you just don’t want to dwell on what was lost.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. I moved away right before the storm hit. I got to watch everything play out from the safety of my Florida home. For years, I carried around tremendous guilt because of this. I should have been there. I could have helped. I could have done … something .. anything. Why did I move away? This was a sign that I should have stayed. My family needed me. My city needed me.

Now when I go back to New Orleans, I feel better. My parents survived and rebuilt their home, and somehow the city has managed to get along without me all this time. No, it’s not exactly the same as when I lived there. But would it have been anyway? They say you can’t go home again. This is true. I can’t go back to the house I grew up in, because it’s been replaced by a different house, (though in the exact same spot as the old one). But I can’t go back in time and eat my favorite flavor of K&B ice cream either, or get dumped by a high school boy who suddenly thinks of me as a sister, or learn to drive again in a parking lot. These are only memories that have helped shape the person I’ve become.

Hurricane Katrina isn’t exactly something I look back on and laugh at, but at least I can look back and not cry anymore.

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When Am I Going to Use This?

I attended an all girls Catholic high school, and  like students at any school, my classmates and I asked the question, “When am I going to use this?”

But at my school, we didnt just question parabolas and quadratic equations.

We questioned why we had to wear name tags.

“It’s not preparing us for the real world,” one girl remarked, “unless we want to work at McDonald’s for the rest of our lives.”
We questioned why, as upperclassmen, we were required to complete community service hours over the summer.
“Is this preparing us for a life of crime?” we joked.
We had to wear uniforms and looked forward to the days we were allowed to wear jeans – even if it meant we had to pay a dollar to support a school club for the privilege.
On the days we had to attend church,  we not only wore uniforms with name tags, but we also had to wear blazers.
If we asked our teachers why we had to do any of these things, they would tell us it was to teach us responsibility, but in my adult life, these things have come into play much more literally than ever expected.
I currently work in a building that requires a name badge for access. I typically have to wear business casual attire – unless I earn a jeans day by donating to a charitable cause. Then there are the special occasions  when I’m required to wear professional attire, and as I put on my suit blazer, it becomes all too surreal.
Those community service hours also come into play. The company I work for has had me packing food for school kids, delivering meals to the elderly, and preparing dinner for families with sick children.
So yes, now I’m using all those things I thought were so odd back in high school.  And when I recently found myself on a team of all women, working for a female boss, well … I’ve never felt so at home.
I’m still not sure when I’ll use a parabola.

Christmas Magic

photo (2)When I was little, I believed in Santa Claus wholeheartedly. My belief system included bits and pieces from different versions of the Santa lore I’d seen on TV Christmas specials, plus what I’d learned from my own family.

For example, I knew Santa Claus didn’t really travel the entire world in one night. With different time zones and not everyone celebrating Christmas simultaneously, he actually spent several nights making all his deliveries. I knew he had a magic key that fit all the doors of houses that didn’t have chimneys. And I knew who he was. He was Saint Nicholas, a man who was called by God to give children presents on Jesus’ birthday.

The only thing I hadn’t quite figured out was where Santa got his toys. Of course I knew that he had elves to make toys, but everything I’d seen suggested elves only made wooden toys, like rocking horses, or maybe cloth toys, like rag dolls. So where did Santa get all the plastic toys and electronics? Did elves copy the manufacturing designs of Sony and Mattel? Or did Santa go shopping? If so, where? How did he do it without being seen? And then what was to become of the elves? Were they just sitting around the workshop waiting for the odd rocking horse request? This was the eighties, when was the last time a kid asked for a rocking horse?

I couldn’t reconcile these things until the Christmas of 1986. I was seven years old, and on Christmas morning, I opened my stocking and pulled out a shiny metallic clown holding balloons. It was an ornament, and on the back of the ornament was a price tag.

“Mama! Santa Claus shops at Wal-Mart!” I shouted.

And on the front of my new ornament, etched in one of the balloons was my name and the year. Now all my questions were answered. Santa Claus did the shopping, but that tiny etching on the front was clearly the handiwork of elves. I still wasn’t quite sure how Santa managed to go shopping among the general public undetected. I guess there were some things that could only be explained by Christmas magic.

My Kind of Mother

When I was little, my parents weren’t very strict, but Mama did have two rules:

1) Don’t play with the hose without permission.

2) Don’t spend the night at a friend’s house until age 12.

My childhood coincided with the advent of the VCR, so every slumber party involved a rented movie at the end of the night. Because of Mama’s second rule, I saw only the beginnings of a lot of popular films. It never failed that just when I started to get into a story, my mother would knock on the front door to take me home. For me, Marty McFly never made it back to the future. The Goonies ended after the first truffle shuffle. E.T. never phoned home, and The NeverEnding Story had only just begun.

It wasn’t just classic ’80s movie endings that I missed. I also didn’t get to have one of those trendy little sleeping bags adorned with cartoon characters that surrounded me at these parties. I envied the other girls who rolled out their beds featuring Smurfs and Care Bears, as I sat on the floor without so much as a pillow, waiting for a movie I’d only partially be able to enjoy.

But when I was seven years old, I went to a slumber party where the host actually started the movie early. I was excited. It was just starting to get dark outside, and no one had unfurled her sleeping bag yet. Maybe this time I’d actually get to see the whole show.

I sat on the carpeted floor with the rest of the girls as the movie began. I was riveted. It was the story of a girl who had a terrifying nightmare. It was a little scary, but I could relate. I’d had many bad dreams. But when this girl woke up, she had scratches on her arm, scratches that had occurred in the dream. Her terrifying nightmare was real! I didn’t know how this movie was going to end. I hoped the girl would have a good dream next, and all the bad stuff would go away, but the more I watched, the more I felt like this wasn’t a happily-ever-after kind of story. For the first time ever, I hoped Mama would show up early.

After a particularly gory scene in which a spring of blood shot out of a bed, my friend Cherie nudged me. “Do you want to get some pizza?” she asked.

“Yes,” I whispered, barely able to talk.

We went into the dining room where pizza and soft drinks sat on the table. As we put pizza slices onto our paper plates, we heard a loud scream from all the girls in the living room. That’s when my friend Sarah appeared in the dining room with us. Her face was red, and she looked like she was about to cry. “I … I … need something to drink,” she stammered.

“Me too,” I said, wanting any excuse to stay in the dining room a little longer.

We heard another scream.

“Stop screaming,” shouted the mother who was hosting the party. “If you girls keep screaming like that, I’m going to turn off the movie.”

I secretly prayed that the girls in the living room would scream again so the movie would get turned off.

Cherie, Sarah, and I slowly started to walk back to the living room, carrying our pizza and drinks.

“Do you want to just sit behind the couch?” Cherie asked.

“Yes,” Sarah and I simultaneously answered.

So we hid behind the couch where we ate our pizza and drank our Cokes. Nightmare on Elm Street played loud enough for us to hear the gravelly voice of Freddy Kruger threatening to do things like “split you in two” or “kill you slow.”

I looked down at my pizza and was almost afraid to eat it. “My pizza looks like blood,” I said.

Cherie looked at her drink. “This Coke looks like blood,” she said.

I looked at my Coke. “Yeah, it looks like the dark blood that was shooting out of the bed!”

In the quieter moments, one of us would peer over the couch to see if the movie had gotten any better, but there was only more horror and gore.

“I want to go home,” said Sarah, and she started to sob. “I’m going to call my mom.”

“I bet my mom can give you a ride,” I said. “She should be here soon, anyway.”

I was right, and I’d never been so happy to see Mama at the door. Sarah called her mother, who said it was alright for my mom to take her home. The other kids saw Sarah grabbing her sleeping bag and one by one, they started to line up by the phone to call their parents. By the time we walked out, the movie was ending, and apparently, so was the party.

Sarah and I got into the car with Mama and told her all about what we’d seen.

“What kind of a mother would show that movie to a bunch of seven-year-olds?” Mama said.

“Not my mother,” said Sarah.

“Mine either,” I said.

Three years later, when I was only 10, Mama suspended her rule and let me spend the night at Sarah’s slumber party. I suppose it was alright because we already knew what kind of mother Sarah had.

I wished I could get a nice new sleeping bag for the occasion. Instead, I had a well-worn, pink, floral hand-me-down that had been used by all three of my older sisters before me.

At Sarah’s sleepover, one girl unveiled a pristine New Kids on the Block sleeping bag and scoffed at the girl next to her who still had Care Bears on hers. Suddenly, I was grateful for my old pink floral hand-me-down.

A few short years later, that New Kids on the Block sleeping bag would be the laughing stock of the party, and I’d still have my well-worn, comfortable, pink floral one, noticed by no one. It had been in the family for years and wasn’t going anywhere.

To this day, Mama still has that tattered old thing. Because that’s the kind of mother I have.

Bless Me Father, for I Have Sinned

I lied. I fought with my brother and sisters. I disobeyed my parents and I used bad language. For years, that was my standard confession. I created it in second grade when I first received the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In school, we were taught to examine our conscience during the week leading up to our first confession. I couldn’t think of anything in particular I had done that would be considered a sin, but our religion textbook had a few examples. I also talked to my sisters and my brother to get ideas. So I took little bits from each. I figured I must have done all those things at some point in my 7-year existence.

My first confession was very ceremonial and not very clandestine. It was held in church on a weeknight, and all the second-graders were there with their parents (all but the one Protestant kid in our class.) We even wore nametags. There were some priests sitting in chairs up on the altar. Each priest had an additional chair sitting across from him. We kids formed a line in front of the altar, and took turns to sit in the chair across from the next available priest and confess our sins, face to face. I was a little nervous, but I was relieved when I got to Father Finn. He was a rotund balding Irishman who was always jovial. When I sat down, he looked at my nametag and said, “Oh Aileen! That’s an Irish name!” That put me at ease, and I recited what I had memorized. He told me to say a couple of prayers, and then I went back to the pew where my family was seated. After the ceremony, everyone told me congratulations, and I felt very proud.

That was the only time I ever really enjoyed confession.

In third grade, and every year after, confession was something we did twice a year, as most Catholics know, once before Christmas and once before Easter. The teacher would line us up and we’d walk over to the church where we’d stand in line once more, each taking our turns in one of the private confessional booths. There was no pomp and circumstance to the occasion anymore.

As we stood in line, we’d murmur practiced confessions and whisper to each other about which priest we might get. Some of the priests were easy to talk to, like Father Finn. Others were more intimidating, speaking in harsh tones when they handed down their penance. Most of the priests, however, were neither comforting nor intimidating. They just sounded bored. Then, like a doctor prescribing medicine, the priest would prescribe a couple of prayers to absolve the sins that ailed you.

If you’ve never entered a confessional before, you might expect the dark little room to be dank and musty, but it wasn’t. The confessional was cold, and always smelled as if it had just been cleaned, like the old commercials for Murphy’s Oil soap where the two old ladies cleaned the entire church. If it’s good enough to clean this house, imagine what it can do for yours.

Confession, I suppose, is intended to be a Murphy’s Oil Soap for the soul. The cleaning process isn’t always fun, but it can be a relief when it’s over.