Bay's Travel Blog

I don't travel much any more. Resist!

Friday, September 02, 2005

Patience, please

I'm going to finish my trip report if it kills me, and it might, because it's taking so long to write it all out. But right now, I'm completely mired in depression over what's happening on the Gulf Coast. I wish I could *do* something to fix everything that's gone wrong. I wish I could help someone -- really, physically *help* someone. Giving money to the Red Cross and Noah's Wish is one thing, but -- I want to get my hands dirty. I want to be in the trenches down there. The TV is killing me and I can't stay away from the news channels.

Somebody, please save New Orleans. So much of my personal history is wrapped up in that bowl behind the broken levees. Please, please, somebody save New Orleans.

Here's a quick New Orleans story. My mother lived there in WWII when she was a high school graduate. She actually graduated high school at age 16 in Orange, Texas, and then she went to Western Union school in Missouri, but her sister was pregnant and married and was moving to New Orleans, so the whole family was moving to New Orleans, and Western Union didn't have any job openings at that time in New Orleans.

Mama -- my sweet, little, proper mother -- knew her family was in dire straits. Her father didn't have a job. Her mother had never worked outside the home. Aunt Sybil didn't have a job, and her husband disappeared the moment they got to New Orleans. So Mama, who was scrupulously honest and had a conscience that worked in overdrive, went to a shipyard where they were building warships and were advertising a need for a secretary to the engineers. Mama had taken three months of classes in a secretarial school back in Texas and had graduated at the top of her class -- hence her full-ride scholarship to Western Union school.

Her family was living in a car.

Mama got to the shipyard and while filling out the application, found out that the shipyard was only hiring people of legal age. You had to be 18 to work there. They had lots of government contracts and more work than they could do, but the employees had to be legal adults.

Without missing a beat, without batting an eyelash, Mama lied about her age on her application. She had heard rumors of company housing, and she wasn't going to leave anything to chance. She lied, she lied, she didn't tell them she was just 16, she lied and said she was 18 and that she had graduated high school, taken a three-month secretarial course, and that she had graduated from Western Union school. They gave her one typing test, one shorthand test, interviewed her, and hired her on the spot. Then they sent her to the personnel office for the housing assignment.

Excited beyond all comprehension, she rode the streetcar back to the street where her parents were waiting in their car, and without ever having seen the company houses, they drove together to their new home.

Mama said she would never forget that afternoon. She led the way into a square, cardboard shack next to the levee, lined up with a thousand other cardboard shacks just like it. And while she was saying, "Mama! You have a real gas stove in the kitchen," she turned around and found her mother collapsed on the floor just inside the front door, weeping her heart out because it was the ugliest little house she had ever lived in.

Of course, my grandmother -- who died long before I was ever born -- got over herself, wiped her eyes, and behaved nicely so she wouldn't hurt my mother's feelings. And they all lived together in that tiny house until my grandfather got a job and they could afford a better house. Mama's family was never wealthy; they were probably never even middle-class. But they worked hard and they knew how to economize, and they lived better than most of their peers even before WWII brought economic boon to the Depression-era masses.

Mama loved New Orleans, but she was always afraid of Lake Pontchartrain, the levees, and especially the railroad tressles over the lake. I'm glad she never lived to see the day the levee broke. It would have broken her heart.

4 Comments:

At 4/9/05 12:12 AM, Blogger Amy said...

I wish I had your way with words. I've been looking at cnn.com every time I got the chance. I remember the cruise Paul and I took from New Orleans. We stayed at the Hyatt, which is attached to the Superdome. I stayed in that Hyatt a few times when I was teaching for Oracle, crossing Loyola Avenue to go to class every morning. I remember going to New Orleans as a child. I remember visiting Dr. Bob's studio. I remember Cafe du Monde and Jackson Square and the little restaurant on a side street in the French Quarter.

I pray New Orleans will recover.

 
At 5/9/05 2:46 AM, Blogger Sophia C. said...

I was in NO about six years ago... there's something about having been there that makes it harder. I think most everyone has been glued to their TVs this week in hopes that someone would say it was all a bad dream. Thanks for sharing the story of your mother. She sounds a lot like my own mother who was orphaned at 12 and lived on her own from 15 on. Thanks for sharing.

Sophia

 
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