“We have to make those things true for each other”

dish

This is the true spirit of America. It is honorable. It is decent and caring and kind. And above all, it is human — reaching out to one another to heal the wounds that we have all sustained in one way or another over the last few years.

(Thanks to Christy over at FDL for a great post that helped me figure out how to start talking about all this.)

“It’s all gone, honey. You lost everything.”

I don’t remember who it was that said it, just some guy my parents knew, probably a volunteer fireman or someone else pressed into emergency civil defense duty. I wasn’t there. They left me back in San Antonio to help look after my grandmother. They got up in the middle of the night to beat the traffic, and drove back down to Rockport the day after the storm.

It was still raining. The main highway was shut down and the National Guard wouldn’t let them in, so my dad tried one of the back roads, but there was a roadblock, a line of cars waiting. My mother got out and walked up front to see what was happening. That’s when the man in the slicker, waving cars past with his flashlight, just some guy my parents knew, told her.

She always remembered that moment afterward. It was part of her Hurricane Celia narrative, always got repeated when telling and re-telling the story. She always included the man’s name because that was part of it, see?

Somebody, just an acquaintance, maybe someone you went to high school with, or the guy who worked behind the meat counter at the store, just somebody you never thought twice about before in your life, that man puts his hand on your shoulder and tells you, “It’s all gone, honey.” You’re standing out in the rain, way the hell out here in the tules, the sun’s not up yet and it’s so cold, how can it be this cold in August? You make your feet move, you turn back, you have to walk back to the truck, to tell your husband. You’ve got a kid in junior high, another in college, a mother-in-law fresh out of eye surgery that the hospital released to your care before the storm hit, your husband’s poured every dollar in the bank, and all his energy for the past year, into building that goddamned boat, finished except for putting the engine in, still up on blocks in the back lot. You walk past the cars in the line, your neighbors with their own troubles, and you try to wrap your head around this, your life now.

The boat was gone. We finally found the front half in some brush a few blocks away, the brand new, expensive, hard fir planks turned to cork —we could twist them with our hands —the work of the tornadic cells spawned by Celia. The boat my father had risked so much to build. He was getting older and he only had one more shrimpboat in him to build, and here it was now. Who would have thought?

The house, old and flimsy to begin with, squat and sprawling with several generations of added-on rooms, was flattened. I don’t think they ever found the roof, but the rooms were still identifiable, the walls folded back, like shoe boxes squashed on top of one another. When I got there, one of the jobs I was given was to try and salvage the contents of the kitchen. I remember bending over the cabinets, now lying flat on the ground, gingerly opening them with a stick — there were waterlogged, disoriented snakes everywhere— and picking out pots, pans, skillets. Other than a couple of heirloom teapots, most of the dishes were shattered.

Months later, my parents’ friends and the people from the community who’d helped them build a new house, in record time, gave us a housewarming. I remember feeling inside-out uncomfortable, as only an introverted self-involved adolescent can, because we weren’t exactly party people, my family, and because this wasn’t like Thanksgiving or Christmas , this was people outside the immediate family, and they were bringing us things, giving us stuff. Still being kind to us, even almost a year later. At that age I just could not fathom what we had done to deserve it, and it freaked me out to see my mother cry, even more to see my blustering, foul-mouthed tough guy father get choked up. I could not fathom it. Who would have thought?

Fast forward to six months ago. When I moved into this, my first-ever “new” house, the post-divorce house, the down paid by the divorce buy-out, I didn’t bring a lot of kitchen stuff with me. The ex-Mrs. Tex got most of the kitchen stuff since she was short on cash after buying me out and I could more easily replace things. Plus I was still in shock, dividing things like that on a list on a sheet of paper just some bizarre muffled abstract exercise to be gotten over quickly. I took tools and linens, she got kitchen stuff. Something I did bring into this new house though, was the set of china my parents got at that housewarming after Celia. I’d ended up with it after my mother passed, and in truth always felt a little silly owning a set of china, as I am not exactly a china kind of person. (Insert bull-dyke-in-china-closet joke here.) The ex-Mrs. Tex, her inner gay man a dish queen, loved to bring it out on holidays and such, but most of the time it was packed away out of sight. Now it’s up on a high shelf in my oddly new, mostly empty, oddly large kitchen. I don’t know when I’ll use it next, but I’ve found it oddly comforting to have it where I can see it.

Because I can fathom it now. Fathom what it means to have people help you, reach out when you need it. Because that’s what we are supposed to do.

I also kept the funeral bowl. You know, I’m sure your family had/has one. Ours was huge, yellow, Pyrex. A strip of masking tape on the bottom with our last name. Whenever anyone died, my dad made the special potato salad with shrimp, loaded up the funeral bowl and drove it over to the surviving family’s house. A week or so later, the bowl turned back up with a thank-you note. You made food, you took it where it was needed, that’s just what you did.

When my father was dying of cancer, wasted down to nothing, there was not much he wanted to, or could, eat. He could handle baked or steamed fish. My mother told me about a young shrimper she’d never met before, who started coming by the house once a week or so, bringing her fresh, filleted flounder, divided into meal-size portions, wrapped and dated in freezer paper, easy for her to make a quick meal. She made a point of letting me know that he was gay, (gay shrimpers, who knew?) and that he had mentioned he’d heard about Cap’n Fred’s gay daughter, (I’m guessing in a non-favorable context) and just felt he needed to help out. Who would have thought?

My sweet, sweet friend Jeff talked on the phone about what it was like in Brooklyn, in our old neighborhood, the weeks after 9/11. They’d walked past that firehouse a thousand times without thinking about it much, other than, of course, to scope out a firemen here and there. Who would have thought they’d be bringing sandwiches, lasagna, potato salad in funeral bowls. The gay men, the dykes, the Jamaican grandmother, the guy from the Dominican joint up the street, even the asshole that owned the deli, exchanging numbers, making a plan, coordinating the effort to keep these few remaining firemen, their firemen, fed. Who would have ever thought?

If you read First Draft, (and if you don’t, you should) you know that some of us are going to New Orleans in March. You know that Scout has been doing a heroic job there (and before, at her Scout Prime site and here) of blogging about the troubles on the Gulf Coast, and New Orleans in particular, following Katrina. She’s gone down a few times already, forging ties with the amazing blogging community there (see the NOLA blog roll at First Draft), and spreading the word, pretty much day in, day out. As much of an overwhelming clusterf*ck as it all has been and continues to be — the levees, the insurance companies, the recovery of the dead, public housing, FEMA, squandered federal appropriations, all of that and more—Scout’s been laying it out, post after post, since September of ’05.

So, a few of us, hopefully more, will be going back down there with Scout, and Athenae, to gut a house, meet and network with the bloggers there, take a tour of some of the key spots in the New Orleans Katrina narrative so we can see it with our own eyes.

Why? What difference does one day’s work make, what difference do a few new links make? Why fly across the country to see what you can look at on your computer?

Christy, again (emphasis mine):

Let’s talk about service and sacrifice and giving a little back. And how we can get up from behind our computer screens and out into the world to do some good — or how we can use our computer time to do some good — whatever. But let’s talk about giving back. Because it is well past time that someone started talking about it again. What are you doing to make your community, your nation, your world a better place? Let’s talk about proactive and decent things to do with our time …

And here’s Athenae, in response to my question about how we should frame (damn, I hate that word) this on our respective blogs:

I guess my idea of the “why” of the whole thing has always been, we’re doing this because we’ve got to take care of each other. It could be me tomorrow, it could be you, and because of that, we have to do what we can.

Our social safety net, our security, our confidence that America takes care of its own … we have to make those things true for each other because no one else will.

So, that’s my most barborously large and final Billy Brammer come to Jesus “why.”   If you care to join us on the First Draft Krewe (and you are more than welcome) or if you want to help out with expenses, here’s the what/where/how/when.

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