A friendship is forged in grief and fear

Katrina's Wake

September 01, 2005|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GULFPORT, Miss. - They came to Paradise Avenue from opposite directions.

Sarah Bell, 56, originally from San Jose, Calif., arrived from the West and took up residence on the row of trailers a block from the water because Paradise Avenue sounded like a place where she could decorate her home with ceramic angels and grow old in God's grace.

Christine Mullins, 59, was from the East, the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. And she came to live on Paradise Avenue only because Gulfport happened to be where her car broke down on the way to Vegas five years ago.

For a year they worked at the same restaurant and took the same bus route, the Beachcomber, but didn't talk much. Bell was a churchgoing woman who hand-made Christmas ornaments, and Mullins lived among an ever-changing gang of kids and grandkids who swore and wore plaid shirts open to the waist - and included a daughter-in-law who had "suga daddy" tattooed deep in her cleavage.

They made polite talk from their trailers now and again.

But their situations were more similar than they might seem. Neither had a car, for one thing. And both were in the path of one of the worst hurricanes Mississippi has ever seen.

After sheltering together for four days in a Baptist church, "we're so close now," said Bell, "close as sisters." So close, in fact, that Bell's front porch is now part of Mullins' front yard.

Their story of friendship is testimony to the unlikely intimacies that a catastrophic storm creates, combinations as strange as refrigerators in bayou grass or boats in trees.

As the storm bore down on the neighborhood Sunday afternoon, Bell was, as usual, feeling blessed. She was fresh from a long morning of church and the Sunday school class she taught to kindergartners. Her pastor had told her that no matter what happened that night, the water wouldn't reach the church.

God might not have seen fit to give her a set of car keys, but she did have the keys to the Cowan Street Baptist Church, where she could shelter.

It was a sturdy brick structure topped with a white steeple, and she knew that it was solid.

She's not sure why she walked over to the Mullins' on Sunday afternoon. Maybe it was because she knew that Mullins also had no transportation, and she felt a sense of Christian duty. Maybe it was because her own daughter had recently left town and she felt all alone.

At any rate, Bell and Mullins and four of Mullins' family members piled in together. Bell bought bags of pretzels and Mullins brought provisions including pickled pig's feet. Neither thought the storm would be terrible.

Mullins was used to these kinds of situations - she once weathered a Smoky Mountains winter in a canvas tent - while Bell was a little more nervous.

At the church, Mullins cooked "dirty rice" - Rice-A-Roni and hamburger - and together they put Mullins' 6-month-old grandson to sleep in a bassinet borrowed from the church nursery. They made small talk, Mullins read a book, but there wasn't much to say to one another. Mullins is of Native American heritage and believes in the Spirit - her yard is decorated with dream catchers - and Bell is a conventional Baptist. That night, they slept in different rooms in the church, Mullins with her family and Bell alone.

The storm hit, by their watches, at 5:05 a.m. Monday. From a room where Bell has her women's fellowship meetings, they watched the roof of the Catholic church across the street blow off and street signs blowing around in whirling winds, a la The Wizard of Oz. Strange, Bell thought, looking at the display of nature's power. "I thought there would be more thunder," she said.

When it became clear that portions of their own church roof were blowing off - and windows shattering, ceiling tiles falling loose and water flooding in - they all huddled into one tiny room. It was the windowless "counting room," used for the sole purpose of counting collection money.

The power gone, they lit votive candles and candles the church uses for weddings. They took turns having "their crisis," Mullins said. Bell held her neighbor's grandson, for her own comfort.

As the storm peaked and died down they began telling each other stories about their lives. Mullins talked about how she cut her hair off five years ago when her husband died, according to Native American tradition, and Bell divulged her abiding belief in Christ and her deep loneliness since her daughter left. Something was changing between the two women.

The next night, Mullins left her family to sleep next to Bell, on the church pews in the sanctuary.

Tuesday morning, they awoke to face the unthinkable. The cross was gone from the top of the church. One of Mullins' sons went out to scavenge canned food that had blown away from another church's pantry. When they ventured out, they found a man impaled on a tree limb.

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