Learning With "Trina"
Pearlington, Mississippi, March 2008
Note: This is a true story. I've put it here because I have not created a section on this website for true stories.
This is a reflective story from a Seekers Church sponsored trip to Pearlington, Mississippi in March, 2008, about three years after Hurricane Katrina forced a surge of water up the Pearl River to cover Pearlington in up to twenty feet of water for several hours. The 2000 Census states that about 640 families were living in Pearlington. Three years later I estimate that about 150 homes have been built, though that could be an under-estimate.
This story is about an older African-American woman who survived the surge by holding onto a post on her front porch. She said she couldn't see the chimney on the top of a neighbors house across a road, perhaps a hundred yards away. One measure of her powerful spirit was that she got married to "Roger" about a year after the hurricane and is caring for him. When the four of us showed up to help, her old house had been demolished and a new house, twelve feet wide and thirty feet long, had been built. In three days, and parts of two more days, we built a ramp for a wheel chair onto her front porch. It is Roger who most needs the ramp. Following is some of what we learned from Trina.
It helps to have a sense of humor. But more was needed.
The four of us came to Pearlington to build a wheel chair ramp for Trina and Roger. We didn't see much of Roger. He came to the front door a couple of times and poked his head out. I talked to him a little and he smiled a lot and said he was looking forward to getting out of the house into the yard. Considering the size of the house and the amount of stuff being stored from the old home, it was easy to believe this could matter a lot.
The house had been built by volunteers after Hurricane Katrina. Sitting on an acre lot at a cross road intersection, no other occupied house was in sight. Neighbors had scattered to who knows where.
Trina is in her 70s. She walks around hunched over but can straighten up with effort.. She calls herself "Big Mama" and thinks of herself as strong. She mowed some grass while we were there and carried stuff around her yard: a gallon can of oil that she poured on termites, fire ant hills, and a fire she kept going to burn up trash wood, plastic jugs, and odd bits of this and that. She dug grass and weeds out of a trash barrel for the fire because she wanted the smoke to help keep down the "No-See-Ums" that plagued our work efforts in the early morning and late afternoon. The smoke didn't help where we were working but, when I understood her intent, I appreciated her caring.
It was the this's and that's which defeated me. The front porch area which focused our work was pretty full with three workers, though later on the four were able to all dance around each other. And it was clear that a lot of picking up was needed to make room for the ramp and for a second project we never got to, cutting a second door into the back of the house to provide an emergency exit in case of a fire, a project of some urgency considering that the kitchenette was close to the front door.
Anyhow, there was a lot of this and that to move. I figured I could do it in three hours but, with Trina's help, it took me a day-and-a-half. And there were other considerations. Trina and Roger had a rat problem and some signs of rat gnawing suggested a possible cause for some electrical difficulties. I explained to Trina that we needed to pull out the wood she was storing under the house in an eighteen-inch crawl space. Maybe she wont put it back.
The wood that was most obviously trash was fated for the fire: odds and ends of brush, rotted wood, real short pieces, say six inches or less, and shorter pieces nailed together in triangles or whatever. But Trina sometimes rode in to the rescue. "Oh, I'm holding that piece for my nephew. I think he might do something with it."
I'm not talking about the half-dozen piles of wood scattered over Trina's acre. A couple of the piles had an obvious purpose or cause: like a recently felled tree with log rounds neatly stacked near the stump and a pile of brush across a road that led to the cemetary. Several piles had theoretically usable construction wood. I say theoretical because none of it had been used in Trina's new house and it wasn't until near the end to time there, when we had some wood shortages, that it crossed our mind to look in the piles. A couple of pieces of 2x4 actually made it into the rebuilt porch railing. At the same we were there working on the ramp, a Presbyterian group was building a new shed with all new materials, since she only had two old sheds already.
But Trina had a point. One post from her old house had been incorporated into her front porch, presumably the one she had held onto during the surge. We had to take it out. It seemed it had some sentimental value. But no, she didn't want it saved and told us to put it on her fire. It wasn't that piece of wood that inspired her imagination. Still we did use a couple of pieces of 2x4 and Trina had some grounds for thinking that maybe something could be done with the rest.
The other three piles looked like mystery wood to me. I picked up a barely hanging together remnant of a wood kitchen chair, sprung at every joint. I carried it to the fire thinking Trina might enjoy feeding the smolder so that it would be fair to call it a fire again. Wrong. "Carry it over there by the cans, Honey. When I get that back together I'll have me a good chair and Lord knows I need one."
I could see that Trina had memories, a nephew who came by once in awhile, and hopes, a new kitchen chair. "Well," I thought to myself, "we all live out of memories and hopes and she just has less to work with in that territory."
But I was selling Trina short. Her imagination dwarfed my own. She had the shattered remains of a glass box, inch thick glass, jagged pieces and shard sticking up from the glass base. It was wicked looking, dangerous. I avoided it on Thursday, our first work day. Towards evening someone else was eyeing the danger, an out-of-place Presbyterian I think. Trina jumped right in, never missing a beat. "Honey, could you help me move that over there." Over there was about twenty feet and the Presbyterian managed to carry it there without severing an artery, without tripping over the decidedly uneven ground.
"Thank you, Honey," said Trina. "That going to to be my aquarium. In the mean time it will scare people away from falling into my cesspool."
"Oh," I said to myself. "So that's what's under the mat of underbrush. Now I could see that the mat was a covering, sort of growing on some wire mesh that wouldn't support much weight if you stepped on it. I just saw danger, the worst thing imaginable to have lying around in your front yard. Trina saw an aquarium and a protection against falling into a disguised cesspool. Silly me, I thought cesspools were big concrete boxes and that the white PVC pipe that came out from under her front porch and defined two sides of her front yard, PVC pipe supported every couple of feet by odd bits of concrete block, trash wood, and assorted props, ended is a regular code-complying cesspool. This insight, in turn, helped me figure out that one of the low spots near her front yard was the top of an abandoned cesspool, perhaps from previous house, with an apparently sagging cover. Fortunately her fresh water well was at least twenty feet away.
Trina was genuinely appreciative of our being there and of our work. She baked a cake for us on our fourth evening of work and made a major effort to get a recording of our voices on her tape recorder so she could hear our voices again. She displayed a relentless hospitality that was fed by both her genuine appreciation and also served as a wedge for her to enter numerous work situations. She rolled a broken piece of concrete pipe into the drainage ditch beside her house so that we would have a path to get to our parked car more easily. Since we didn't want to take several hours to cover the broken pipe and turn it into a mini-bridge, it effectively blocked one favorite parking place. This was a small matter since there was an abundance of parking opportunities but one of multiple examples of Trina helping out.
"I don't want to get in the way," Trina would say as she came pushing through our cramped work site. "I can get by," Trina said as she pushed against my backside as I was swinging a hammer while bent over to install part of a porch railing. In one such moment I bantered to her with, "Trina, you just want to hang out with the guys." That drew a laugh and a big smile. "You got that right, Honey."
"Big Mama" had a big deep voice and she enjoyed using it. The word "Honey" could carry many a diverse meaning. At one point she was gauging just how far she could push me into doing little tasks for her instead of attending to the clean up work I was doing. When I wasn't as compliant as she wanted me to be at one point she grabbed my arm, peered up at me, and tried to run over me with that powerful voice. One minute later she was sulking. Two minutes later she was trying to sweet talk me into another carrying job that was outside my internalized sense of contract as to just what I was volunteering for. At that point I decided that one of my most important contributions to the work crew was to keep Trina from intruding on the other three workers.
But this was her house. How could she be intruding? But couldn't she see how she was slowing us down, distracting us, and in a few cases creating dangerous situations? Building, adding on, and repairing her house was what brought a lot of people into her life. When we were finally done, whatever that might mean, she would be alone in a small house, with no one else in sight, and just Roger to care for. She had extended family and she was clearly getting community support, but we volunteers were privileged company, people who magically appeared from the great elsewhere and went away again. She was better at savoring us than we were at savoring her. That was particularly true in our last couple of days of work when all four of us were pushing in the limited work space, trying hard to get the ramp sufficiently finished so that our part of the work was sturdy and safe. To her credit, she sensed how focused we were and gave more of her attention to the Presbyterians and their successors.
You could look at Trina's yard, peer into her living room, glance into her car, speculate about what would end up in her third shed, and just say to yourself, "Pack Rat." Well I did say that to myself. How could you get around the evidence? But Trina is telling us that she didn't lose everything in the hurricane surge and that tenacity, that imagination, that caring, deserves a lot of room.