Friday, June 16, 2006

The Things We Leave Behind

I think about it sometimes when I’m trying to fall asleep: if I had to do it again, what would I have taken last August 28th? How do you pack a lifetime’s memories—five people’s memories, along with the five people, six cats, litter boxes and litter, food, sleeping bags, overnight bags and towels—into one SUV and two Volkswagens? You can’t.

I remember I had a strange sense of unreality when I was packing to leave, as if I were merely going through the motions. New Orleans had had so many near misses over the years. Hurricanes would get into the Gulf and seem to threaten New Orleans, and then they would turn. A belief had grown up, a folk wisdom that said there was something about the air currents formed by the lake and the river that turned hurricanes at the last minute, even when they seemed certain to hit. Time and time again, the residents of the city had seen it. They’d board up their houses and leave, but they never really expected anything to happen.

Ask virtually any New Orleanian and they’ll tell you the same thing: they evacuated for Katrina fully expecting to be home in a day or two. They took one change of clothes, maybe two. I evacuated wearing a pair of white shorts, a t-shirt, and sandals. I threw a couple of extra t-shirts, a pair of jeans, and underclothes in a bag, and because I have a tendency to feel the cold I tossed in a sweater. I wore those jeans and sandals when I went out to dinner to celebrate my birthday a month later. Next time I evacuate, I’m taking a little black dress. Next time…

Last time, for Katrina, Danielle packed two boxes with her photo albums and precious little things, her awards and metals and ribbons from a lifetime of swimming and Tae Kwan Do, dancing and piano and academic achievement. I looked at my grandmother’s silver in the china closet and started to say, “Honey, we don’t have room for that stuff.” Then I bit my tongue. Her memories were more important.

In the end, I took nothing of monetary value, only the things we’d deemed most precious. Of all the things I lost in the storm, the ones that made me cry weren’t the most valuable, but the heartfelt things that can never be replaced. Like the moldy, water-warped copy of my late father’s book, Hitler’s Luftwaffe in Spanish Civil War, published the year I earned my PhD, its title page proudly inscribed, “To the other historian of the family, my daughter Dr. Candice Proctor. From ‘the old man’.…” Or the antique trunk I used for an end table and in which I stored my girls’ baby clothes, so carefully saved over the years as we moved from one place to another: leather lederhosen from Germany; delicate hand-smocked English dresses; little leather shoes, one pair for each baby. When I opened the trunk a week after the storm, it was still filled with water, my babies’ clothes stewing in the brown muck inside.

You can’t take it all, can’t save it all. In the end, of our six cats, only five cats made it into carriers and into the cars. Our pale yellow tomcat, Press, is still half-feral and refused to be caught. Time was rushing past, the feeder bands from the hurricane rolling in. I left piles of food and giant bowls of water upstairs and down. He came out of hiding at the last minute to sit on the stairs and peer at us strangely through the bannister as I was shutting the door behind me, yet I knew if I made a move toward him, he’d run. I said, Good-bye little sweetheart; take care of yourself.

The memory of his solemn little eyes haunted me, accused me, for the next week as I frantically tried to get back to him. And when we finally battled our way home, he was waiting for me there, on the lowest dry step. The joy of seeing him helped me bear the horror of everything else I was seeing....

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