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ELLEN GILCHRIST Ocean Springs
I am fiercely and horribly proud to be a Mississippian. Never more so than when I read the essays by these women. Our pioneer ancestors came to this state in many ways, some in chains and some on flatboats down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, some carrying flat silver and bibles and rolls of fabric and heads full of dreams and engineering skills, a few were doctors and many of the women knew how to care for the sick and wounded. They brought dogs bred in England and Scotland and Wales, rat terriers and retrievers and pointers for hunting birds and deer and squirrels. They made friends with the Chickasaw Indians and sometimes married them and learned their ways.
They brought to the untamed state of Mississippi the fabulous heritage of Western Civilization and built brick churches and frame churches out of bricks they made and wood they planed. They had skills and tools and they cleared the land and began to build.
They left behind these daughters, proud, brave, resourceful, unsentimental women who are as much pioneers as their ancestors.
These women took all that Katrina could hand out and fought back as brave women have always done. They took care of the weak and sick and dying, they ran to higher ground and they started to rebuild. Living in tents and trailers they hooked up their computers to batteries and made a record of what they had endured and how they are beginning to repair the damage, not only to the physical structures that were destroyed and flooded but to the hearts and minds and souls of their families and each other.
The schools of Mississippi were started by men and women who read Shakespeare and the Greek and Roman philosophers and believed in poetry and literature and the rule of law. Even our worst schools, in our smallest hamlets, in our darkest, poorest times, have taught literature. Our children were taught poems and limericks and songs and read to out of the great literature of the British Isles. They were raised on tales of bravery, moral fables, stories that taught them to be wary of cunning foxes and alligators offering rides across rivers. This literature taught cunning and self-reliance and fortitude, "the strength to bear misfortune and pain calmly and patiently, firm courage." The kind of courage that allows one to face a calamity with grit, backbone, guts, pluck. True Grit was what we admired in John Wayne. Our literary heroines were plucky girls. You could not starve them into submission. They fought back and they survived and triumphed.
These tales resonated in the minds of many when the bad August storm came and blew away so much of what we had built and created.
When I called Ocean Springs after the storm the first thing people told me was that the High School and the library and the Walter Anderson museum had survived. Many of the essays in this book are by women from Ocean Springs and its sister communities, Biloxi, Gulfport, Gautier, Bay Saint Louis, Pass Christian, Diamondhead, Pearlington, Pascagoula, Holly Springs, Moss Point, Kilmichael. Just to write the names of the towns is to hear Mississippians' love for words.
I have a condominium on the beach in Ocean Springs. We are rebuilding these apartments and I had a letter the other day from the board of directors saying we are now going to call them townhouses. I giggled for an hour after I read the letter. That is so Mississippian that I don't know how to explain the humor of it to anyone from another state.
The woman who washed off the CD needed to reprogram her computer in her newly installed replacement toilet (which was the only source of water in the house) is the sort of woman I want with me when disaster strikes. Her brilliant, elegant essay is on page 65. She is from Gautier, a small town near Ocean Springs. Especially beautiful girls from Gautier took dance classes with my granddaughters. The reason I have a townhouse (nee, condominium) on the beach in Ocean Springs was so I would be there to drive my granddaughters to dance classes at Donna's School of Visual and Performing Arts, as their mother was busy working for a living in the afternoons. Another highlight of early talks with Ocean Springs residents was reports that Donna's dance floors had been flooded. The Yoga school across the street, however, was reported to have survived, as had the new South American dressmaker who had set up shop on Washington Avenue.
It is important to understand the significance people in Mississippi give to art and beauty, to education and dance and painting and literature and the rule of law in order to understand how they have begun to rebuild the coast so quickly while other places are still struggling to begin.
Mississippi women can't stand to look at a mess. It's hardwired in our genes. We have to make things beautiful. We have to teach young girls to dance and praise painters and put up with writers while they are learning their trade.
We also love and honor engineers and physicians and scientists. As housewives we love carpenters and electricians and plumbers and roofers and yard men. You can't create beauty unless you get the men to do the heavy lifting.
"He huffed and he puffed and he blew the house down" is a line that kept resonating in my mind as I walked along the beaches of Ocean Springs and Gulfport and Biloxi after the storm and remembered the beautiful beach houses where I had visited all my life. The casinos where I had never spent more than twenty dollars in quarters on any day except for one night when I lost sixty dollars by making the mistake of moving to the dollar slots. Beauvoir, the home of Jefferson Davis, where my grandmother visited as a child and later copied the treehouse in the front yard when she had been transported by marriage to a small town in Alabama. The treehouse had broad white stairs and wrapped around an oak tree like a veranda (Mississippian for porch). My grandmother and her friends would have tea in the treehouse on nice days. When one of their group became too crippled to climb the stairs they had tea on the porch of the house instead and looked at the treehouse. No lady from Mississippi would climb a set of stairs in front of someone too crippled to accompany them.
It is difficult to explain to someone from a less polite culture how much these things mattered when a storm came and blew away the homes and livelihoods of thousands of our citizens. Many homeless people lived with relatives in other towns, many were bivouacked in Jackson, which had little electricity, phone service, or gasoline for several weeks.
People did not complain or wait for the government to come save them. They saved each other and they saved themselves. The government was generous and so were thousands of out-of-state people who came to help clean up the mess and the people of Mississippi are grateful for that help but they didn't wait on it or depend on it. As these essays attest they went to work as soon as their feet were dry to clean up the mess and rebuild their towns.
Another important thing is how easily they gave up the STUFF that had been washed out to sea. The Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Mississippi is called the Mississippi Sound. Currently it is awash in silver, china, pottery, paintings, photographs-baby pictures, wedding albums, photographs of soldiers, sailors, and Marines, prom photographs, beauty contest and dance recital photographs, graduation photographs, photographs of young men on football and basketball and soccer and tennis and golf teams, girls in homecoming dresses and young men in tuxedos. To count the losses is useless. It is all out there in the water. A wave of water came in and sucked everything back out into the sea. Antique furniture made in Mississippi by Mississippi hands from Mississippi cypress and pine and cedar and walnut and cherry trees, beautiful pleated draperies and lace curtains and plantation blinds (horribly expensive, I never could bring myself to buy any, but my mother did), pots and pans and towels and sheets and pillows and pillowcases and hand-knitted afghans and embroidered alphabets, framed and saved by the mothers of the girls who embroidered them. Saved for posterity. Well, posterity is here and we have to press on with the alphabet in our heads. It turns out floods can't suck memories out into the sea unless they kill us to do it.
Anyway, all that STUFF washed out to sea and the women who had been in charge of it have achieved a fatalistic attitude about that STUFF that amazes me when they talk or write about it. These women know the real stuff of life was not in those lost rooms. The true grit and guts and pluck and purpose is to press on and save the babies. A woman in one of these essays put a baby in a piece of Tupperware to transfer it from a small sinking boat to a larger rescue vehicle. I adore the image of that fat, handsome baby riding the waves in a piece of Tupperware. Tupperware is so strong, designed to survive years of use in real kitchens. I never doubted for a second that the baby was safe.
There is a mystical, biblical feel to these essays. These women, and so many like them in this land of history and fiction, poetry and plays, actors and actresses both on and off the stage, gardeners, decorators, and homemakers par excellence, reflect this mystical love of beauty and order in their essays. Hooray for them for making this record of their travails and adventures.
It would be good if I stopped writing now and let their accounts speak for themselves.
HOW DO YOU KNOW?
LYN SHOEMAKER BROWN Gautier
We had lived on Beach Boulevard in Pascagoula for thirty-seven years in a home we designed with an architect. We loved living on the beach because of the view and the breezes ... we could look out and see all the way to the islands ten miles south of us. Our three children loved sailing, fishing, and all the other things kids do.
They grew up, went to college, and all found new lives as college graduates. Raymond and I were still there, growing older and dealing with what seemed like more and more hurricanes every year.
I became worried as the years passed that there would be a big storm which would wipe us out. I guess older people tend to worry more than the young. With storms on my mind much of the time, one night I dreamed I was flying over my house after there had been a big storm which had washed away all the homes, and I turned to someone flying next to me and said, "That is where my home was," and pointed to a slab below.
The person said, "How do you know?"
I said, "I can see my beautiful tile floors."
After I finally convinced my husband that we needed to sell our home while it was still intact, we sold it and moved to a new home we built in the woods of Gautier. We call it our tree house, because we live on the second level, where we can easily see birds.
And a little over a year later, on the second day after Hurricane Katrina, our son, who lives in Houston, flew over the Pascagoula-Gautier area, checking on our new house in the woods and also flying over our former home where he had grown up.
Days later when phone service was restored, the conversation with my son was almost like the one in my dream.
The house we lived in for thirty-seven years was gone, leaving a slab with colorful tile floors.
DEBRIS AND MORE
JOAN G. ARMSTRONG Ocean Springs
The grim weather report very early Sunday morning that stated Category 5 Katrina would be at my door in less than twenty-four hours left me unable to move for a while. It was terrible news, as my condo is at twenty feet of elevation, right on the Gulf of Mexico. I had lugged so many things upstairs in preparation for last year's Ivan, but this time I didn't think it would help.
Frantic calls started coming in from my children, and I ended up evacuating to daughter Jill's house in Mexico Beach, Florida. A friend drove me, a dog, and a cat, and we ended up with nine other people in a two-bedroom house. All the facilities worked, but space was definitely limited. Jill told me that when she saw the Weather Channel's Jim Cantore in Biloxi, she yelled to the TV for him to go home and get out of her mama's backyard!
We were able to see the debris line on the computer but unable to communicate with friends and relatives who we knew had stayed behind. It was an extremely anxious time. My son Terry is in the National Guard in Iraq and actually got his two weeks' leave while we were evacuated to Florida. This was a blessing on so many levels, as we really needed him. When we were able to return to the beachfront in Ocean Springs, I realized that I had made a serious mistake in not moving my belongings upstairs: this time the upstairs did stay dry, but the downstairs was a complete loss. Terry got to work cutting down trees, going through the debris piles, and packing me out of what was left of my home until it was time for him to get back on the plane. He just went from one war zone to another and back again. My disadvantaged son was so very willing to help if he was able, and my other children, a son and two daughters from near and far, all assembled to help and reunite with Terry. It was a great joy to me.
The debris piles were mesmerizing. It was hard to stay away from them, to not keep digging through them. I lost some of my paintings and actually found one or two in the debris pile, though not the ones I had recently been working on. I was having trouble with the spiral in my current piece, and Katrina finished it for me and kept the painting. A sculpture that I consider my most prized possession was in my washed-through downstairs, and I thought it was gone forever. Somehow it survived unharmed, and through the kindness of friends was kept safe and sound for my return.
Some neighbors who had a wonderful older Greek Revival home next to my condo on Front Beach saw the huge storm surge coming and ran for their lives out the back of their home, to hang onto some giant old oaks until the water subsided. So many stories to hear and so many to tell.
My son David and daughter Jill helped a friend fix up a mobile home, and when she moved into it I was able to rent her house. It is unheated and not air-conditioned, but I was very glad to be there and settled. I had slept in many different places at this point; it is wonderful to have generous friends who still have their homes, but so good to have a place of my own again. This two-bedroom house now includes my grandson and his wife, all my belongings and those of my son David and his wife, so we are packed pretty full.
Going back to visit the condo seems like something I just had to do almost daily. The debris was gone within two months, a gigantic task. At one point there were 167 men and much equipment working to make some sense of the future of the condo community. After four months of inactivity, reconstruction has begun and the hope is that we will be moving back in this August.
Everyone has been wonderful to me. I had not been painting much for some time before the storm but have been painting nearly every day for a while now. I'm working on yupo paper, and perhaps post-traumatic stress is responsible for my erasing one area at a time that I don't like. This one could have been six or eight paintings, but I'll get there.
I've been thinking of a statement about having post-traumatic stress disorder followed by post-traumatic growth, and I'm setting my goal on that.
LYN BAILEY Pearlington
My husband and I are a volunteer foster home for the Ponchartrain Humane Society in Pearlington, Mississippi. We decided to stay and ride out the storm with ten of the dogs that we were taking care of. On the morning of the storm I was downstairs about 6 a.m., and I saw not a drop of water in the backyard. We thought that we were doing pretty good and patted ourselves on the back at how well we had done. Things were looking better than when we'd had tropical storms Isadore and Lily.
I was in the kitchen putting coffee on because we still had power. All of a sudden I heard water running behind me, and I saw water coming up fast out of the downdraft stove that is vented in the floor. I looked up at the glass doors and saw water three feet deep pushing up against the doors. I hollered at my husband, Sam, that "we had better get upstairs quick." I grabbed the one dog that was still downstairs because we didn't have a crate for him, and before the words were barely even out of my mouth, the doors broke out of their hinges and all hell broke loose. The water started filling up the house.
Excerpted from KATRINA Copyright © 2007 by Mississippi State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 19, 2007
This was a very interesting read. It is basically a collections of essays from numerous women about their experiences during and after Hurricane Katrina. It shows different views and emotions of those who actually lived through the horrific storm on the Gulf Coast and how they are picking up the pieces after. It gives a true picture of the experiences of these women and their strength and courage. There's also a collection of some great photos in the book. It is amazing what these women have gone through and in some cases are still going through. I would recommend this book to everyone.
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