Jan. 21, 2008, 6 a.m., my in-laws’ driveway, suburban St. Louis: I packed the last few boxes in the trunk of my Honda Civic, loaded the dog in the backseat and got behind the wheel. It was 7 degrees and still dark outside. I was bundled into a sweater, a down jacket, a scarf, gloves, a hat. I put The Band’s cover of “Down South in New Orleans” on repeat, waved goodbye and burst into tears. What the hell was I doing? A few days earlier, I had played around on the Internet with those “we’re moving, and here’s our new address” cards. The last version I’d created said, “We’re Moving …” on the outside and “… to a DISASTER AREA! HOORAY!” on the inside. After that, I gave up on the cards. Who writes letters anymore anyway?
I was excited about moving home, but to say I had some ambivalence about it would be like calling Katrina a bad thunderstorm. I no idea what I was doing. I was a nervous wreck.
My mother-in-law had sent me off with a travel mug of coffee and some snacks. I took a sip of coffee and immediately gagged it out all over my sweatpants. Coffee was a no-go. I didn’t even try food. I just drove. I drove and cried and wondered if I was doing the right thing.
By the time the car had warmed up enough that I could turn the heat on, dawn was starting to streak the sky, and I was feeling a little bit better. With each mile toward New Orleans and away from St. Louis, I cried a little less.
And by the time I drove over the Missouri state line into Arkansas, the sun was up and shining, my cheeks were dry and I was singing along with the music, which I’d changed now to Paul Simon’s “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” or maybe Randy Newman’s “Dixie Flyer.” Along the way, I shed layers of my winter clothing as the weather steadily warmed.
I was positively giddy by the time I saw the “Bienvenue en Louisiane” sign, and when I got to my house, I found not only my husband and daughter, who’d flown down, but my godmother, the inimitable Maureen Brennan McConnell, who is undoubtedly one of the best cooks in a city full of amazing cooks. And she wasn’t empty-handed, of course: She had a huge pot of white beans and rice, some cornbread, a King Cake, a bag of Community coffee, a bottle of wine and some fleur-de-lis cookie cutters. “Welcome home, baby,” she said. And I started crying again, this time out of joy.
Jan. 21, 2010, 12:30 p.m., the French Quarter: It’s 77 degrees outside. The sun is warm on my shoulders, and the sky is as blue as I’ve ever seen it. I’m standing on Royal Street with a Herbsaint Frappe and toasting the official countdown to Tales of the Cocktail 2010. I’m wearing a T-shirt, capri pants, flip-flops. Even now, even two years later, there are still moments in this city that make me feel like I’m about to explode with happiness.
It hasn’t necessarily been the easiest two years of my life. I have a stressful toddler (whom I nonetheless adore) and a stressful job (that nonetheless I adore), and there was a stressful hurricane evacuation my first summer back (I didn’t adore a single second of that).
But I can say, with absolute certainty, that it’s been the happiest two years of my life.
I’m warm. I’m well-fed. I’ve made great friends. I have a brilliant and beautiful little girl, a job that lets me drink Herbsaint Frappes in the sunshine on a Thursday afternoon, and the Saints are going to the Super Bowl.
I am “Down South in New Orleans,” and I am never leaving again.