Editor's Note: In 2010, Katie Oxford filed a series of riveting columns from the heart of the Gulf oil spill disaster. She recently returned to Louisiana. This is her fourth column in a series.
I couldn’t revisit Montegut, Louisiana, and not go by the Live Oak Baptist Church.
Three years ago, I’d met a little girl there by the name of Hanna
. For reasons I can’t explain, she’s haunted me ever since.
On a hot summer day, I’d opened the front door of Live Oak Baptist and there she was quietly sweeping the floors of an empty church. Except for a dull yellow haze courtesy of glazed windows, the room was dark and cool.
Hanna was 10 years old then and utter sweetness. Her innocent chatter was both endearing and enchanting. Also, strangely sad. She seemed so grateful to have my company, a total stranger.
She’d invited me to stay for their evening service but, unfortunately, I couldn’t. When I told her that I’d come back another time, she described several places where I should look for her. Hurriedly. “Hanna,” I gently interrupted, “I’ll find you.” It was a promise I intended to keep.
Prior to revisiting Louisiana, I’d telephoned Live Oak Baptist to confirm that Hanna’s family was still living there. Her father was then pastor. I was hoping to attend their Easter service with Hanna.
I took a few photographs. Then noticed the time. A one-mile distance had taken me hours to travel.
After the first ring, a pleasant voice answered. “I’m Matthew Chouest,” he said, “pronounced like ‘shoe’ and then ‘west’ like the direction.” He explained that he was now pastor at Live Oak Baptist. That he thought Hanna and her family had moved to The First Baptist Church in Metairie. I thanked him and made a note to follow-up.
Now, in Montegut, I was making the short drive to Live Oak Baptist.
On my way there, not surprisingly, something caught my eye. I don’t know which spoke to me first, the porch, the swing, or the property but I had to stop and root around at what appeared to be an abandoned house. Minutes later, the owner, Jane Chaisson, walked up.
A sense of place
Jane, age 77, actually lived in the house next door. “But I come and sit in this swing every afternoon,” she pointed. Her father built the house when Jane was 9. Although some had suggested that she tear the place down, she’d refused. According to Jane, visiting the porch was a daily routine, more a ritual. A practice she’d continue for the rest of her life. Sense of place runs deep in Louisiana.
Soon and in waves, Jane’s children and grandchildren joined us. They surrounded her with joy and affection like she was Santa himself. I also met Lilly, a chicken. “Sole survivor of Hurricane Isaac!” someone proclaimed.
From Jane’s house, I walked across the street to the house with bougainvillea. Earlier, I’d spotted two guys just around the corner there working on a boat. Fortunately, they still were.
According to Jane, visiting the porch was a daily routine, more a ritual.
Come to find out, it belonged to Jake Billiot, who was the older fellow wearing the cap. He greeted me with a smile and a handshake like I was a neighbor dropping by. His eyes, a mix of cobalt blue and green, conveyed warmth, humor and a life of honest work.
I wondered what he fished for. “Mostly shrimp,” Jake answered. He was going back out in May.
Since the BP oil spill, I wondered how the fishing was going. “Well, they sprayed that dispersant…so things went away,” Jake said.
A perfect way of putting it I thought.
I thanked Jake for his time and made a note to call him in May.
Late that afternoon, I turned into the driveway at Live Oak Baptist. The Church looked the same as it did three years ago. I took a few photographs. Then noticed the time. A one-mile distance had taken me hours to travel.
Such is the way of Louisiana.