HomeSouthern VoiceHigher Ground

Higher Ground

by Margaret McMullan

The oysters and speckled trout are back, and shrimpers can forecast the weather again by checking a shrimp’s legs: red means a storm is coming and clear means the waters are good. The U Loot We Shoot signs are gone, and so are the army tents, the FEMA trailers, and all the hand-lettered signs propped on metal folding chairs that read Free Medical. We’re still finding stuff, though — plastic bowls, a plate, a laminated sign of instructions that could be read as a found poem:

Please hold
The flusher
Down for an
Extra 5 seconds
In aid of
Flush
Completion.
Thanks

Before Katrina, my husband and I stayed in Pass Christian as summer people. But on the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we loaded up a U-Haul truck in Evansville, Indiana, where we’d spent the past 25 years, and headed south to Pass Christian to live permanently. It was named for a deep-water pass, named after Nicholas Christan L’Adnier, who, in 1746, lived on Cat Island, which you can still see from the shore. Pass Christian is pronounced, in the French manner, as pass kris-CHEE-AN, rather than pass KRIS-chin, as John Mellencamp sings it in “Cuttin’ Heads.” The town was a famous resort before the American Civil War, and the site where the first yacht club of the South, second in the country, was established in 1849. From 1820 to 1865, all roads in Mississippi led to Pass Christian. In 1870, Reconstruction-weary tourists traveled by train to “the Pass” for sun and relaxation, and it came to be known as the “American Riviera.”

In 1990, my father bought and renovated a 150-year-old house that became a family vacation home in Pass Christian, a Mississippi Gulf Coast town. He and my mother lived in Chicago, but my father and I both grew up in Mississippi, and we all wanted to find a reason to return.

While workmen renovated the house that first summer, I drove down with a box of books and stayed there alone. I spent my days reading on the porch, while out in the Mississippi Sound, shrimp boats passed, boats with names like Still Waters and Knot to Worry. I made a lot of new friends that summer, friends who eventually came to my wedding when my husband and I married there in 1993.

We spent most summer vacations there. Our son learned how to walk there on the beach. My husband and I cooked for family who gathered there every Thanksgiving and Christmas. My father and mother had planned to spend their retirement there.

This is where Tig Notaro just finished filming her new comedy series, and where Ellen DeGeneres spent weekends as a child. Where Eudora Welty, Katherine Ann Porter, and Elizabeth Spencer gathered together one summer evening; where U.S. President Woodrow Wilson celebrated his 56th birthday; and where William Faulkner came to vacation in the house my father would later buy. In a letter to his parents, Faulkner wrote about numerous bathrooms, and, most especially, the view from the front porch.

Then, on August 29, 2005, an estimated thirty to thirty-seven foot storm surge hit Pass Christian. Back in Indiana, my husband and I waited and watched the news reports. A neighbor called, telling us that the house in Pass Christian was still standing, but just barely. Aerial photos of the area from a news helicopter showed the house was one of only a handful left near the shore. The Gulfport airport closed, so we drove down. When we reached Pass Christian, it looked like a bomb had dropped. Ninety percent of the town was leveled. Of the approximately 8,000 homes, all but 500 were damaged or destroyed.

Even though the front of our house was blown apart, the roof held. We spent the day sifting through debris and dragging out any salvageable pieces of furniture. The water had shoved through the closed shutters and plowed up under the foundation, tearing open the back walls, slamming around the furniture, sinks, toilets, stoves, washers, dryers, trying to get out. We found the dining room chandelier still hanging, swaying in the breeze.

Standing in the rubble, we called my parents to give a rundown of what was lost and found. As we talked, my husband and I looked out toward the waters of the Mississippi Sound: pretty, calm, and blue, sparkling in the sun. My parents didn’t hesitate to say they wanted to rebuild. They said it was the one place, the only place, to which they wanted to return. They said they wanted our eight-year-old son to take his college friends there summer breaks.

We saved a few items, such as a folk-art sign painted on a tin ceiling tile that read: Be Nice or Leave, which we took back with us to Indiana, keeping it along with a favorite broken urn and my father’s rusted iron alligator.

It’s not easy to rebuild a house without a town, but we did what we could to help. There was the hurdle of finding a skilled crew willing to drive or “camp out” to work, as there were no hotels nearby. All along the coast, people shared reconstruction stories in tents over plates of donated food. When President Bush came for photo ops, he and his people closed the roadways, suspending all deliveries for food, water, and building supplies. Even some town Republicans wondered how he’d been re-elected.

It took a year to repair Highway 90 along the beach and two years to rebuild the bridge over Bay St. Louis. Even now, at this writing, pockets of Pass Christian remain empty and deserted with structures half-built or half-destroyed, depending on how you see it. Every now and then we see ten-year-old plastic Wal-Mart bags caught in the limbs of live oaks.

After Katrina, very few people returned. Our older friends either moved into retirement homes or died soon after the storm — some from infection, some from heartbreak. From 2000 to 2008, Pass Christian was number three on the list of the Top 101 counties with the largest number of people moving out compared to moving in.

Just as the house neared completion, my father began having difficulty reading. A brain scan led to a devastating diagnosis: glioblastema, the deadliest of brain tumors. After several procedures in Chicago, my father and mother finally just got on a place and headed south to their favorite plane on the coast. He spent a good portion of his last year in his rebuilt home in Pass Christian. He replanted three magnolia trees and two live oaks. He rediscovered his appetite for watermelon. He rode his bike. So much had already happened inside this house; it was as though he needed to re-consecrate it by simply existing inside. During those days, he tended to sit quietly, listening to new noises as the rooms settled back into themselves.

My father died in the spring of 2012.

For three years, the house sat virtually empty. My mother didn’t want to be there without my father or without us; most of her Pass Christian friends had left or died; she didn’t want to live there full-time; and she couldn’t see selling it to anyone outside the family. My husband began paying a guy to mow the lawn. Then came the extermination bills for termites.

Then, after 25 years of teaching full-time, I retired. Our son headed for college. My husband and I thought and talked it over. We felt a keen sense of familial duty. If we moved to Pass Christian, he could restart his marketing and film business, and I could write full-time in the place we loved the most, a place that had managed to remake itself. Friends ask, won’t there be too many memories? And why move to a state that struggles with unemployment, racism, violence, poverty, literacy, and obesity?

Some people in Mississippi tell me that the Gulf Coast really isn’t even a part of Mississippi, so it doesn’t “count.” Perhaps they say this because of its proximity to New Orleans, about an hour’s drive west. It’s true that we will live apart from and with everybody else in Mississippi, and because it’s on the water, we will always be making repairs. We know we will be forever rebuilding, refixing, restarting. Our houses and our town will mostly be a work in progress and a solitary refuge that may never really rejoin the rest of the world. What better place to retire and reboot our lives, than where everybody has a Katrina story, where we’re all survivors, where everything and everyone is connected by mud, water, and FEMA?

There is something civilized and civilizing about Pass Christian’s isolated houses in the sun. Perhaps it’s the idea that only a strong and aspiring people would have built and persevered in this unlikely spot of the world. William Faulkner once said that to understand the world, you have to understand a place like Mississippi. He wrote that you loved a place not so much because of its virtues, but despite its faults.

Wherever people have made difficult beginnings, and then made another start, and again another, lifting themselves yet again out of the muck, well, that’s a sacred spot. We like to think our rebuilt homes are hurricane-proof and stronger. They are all elevated and moved, in some form or another, to higher ground.

What’s changed?

There are historic markers going up again, replacing the ones lost. I’m tempted to put up a few of my own. Here is where our friends told ghost stories. Here is where we taught our son to swim. Here is where we became a family.

From our porch, we listen to trains pass more clearly because there are fewer trees. The storm cleaned up the live oaks, stripping them of dead branches, leaving the survivors storm-bent, twisted, and more cathedral-like. We gather once again in rooms repainted with colors named “Windswept Shores” and “Smoked Trout.” Our son joins us when he visits with college friends. We keep the chandelier hanging with its hole in the shade, and on the fireplace mantle we lay out the shards of the favorite broken urn and my father’s rusted iron alligator, signs of the house’s unlikely survival. We have the Be Nice or Leave tin in the kitchen, daring the next hopefully-literate hurricane.

“In your life, there are a few places, or maybe only one place, where something has happened,” Alice Munro wrote in her story, “Face.” “And then there are the other places, which are just other places.”

For us, there’s no other place, no other house quite like this. It’s a choice to live here. A clear, wild, crazy choice.

Margaret McMullan is the author of seven award-winning novels and editor of the anthology, Every Father’s Daughter. She received an NEA to complete Aftermath Lounge, a collection of stories about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Her work has appeared in Glamour, The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, Southern Accents, Ploughshares, StorySouth and The Sun, among other journals and anthologies. She received a Fulbright to research and teach in Hungary for a new book, Where the Angels Lived: One Family’s Story of Exile, Loss, and Return. 

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