The one thing you can't leave behind

September 09, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

IF YOU KNEW you had to leave your home, perhaps never to return, what would you take with you?

The question weighs on me as I listen to the stories of Hurricane Katrina and the families she has scattered like rice across the country.

Many of those families did not know when they fled that they might never return. That's why one teenager interviewed on radio said he'd taken only his iPod.

But others had some premonition that they were leaving New Orleans forever. That's why one man took the tools he uses on the job. He was ready to work the minute he pulled into Memphis, he said.

Now that the mayor of New Orleans and the police are forcing survivors to leave the city - almost at gunpoint - I wonder what they will let them take with them?

What would I take? Family pictures or the hard drive from my computer? My jewelry or that box of letters from my husband?

It is one of those Rorschach questions, I think, that identifies you as either sentimental or practical. Or some mix of both.

What good are your children's report cards if you are hungry? How do you protect yourself against marauders with first-edition books?

I asked my friends and their children and I might have predicted some of their answers.

My friend Ron said he would take his guns and his meals-ready-to-eat. He would be prepared to kill his food and to protect what he had.

But my friend Nan said she would take the wedding service that she and her husband wrote and the "funny metal spoon" that her mother, and now she, used to make brownies.

And Nan makes the best brownies, but not without electricity or running water.

There are several levels of leaving, I think. For a few days, for a few months. Forever. There is moving in with family or friends for an awkward month or two, and there is surviving for days and weeks without shelter.

If you are starting over, as so many families in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama must do, you can take something from the life that has been washed away, or you take something for the life you must begin again.

There is waiting for the water to recede and the clean-up to begin. And there is starting over.

Asking this question of family members is revealing, too.

My college daughter said it sounded like an essay question to her. She never answered, maybe because it's not a classroom assignment.

My husband said he would take me and I said I would take him, and that bodes well for our marriage.

But I was surprised to hear that he would also find room for his West Mifflin South High letter jacket and his bobble-head doll autographed by Olympic wrestler Kael Sanderson.

How is it that I didn't know what possessions my husband cherished most? It made me wonder if I am supposed to bury him with that stuff, too.

My friend Paula said she would take every important piece of jewelry and find a place for it on her body.

"I'd look pretty gaudy, but it would be something to trade or sell," she said.

Her 24-year-old son said he'd pop his hard drive out of his computer and take that.

My 25-year-old nephew said he would take the three ratty T-shirts his mother has been trying to throw out for years.

"They are going to disintegrate on my body," he predicted. "But they are really the only things that I think I own that are, in a sense, irreplaceable."

The radio story that told of the teenage boy who left with only his iPod also noted that his mother had taken the paperwork for his college applications.

When I heard that report, I thought about how predictable we all are.

"I think I would take toilet paper," said my friend Susan.

After 9/11, Susan said, she packed a kit with food, water, batteries, flashlights and a transistor radio, but hadn't thought about toilet paper until she saw a television story in which a survivor held up a roll and said it was his most valuable possession.

"But it's one thing to set yourself up to be in your house. But to leave your whole house? That's rough."

She talked to her sister, who said she could be packed and out of the driveway in 30 minutes.

"I guess I am trying to avoid thinking about it at all, to tell you the truth," Susan said.

Just about everybody had a family heirloom they would try to find a place for.

My friend Tom said he would take the fishing gear he has from the grandfather for whom he is named.

My friend Susan has an antique stool that's been in her family forever.

My friend Betsy would take her grandfather's fiddle and her grandmother's quilts.

Just about everybody said they would take their pets. Except Paula, who said she would view any such calamity as God's answer to her prayer to be rid of her husband's dog.

And just about everybody said they would take the baby pictures, except Betsy, who said she would be happy to leave them behind.

"Do I want to be sitting in a hotel in Nebraska looking at pictures that I already feel guilty about because I never put them in albums? No," she said, emphatically.

And suddenly I felt very good for my friends and my family.

If there is a disaster, I thought, they will all get out with their senses of humor.

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