New Orleans Family Misses Home Gatherings

One New Orleans family misses gatherings in their old house. The house has been in the family since the late 1940s. Katrina ripped off the roof of the home two and a half years ago, and they still don't have the money to repair it.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

You can't get much further from the South Pole than New Orleans - that's where I was last month, working on some stories. One focused on people who were having trouble getting government money that's supposed to be available to fix their homes because they don't have clear titles to their property. That's a whole story in itself.

But while talking to people about that, I also heard some reflections and memories that helped illuminate the deep well of hope and comfort and belonging that a house embodies. The house that sparked those memories stands empty in the Hollygrove section of New Orleans.

(Soundbite of children playing)

YDSTIE: So this is at the corner of Birch and…

Ms. LOIS ROBINSON(ph) (New Orleans, Louisiana): Hollygrove.

YDSTIE: Hollygrove, yeah. Hollygrove Street. And this house has been in the family for how long now?

Mr. CHARLES DARRINSBURG(ph) (New Orleans, Louisiana): Since the late 1940s.

YDSTIE: That's Lois Robinson and her son, Charles Darrinsburg. Lois' grandparents, Joseph and Felanice Darrinsburg(ph), both now dead, bought this house and raised their family here. Katrina's winds tore off part of the roof, and the family doesn't have the money to repair it. So two and a half years later, it's still not fit to live in.

But the family hasn't give up on this long, narrow, shotgun house with a second story on the back, and their attachment to this modest structure seems to be that it is a physical representation of the traditions and rhythms that are the pulse and essence of their family life.

That became clearer as we sat in a living room a few blocks away, where Lois' mother, 80-year-old Alice Cousin(ph), now lives, waiting for the family home to be repaired.

Ms. ALICE COUSIN (New Orleans, Louisiana): My mother worked hard to get that house. She really worked it hard to get it, and she was real proud of the fast.

Ms. ROBINSON: You know, they had a pushing lawnmower at the time. She would take an old hat and put on big old shoes and just be pushing that lawnmower, you know? And after that, she used to love her beer, take a break, drank Falstaff, Dixie or whatever was out. You know, she enjoyed it. She enjoyed doing these things, you know?

Ms. COUSIN: She enjoyed it every time.

Ms. ROBINSON: Right, right, right. And my grandfather, when we were young, he also used to grow sugar cane in the yard, and (unintelligible), see the holidays and stuff. We were never without (unintelligible). Oh, that was a good dish.

YDSTIE: What - I don't know what that is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COUSIN: It's a vegetable.

Ms. ROBINSON: It's like squash.

YDSTIE: Oh, it's like squash?

Ms. ROBINSON: Something like squash. It's in the squash family.

Mr. DARRINSBURG: I mean, we spent most of our time, like holidays, birthdays, Christmases, we would all gather over there, everybody, all the grandchildren, all of our kids. We would gather over there. That was like the central house that we would meet at.

Ms. ROBINSON: But when I was young, we had a watermelon party. When watermelon came out, oh everybody came over. We sat in the yard, oh had a lot of fun, lot of fun. But see, I was the only grandchild that didn't eat watermelon. So I was just left out looking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBINSON: I tried, but I still couldn't eat it. And see, like All Saint's Day, my grandfather used to buy a sack of oysters. Oh, sit down and shuck those oysters, bring them in. We'd have fish, shrimps, and holidays, favorite for gumbo, okay? You see, gumbo and his birthday - oh, you had to make a big pot of gumbo.

Ms. COUSIN: Yeah, the day before, he would prepare for that gumbo. He don't want nothing but that gumbo then, gumbo and potato salad. That was his honey. Yeah, that was it. He loved his gumbo. Daddy used to love to eat. He'd love to eat, honey, and he was going to eat what he want to eat, too. He really - he was a big man, so he wasn't going to bring no little bit of bread and butter there or slices of salmon. He didn't go for that. He wanted dinner. He wanted dinner, honey.

YDSTIE: There wasn't much floodwater in this neighborhood, and most of the neighbor's houses are already repaired. Children play in the streets and small front yards, just like they used to when Lois, who's now 50, was a child.

Back at the family house, she recalls those days.

Ms. ROBINSON: In the summer, we always had ice water when nobody else had ice water because my grandfather was the ice man. And I remember the refrigerators that you put the ice in. So after the refrigerators changed, my grandfather still took ice and put it in the refrigerator, not at the top, but in the bottom, in the meat drawer. He could not stand that frost or that ice cubes that they did. He wanted ice.

YDSTIE: So I bet you found his house when you needed a cool drink of water.

Ms. ROBINSON: Oh, everybody in the neighborhood because you know why? We kept -we would set the ice and the water on the porch and stuff, and everybody used to play in the neighborhood, they come get ice water. So we had a good time. We had a really good time.

YDSTIE: The family remains hopeful that the money will come soon to repair their home. Then they'll sit on the front porch again, gather in the kitchen and make new memories that can nurture and sustain their children.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: This is WEEKEND EDITION. Scott Simon returns next week. I'm John Ydstie.

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