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All in the Family: Katrina Unites Clan

October 02, 2005|Sharon Cohen | Associated Press Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. — It's just past 5 p.m. and rush hour has begun inside the big brick house on Hanks Drive.

Auntie Deborah breezes in after a long day at school. Little Jasmine rushes out the front door with a squeal to hug her daddy. Great-grandma Audrey Mae is folding laundry. Jamal is at the kitchen counter, helping his younger sister, Kayla, with her homework, gently but firmly telling her she's not going anywhere until it's done.

This is a family reunion. Hurricane Katrina brought everyone together, and more than a month later, no one knows when they'll part. For now, four generations are learning that life under one roof may be chaotic and cramped -- but it's comforting too.

"The thing that pulls you through a tragedy is not to be alone," says Emelda Jackson, surrounded by her mother, daughters and grandkids. "A couple of heads thinking is better than one. We've all had to stop and console each other. We all lift each other's spirits up. It works when you decide you're going to pull together, respect each other's space and respect each other's thoughts."

That can be a tall order when an extended family of 15 -- ages 5 to 81 -- is sharing meals and each other's breathing and sleeping space. But Jackson insists that communal living works because everyone abides by one unwritten house rule:

"You have to say I am sorry and I do love you," she says, leaning in to be heard above the din from four other conversations going on in the living room.

Everyone living here fled New Orleans before Katrina struck. Some family members already know they've lost everything, others aren't sure. But no one is rushing to return to a city that faces a long cleanup.

"I refuse to rough it," says Jackson, 59, who hankers for her pre-hurricane life of college, vacations and everyday creature comforts. "I don't want to be a pioneer. ... I don't want to put up with inconveniences. When they make it convenient, then I'll go back."

For now, she and others are staying put.

But forget about sticking a new label on the mailbox. The 15 people who now call this home include three Riddles, three Robertsons, two Jacksons, two Meades and one Lutcher, Richardson, Chaney, Martin and Lewis. Five others have moved on, but two more Riddles may be coming.

And then there's Deborah Daniels, who invited her extended family to take refuge in her spacious five-bedroom home, then moved out, along with her mother, to make more room for them.

Daniels, who has an easy laugh and an unflappable spirit, remains a constant, soothing presence here.

"I just worry about them," she says. "I hope they don't get depressed."

It was Daniels who calmed her niece, Monique Jackson -- who doesn't like crowds -- when she became overwhelmed by living in a place where someone is always underfoot. She erupted one day and said, "Auntie, I can't stand it!"

"I let her have her screaming fit," says Daniels, with a serene smile that suggests she knows this territory well, being in charge of hundreds of children as principal of a Baton Rouge elementary school.

And it was Auntie Deborah who helped another niece, Debra Robertson, an assistant principal in New Orleans, find work as a third-grade teacher here.

"Some people won't let you sit on your butt and mourn," Robertson teases her.

She hasn't had much time for that. Robertson, who is divorced, has enrolled her two kids -- 5 and 14 -- in Baton Rouge schools and now must drive them to see their father, whose job has been relocated to Houston.

In her new school, Robertson says she found herself poring over the roster, checking for names of former students who might have relocated here. She's trying to look ahead, though she can't help reflecting about the past month.

"You go from having a house, a job and everything to nothing," she says. "It's hard for me. I did what I was supposed to do. I went to college. I've always been a provider. It's hard for me to be on the receiving end from everyone else."

But Robertson, 37, knows it's a lot easier for her than it is for her younger sister, Monique Jackson, who tends to be both a worrier and a loner.

Monique likes her solitude so much that her sister jokingly dubbed her "MIA -- Missing in Action" -- because she'd sometimes send her two kids to family reunions while she stayed home.

That's impossible now.

"It's like Thanksgiving, but then when you get tired of the family, you just get up from the table. But this is like Thanksgiving every day," Monique says. "We're all still here."

And they still celebrate family milestones. A few weeks ago, Audrey Mae Riddle blew out a candle celebrating her 81st birthday -- about the same time as she saw her 5-year-old great-granddaughter, Mia, head off to kindergarten.

But life also has new rhythms and routines: Grocery shopping means buying the 20-pound bag of rice. Cooking means stirring a pot big enough to feed a platoon. Showering and bathing means plotting a schedule that starts at dinnertime and ends the next morning.

Family members say there haven't been any fights, just good-natured disagreements. About what? Everything, they say, quickly ticking off examples:

Who's going to take care of the kids? Where's everyone going to sleep? Who's going to have a bed? (There are three beds and three air mattresses.)

As dinnertime approaches, Jamal Richardson, 19, who has had to temporarily abandon college studies in New Orleans, is preparing to work the late shift at Wal-Mart.

Living together with so many relatives is hectic, he says. "Sometimes it might give you a headache. Everybody has something to say and everybody wants to be heard. But we all stick together, and when it's all said and done we're family."

The time will come when they'll all move on, Emelda Jackson says.

"Everybody eventually has to go their separate ways," she says. "We're not sick of each other. We just don't want to live together forever."

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