Updated: Nov 19, 2019
It’s because of the yellow fever epidemic of New Orleans in the 1890’s that I know love and loss. In an effort to spare his family from disease, Dr. Frederick Loeber purchased an antebellum home in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi. A central gallery with Queen Anne and colonial revival features, it sat on fifteen acres overlooking the Mississippi Sound. 916 South Beach Blvd., the respite from plague, was now family, an heirloom treasure in the Bay.
From the onset the house seemed to have a life of its own, calling for revelry. Drinks flowed into the night under the ancient oaks and down the line of ownership to my grandmother who hosted, in my young starry eyes, the most fantastic parties. I remember the record player spinning Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, ice clinking in rock glasses, laughter, spontaneous barbershop quartet, and the sense of being present – that we were all living in a moment when everything stirred in anticipation.
At dinner we toasted to “Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit.” Gemütlichkeit has no literal English translation. It encompasses a feeling of togetherness. In gemütlichkeit we all belong to a brief flash of unbridled joy. I realize that houses aren’t people. They don’t have feelings, but they do have a heartbeat. 916’s was gemütlichkeit, and it pulsated through everyone who entered. Even if you weren’t family, the house became your own because of the gemütlichkeit that called you back to summer nights singing to a banjo on the porch, jumping from sandbars at dusk, talking until dawn in the dormer rooms, and a picnic on the Fourth like none other. Each generation guided by worriless gemütlichkeit.
With roots as an oasis, it remained one for my family and countless friends until Hurricane Katrina swept her away. Only the porch remained, and after a painful period when vines and overgrowth claimed the land, she was sold.
I lost count of the nights I cried myself to sleep, dreamed of the Bay, or of the minutes I spent staring at the painting of the house hanging in my dining room. I couldn’t let her go, and for the first time, I couldn’t see anything good come from the darkness. Schools were built in New Orleans. Neighborhoods restored for the better. I saw goodness born from Katrina here. But when I looked at the painting, I seethed with anger. It was as if I had lost the most important person in my life. I mourned my grandparents again. Aunts, uncles, and the faces at my grandmother’s parties—they had all died a second time and with them, everyone who remained. That house was the gel, and no matter how hard we tried, the bulk of the magic went with her.
Grief is a very private matter. We mourn differently, but I think the one thing common among us is that we cling. We shut our eyes and hold on tight, remembering and longing until our hearts warm in a conflicted emotion of love and despair. If I had let go, she’d be gone for good. How could something that was once so present fade into memory, a scattering of pictures? It seemed dishonorable to not fight for her in my heart.
I refused to visit the Bay after 916 was sold. I was resigned to the belief that I’d be better off. Finally, I had to go because my children were invited to a party in Waveland and begged to see the property. Nothing ignites bravery like your child asking you for bravery. So I conceded, and when I pulled up to what I had feared, I wept. It wasn’t for the reasons I had expected.
Gone was the overgrowth. The lawn was immaculate, the moss had returned and the sun shone through creating the patterns on the grass that I so loved. The woods behind were cleaned with paths. There were benches in quiet spots, Adirondacks overlooking the water, and an overall sense of peace. She was stunning in her new look. She had received what she deserved. I had to admit that she was with someone who could give her what we couldn’t. It was time to let go.
I know enough to know that letting go isn’t a dishonor to what we grieve. It’s moving past the bitterness that something was taken. I may never see good come from that storm washing that beautiful house away. But if I don’t see the good that is present, what has lived on—memories being made regardless, the traditions and relationships that have lasted—I’ll never remember with fondness. I owe her that.
Sometimes I picture a little girl at 916 today, Katrina as her family’s path to happiness in a home under the oaks in the Bay. My heart aches, and yet as time advances from those golden days, I must believe this: the gemütlichkeit will always be with us so long as we see it.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.