Guest Blogger Patty Friedmann: Leaving Mother
Patty Friedman very well remembers August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and surrounding communities. It was the costliest hurricane on record and one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. The death toll was over 1,000, yet Patty survived. This is her story. Please check out her bio below to find out where you can pick up your copy of her latest book, Too Jewish.
By Patty Friedman, author of Too Jewish
No one remembers Hurricane Ivan. I remember him because he was so forgettable. It was September of 2004, and I was in Houston. I’d been invited to speak at a women’s group about my latest book, and I’d gone despite the threat of a storm. When hints of Ivan turning toward New Orleans became more like threats, I hurried to the airport, only to learn all flights had been canceled.
I was not about to be trapped in Houston. I ran from car-rental office to car-rental office until Enterprise agreed to let me drive a car into the pathway of a storm. Then I got onto the I-10 and headed east, eventually becoming the only vehicle going that way, zipping along at 85 while I watched bumper-to-bumper traffic going west. I actually got a speeding ticket just east of Lafayette. The officer should have been ashamed of himself, I thought. There were so many more stupid people going the other way.
My neighborhood was wonderful when I got home. All New Orleans neighborhoods are alike in some measure: whites with varying degrees of money and blacks who are in varying degrees of struggling. When I parked my rental car on the neutral ground (the half-block wide median strip) a few blocks from my house and walked home after I arrived in town, I was delighted by what I found. All the white people except me and two neighbors were gone, and all the black kids were getting an unexpected day off from school, so they were playing ball in the street, free from passing cars. We all would ride out the non-arrival of Ivan, not having to drive home after the total miss.
Katrina was coming the same way a year later, but I had the advantage this time of not being stuck in Houston. I was right at home. I could ride her out without a trip. This is going to be just like Ivan, I said to myself. And then I began having to say it to everyone who kept telling me to pack up and get moving. Including my two neighbors who usually stayed put with me. There was a low-grade panic in the air about this storm, but I thought it had to do with the inability of Mayor Ray Nagin to call for a mandatory evacuation. B.F. Skinner effect. If the mayor had decided one way or the other, nobody would have been so jittery. That was my reasoning. Katrina was toning down and veering slightly east. A lot of wind, a lot of rain, but my house had stood for a hundred years. No problem.
My son and daughter didn’t buy my attitude. They were leaving. It was my son whose story affects me to this day.
On the morning he was leaving, he fluctuated between treating me like dirt and panicking about my fate. I asked if he would go up the ladder and tie down my awnings. His entire focus in life at the time—in fact his entire reason for leaving—was his tricked out Nissan Xterra. He didn’t have time for my stupid awnings. I asked him, whose room surely had every electronic device known to man, if he could leave me a radio. He handed me an ancient piece of equipment and said, “It’ll work if you get the batteries out of the smoke detector.” I asked if he could follow me downtown so I could leave my little Mercedes C230 in a high-rise garage; he definitely didn’t have time for that. Surely if I parked it at my sister’s five blocks away it’d be on the highest ground in all of uptown. And yet he found time to say, “Mom, you’re crazy not to leave. You and Nookie can come with me. Please?” Ah, yes, Nookie. His cat. His cat that he was leaving with me. His beloved cat Nookie who wasn’t socialized because he found her at age three weeks, so she was a vicious biter. There was a subliminal message that he expected I would risk my life for this sociopathic cat.
Then he left, dry-eyed. And I went on to learn I was right, that Katrina was no big deal as a natural disaster.
Katrina was a terrible man-made disaster, and I was trapped for a week, with no outside communication. After four days in my house with no radio—he was wrong about those batteries—I hitched a rowboat ride to my sister’s house and learned why the dry ground on Monday after the storm became a four-foot flood by Tuesday, filling the first level of my house. I lived without fresh food, water, electricity, phone, outside contact—all in 95 degrees. I watched helicopters fly over. I developed a golf-ball-sized lump develop in my neck with no means to treat it, yet my sister sent a “We’re fine” message to the helicopters. When rescuers finally came, I waded out in chest-deep filth, pushing Nookie in a plastic bin, and ultimately I made it to Houston, where my children had been for a week. My daughter said I had a thousand-yard stare.
This is where I learned something I’d needed to learn my entire life.
My son had been crying nonstop since he arrived in Houston. He’d seen the television images of New Orleans, and he’d been convinced I was dead. All he knew was that he’d asked me to come with him, and he’d left me behind, and now I surely was dead.
My son’s name is Werner.
I named him after my father, Werner Friedmann. Werner my son had been named Werner Holden Skinner at birth, but when he turned 18 he changed his name to Werner Friedmann II, so he truly bears the name of his grandfather. And now he bore another legacy. My father’s legacy was more profound, of course, but I finally understood a little of my own grandmother’s legacy.
My father, known now in my family as Werner the First, grew up Jewish in Germany, having been born in 1916. In 1939 he knew it was absolutely imperative that he and his widowed mother leave Germany or they would fall victim to the Nazis. He told this to his mother.
And she refused to leave.
My father did the only thing he could do. He packed up a few of his belongings and left for the United States. He told his mother goodbye. She died in Thereisenstadt. He never saw her again, and the survivor guilt that plagued him was transformed into a depression he carried until the end of his life. I always ached for him.
My staying for Katrina in no way equals my grandmother’s staying in Germany during the Holocaust. Except in one crucial way. Both of us were mothers making decisions about our own lives while sending off our sons to save themselves. Never once while I was trapped in New Orleans did I think, Well, damn, I’m stuck here, and it’s all Werner’s fault. I didn’t even blame him for my having responsibility for Nookie. In fact, when I made the first phone call to my brother to let him know my sister and I were all right, I said to him, “Tell Werner that I was rescued and went out with Nookie on top of my head,” and my brother said, “I’m afraid Werner doesn’t have any sense of humor right now; he hasn’t stopped crying since he got to Houston.”
I needed to get to Houston to tell him he didn’t need to feel bad. I wish Werner the first had had such luck.
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Patty Friedmann’s two latest books are a YA novel called Taken Away [TSP 2010] and a literary e-novel titled Too Jewish [booksBnimble 2010]. She also is the author of six darkly comic literary novels set in New Orleans: The Exact Image of Mother [Viking Penguin 1991]; Eleanor Rushing , Odds , Secondhand Smoke , Side Effects , and A Little Bit Ruined  [all hardback and paperback from Counterpoint except paper edition of Secondhand Smoke from Berkley Penguin]; as well as the humor book Too Smart to Be Rich [New Chapter Press 1988]. Her novels have been chosen as Discover Great New Writers, Original Voices, and Book Sense 76 selections, and her humor book was syndicated by the New York Times. She has published reviews, essays, and short stories in Publishers Weekly, Newsweek, Oxford American, Speakeasy, Horn Gallery, Short Story, LA LIT, Brightleaf, New Orleans Review, and The Times-Picayune and in anthologies The Great New American Writers Cookbook, Above Ground, Christmas Stories from Louisiana, My New Orleans, New Orleans Noir, and Life in the Wake. Her stage pieces have been part of Native Tongues.
In a special 2009 edition, Oxford American listed Secondhand Smoke with 29 titles that included Gone with the Wind, Deliverance, and A Lesson Before Dying as the greatest Underrated Southern Books. With slight interruptions for education and natural disasters, she always has lived in New Orleans.
You can visit her website at www.pattyfriedmann.com, her blog at www.pattyfriedmann.typepad.com or friend her at her Facebook at www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=527384281.