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Grandmothers' storied powers facing a test

Across this devastated region, many grandmothers have themselves been put in peril, forced from their homes in New Orleans but unable to stop doing what they've always done for their families -- worry, worry, worry, fix, fix, fix.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Perhaps no other figure in the black community is as revered as the grandmother.

Celebrated in song, drama and lore, she has been, through generations, the relentless optimist, the nonjudgmental matriarch, the miracle worker who finds a way when there is no way.

Now, across this haunted and distressed region, many grandmothers have themselves been put in peril, forced from their homes in New Orleans but unable to stop doing what they've always done for their families -- worry, worry, worry, fix, fix, fix.

"My baby is about to have a baby," Thelma Carter, 54, said of her daughter, Tina. "She's in Dallas. Oh, Lord. Oh, my Lord Jesus. She's talking about making a living there. So I don't know when I'll get to see that grandbaby."

Carter, who lived in the town of Algiers, across the bridge from New Orleans, was sitting, outside a hotel, on a bench, smoking, trying like the dickens to track down children and grandchildren by phone.

"I got five grandkids -- and I don't know where two of the grandkids are," she said. Angrily, she pointed off yonder: "They someplace out there. I don't know where."

She drew a puff and tried to wipe away tears as quickly as they had come.

The missing grandchildren are the 5-year-old twins, Asia and Tyree, boy and girl.

"The little girl is more like a grown-up," Carter said, the simple thought of the grandchild bringing a smile. The twins' birthday is this month, Sept. 15. She last had all the grandchildren together for the annual Fourth of July picnic. Carter, a cashier for the city of New Orleans Department of Motor Vehicles, heard woes about unpaid bills from children at that picnic. She helped -- to help the grandchildren.

"I feel so lost!" she said.

"You ain't lost," said her brother, Joseph, leaning on a pillar nearby, wheezing from asthma, eyes bloodshot.

"Oh, I know, but those kids."

Close-knit families
She is a grandmother who can't touch her grandchildren with the force of her gaze. She grabbed as many pictures as she could before fleeing. "We a close-knit family," Thelma Carter said. "That's why it's so hard now. Everybody scattered."

You see these grandmothers now standing in lines for food, squinting through bifocals at pieces of paper with federal guidelines about reimbursement. And you see them staring off into the distance in parking lots.

For years Marion Bryan worked on hands and knees, cleaning lavatories and floors in the New Orleans Greyhound bus station. She gave what she could on Sundays at the Trinity Lutheran Church on North Claiborne Avenue. She worried about her own four children but especially about the seven grandchildren.

"The first few days after the storm, I felt bad," Bryan said. "I had a grandson in the hospital in New Orleans, and we couldn't find him. We just know that he had been airlifted out somewhere."

She found her grandson, Sean Kearney, 34, this week. He had been taken to Pensacola, Fla. "That's on the water, too," she said, in a quieter voice, as if she'll never trust water again.

The reason she has worried so much about Sean is that he's paralyzed. A drive-by shooting 12 years ago in New Orleans. Sean's mother, Eleanor, did her best in the aftermath. Grandma did the rest. "I keep his clothes clean," Bryan said. "And for the past four years, I paid his phone bill. Before that it kept getting turned on and off, and I just got sick of that."

She'd visit her grandson, and he'd be drinking. And she'd ask him to stop. "And, oh, that boy would just start to curse me out! Sometimes I'd be leaving -- and after having told him about his drinking -- and he'd say 'Don't come back.' "

Which was like telling the Mississippi to stop flowing -- and a grandmother to stop loving.

After Marion Bryan got to Baton Rouge with her daughter, Eleanor, and son, Albert, and after they found out where Sean was, she made her way to a Home Depot, where her insurance representatives had set up temporary offices.

The line of evacuees stretched and stretched beneath the sun. "I was in that line," she said, "and a young man looked at me and gave me a folding chair. Told me to sit down. Still had the new tags on it and everything. I got it out in the car now. I said, 'Young man, God gonna give you a blessing, and you won't even know where it came from.' "

All she could grab that first day, when they fled their house on Tennessee Street, were clothes and pictures. Pictures of her husband, who died in 1984, and of her children and Sean and the "other grandbabies." Some stand as tall as she: grandbabies still.

Worries about the future
And here's some of the magic of the grandmother. About a year ago, Marion Bryan had a feeling she should increase the premium on her home insurance. "I don't even know why I did it," she said. "But now, it's certainly proven to be to my advantage." She got more money from her insurance company three days ago.

After that first night of sleeping in her car, Bryan and her son and daughter -- Albert and Eleanor -- found a hotel room. It cost nearly $100 per night. On Tuesday, Marion Bryan -- grandmother, miracle worker, rainy-day planner -- paid in cash for their hotel room.

Bryan says her home and church are underwater. "I don't want to go back to New Orleans," she said. "It'll be like going to a morgue. There are friends of mine I'll never see again. I know it."

With Sean found and the hotel bill paid, Marion Bryan started worrying about Ardis Augustine -- Sean's other grandmother. "I told her to get out," Bryan said. "She said no. She said, 'You can't run from God.' I said okay, and we haven't heard from her since."

Myra Lin Vignaud is with her two grown children -- Mark and Jacinta -- here at a hotel. Also here are her two grandchildren, Allison, 17, and Erin, 22. Allison is entering her senior year of high school.

"I'm anxious about what school this child is going to go to," Vignaud said of Allison while sitting in a hotel lobby, plotting moves. "I been so stressed, sometimes I can only take deep breaths. I don't think we're a dysfunctional family, but dealing with all this will make us dysfunctional."

Vignaud, 70, who is a retired schoolteacher, says there's nothing for her to do now but be a grandmother. "I've been the breadwinner for this family for a long time," she said. "When I left New Orleans, I told them I'd pay the hotel room bill. That would at least take some of the stress off their mind."

The children used to go to Grandma Myra's house on Lucerne Street in New Orleans. Surely ruined now, Vignaud said.

And with that, she climbed into her car, alone. There were things to fix, fix, fix. "I have to find a bank," she said.