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What Water Can Do -- Remembering My New Orleans Home, Lost for Now

New America Media, Commentary, Sarah M. Broom Posted: Aug 31, 2006

Editor's Note: A woman born and raised in New Orleans is caught between remembering and willfully forgetting all the storm did to scatter her family and destroy her childhood home. Sarah M. Broom is an assistant editor at "O, The Oprah Magazine." She now lives in Harlem.

NEW YORK--It is a storm-dark Harlem day, 24 hours until the night last year when New Orleans, the city from which Ive sprung, took its biggest salt-water bath ever. I have just struggled mightily through Act I of Spike Lees documentary, "When the Levees Broke," caught myself averting my eyes, especially during scenes of great water, so that by the films end I could not look straight on to the TV and peeked out the corner of my right eye. It is neither lie, nor exaggeration, to say I feel shaken past the marrow now, after having been reminded, in the space of just one hour, of all that water can do.

I do not mean only to say that I am reminded of houses gone swimming down the block, or a refrigerator nestled in a tree. I am talking intimate particulars here, like how one week past the storm Katrina there were birds living in my childhood home, so that when you approached it they flew away en masse, and how that sound was like the scrambling of fat thieves at gunfire. I mean how my 11 siblings are everywhere and nowhere together, or how my grown brother Troy unpacks 18-wheelers at a California Wal-Mart after half a life of masonry, or how he is making $8 dollars an hour, more than my sister Karen, a former social worker, who now reads prisoners mail for less than $20,000 a year with two children to support. I mean how my long-legged brother Carl is living again with my mother, at age 40, after the FEMA trailer he wanted so desperately (oh to have something all ones own) was too long to fit his property.

Ten days past the water, I sat down to write an account for Oprah Magazine about how you try to face morning, slip on your A-line skirt and kitten-heeled pumps, board the subway and fold yourself up into the seat in the proper way, taking up the least amount of space, then get to work and pretend calm when two of your brothers are missing in your drowning city.

The emotion of those levees letting so much water free had me writing such sentences as, A wild, big New Orleans family spread out around the country is a dangerous and wonder-working thing to behold, like our city itself, and, New Orleans will resurrect, it will, just as all mighty things do, but it will take its own sweet, slow-moving time.

I wrote one small piece after that and nothing else, and heres why: After your seven family members who called New Orleans home are found and start settling around the country -- Alabama, California, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina -- you just want to forget. A shame, I now call this, and wish I could take that sentiment back from this page, but it is true.

And that is really what I want to tell you about: How my bent toward amnesia had me searching for hiding spaces in Massachusetts first, and then as far as an Ottoman village in Turkey named Cumalikizik, where ascending cobblestone streets with water running down the middle only reminded me of Pirates Alley in New Orleans.

I left New Orleans when I was 17 for college in Denton, Texas. Since the storm, Ive gone back seven times, the most in one year since that leaving. This is too grand of a collapse for the eyes to contain in one or two tries. I went back there again and again to take more of it in.

The first time was 12 days after Katrina, so that we might bury my 89-year-old grandmother Amelia Lolo Williams, who was carried 419.5 miles away from the storm to Tyler, Texas, on a yellow school bus. This is a grandmother with Alzheimers who normally got around in a wheelchair with someone pushing, whose knees were always swollen, who no longer used words so spoke in song only she knew. My auntie located her in a nursing home there in Tyler almost two weeks past the storm. One day after that, my brother, Byron, called me at work and said, Grandma has one day left living -- just like that, in a mans way.

During my latest return, two weeks ago, I visited what was left of my childhood home, formerly a yellow camelback house on the short end of Wilson Avenue in New Orleans East, which was demolished by the city, we think, without warning. I am still trying to find answers. There is no place wherein a bird might hide now, for the land is bare. Just a concrete slab in what used to be the backyard where as a child I played house and pretend-school with my childhood friend Alvin. When I returned there to that long indentation in the ground full of silt, the friend accompanying me dug around and found two things for me to hold in my hand and bring back to New York: A thin, bent silver teaspoon and a cracked fleur de lis bathroom decoration, chipped yellow. Back in Harlem I sat these artifacts of memory in the kitchen windowsill and hoped one day Id have desire enough to mine their histories, for if there is forgetting, there must always, at some point in time, be a remembering. And I do not mean only on an anniversary.

Something is riding on my memory, and this is why sitting in my swamp-green room in Harlem and hearing my compatriots talking on the television in Spike Lees film has forced me here, to writing some thing down. The way their sentences come together (I ain't for all that leaving, one man says about evacuating), how the words drop syrup-slow off their tongues, and how the sound of that feels like warm water down my back. Seeing a small brown boy blowing "St. James Infirmary" into a trumpet has got me wondering about all he's had to have seen and heard in order to play so deep it sounds like old age, like a knowing.

You had better take your home with you, the writer James Baldwin wisely admonished, lest you find yourself utterly homeless.

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