Time Wise's post prompted me to post this essay, which appeared in the 2008 Spring Issue of Black Arts Quarterly.
The night I arrived in Singapore to start my Fulbright fellowship was the day my mother and stepfather returned to New Orleans to see what broken levees had left for them. I bought a calling card from a Chinese street vendor and called from a payphone near the Clementi MRT station. My mother was relieved to hear I'd made it safely those 8,000 miles and wanted to know what time it was. No voice carries the sonic properties that can make me happier or more depressed than my mother's. I usually listen more to how she sounds than what she says. That night I heard how her voice was more air than tone, that either fright or mental exhaustion prevented her from sounding like the mature older woman with a rousing alto that can lapse into soprano when things are hilarious. The tiles had been blown off the roof so it rained into the house. Parts of the ceiling collapsed. The water rose so high and was so strong that it moved a long solid oak table (filled with old 45s and my mother's yearbooks) clean across the living room, blocking the front door. My stepfather had to climb through the kitchen window to open the front door. I asked particular questions but my mother kept saying she couldn't remember. Mold was over everything and the smell, Kevin, the smell. Her voice sounded stronger then because it was closer to crying and breath heaves to carry a wail. All that freight. They'd left the day before Hurricane Katrina came, and left as if they'd be right back. I'd called that Friday from my apartment in San Francisco to see what they were planning to do. They would head to Houston but would turn around since, as my stepfather has proclaimed repeatedly, God spoke to him and said to go to Natchez, Mississippi, his hometown. They made it there and were taken in by family. My mother assured me that they'd be fine. Don't worry about me. I survived segregation. I can survive anything. This seemed like an untested theory, a failing dramatic flourish. The next five months in sad socially-engineered Singapore I spoke to my mother often, sometimes three or four times a week. I felt guilty that I hadn't made the sojourn to New Orleans with them. I'm an only child, and only children have all the guilt to themselves. I decided to return and make my own sojourn. I would rent a U-Haul, pick up my furniture, car and other odds and ends from my storage unit in Columbia, South Carolina where I last lived while in graduate school, and drive to Natchez. Those things would make it a little easier for them, I thought. It was the least I could do. After all, my father (who's totally estranged from my mother) had contacted her and after finding out that she'd lost everything, went out and bought her a computer. The least I could do was to bring her a proper desk for it. Everyone says I find family wherever I go. It's true. I arrived in Columbia close to midnight and Cora was there waiting for me at baggage claim. She's a friend and one of the best cellists I know. We made it to Rose and Carrie's and talked in her Honda as I jumped the battery in my Kia, which had been sitting since I'd left in October. Rose and Carrie are sisters originally from Montclair, New Jersey. They got me through the final stages of my Ph.D. They cooked for me, housed me, told me stories, made me laugh and believed in my creativity. Rose is 94. Carrie is 93. Their mother, a socialite and Civil Rights matriarch, was the daughter of a white Confederate general and the inspiration for Carrie's novel Freedom's Child . Their family hosted Ota Benga, the pygmy taken from Africa and exhibited at the Brooklyn Zoo in 1906. They are living history. Carrie and Rose, like so many on my mother's side of the family, are fair skinned. Rose could pass for white. They were asleep when I let myself in and found my plate of chicken and broccoli and sweet carrots wrapped and waiting next to the microwave. They are family. With their blessings and good breakfast the next morning, I made my way to the U-Haul location and picked up the truck with no problem. Then I headed to another location for the car trailer. It was a fishing supply store and U-Haul center. Go figure. I abhor small talk, especially when I'm psyching myself to drive into Mississippi, but the U-Haul lady wanted to know, after looking at my California license, why I was so far away from home. I used to go to school here. Where? At USC. Do you miss it here? Uh, Columbia? Not at all. Oh, I don't blame you. Are you living in Natchez now? No, my parents are living there. I'm originally from New Orleans and they had to relocate because of the hurricane. They left before it hit. They're smart. A lot of people weren't smart enough to leave. I did not like this woman. I did not like that she said this with such disregard for why so many couldn't leave. The small talk had turned into vitriol but there wasn't time to school her and no point. Eleven hours later, I was in Natchez. The house where my mother and stepfather live leans a little and is need of repair but, as my mother said, at least it's a roof over their heads. They aren't homeless as so many remain.
Three years later and they're still there.