Bernie is the author of the memoir Tea in Tripoli (available at Amazon) that was featured on Monday. She's a professional storyteller, writer, and actress who lives and works in Austin. She's already working on the next installment Dinner in Dubai. More about her and her work can be found at: bernadettenason.com. And here's today's story. :)
by Bernadette Nason
Family–Oxford Dictionary definition: "a group consisting of two parents and their children living together as a unit" or "a group of people related by blood or marriage"
When Hurricane Harvey turned up, and I cleaned house, anticipating family evacuating Houston, I was immediately thrown back twelve years. On August 28, 2005, the day before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, I arrived in Houston on a week's business. The La Quinta Inn Humble was already at capacity with Louisiana families escaping the storm, and the lobby itself was full of displaced people with nowhere to go because area hotels were full. The hotel manager allowed them to sleep in the lobby. Everyone gathered before the lobby TV, and I thought, "They look like an extended family, watching a favorite show," except, at this point, they were strangers, awaiting news of their homes.
Then the levees broke and New Orleans was submerged. No one could enter or exit the city. Every room at the La Quinta now housed at least one family; the lobby remained full. As I came and went during my week's work, and news reports grew steadily worse, the lobby family established itself. Long tables appeared, and local communities provided water, sodas, snacks, books, toys, bathroom supplies, underwear, clothes, shoes. A board listed events being provided by churches, schools, and private homes: free meals, sports, bowling, skittles, quizzes, bingo, and children's play activities. The list went through the weekend. No one thought they'd still be there then, but who knew when these people would be allowed to return home, or if they had homes to return to?
Meanwhile, new friends chatted across hotel hallways, discussing Katrina, sharing lives, while their children played together. Because life goes in the midst of catastrophe. It has to. An idea played in my head: New families are forming, right here, right now.
On leaving Humble, I learned that New Orleans' friends had evacuated, so we welcomed them into our Austin home. Joining me, my husband, two teenage boys and two belligerent cats were three new family members (mom, dad, teenage boy) and an incorrigible Abyssinian cat. This group remained there when my hubby and I flew to the UK where a storm of a different kind was brewing.
My mother's 80th birthday party.
"I hate parties."
"But Mum, you'll be 80."
"I don’t want a party, dear. A martini. Egg and chips. Pride & Prejudice on the telly. That’ll do nicely."
We promised a small affair: her three children, two grandsons, one daughter-in-law, one son-in-law. Eight, including her. Reluctantly, and with very poor grace, she agreed.
Preparations went ahead. My artist brother designed the birthday cake, my chef sister baked it, a cake decorator decorated it. Sis would prepare a buffet. I'd be the general dogsbody. Everything else would fall into place.
I prepared the house for the party, to commence at 7 PM. My mother made herself scarce, though she'd occasionally pass by like a ghost, looking suspicious and a bit batty.
Bro and wife brought in the fabulous cake. Sis arrived to start cooking. "The food isn't ready?!" No, she’d been busy. Mum’s kitchen was 7' x 10', big enough for one. But Sis needed help. Two sisters in a kitchen, one of them a chef. Gordon Ramsey meets Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.
Sis made me washerupperer, and Bro, having nothing to do but gaze lovingly at the cake he'd designed, was tasked to peel veggies. "Women's work," he whined, through onion tears. Sis-in-law left the lid off the processor while making guacamole, covering everything with avocado snot. With Hubby on drinks' duty, G&Ts flowed like the healing water of Lourdes. Between drinks, he joined the team. Five folks labored in Mum's kitchen cubbyhole.
At 7 PM, the grandsons appeared, hungover and irritable. "Isn't the nosh ready yet?" Mum was M.I.A. in her den, shawl around shoulders, like a refugee in her own home. "Is it time, dear?" she said, as if awaiting execution. I handed her a martini, thinking it might be appropriate to stop the fancy food and cook the egg and chips, but when I returned to the kitchen, revelry there had begun. Cooking and preparation was still going on, but familial lightheartedness had taken over; banter and laughter flew thick and fast.
It was getting late. We hurried to finish working and start merrymaking, though there was no clear difference between them, except Mum's presence. Amid frenzied activity, bickering as only family can, with Bro in mid-tantrum trying to display the cake, Mum teetered in. "When is this bash going to happen? I'm starving." Somehow, the lack of order and formality was exactly what was required. This pandemonium, this commotion, well, if this was the party, she was happy.
Sis-in-law, polka-dotted with guacamole, calmed Bro down. Sis removed her chef hat. I took off my rubber gloves. Hubby popped the bubbly. The cake was presented. Then the grandkids leapt at the buffet table like ravenous wolves.
Much later, we repaired to the conservatory to enjoy the Indian summer night. Now the event was over, we chatted about it as if it were an old memory, not something that had just happened.
The phone rang; it was the family in our Austin home. Hurricane Rita had hit. Hubby's brothers and wives were evacuating Houston, and heading to our house. Eight people + three cats in our house in our absence…a new combo! I smiled at my blood relatives in the fading September light, suddenly acutely aware that, by comparison, my family traumas were nothing. But life goes on. Granted, some storms were worse than others, but every family unit has value. In the midst of catastrophe, life goes on.
Family–my definition: "a diverse group of people, not necessarily related by blood, who support and respect each other in good times and bad, coming together as a unit"
is a Science Fiction and Fantasy author living in Texas.