The roots of Melanie Deffendall’s family go deep in New Orleans. Her ancestors arrived in the city in 1721 and generations since have stayed put. Before Katrina hit and the levees broke, she was enjoying a life she established in Gentilly Woods: gardening, enjoying her home, and teaching at nearby Delgado Community College. On May 5, 2006, her son Benjamin interviewed her about her past, the impact of the storm and what lay ahead. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Benjamin Deffendall: Mom, what was it like to live in New Orleans during the ’50 s and ’60 s?
Melanie Deffendall: I was telling my coworkers about the wagons that used to come down the street when I was 4 or 5. We had the waffle wagon, the rag wagon, the vegetable and fruit wagon. So it was a simpler time than it is now. We didn’t have a TV until I was about 5, which was OK. We lived in a working-class neighborhood. Segregation was still in place. We always lived in neighborhoods that were mixed, black and white. Different streets, but in close proximity to each other. I don’t know, I just don’t want to live anywhere else. I will probably stay here until we all have to leave. When you visit other places, you realize how different New Orleans is. Even at my age, I didn’t realize how different it was until we had to evacuate.
BD: What is it about New Orleans that makes you not want to leave?
MD: I think it’s because we have such a different attitude about things. If you think about all the hurricanes that have devastated Florida and Texas and Mississippi, nobody’s had blue tarp fashion shows, nobody’s had comedy on gutted refrigerators that you don’t dare open. People look at things differently here. They’re more relaxed, more laid back. I think it’s just a way of life and an attitude that attracts people to come here but they don’t take it home. And we just try to enjoy life. Not do things so rigidly.
BD: Tell me about your family.
MD: My family had a lot of characters. My grandmother and her sister were named Thelma and Louise. They ran liquor over to the Gulf Coast during Prohibition for money. My mother had one leg, she had a brother with one arm, and another brother who was deaf.
My dad made false teeth. And when I was a kid he would bring home all kinds of people that didn’t have teeth. There was a guy on Canal Street with no legs and he was on a little platform on wheels and he sold pencils during the day. But he didn’t have teeth so my dad brought him home. We lived in a house with stairs. And he had these two blocks of wood with handles and he would pull himself up the stairs like that. Well my mother had one leg but we didn’t know anybody with no legs. So we were just fascinated.
We had two old ladies that used to come that my dad made teeth for. And they would come every week to get them adjusted. They would bring stuff from the bakery. So we were always glad to see them. One day my dad said to me, “Go downstairs.” He had a laboratory down in the basement of the house. And he said, “Have a seat.” He didn’t do a thing to the teeth, all he did was clean them. He sat down and smoked a cigarette, took them back upstairs. They would say, “Oh, much better.” It was just an outing for them. Then we had another friend of my dad’s who was a plumber. He could do pushups with all four of us sitting on his back. We were really impressed because he was only about 5 feet tall but he was really strong.
[Jazz clarinetist] Pete Fountain was a friend of your grandfather’s. They grew up in the same neighborhood. When he finished playing a gig, he would go by grannie’s house. They were all younger. He would bring hot French bread and she’d make the coffee and they would sit up and just drink coffee and eat French bread. Two or three o’clock in the morning. They didn’t mind that.
BD: How has your life been different than you imagined?
MD: Since last August it has quite a bit different. We had a complete lifestyle change, all of us. You leave your house with three days worth of clothes and expect maybe two weeks without electricity. Then the storm passes and you wake up to find out how it’s going and find your entire city is under water. I don’t think the total catastrophic nature of the event sunk in. So we are still trying to figure out, “now what?”
I thought I had a pretty comfortable life. I was pretty set, liked my house, liked my yard, the garden was pretty good. Now I have studs in the roof. Furniture from other people, donations. I really don’t have a place to keep them because I don’t know what to do with my house until they tell us what we can do. Then FEMA says if you rebuild and you don’t meet code, we can fine you. We have nothing, and you’re going to fine us for fixing our house so we have a place to live?
Most of us feel like gypsies. We have things here, there and everywhere. It’s a hard time. And people are not getting better mentally. They are getting worse.
BD: What was the most important lesson you learned?
MD: Stuff is not important at all. It’s nice to have things, but it’s the people and your relationships with people. They don’t have anything either. They’re as wiped out as we are. But they share. Whatever you have, you just share with everybody else. I think people have now a new love for New Orleans. All things New Orleans, we have to go. If you have French Quarter Fest, people show up, Jazz Fest, people go. Small concerts, people go. People are going out and trying to be with other people. Because of course it’s not nice to be at your house now.
BD: What do you want to say to people about all of this?
MD: You can’t give up. You have to come back and you have to make it right. You can’t keep out whole sections of the population because you think they’re not worthy or poor or uneducated, or have some kind of past you don’t like. Everybody should be able to come back. I don’t think housing projects are a good thing, but they could have repaired some of those housing projects much easier than they dragged all those trailers in here.
It’s the people who make New Orleans. It’s not the place so much. You can’t transplant yourself somewhere else; it just doesn’t work. We have to join together. We need to get some clear answers. We all feel we have no leadership whatsoever. So everyone’s out there doing their own thing and we’re not moving forward as fast as we should. We feel great abandonment by the government. We don’t have enough mental health professionals here. People are really wigging out. We need help.
BD: Anything else you want to say?
MD: Let’s talk about All Saint’s Day. That bothered me a lot this year. I always went to the cemetery and put flowers. And I couldn’t. And it was my job to carry that forward. It was a big day, you got dressed up, you went to the cemetery and you went out to eat. It’s really pretty because the flowers are all over the whole place. Couldn’t get in there this year. I guess when I die you’ll have to do it. Because no one else does.
Deffendall returned to work at Delgado, where she teaches sociology and created the Irma Thomas Center for Women in Search of Excellence that empowers female students to stay in school and on a path to success.
Even though she says she is “dreading” the 10-year anniversary of Katrina, she finds she often talks about her experience with students. The stories, she believes, need to be told.
“I don’t think it helps me, I think it helps them,” she said. “For me, it’s like picking at a scab. Once you do it, things start bubbling up really fast. I think that’s true for a lot of us.”
It took three years for Deffendall, 63, to return to her home, which took more than four feet of water. Those early years of living in a FEMA trailer took perseverance but she says she is encouraged that her neighborhood is now just starting to look better. Abandoned lots are being purchased and empty homes are getting occupied.
But to her, New Orleans still has a long way to go. “I really don’t think we’re there yet,” she says. “I had a plan that my house would be paid for when I was retired. But now I will die probably owing money on this house,” she said. “Katrina had long-term effects that people don’t think about.”