We lost almost everything in Katrina

And now I fear that our landlady stole our china cabinet. I'm heartbroken

Published September 19, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

This will probably sound silly, but I'm heartbroken over this. My husband, daughter and I lived in Gentilly last year -- that's a part of New Orleans that flooded badly last year after Hurricane Katrina. As we lived in the oldest and highest part of the area we only got 18 to 24 inches of water in our rented house, where many of our neighbors just a few blocks away got a great deal more. The end result, physically, was that we didn't lose everything we owned -- 75 to 80 percent would probably be a pretty good estimate.

Unfortunately, a lot of what we lost were books, photographs and miscellaneous family-related knickknacks and mementos. I particularly lost a lot of very dear things (antique books, family and travel pictures that can never be duplicated, etc.) primarily because I'm the biggest accumulator in the family and also the most disorganized. You can imagine that we lost almost all of our furniture -- sitting for a week or more in garbage water is not too advantageous for the long-term health of modern furniture. A few antique pieces I had collected over the years made it with minimal damage, as well as my husband's maternal grandmother's dining room buffet (but not her dining room table -- it simply disintegrated), and my great-grandmother's china cabinet.

The china cabinet was a family artifact that I have had since I was a small girl. It is literally the only thing remaining of the great-grandmother I named my only daughter after. I grew up to be an architectural historian and lover of historic architecture and the decorative arts. Always my great-grandmother's china cabinet was my finest and most beloved object.

After the hurricane, we threw out almost everything we owned because of the flooding damage. It was devastating. However, the china cabinet had made it, and so in a way it felt like everything would be OK. My family history, such as it was, would survive.

During the year following the hurricane our landlady was very nice about allowing us to take our time in removing our stuff. There were no functional storage facilities anywhere near New Orleans for many months after the storm, and our landlady said that it would be fine for us to leave some stuff in the house until we could move it all. Several months ago we procured a storage location and a larger apartment, and told her we would be removing all the remaining stuff.

When we went to pack everything up, we discovered that my china cabinet was gone. My husband spoke with her about it (I was literally hysterical and couldn't bring myself to call her), and she told him that she had thrown it out. It was in fact the only item of furniture that she had so disposed of. Everything else except for a few antique books that I had hoped to air out and salvage was still there. I am suspicious that she removed this piece of furniture for her own reasons (it was a superbly made mahogany Edwardian cabinet which took three large guys to move). I have not spoken with her about it because just talking about it makes me cry. I feel like I should ask her about it, but am pretty sure that it's gone for good, and that it would make me feel worse to have her tell me that she threw it away.

I know. This is bigger than the china cabinet; this is also about loss and grief and abandonment. I know therapy would help a lot. However, that's truly not an option in New Orleans. Any therapists and social workers left in the area are so overwhelmed they can't possibly take new people on.

Please help me. Mundane advice (whether to call our former landlady) as well as spiritual advice is welcome, and in fact necessary.

Still Underwater

Dear Still Underwater,

Things can carry us down to the bottom of the sea if we don't let go of them when we need to. We cling to beautiful anchors as they sink; we find ourselves on the bottom, drowning, still clinging desperately. Imagine the world's most beautiful ship's anchor, jewel-encrusted: so beautiful that one can't help clinging to it, hugging it like a child hugs a grandmother's knees as it descends on its chain to the bottom of the sea. Then like waking from a dream we hit the bottom and look up at the undulating surface of the water so far above our heads and wonder how we got down here and how we'll ever get up to the surface before the air in our lungs is gone and we take that fatal gulp...

There was a giant flood and our house filled with water: Everything is floating by, all our family is submerged, we are swimming inside our house.

What are we doing in my dream? We have to go to dreams to understand the power of that china cabinet; we have to go to the primal experience of the flood: to the dreamland of drowned jewelry and furniture, to where mad fishes mock us with luminous eyes (why do they stare so? Have they never seen New Orleanians underwater before, swimming around in our houses, looking for that book we lost?).

Your letter puts me in dreamland. It's where I go with this story, because it is epic, mythic, biblical, what have you: the drowned city. Land of Prince Nemo. Who hasn't dreamed of the drowned city? Who hasn't awakened shaking and in sweats from such dreams?

I know maybe it's distasteful to hear someone who wasn't there say it. But there it is: This beautiful thing you so cherish will carry you to the bottom if you don't let go of it.

As to the more practical aspect of it: You could of course talk to the landlady. Why not? You may harbor suspicions that she actually sold the piece, or gave it away, and those suspicions may make it hard for you to approach her. So put those suspicions out of your mind. You don't have to allow those suspicions to surface. Make it more of a confession. Confess to her that it was the most dear piece of furniture you ever had and you are just heartbroken about it and since she was the last person to see it you just felt a need to talk to her and ask her if there's any chance that where it was disposed of it might still be salvageable, if you could maybe drive up there or something, or maybe if it was just given to somebody who was going to dispose of it and maybe they haven't disposed of it yet. Hint around. Mention money. Tell her that you would spend any amount of money to restore it if you could only find it. See what she says.

Go see her. Do not just talk to her on the phone. That is not sufficient. You must go see her. And speak to her in grief and kindness, not in anger. You do not know for sure what happened. There was a terrible flood. Everyone lost things. Some people went crazy. It was a crazy, surreal time. It is a time all of you shared. So she is not a target for your anger. It's possible she did something mean and selfish and stupid but you do not know for sure. So do not approach her as though she is the enemy. Share your grief with her. Share with her how hard it is to lose the last remnant of your family.

And at the same time just probe around the edges of the thing. See if there is any chance that this china cabinet that was disposed of might be recoverable in some form, if the right resources were brought to bear.

I would like to know what the story is. It will do you good to pursue it, at least until you hear with your own ears that the thing is lost.

If it is lost, it is lost. That is the inescapable truth of life on earth. People go away. Stuff goes away. Floods come and sweep away everything. Whole cities disappear.

This has been happening on the Gulf Coast since long before Europeans showed up to lament the terrible power of Huracán, Taíno god of strong winds. It was happening to the Tainos and back into time to whoever has had the temerity to live on the vulnerable lands of the Caribbean and the Gulf. All must fear Huracán, Taíno god of strong winds. He carries away even the past itself.

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