Tuesday, February 09, 2010


If you’re one of those people who is sensitive to the vibes of your fellow beings, then New Orleans is a great place to be right now. There’s a palpable buzz in the air, a smile on every face, a twinkle in every eye.

The city threw a parade for the Saints today, and no one does a parade like New Orleans. It’s carnival season right now anyway, so the parade route was already in place. The various krewes donated the floats, the marching bands added a few more miles to their already dizzying totals for the season. The air was filled with flying beads and the sound of jazz. And everywhere you looked were happy faces—black, brown, white—all united in joy and a poignant sense of relief.

I heard someone say today, “Katrina is finally over,” and it struck me as profoundly apt. Yes, the streets are still masses of car-swallowing potholes. Yes,a lot neighborhoods are still struggling. Yes, many of our houses aren’t finished yet. But that nasty air of gloom and despair that has hung over the city for four and a half years has lifted.

We’re New Orleans, and we’re finally, really back.

Labels: , ,

Monday, January 25, 2010

Who Dat?

Let me begin by saying I am not a football fan. I was born without the team gene. But...

Hey! The Saints won! They're going to the Super Bowl! I didn't watch the game but I knew the instant they won because the entire city errupted into a roar that lasted about an hour, complete with fireworks. This battered, bedraggled, clinically depressed place just got a much-needed boost. There used to be a saying around town, that hell would freeze over before the Saints went to the Super Bowl. Well...

(Thanks to Sphinx Ink for the image).


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Some Good News...And More Water

I've had several pieces of good news this past week:

First, What Remains of Heaven has been nominated for Romantic Times' Best Historical Mystery of 2009 award.

Then, I learned that What Angels Fear and Why Mermaids Sing are both going back to press. This makes the fourth printing for Angels, which is pretty neat since it shows the series is continuing to pick up new readers--and has made my publisher happy.

And, best of all, I've learned that the first month sales of the hardcover release of What Remains of Heaven were almost double last year's sales of Where Serpents Sleep! So in a publishing environment where "flat is the new up," my sales are UP up.

As for the rain... New Orleans has now recorded 21.2 inches of rain for the month of December. According to the weather service, that total is the most ever to fall in a single month in the New Orleans area since 1947, when the service started keeping records at the airport. It even exceeds the total for the month of May 1995, when New Orleans had their big rain-induced flood. Of course, most of that rain fell in something like 12 hours, so this isn't nearly so bad. But then, we're still only halfway through the month, and the ground is beyond saturated.

I was planning to go Christmas shopping today. Not happening!

Labels: ,

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere

It’s not that I hate water. I just hate water running two feet deep down the street I’m trying to drive on. I hate water when it falls from the sky at the rate of nearly six inches in an hour. I hate water when I sit marooned for 90 minutes watching car after car die an ugly, sloshing death before me.

No, this isn’t our car. We had enough sense to pull off Severn onto a higher, nearby parking lot and wait for the water to go down (despite the fact Steve just bought a hulking big Toyota SUV). The driver of this Lexus wasn’t that smart.

Heavy rains are a part of life in New Orleans. But this one was a bit unusual. You see, the previous record rainfall for the month of December in New Orleans was only something like 10.7 inches. As of 9 pm last night, we’d broken that record, with 12.7 inches of rain recorded so far this month. And there’s still a lot of December left.

I like Al Gore’s phrase, “climate change deniers.”


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Katrina Plus Four

For me, the day before Katrina is the anniversary that always brings a moment’s silent remembrance and reassessment. It was on Sunday that we finished boarding up our house, packed our cars, and drove away from a neighborhood, a city, a life that would never be the same again. It was on Sunday when, trapped in traffic as the feeder bands of the hurricane rolled over us, I looked out over a vista of tens of thousands fleeing for their lives and realized three things with sudden, painful clarity: that I was part of an event that was both frightening and powerfully historic, that my world was about to be turned upside down and inside out, and that I was one of the lucky ones because I was getting out with my family.

It sounds like a selfish focus, concentrated on my own pain, my own experience rather than on the 1,800+ who died. It is not.

I actually started this blog on an earlier Katrina anniversary, when—like the parents of a newborn child—we were still counting the passage of time by months. Curious about how far I’ve come since that day, I went back and reread my first posting, written in my gutted office when we were still working so hard to get back into our house. Here it is…

Saturday was an anniversary of sorts. Eight months ago yesterday, Hurricane Katrina took off the roof of our New Orleans-area house while the floodwaters of Lake Pontchartrain came sluicing through the ground floor. Sometimes I still lay awake at night and torture myself with conjured images of water lapping at my bookcases…swirling around my daughter’s lovely old iron frame piano…leaching the color from the polished wood of ancient chests. The images are always without sound, like glimpses into the eerie, flooded world of Atlantis or the Titanic. And then I think, No, not my house. Reality tilts and never quite rights itself.

Eight months. For eight months we’ve lived the life of refugees, shuttling from one shelter to the next. The possessions Katrina left us are boxed and scattered—at a friend’s house in Baton Rouge and two storage units in two different cities, at my mother’s house and the now-empty house of an aged aunt for whom the horrors of Katrina proved simply too much to bear. My mind is scattered, too. I look at the antique roses in my garden, survivors whose carefully lettered copper labels were carried away by the waters into oblivion. Once, I could have named every bush, told you its heritage and characteristics. Not now. That was another life, another reality.

Imagine a house shattered by wind and water. Now imagine hundreds of thousands of houses standing broken and empty. That is New Orleans. Imagine the army of laborers and carpenters, electricians and plumbers and roofers required to make it all right again. They’re not here. (Where would they live?) And so we either wait, or we take up tools and get to work. With hammer and wrecking bar, we attack sodden walls and mold-covered doorframes. We choke back tears as we drag beloved memories, the pieces of our lives, out to the curb and abandon them there to the sun and the rain. We learn to hang and float Sheetrock, to stomp ceilings, to cut trim and plumb sinks. There is a sense of pride, a strength that comes from rebuilding our own house. I think of my ancestors braving the terrors of immigrant ships to build log cabins in the dark forests of Virginia and Tennessee. Or my other great-grandparents, the ones who belonged to the Clan of the Wolf and lived in tune with the seasons and the pulses of the earth. I wonder if they would be ashamed of me, see me as weak. Crushed and disoriented by one little hurricane. Okay, one big hurricane.

Will we ever be the same again? No. Is that a good thing, or bad? Perhaps it is both. In all these months, I have written little. The people in New York have been understanding, in their way. I put the manuscript for my next book, When Gods Die, in the mail a week before Katrina hit. My editor didn’t bother me with the revisions until January. Perhaps she realized I couldn’t handle it until then. I’m still amazed I did manage to do the revisions. I am now committed to write the next book in the series, Why Mermaids Sing. Once, I was excited about this book. I’m still excited about this book. But doubts crowd in on me. My husband says, You’ve always been like this when you start a book.

Yes, I was. But my books come from my soul, and my soul has shifted.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The New Orleans Connection

It sounds like something out of a thriller novel: a fireball lights up the night as a car explodes in the quirky, narrow streets of New Orleans’s warehouse district. Video camera footage from a nearby garage captures the grainy image of a man setting a bomb just moments before the explosion. The owner of the car? A political consultant advising a beautiful young woman on her run for the U.S. Senate.

But wait! There’s more. The woman in question is Stormy Daniels, a porn star. That’s right, a porn star. The politician whose seat she is running for is a rightwing sanctimonious ass who based his political career on “family values” and “Christian morality” before (surprise!) his name was linked to a Washington, D.C. call girl service. Stormy’s political activities are both embarrassing and troubling, since they keep reminding voters of what the Senator would rather they forget.

Of course, the exploding car does the same thing. Was that the point? Is something more nefarious afoot? Or was it all just an amusing accident?

Stay tuned. Ya can’t make this stuff up.

(p.s. That is not a photo of said car; it's a burning car from our sister city, Baghdad.)


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hottest Day Ever

It’s official: yesterday, Audubon Park recorded the highest temperature ever in the entire history of the city of New Orleans. And we have a long history.

Now, 104 degrees might not sound like much to those accustomed to the searing heat of places like Arizona or Australia (I can remember in Adelaide my kids would get out of school if the temperature hit 45 Celsius). But you add in our humidity and it can be a killer. Plus, it’s only June!

The normal high for the end of June is 90 degrees. The previous high temperature for this time of year—99—was set in 2006. The city’s previous record high was set on August 30, 2000 (August is when we expect this kind of weather). There is a pattern here, and I don’t like it.

Yes, oh ye doubters, the world is heating up.

Ironically, it actually did cloud up for a while late yesterday afternoon. The sky grew dark, the wind blew, the temperature plummeted into the 80s, and we got all excited thinking it was actually going to rain. I've heard rumors that some places did get a shower. All we got is a spitting. But I must say, those brief moments of relief were heaven.

(I should probably mention that the National Weather Service gets their figures for the city from the airport, which is 16 miles to the west of the city, in the swamps. There the temperature was “only” 102.)


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Dog Days of…June?

Yes, I know it’s supposed to be hot in New Orleans in the summer. But it’s only June, for crying out loud. Normally we get a few 100+ days in August, but not this early in the year! My thermometer has been hitting over a hundred degrees all week and it’s in the shade.

It’s been so hot that that streets are buckling. Two half-mile sections of Interstate 55 between New Orleans and our lake house have been closed after the road buckled under what state highway officials called “continued excessive heat.” I’ve never heard of such a thing.

There was a time not too long ago when it clouded up and rained here every day at 3:00; you could practically set your watch by it. It didn’t rain for long, just enough to cool everything down and water everyone’s garden. It also drove the humidity up so high you sometimes felt like you were going to drown just breathing, but it was part of the natural cycle of things. Read diaries from New Orleans in the 18th and 19th centuries, and they’ll talk about the daily afternoon showers.

Our afternoon showers have been MIA the past several years. Going to pick one of my daughters up from the airport this afternoon, I noticed the grass along the highway is turning brown. I have never seen that down here.

I do not like what this means for the temperature in the Gulf or the hurricanes that will be forming.


Sunday, June 07, 2009

New Orleans Leads the Country…in Killings

The FBI’s annual report on national crime was released last week. The good news is that New Orleans saw a 17% fall in the number of violent crimes over last year. The bad news is we’re still the most murderous city in America. By far.

New Orleans officials complain that the FBI is using outdated population figures. The FBI used a figure of 281,440 from July of 2008, whereas the city claims the population is now 311,858. And some say even that figure is low, since it doesn’t include thousands of undocumented laborers. (Which begs the question, Who does count undocumented laborers?) Anyway, it’s all quibbling because whichever population figure you use, we’re STILL Number One.

Using the FBI’s figures, New Orleans had 64 murders per 100,000 population. Using the city’s figures, New Orleans had 57 murders per 100,000 residents. Which means that even if you fiddle the numbers, poor ole Number Two, St. Louis, with a measly 47 murders per, has a ways to go to catch up. Scary Baltimore is third on the list, with 37 per, with Birmingham giving them a run for their money at 36.

But you know what’s really scary? Baton Rouge is Number Seven! Thirty murders per 100,000. Who’d have thought?

Why is our murder rate so high? Well, we can blame Katrina for some of it. People are depressed and short-tempered; they can’t find housing and jobs. Plus, population disruptions lead to gang territorial disputes, which lead to killings. But the truth is we were killing each other at a scary rate before the hurricane. Why? I don’t know. And I’m wondering why someone isn’t asking THAT question.


Monday, May 18, 2009

When Urban Legend Turns Out to Be Fact

Living here in Katrinaville, we hear all sorts of ugly rumors. About how everyone seems to be sick. About how deaths in our city have skyrocketed even though the population has fallen. About how everyone is on antidepressants. About how in the months after the storm hospitals were dealing with more suicide attempts in a typical 24-hour period than they normally saw in a month. We’ve all been to more funerals in the past four years than most of us have been to in our lives, but up until now our perceptions have all been antidotal; we could tell ourselves maybe it wasn't really as bad as we thought.

Well, now the studies and facts and figures are coming out, and they’re not pretty. Yes, in the nearly four years since Katrina, levels of sickness have indeed risen sharply. Nearly two-thirds of New Orleanians now report chronic health problems, up a staggering 45%. The number suffering from depression has tripled, with suicides still running at double what they were in 2005 (and they’re actually now way DOWN from what they were in the first 12 months after the storm). The city’s population is still at less than 75% of what is was before Katrina. But here’s the scary part: Only 57% of the city’s medical facilities have reopened, and even hospitals that are open are short-staffed.

If this were Burma, or Bangladesh, I could maybe understand it. But for a major American city to be hit with a natural disaster and then essentially abandoned by the federal government is a disgrace. Yes, lots of money flowed in here, but as is typical in such cases, it went to the Shaw Group, and Halliburton, and Blackwater, fattening the balance sheets of Corporate America while the city itself—and its residents—were left to slowly collapse.

And here’s another unpleasant statistic: One in five New Orleans residents now say they are considering leaving the city.

Labels: ,

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Last of the Dominoes

On Sunday, my extended family gave a birthday party for my Aunt May. She’s ninety-seven. Amongst the family members attending were her three surviving siblings, who range in age from my own soon-to-be ninety-two-year-old mother (on the right, in the yellow top and skirt), to the baby of the family, Uncle Jiggs, now eighty-five. My Uncle Al is turning ninety.

My grandparents, Elizabeth and Peter Paul Wegmann, married relatively late in life but still managed to have nine children. My grandmother used to tell the story of how she brought all of her little ones through the flu epidemic of 1919 by lining them up every night and giving each a hot toddy of honey, lemon, and whiskey. All four of her sons went off to fight in World War II, and by some miracle not only survived but all came home, one after the other, on the same day. Of good German stock, my grandmother lived to be ninety. My grandfather died at ninety-two. As they aged, their nine children all seemed to share the same somewhat bizarre conviction that they, in turn, would live to be ninety or ninety-two. Then they would start keeling over, one by one, in order of their birth. Like dominoes. It became such a family joke that we started calling them the Dominoes.

When I moved to New Orleans a few years ago, all nine were still alive. But then, inevitably, the Dominoes started falling. The first to go was my Aunt Helen, the second oldest, who died at the age of ninety. It was quite a shock. She wasn’t supposed to be the first to go. Then came 2005, a horrible year for us, when we buried four in less than 12 months. The eldest, Aunt Henrietta, was 95. But one of the brothers was “only” in his late eighties. My Aunt Clair died, at the age of 93, in the aftermath of Katrina. Since the cemeteries in the city were still under water, we had to bury her in a small town up the river. It was, to say the least, traumatic.

Now there are only four Dominoes. Uncle Al still lives at home, alone since the death of his wife last year, although his sons are trying to talk him into moving into an assisted living complex. He says, “Heck, I don’t need that! I still mow my own lawn.” Uncle Jiggs had a stroke a few years ago, but is well cared for by his wife, who is 25 years his junior. My mother had a stroke after Katrina and now lives with me, although she’s still going strong. Aunt May still works every day in her garden, although she admits she now needs to get her great-grandsons to dig the holes for her. She told me a few years ago that she’s decided she’s going to live to be one hundred.

I suspect she’s going to make it.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, April 11, 2009

What Really Happens to Heroes

I was planning to do a post today about heroes in fiction, but instead I’m going to write about a real-life hero, Dr. Ivor van Heerden.

As deputy director of LSU’s Hurricane Center, van Heerden created a hurricane modeling program that predicted—very accurately, as it turned out—what would happen to the southern Louisiana coast and New Orleans if the area were hit by a major hurricane. Horrified by what he knew was going to happen, van Heerden spent the years before Katrina battling to get everyone from FEMA to the Army Corps of Engineers to listen to him. They laughed at him.

His forecasts predicting massive levee failures and flooding in Eastern New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish, and the Lower Ninth Ward, were published in the Times-Picayune the day before Katrina hit and helped convinced many to flee. He was at his post at the Hurricane Center, sleepless, through the long dreadful hours of Katrina’s landfall. After the collapse of the federal levee system, he was in the city, watching the water sweep away homes and businesses. This a man who, through intelligence, dedication, and hard work, helped save the lives of countless thousands. After the storm, in a white heat of anger, he sat down and wrote a book called, The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina. It’s a gripping read that will leave you sick and angry and wanting to shake a few people. More than a few people. (I blogged about it when I read it in August of 2006, right after we moved back into our house, here.)

Not only did van Heerden write a book, he also agreed to head the forensic investigation on what went wrong. Dubbed Team Louisiana, this investigation prepared the report The Failure of the New Orleans Levee System During Hurricane Katrina for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. Because of his expertise and the accuracy of his forecasts, he was frequently quoted by various media outlets. Needless to say, his comments were not flattering to the Powers That Be.

So how did LSU treat this hero? In November of 2005, they told him to stop talking to the media because he was hurting the university’s chances of getting federal dollars (not to mention reflecting badly on George Bush, good buddy of the University’s chancellor O’Keefe). And now, under the direction of Louisiana’s new Republican governor, LSU has fired van Heerden. Their reason? None given, not to the press, nor to van Heerden himself.

Risking his job, Van Heerden fought long and hard to get the truth out there, to save lives, to save our city, to save our coast. That’s heroic. Now, he’s paid the price. In popular fiction, he would ultimately triumph as a reward for making the morally “right” choice. But this isn’t fiction; this is life.

Labels: , ,

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Car Full of Roses for Valentine’s Day

Steve and I spent the Saturday before Katrina at City Park’s Botanic Gardens Plant Sale. Every couple of months, the volunteers at the Pelican Greenhouse used to help raise money for the park by putting on a sale of old-fashioned plants and roses that do well in New Orleans (not all green things love our heat and humidity). There weren’t a lot of people at the sale that morning, which surprised us until we were driving home up Metairie Road and saw shops with big signs in the window that read, CLOSED FOR HURRICANE. We looked at each other and said, “Hurricane? What hurricane?” (From which you can tell we don’t watch much television and so were oblivious to the fact that the hurricane that was supposed to be heading for Florida had shifted to take aim at us.)

A couple months later, we took time off from working on our gutted house to go look at what the hurricane had done to City Park. We had to drive the long way around to get to the Pelican Greenhouse because there was STILL water sitting in the dip under the railroad tracks. The greenhouse itself was a shattered wreck; the pots of the plants that hadn’t sold that fateful Saturday were strewn about wherever the receding floodwaters had left them. We’d been attending those plant sales regularly since before we were even married; a lot of wonderful memories of good times, sunshine, and laughter were associated with that greenhouse. Steve parked the car and we just sat in silence for a moment, looking at it.

If you’re wondering why I’m blogging about this now, it’s because last Saturday, on Valentine’s Day, City Park had its first Pelican Greenhouse sale since Katrina. It’s taken them a long time to get the greenhouse back up and running, and they’re still trying to replace all their cutting stock. Volunteers were going around the sale asking regulars, “Do you have a Phyllis Byde? You do! Can we have cuttings?”

It’s nice to be able to give back, after all the joy those sales have given me.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, February 07, 2009

And So It Begins…

It’s Mardi Gras time again here in New Orleans. Time for the glint of sunlight on a soaring string of beads, the foot-tapping beat of the drums, the biggest of grins on the littlest of kids.

This is the Krewe of Driftwood, a local neighborhood parade that comes at the beginning of the season and is always a blast. The weather was glorious, the day grand.

But you know what really sucks?

Having a book due five days after Mardi Gras.

Labels: ,

Friday, December 12, 2008

Winter Wonderland

This is a sight we don’t see too often here in New Orleans.

When it first started, I ran and grabbed my camera, because all I was expecting was a few flurries. But it kept snowing, and snowing, and snowing. For hours.

The kids down the streets went nuts, as did my Jordanian-born, Aussie-raised, kid-at-heart, just-home-from-college-in-Florida daughter.

My mom, who spent many years in the likes of Idaho and Alaska and South Dakota, got all teary eyed, saying, “Snow really is beautiful, isn’t it?

Yes it is.

Labels: ,

Monday, November 24, 2008

Oops! We Did It Again

It’s official: New Orleans has been branded as the city with the worst crime rate in America. According to the CQ Press "City Crime Rankings" list, this honor was bestowed upon us after New Orleans racked up a reported 19,000-plus incidences of six major crimes -- including 209 murder cases -- in 2007. This in a city of less than 250,000 people (which is far less than half the Crescent City’s peak population of some years ago). Compare this with Ramapo, New York, about 40 miles northwest of New York City, which had only 688 total crimes and no reported killings in a city of about 113,000.

When I went to Bouchercon in Baltimore last month, I scandalized some of my fellow conference attendees by going off for a two-hour self-guided walking tour of the city. “Baltimore is a very dangerous city!” they cried. (People who write murder mysteries must tend to be unusually timid folks.)

Any city can be a dangerous place, especially if you don't know where you're going. But I had maps, and a well-developed sense of what parts of a city to avoid. Besides, I told them, “I’m from New Orleans!”

On a side note: Our cat Nick goes back to the vet tomorrow, but he seems to be feeling much better so we're hopeful he's on the mend.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Happy St. Pats!

This is my favorite of the city’s many parades. Held the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day, it begins with a Mass. New Orleans is so frequently painted as a den of sin and depravity that some people forget it’s still a VERY Catholic place.

Leading the parade are the marching clubs—hundreds and hundreds of men in tuxedos (and the occasional kilt), drinking beer and dancing in the street and handing out flowers and beads to the ladies in exchange for kisses.

After that come the floats with riders throwing—in addition to the ubiquitous beads—all the makings for Irish stew: cabbages, carrots, onions, and potatoes. Did I mention the cabbages? You haven’t lived until you’ve been hit in the head by a flying cabbage.

I fell in love with Ireland and the Irish when I first visited that magical land over twenty-five years ago. I even have a smidgen of Irish in me, thanks to a rebel named John Nolan, banished forever from the Emerald Isle by the Evil English. Okay, I admit it; I have way more English/Scots in me than Irish. But still...

On St. Patrick’s Day, the whole world gets to be Irish. Erin Go Bragh!

Labels: , ,

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Of Writers and Friends

You’re looking at an incredible group of people. We are the men and women of Sola, the Southern Louisiana chapter of the Romance Writers of America, gathered here for our third post-Katrina Christmas Party. Every one of these people has a story to tell, of heartbreak and trauma, of loss and triumph. Some lost family members to the storm, many lost houses or suffered devastating damage. Even those whose homes miraculously escaped nevertheless endured long periods of evacuation, survivor-guilt, and all the craziness that is a part of living in a devastated city still partially patrolled by the National Guard.

We held our first post-Katrina meeting just two months after the storm. We sat around in a circle in a half-gutted room and simply listened as, one after the other, we took our turn telling our stories. Some tales were harrowing, others hilarious. Together, we laughed, we cried, and we forged a bond that is still there and probably always will be.

Jamie, the woman who hosted this year’s party, has almost finished rebuilding. This house is in Lakeviw, about a mile from the levee break. There’s a plaque about six feet up on the entry wall, marking their Katrina water line. Many of her neighbors are gone, their houses now empty lots. But an encouraging number are back, or at least in various stages of rebuilding. As we drank wine and laughed through Sadistic Santa, we could hear the distant whirl of a saw and the steady tapping of hammers. The sounds of our city, coming back.

Oh, and if you’re wondering why we’re holding food packages, it’s because we also collected foodstuffs for the local foodbank.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Different Attitude Toward Life and Death

One of my hobbies is genealogy. I don’t have much time for it these days, but a chance cyber meeting with a distant relative in Germany motivated me to spend a few hours this weekend rummaging around old nineteenth-century New Orleans birth and death records. It was a sobering experience.

I’m a historian. I know the death rate in New Orleans was twice as high as that of other American cities, thanks to yellow fever and malaria and all the other nasties that used to flourish in subtropical cities. But nothing quite beats reading actual cemetery records. Consider this run from St. Joseph’s Cemetery from a random stretch in 1871:

1 Jan, Joseph Dudley, 1yr5mo, spasms; Charles Weber, 18m, cerebral inflammation; 2 Jan, male child of Annie Gerdes, 1 day, debility; 3 Jan, son of Judge Daly, still born; Joseph Hall, 6 days, tris. noscentium; Joseph Blake, 37 yrs, gunshot wound…

After reading a few years of this, anyone with any empathy is left gasping with agony for those who buried all these babies, all these children, all these young wives and young men. (The gunshot wound is actually a rarity.) One is left wondering, how did anyone survive? And then the inevitable sequel to that thought is, How did those left alive cope will all this death?

As someone who writes historical novels, it was a sobering experience. I found myself looking at the marriage record of a young woman and then her death record some 16 months later in childbirth, and thinking, How many mothers watched their daughters get married and trembled, knowing how easily they might soon lose them to death in childbirth? Or what about the anxious new mother, holding her baby and knowing how easily every little sniffle, every little tummy ache could lead to another trip to the family tomb?

Some causes of death were familiar—lockjaw, burns, consumption, meningitis, pneumonia, gastro enteritis, scarlet fever; others were strange 19th diagnoses—pthisis pulmonalis, pyasmia, marasmus, albuminaria, congestion of the brain, acute nephrotes. A thousand different ways to die. But the question is still, How did those who survived managed to go on living and laughing and making love? How did they create this city that became know as “the city that care forgot” and “the Big Easy”? The obvious answer is, That’s how they coped with all that suffering and sorrow and death. They threw themselves back into life with an abandonment that lingers in their descendents today.

I have a picture of a stern-faced old woman sitting on an old-fashioned couch. Her name is Caroline Holderith Wegmann, and she immigrated from the Bas Rhin region to New Orleans in 1870 at the age of 16. She raised seven children but buried another four. I keep her picture by my desk as a reminder. Whenever I’m tempted to feel sorry for my self or to wine that life is sooo hard, she sits there and tells me I’m her great-granddaughter, and I’m made of sterner stuff.

Labels: , ,

Friday, May 04, 2007

Just When You Think Things Can’t Get Any Worse…

We’ve been having a hideous storm here in New Orleans all day. Buckets of rain, endless lightening and thunder, howling winds. You need to understand that even without a hurricane it can rain so hard in New Orleans that the streets turn into vast sheets of water deep enough to swallow unwary motorists. Which is how my daughter managed to drive my car (of course it’s my car; hers is still in the shop) into a lake deep enough to make it stall out.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she says over and over again when she calls.

“That’s all right,” I say. “I’ll call Steve to come get you.”

Ten minutes later, she calls back. “Where’s Steve?”

“He’s coming. Why?”

“Well I was just sitting here in the car and I heard this huge crack and this giant tree came crashing down toward me!”

Deep breath. “Are you all right?”


Deep breath. “Did it hit the car?”

“No. But it brought down some power lines and—”

“Don’t get out of the car!”

“Right, Mama,” she says in that tone that only a teenager can manage. “I’m sitting in a car surrounded by water with live power lines bouncing around and you think I’m going to get out of the car?”

Ah, if only this were fiction…

Labels: ,