Ever since the levees broke, I’d been meaning to get back there. But things kept coming up. So it is when you’re doing the avoidance dance. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with New Orleans, my ancestral home. I finally made it back to NOLA two summers ago, driving past my grandparents’ long-abandoned house. Literally driving past it. As in: I didn’t recognize that big, old, double-shotgun, where I’d spent many a summer running ‘round and ‘round the backyard.
Even up in Uptown, far from Ward Nine, Katrina had reach: Her winds wreaked havoc on my family’s home, wiping away fences, smacking down shutters, smiting the garage. Wiping away the past with a fierceness.
But then again, when I think of New Orleans, it’s always in the past tense. Even before Katrina. Katrina just put an explanation point on a period. From its cemetery tours to Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo to its music, New Orleans is firmly rooted in nostalgia, holding onto what once was. It’s what propels tourism there, what lures revelers there for Mardi Gras, that whiff of exoticism and decadence hung over from days gone by: Laissez les bon temps roulez. Let the good times roll. No matter what.
But underneath all that partying and nostalgia is a deep, desperate sense of sadness and longing.
Katrina just multiplied the grief. Tenfold.
Folks there like to boast that New Orleans is the northernmost tip of the Caribbean, and they’re onto something there. (And indeed, when I visited Cuba a few years back, I was struck by such a feeling of déjà vu: crumbling Havana looked and felt so much like New Orleans; it was dizzying.) New Orleans isn’t really an American city, but at the same time it’s a quintessentially American city—a colonial American city.
New Orleans is, as a friend’s son says in NOLA parlance, “beaucoup weird.” It is beaucoup everything, too old, too poor, too rich, too black, too French, too mixed, too color-struck, too class-riven, too troubled, too complicated, too beautiful.
It is this country’s Other, a throwback.
If we’re lucky, it’ll be our future, too. Past will become prologue.
But first, we’ll have to own it. Claim it. Recognize that it has a right to live.
I, myself, had a hard time claiming it, as a kid growing up in New York and Atlanta. I thought that side of my heritage was too gothic, too weird, too Other. Every summer, we’d either hop a plane or pile into the family car, heading down to my father’s birthplace. It seemed so hopelessly old-school then, from the weird accents to the funky-smelling drinking water to the statues of bloodied Catholic saints crowding my grandmother’s living room. (And my God, hadn’t those folks heard about air conditioning?)
My grandfather, my father’s father, didn’t speak English until he was 19. A doctor, he’d gone blind shortly after my birth, when he was well into his ‘80s. I remember him as this silent, pale presence, sitting in an armchair, not saying a word, unless you greeted him with a shy, “Hi, Grandpa.” Then he’d spring to life, nodding his head, patting my hand and crooning in his thick Creole accent, “Hi, darlin’, yes, yes.” My grandmother, after whom I am named, would drag me with her to Mass every Sunday, and sometimes during the week, too. I learned to play the piano on my aunt Doris’ old upright; swam in Lake Pontchartrain with my NOLA cousins and ate lots of homemade tamales and oyster po' boys.
As I grew older, I came to appreciate, to love—to relish—that part of my heritage. How, whenever I’d hit town, the bartender at the Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter would look me up and down and say, “You don’t sound like you’re from here, but you sure do look like you’re from here.” How a local could hear my last name, and be able to tell me exactly from which parish my family originally hailed.
I remember the fear, willing the phone to ring, not being able to get through, waiting to hear that relatives had made it safely out of town. And I remember the rage, the incredulous rage, watching the waters rushing in. Witnessing our government’s incredible impotence in the face of Katrina. I remember Jesse Jackson comparing the inside of the Convention Center to “the hull of a slave ship,” the academic describing New Orleans as “Baghdad on the Mississippi.” The anger and grief on the faces of TV reporters, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. How could this happen here? To us? To ours? Never mind the town hallers yelling “keep government out of my Medicare!” If anything, Katrina proved that we really, really need our government. Good government.
As I write this, I’ve just received news that my cousin, our family’s surviving matriarch, died. Inez Wiltz Narcisse was the link to my family’s past, the one who could tell me about all the branches in our family tree, from the slaves to the slave masters, the one who could be counted on to tell a dirty joke or two—in Creole—at family reunions. She’d left Louisiana for Houston a long time ago, but even away from there, she kept our family, and our culture, together.
I see irony in the fact that she left the planet right in time for the fourth anniversary of Katrina.
I don’t know what will become of New Orleans. So many have left; so many will never come back. If there is a song that captures the sense of loss and longing that I—and others who love it—feel about New Orleans, it is local son John Boutte’s cover of Annie Lennox’s “Why?” I worry that New Orleans will turn into some pretty little boutique city confined to the French Quarter and Uptown, shutting the door on the Otherness of Ward Nine.
At least that won’t be the fate of my grandparents' house. Their neighborhood is très chic now, filled with yoga studios and art galleries, antique stores and chi-chi, poo-poo restaurants. Pricey condos are cropping up all around; our family home rests on a valuable piece of property. But it remains ours, never mind the developers that have come calling; the neighbors who complained that it had fallen in disrepair; the family feud over who got what. This fall, my cousin Bernadette will start renovations on our—her—house, bringing back to life what time and Katrina tried to kill, from the fence, to the garage, to the shutters. I find comfort in that. If you knew the back story, you would understand that is a miracle in and of itself. And if that little family miracle can happen, then perhaps there is hope for New Orleans—all of New Orleans—just yet.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.