Dispatch from New Orleans: An altar for the missing

Ariane's self portrait from the Lower Ninth Ward of New OrleansAriane Wiltse is restoring a Katrina-damaged 1870s home in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, and she is sharing her journey with us. Here’s her latest installment:

The Altar

In the front room of my house, the room I tell visitors will one day serve as my library, sits a wood-burning fireplace with an Arts & Crafts-engraved slate face. It’s quite fancy. A real eye-catcher, that fireplace. So much so that I figured it for just the right spot to place an altar.

I hadn’t planned on putting an altar on my fireplace mantel, although no one in New Orleans would question my judgment. It’s a fairly natural thing to do here. But I’m not from New Orleans. Michigan by birth. Virginia from there on out. And up North, people don’t put altars on their fireplace mantels; they put fancy candles and knickknacks, family photos in fine silver frames, and during the Christmas season they cover ’em in all manner of evergreens. This doesn’t leave much space for the dead and gone.

I don’t know if the people who were living in my house when the Storm struck are dead. But I do know that they are gone. Gone so far and for so long that the neighbors don’t know where to find them. We’ve tried. They don’t return calls to their pre-Katrina phone numbers. City Hall says they still live at my house, but they don’t come around anymore.

The banker has no answers. Foreclosures have a way of dehumanizing people, treating them as if they never existed. Even Google can’t locate them. It’s as if they disappeared.

Seeing as I can’t find them to return the items they left behind, I decided to show my respects by placing their smallest belongings on the fireplace mantel. It seemed only right. I couldn’t bring myself to throw away the common remnants of past lives. So I put them on display to remind myself and any visitors that a family once lived here, a family which likely lost all they had in the flood.

I catalogued the items I found. They include:

• A Zippo lighter
• A CD of the movie "The Wedding Singer"
• A 2-lb. hand weight
• Several large, primary-colored Legos, the kind used by toddlers
• A stick of women’s concealer, just like the one I use to hide dark circles under my eyes
• A black barber’s comb
• A plastic figurine of the cowboy from the Disney movie "Toy Story"
• A bottle of peach-flavored Cisco, the same "liquid crack" we used to drink in high school once we’d graduated from Boone’s Farm wine coolers
• A 9mm bullet
• Little girl hair ties with large red balls on the tips used to hold ponytails in place
• A sugar dish made in Japan
• A tarnished silver spoon
• A prescription bottle of Orphenadrine, used to treat the painful muscle spasms so common with Parkinson’s disease
• A rusted set of keys
• A boomerang
• A form letter from a class-action lawsuit for "clients who sustained a stroke, heart attack, or any other cardiovascular or heart-related injury while, or soon after, taking Bextra or its generic equivalent, Valdecoxib"
• A plastic green tiger
• Two spools of thread, one blue, the other pink
• A Hibernia bank card
• A pitchfork-looking utensil used for barbecuing
• A golf ball
• Comedy & tragedy masks, just like the kind my aunt used to give me every Christmas when I was a little girl

I pulled down bigger, perhaps, more significant items from the attic. There was furniture, all kinds of wall treatments, a cream-colored and beaded mother-of-the-bride wedding dress, reams of upholstery fabric and boxes. Boxes and more boxes. Overstuffed with paperwork and family photos, Christmas ornaments and toys. I had to put those boxes out for the trash.

A woman can only look at Easy-Bake Ovens and remote-control race cars for so long. Soon enough they begin to they make her crazy wondering what happened to the children to whom they belonged. Maybe one day they’ll pass by for a visit and tell me.

See the story so far

(Photo: Ariane Wiltse)

1 Comment on Dispatch from New Orleans: An altar for the missing

  1. Kim

    Nice post. The altar does seem a fitting tribute to those who once lived in your house but have since disappeared. It’s great to see these updates from New Orleans, and I’ll definitely check back for future updates. Good luck!