Posted on September 5, 2015
On a cold morning in January, my father showed up on our front porch. He said he was in town for a haircut; there was a salon he and his second wife went to in Bucktown, a neighborhood that hadn’t flooded. My husband and son and I had just returned to New Orleans to live together again under one roof.
My father didn’t ask for a disaster tour, but I put him in the car and drove him around to see the continuous rusty water line that sliced through homes and businesses, and ran above the front door of my stepson’s house in Lakeview. I explained how they’d lost everything. “Their daughter was born two weeks after Katrina,” I told my father. “I’m sort of a grandmother.”
“We got Katrina in Hattiesburg,” he said. “A tree came through the roof. And then rain.”
“But your house can be repaired,” I said. “Theirs is scheduled for demolition.”
On the neutral ground, crepe myrtles and oleander and cypress trees looked ossified. After weeks in salt water, everything green had turned the color of ash. New Orleans was Pompeii.
“You can smell the decomposition,” I said, opening the window on his side.
“Do you remember Mount Vesuvius?” he asked.
“I do,” I said. My family lived in Italy in the 60s and on weekends my father used to throw us in the car for road trips. My younger sister and I had explored the ancient city’s ruins, the gray cabins, and pitied the families burned in place. I’d picked up a dry chunk of lava, pocked with holes, and stashed it in my pocket. It’s in my lingerie drawer with my son’s baby teeth and the hammered gold wedding band from my first marriage.
I drove my father through streets named after gems: Agate. Turquoise. Emerald.
“A good sign is any driveway with a car in it,” I said. Refrigerators mummied by duct tape had been dragged to the curb.
My father looked at the side of my face, not out the window. My parents are musicians and divorced. My father had married his graduate student, a singer, and they’d had a son. He nudged my thigh, and said, “Finally, after fifty years I’m ready to write an opera. I’ll also write the libretto so words don’t upstage the music.” He said his wife would sing the lead.
The opera would be something to behold, and it was an easy habit to be proud. My mother and my sister and I had been his portable audience. He’d always insisted he did not think about people when he wrote music, only the self-imposed challenges of harmony and orchestration.
One time rummaging in his study, I found a book called “The Lives of Great Composers.” Robert Schumann had Clara, Mahler had Alma, Colette was a muse to Les Six. I was in high school and I expected to also one day be some man’s muse; I was too frightened to create my own work out of nothing.
“Which of your pieces did Mom inspire?” I’d asked. Talking to him always felt like conducting an interview.
“I don’t write music because I’m inspired,” he’d said, unhappy with the dumb question.
But for her wedding, my sister begged and wore him down, and he wrote her a tender art song that was sung by a soprano, another student in the music department.
The streets had zero traffic. I drove my father down West End Boulevard, past a four-story pile of debris waiting to be taken to landfill. It looked abstract until you stared into it, and then you could find mattresses, sofa cushions, bookshelves, water-stained doors.
“Your little brother picks out tunes by ear.” My father held his hands in the air and wiggled his fingers to show me how.
A ruined city, my ruined city, couldn’t compete with what was more important. I didn’t say, Look out the window, please, Dad. This is where I live now. Let me be hurt; it’s okay. I turned the car around and brought us back.
(Thanks to New World Writing guest editor, James Whorton, Jr. and to Frederick Barthelme)