RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: The blurred faces of Katrina keep happiness in a sharper focus

I keep the photographs in a box. My first thought, when I retrieved them curbside outside a house being gutted in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, was to give them to my niece, who is artistic. Perhaps she would be inspired to draw or paint something to raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims.
One is a typical school photograph, a girl in fat pigtails tied in ribbons, smiling to show she’s the age when it’s OK to be missing teeth. Water had blurred the details, but you could make out enough to know somebody’s darling had worn her best smile and clothes to pose one happy day for the visiting commercial photographer.
The other photo is of an old man, the girl’s grandfather, perhaps, sitting in a chair in the house where I found the macabre souvenirs. He looks wise and friendly and accessible, someone who might sit you on his knee and give you a nickel for an “A” on your report card. He wears a Heidi’s-grandfather beard and big-rimmed eyeglasses. His white shirt – the entire photo – bears the tracks of Katrina, the mud and floodwaters and sorrow that swept an album or frame to the floor.
Five years ago I picked up those pictures one day while helping a Washington, D.C., friend who spent her vacation in New Orleans working with a Methodist mission. Her job was to tear down the interior walls of the little house and cart them to the curb.
As the debris pile grew on the street, so did my questions about the old man and little girl. Were they in Baton Rouge, camping out in a FEMA trailer and still reeling from the shock and loss? Were they staying with relatives in another part of America’s favorite city, the place we all use when we need a fix of frivolity and fresh seafood? Were they even alive? I regret not searching for answers.
I took a snapshot of the flooded house that day, its slate roof perfectly intact and its vinyl siding seafoam green. The shrubbery in the yard had been recently pruned, only now it was covered with the flood’s effluvia, as if a giant hand in the sky had passed by dropping dryer lint.
I like to think that the old man and his wife – I totally extrapolated a wife – moved back to the family home with new walls and floors and cabinets and furniture, and today cook Sunday dinner and talk about the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina the same introspective way we all discuss painful things we have survived. Maybe. Just maybe.
I have other photographs that bear witness to Katrina’s wrath. Some of the Pass Christian, Miss., street where I once lived. A few of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, more from New Orleans.
For some reason, the photographs that move me most are the water-soaked visages of the girl and the grandfather, faces swept to the street in the aftermath of what, for my money, is this nation’s saddest moment since the Civil War.
I did show the photographs to my niece, who, as is her wont, found her own inspiration. But I keep them to remind myself – lest I’m ever tempted to forget – of the tentative nature of happiness and normalcy, how fate turns on a dime and can turn on anyone. We are not the captains of our destiny; we are all just hanging on for dear life as the storms brew offshore.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal

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