A Bittersweet Homecoming

Coming Home
Coming Home

I had the chance to make a quick trip to my former hometown of Gautier, Mississippi, this past week.  It was a quick 6 hour visit made on the spur of the moment while in New Orleans, Louisiana, on a business trip.  Although it felt good to be back in my former home town even for a short while and visit with old friends, I also felt a small bit melancholy.

I had the distinct pleasure to attend a planned two day meeting held in New Orleans this past week.  It was a pleasure not because I particularly enjoy sitting in meetings for two days, but because I still love New Orleans even though it is still only a shell of its pre-Katrina glory.  This time, I had a pleasant surprise in the second day of the meeting ended at 10:00 AM. My plane trip home wasn’t until the next morning, leaving me with the rest of the day free to do whatever I chose.  I decided I really needed to head back to Gautier for a look around.  I hadn’t been back since Winnie and I left two and a half years earlier.

It was still the same two-hour drive it had always been, and I arrived in town just a little past 12:00 noon.  My first stop was at the Singing River Mall, pretty much the social center of Gautier.

I wandered through the mall, recognizing a few stores that were there when I lived there, a few vacant spots, and a few (very few) new stores.  The restaurant Winnie used to work in was still there, seemingly with the same owners, but I didn’t stop in.  My former company still had three major storefronts rented for office space, a result of hurricane Katrina when the shipyard was flooded out.  I though about trying to make a visit to some of my former co-workers, but without a pre-arranged visit request I decided it would be too difficult to get into the offices.

My next stop was the house I once owned and lived in for 13 years.  I already knew that the people who purchased it from me two years ago had lost it in foreclosure, and the house was still empty.  I drove though my old neighborhood and parked out in front of the house I once planned on spending the rest of my life in.

It was empty and looked sad, with a forlorn “For Sale” sign planted in the front yard.  I walked around the property and could see the former owners had done a lot of nice landscaping.  The property looked much more trim and neat then when I lived there.  I walked around the house, looked in some of the windows and could see the interior was essentially the same as Winnie and I had left it.  I thought about all the work I had done to this house over the years I lived there;  the remodeling in 1999; rebuilding after hurricane Katrina, the gardening and minor landscaping projects; and though what a waste all that effort had been.

As it was noon, none of my former neighbors were home as they all had jobs.  So after one last look around, I drove off to see a bit more of the town.  On my way out of my neighborhood I could see that everything looked much better than when I left two years earlier.  All the FEMA trailers were gone, all the blue roofs replaced, and the piles of trash gone.  It looked much the same as it had just before Katrina blew through and changed all our lives.

I drove thorough Pascagoula next.  On a whim, I turned down Market Street to see how the rebuilding had come along on  Beach Drive.   At the intersection of Market Street and Beach Boulevard I saw that the Beach Elementary School had indeed reopened.  At the time we moved away, there was considerable controversy over the city’s plans to permanently close this school.  While the cinderblock structure was still standing after Katrina, it had been flooded and the interior needed to be completely rebuilt.

Seeing the school re-opened triggered another bittersweet memory;  I had placed one of my vending machines at this school just two weeks before Katrina, and that vending machine was one of two I never saw again after the storm.

Along Beach Boulevard I could see some lots were still vacant, but many homes had been rebuilt.  Every new home was raised up on pilings 10 to 13 feet.  This was the neighborhood of former Senator Trent Lott.  I tried but couldn’t tell if his home had been rebuilt or not; I assumed it was, as he had retired from the Senate and moved back to Pascagoula the year earlier.

I left Beach Boulevard and drove back to Gautier.  I was getting hungry, so I stopped at one of my favorite restaurants and a local landmark, Houck’s Cove, for lunch.  I had my (former) usual meal of a Houck’s Burger with side of French fries and a proper glass of – unsweet – iced tea.

While at Houck’s I decided to take a chance and give my best friends in Gautier a call to see if they were home.  John and Dorothy had both retired effective January the first, so I figured my chances of catching them home were good.  It was; they were home and very surprised – happy to hear me.  I told them I’d be by within the hour, as soon as I finished lunch.

The service at Houck’s had greatly improved since I’d last visited.  Houck’s used to brag about having the slowest food service in town – not always a good thing.  But I finished my burger and headed over to John and Dorothy in much less than one hour.  I had seen John last about a year ago, when he came up to Washington on a business trip, but I hadn’t seen Dorothy since I moved away.

At John and Dorothy’s house we spent the rest of the afternoon talking and catching up on the news.  As newly retired persons, John and Dorothy were trying to plan out what they wanted to do next.  I learned they had booked a cruise to southern Mexico, which I thought was a really good start for being retired.

After talking a few hours they treated me to dinner at a newly-opened Mexican restaurant.  I learned that Gautier now had three Mexican restaurants, up two from when I had lived there.  We all agreed this was definite sign of “progress” in the old town.

We talked some more over dinner, then about 7:00 PM we parted ways and I headed back to New Orleans.  By noon the next day I was back in Washington, D.C.

I can’t say I’m sorry Winnie and I moved away from Gautier, but I also can’t say I’m happy about it.  These past two-plus years have been mostly good to us, and I am feeling like Virginia has become home.

But I still miss my former life on the beautiful Mississippi Gulf Coast.

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A Forty-Year High School Reunion : I attend my first-ever high school reunion after forty years.
A Bittersweet Family Gathering : Family gatherings are always nice, but this one was held for a sad reason.

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