By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 24, 2005
One in a series chronicling the Larches of New Orleans as they rebuild their lives in the Washington area
A smile creeps into Todd Larche's voice as he talks about the oyster dressing he's making for Thanksgiving. And he breaks into singsong rhythm -- you cut up your gizzards, your livers, your necks -- when he muses about his gumbo, a holiday tradition.
"I'm the cook," he boasts. His wife, Michele, "is the taster." It's a little New Orleans thing the Larches are holding tight to because along with their house, a lifetime of little New Orleans things were lost in the storm.
Almost two weeks ago, the Larches left their infant son and 5-year-old daughter with Michele's sister in Silver Spring and drove back to their house in east New Orleans to meet an insurance adjuster. Todd had checked on the house a month after Hurricane Katrina, but it was Michele's first time seeing what was left of her city, her neighborhood, her house; the first time she understood how thoroughly and irrevocably seven feet of water could wash away the meaningful things that layered her life.
"I didn't cry until I got to the back yard," Michele recalls. She's back at her sister's house now, surfing the Internet to see if she can replace caps from her husband's lost collection and halfheartedly making holiday plans. Even in this rough period, the past few weeks have been especially hard. From the front, her house still looked like she remembered it, she says, except the green things were brown. But the back yard was foreign. A tree had fallen from two doors away. And the carcass of Simba, the dog they loved and had brought with them in two earlier hurricane evacuations, was still lying on the deck, although the local SPCA had promised to remove it.
The State Farm insurance adjuster, who was waiting for the Larches when they arrived, pointed out the fence and the deck and all the other things the company was not going to cover. Their homeowners policy covered damage from wind but not from water. (Last month they got a $100,000 payment on their flood insurance policy, almost half of which will go to pay off the mortgage.) Two of her cousins came by and began removing salvageable dishes. A search with a flashlight turned up some waterlogged DVDs, but the discs with her daughter's baby pictures were nowhere to be found. Todd went up to the attic and pulled out a few Christmas ornaments.
Then, driving back, he started complaining of fever and chills. He had been hospitalized twice last month with stomach troubles, so Michele took over driving. Todd rested. Then he threw up out the window.
They returned early that Monday and Todd went to the emergency room three times last week before he was admitted for colitis Friday afternoon.
He came home to big hugs from his daughter and mother-in-law Monday evening. And to an exhausted Michele, who hasn't slept well because the baby has colic.
The last thing she wants to do is cry so close to the holiday. But cry she does. "I don't know, things look very bleak," she says. She covers her eyes but it's the picture in her head she can't get away from. She misses her home and her medical practice and she just aches with jealousy over the parts of the city that are being rebuilt while her neighborhood dies of attrition. "We're coming up on the holidays and I know you're supposed to be happy," she sobs, "but I don't want to start all over. I was happy the way it was."
Long moments of memory and mourning pass. Michele quivers, then gathers herself. She is thankful for the important things, she says. For the lives of her family, the generosity of her sister and brother-in-law who have taken them in, and all the people who have done so much for them. She is grateful for her daughter, Kristen, who makes her laugh, who is on a ballerina kick and sometimes wears her tutu to bed.
Last Thanksgiving, their New Orleans home was full of friends and family. Michele complained about cleaning for so many folks, but she'd give almost anything to clean up after them now.
This Thanksgiving, Todd says he's grateful for his new job teaching special education at a high school in the District, for his family, grateful "that God spared our lives, despite the loss." This is a low point, but surely things will start to look up, he says. His wife tries hard to believe.
Todd is cooking his Thanksgiving gumbo, only at his in-laws' house this year. Michele will hover close to tell him when his roux is just right.
It's just their small New Orleans tradition, but it survives.