Thanksgiving in NOLA
I just got back from visiting my daughter in New Orleans for
Thanksgiving. In the wake of the Paris attacks, my usual fear of flying escalated to sheer lunacy, so I drove. It is a three thousand mile round trip, the farthest I have ever driven by myself, and as always, I was impressed with how much space there still is in our country with no people in it.
When I left Denver on Sunday morning, it was perfectly clear, and the light was the peculiar gold of late November. The sun was just coming up and shone straight into my face across the expanse of the plains. People actually pulled over, it was so blinding. Kansas was gorgeous, the fields still brilliant green, the trees faded rust and bronze, the windmills marching like great armies of science fiction beasts across the vast prairie. People everywhere love to hate the drive across Kansas because it is so endless and so empty, but this time it was stunning. I turned south halfway across and went down through Oklahoma and through Dallas, east into Louisiana on a road that was nothing more than a tunnel through the trees.
Much of the highway in Louisiana was built on pylons over water. It was an odd feeling, driving on the water through the great swamps. Everything was still and green and lush, strange, coming from the snowy Rockies and an early winter. It was pretty from the inside of my car, but I found myself awash in anxiety at being in the South-such a foreign land for me, filled with nuances I didn’t understand and couldn’t really identify. It probably is mostly in my head and the result of too many movies and not enough real life, but it was real for me nonetheless.
When I drove out of the woods and onto the water on my final approach to New Orleans, I was enchanted by the moon coming up on the water, the late afternoon light that turned the water from what had been a dank brown into the lightest of blues, and New Orleans hanging seeming suspended on the water, like a floating island off in the distance. It seemed like a city full of light, like Oz, magical.
This feeling lasted until I descended down from the highway into my daughter’s neighborhood, close to the French Quarter on Esplanade, a gracious boulevard awash in lush vegetation, huge old live oaks, and a pervasive sense of decay. There were homeless folks with signs congregating under the highway, the houses looked much the worse for wear, and it all gave me the sense of an old woman sporting too much makeup, and that poorly applied, in an attempt to cover the ravages of age. It didn’t work very well. Coming from clean, mostly new and prosperous Denver, it seemed dirty and dangerous to me. My anxiety increased.
And there she was, coming out her front door, my beautiful Liz, with Arrow, her black German Shepherd, trying to climb over the fence to say hello. It is very difficult to capture the sense of disquiet I felt that this is where she lives now. Her house is old and in disrepair although it once was magnificent-floor to ceiling windows, porches up and down, now chopped into six apartments with a landlord that you just don’t want to call. There is no heat in her house, which is okay for most of the year, but had come as a shock to her a few days earlier when the weather truly began to change. She and her roommate hadn’t noticed that detail when they moved in in May. The light in the entryway doesn’t work and the front door was a spider web of fractured glass. None of the locks seemed secure to me. Her front door seemed like it could be forced with a shoulder, and nothing seemed to stand between my precious baby and this wild city but her dog. Who, thankfully, seems to scare the crap out of most people.
My mommy alarms were all screeching wildly. My stomach was in a knot. I wanted to pack her up immediately and run for the hills. But you don’t get to do that when your child is 26 and trying to make her way. So we spent the evening buying a space heater for her room and one for the bathroom, new flannel sheets and more blankets, and me trying to remain calm and assimilate this new understanding of her life.
She moved to New Orleans in February to work at an inner city medical clinic for doctor friends of my brother and sister-in-law. A job doing patient care had been promised but the reality was that she was stuck in an operator position answering phones for most of every day, doing referrals, interacting with her computer. She had learned a great deal about how the system works and how to get things done within it, and how to interface with the great snarl of electronic medical records, all of which will give her a leg up in medical school, but she is the most social of animals, and the isolation of working a phone and a computer all day had wilted her. Now she was starting a job “in the industry” as they call it there, working at a restaurant, and, perplexingly, her doctor boss had offered her a one-day-a-week position doing patient care when she gave her notice. Go figure. So she is starting to perk up again, but it has been a lonely and hard ten months.
The next day, she left for work early and I was left to myself for the day. The house was cold and dank outside of her bedroom, which was now reasonably cozy with the heater running. But it was sunny, so finally I ventured outside with Arrow, and walked down Esplanade towards City Park.
I discovered at this point that what she had told me was true: folks were highly respectful and often frightened of her dog, who is the wiggliest and sweetest of souls, but can look imposing when he is alert and leashed. I started to feel better. Everyone I passed greeted me. Her neighborhood was a mishmash of every kind of person, old and young, black and white, off to work on a bicycle or drinking at ten in the morning. As I moved up Esplanade towards the park, the houses got nicer and more kept-up. I am a little embarrassed to say how much better that made me feel.
Liz says that being in New Orleans reminds her of being in Central America. Everything is older, dirtier, moldier, overrun with vegetation, poorer, more cobbled together. Katrina, of course, took a terrible toll, and although this is one of the less affected parts of the city, there are buildings that remain boarded up and abandoned ten years later. I saw a few with the spray-painted signs on them, a circle with an “X” inside, separating it into four quadrants, with a date in the top quadrant (when the house was searched), the left quadrant with initials denoting the Rescue Team identifier-state police, National Guard, etc., the right quadrant detailing hazards present: rats, NE for no entry, F/W for food and water, EX for exterior surveyed, and the ominous bottom quadrant which recorded the presence or absence of bodies alive or dead. Units from Oregon, California, West Virginia, Texas and elsewhere had all left their marks.
That afternoon, I visited her favorite coffee shop, the Treme Coffee Shop. This was a really beautiful time of year to visit, with the air being cool and temperate, the day sunny, windows and doors open, no bugs-the coffee shop was light and airy, homey and clean. The latte was excellent and I sat on a leather couch with the warm sun on my shoulders for a couple of hours and started to settle down. I loved the variety of people that came in and out. There is a quality to the people in New Orleans that is striking-you feel like a lot of the people are always wearing a costume, like for fun, not to hide. People are putting themselves out there in all their individuality, no apologies, with a bit of glee. Like this is a place where people come to finally, with a deep sigh of relief, be themselves.
I stopped feeling so afraid. It disturbed me how shaken I felt, how nervous. I have lived in the country for a long time now, in a place that is pretty homogeneous, at least compared to New Orleans. And New Orleans, is, statistically, a very dangerous city. I still wanted to flank my daughter with a phalanx of large bodyguards. Or take her home. Neither option was on offer. So I drank my latte and breathed deeply.
The next couple of days we spent shopping for our Thanksgiving dinner, walking around the French Quarter, eating out, going to the movies, and talking about deep things. There is no surfacey garbage with Liz. She will talk about hard stuff even with me, her mother. We are friends, although our relationship is always informed by our primal connection. Sometimes that is frustrating for me, because questions that one of her contemporaries could easily ask become fraught with difficulty when I ask them, but we talk about that too. I don’t really want to stop being her mother-I just don’t like it when it feels like a liability.
I awoke in the middle of the night on Wednesday and was flooded with memories of my young adulthood-dicey situations I had put myself in, really bad choices in relationships, the loneliness, the feeling of never fitting in or having a place in the world-the deep alienation that was a result of dysfunction in my family. It was like watching a chronological movie of my life, and an experience I had never had in quite that way before. I realized that what was so hard about Liz in New Orleans was all the stuff from my own life that I was projecting onto her life. My own depression and estrangement, living alone, feeling like I had failed in so many ways-I realize now, as I write this, that I so desperately want to protect Liz, and indeed all my children, from the struggle, and defeats, and heartache and sadness and failures that riddled my own path to maturity. I want to keep them safe not only from the world that is so full of every kind of danger, but from themselves and their own immaturity.
As I laid there in the dark with all those sad and difficult memories parading across my consciousness, a verse came to me-“There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1) I have read and heard that verse so many times in the last forty years that it usually just sounds singsong to me, blah blah blah, as ashamed as that makes me to admit. It hasn’t touched me deep down in my reality maybe ever. But now it did. Not in a euphoric Pollyanna way, but in a way where I thought, “Either it’s true or it isn’t, and if it is really really true, I should feel differently inside. I should feel free. I should feel the load no more.” And you know what, I still have to just pretend that it is true, because it still feels like a fairy tale to me. And that is a lot of the reason why I can’t leave my children in the hands of God and trust Him for their growth and safety and story.
I’m not going to lie-the whole trip was overlaid with a sense of longing to just bring Liz home. I miss her so deeply that I miss her even when I am with her. We made our dinner together and ate it sitting on her front veranda-it can’t just be a porch in New Orleans-and it was so bittersweet I could have cried. I thought of our “normal” family thanksgivings- all of us together cooking and hanging out, laughing, safe and secure and wrapped in the comfort of each other-and here we were, Steve working alone in Alamosa, Sam and Alan eating with friends, Emily and Brad home with each other-and it just felt wrong on some level. And yet. And yet. I was so glad to be with Liz. People strolled by while we ate, wishing us Happy Thanksgiving, the sun slanted in through the trees in the late afternoon, the Spanish moss on the trees swayed a bit in a freshening breeze. I think there was a parade somewhere because people dressed in all manner of costumes walked and rode by on bikes, headed to the French Quarter. Or maybe they just always dress like that.
Her neighbor, aptly called Rooster-although I think his mother called him Andrew-came over and tried to fix the hall light-it doesn’t work of course, and why would it? and I was struck by his kindness, however laced in alcohol and affectations-and felt more secure about her living there because he will be one of the people that keeps an eye on her. We ate pie and watched a movie and washed dishes. I packed to leave the next morning.
I always wanted to have brave kids because I was so fearful. I always knew Liz would be the one who struck out into the world on adventures, and that thrilled me, and filled me with admiration. The hard part is trusting-in God, to watch over her and to be a wide open space for her, in Liz, to not be foolish, although she certainly will be, just as I was-and maybe even in the world just a little-the people who surround her there, to see her not as a target but as a precious daughter, a jewel, a warrior princess.
The next morning I left early, before she left for work, and headed back to Colorado. It was warm and steamy that morning, but by evening when I made it to Oklahoma City, it was just at the freezing point and raining hard. The Heartland spent the next couple of days in the grip of an ice storm and I laid around in a hotel room for two nights and a day, waiting it out and thinking about Liz.
I feel better and worse about her situation. It was not as “nice” a house as I thought it would be and I still find that unsettling. But there are people there who know her and care about her, a community. She is a community builder and one is springing up around her. Is she “safe?” Not like I wish her to be, ever, but this is life, not a movie. There is no guarantee of a happy ending, only clinging to God and each other in what is often a dark and lonely place. New Orleans is a place lacking restraints-there is a lot of letting the good times roll, and that isn’t always a beautiful thing. Just last week a Tulane medical student got shot in the stomach rescuing a girl who was getting dragged into a dark alley by her hair-fortunately the perpetrator was caught, the girl was unharmed and the hero will be okay, but those stories don’t always end like that. I can only pray that something like that will not happen to the girl that I love who lives there. She is 1500 miles away and it is a long way. It is another world. I want her to come home. I can’t help that. But there are no leash laws for your kids, are there? Just hope, and prayer, and the bonds of love.