My New Orleans Grandma
The “Dead End” sign next to Mary de Veer’s house aptly reflected the mood right after hurricane Katrina struck. (Photo: Chris de Veer)
With the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina coming up on August 29, 2008, let us remember the people who survived (and those who didn’t) the horrific events, many of whom are still trying to rebuild their lives. Regardless of where they are now, the people of New Orleans will never forget this natural disaster that changed their lives forever. And neither should we.
Here is my tribute to one survivor.
Mary de Veer
No, don’t worry, you’ve come to the right blog. Yes, you’re right. Mary de Veer is neither Asian, nor a native Louisianan for that matter. What she is is a spunky 86-year-old grandmother brimming with a wry sense of humor and wonderful stories aching to be told. That’s reason enough for me to want to tell her story.
And contrary to what you might think, she ain’t Dutch either. Her married last name comes from her late Dutch-American husband whom she met in her birthplace, Scotland.
On a recent trip to New Orleans, my husband’s friend Chris invited us to his uncle Denis’s 40th birthday barbecue which was held at his grandmother Mary’s house. Who could resist a genuine Southern barbecue?
Chowing down on barbecue. Can you spot Mary?
When I was introduced to Mary, it took me a few minutes to register her accent. She was a petite waif of a lady and her gentle, sing-song voice sounded kinda Southern yet there was something different about its timbre. I turned to Chris and he clarified. “She was born in Scotland.” Mary’s hug, on the other hand, was as warm as any grandmother’s, Southern or not.
As is my nature, I offered to help in the kitchen. Mary quickly put me to task whipping cream for her famous trifle. While we worked, we chatted. Of course I wanted to know how she landed up thousands of miles away from home.
Mary’s journey to Louisiana is the stuff fairy tales are made of, set against the backdrop of World War II.
The year was 1941, and a certain Frederick Edward de Veer, a Louisiana country boy with Dutch roots, was stationed in Prestwick, Scotland where Mary’s brother lived. One weekend, the local parish church organized a dance and the priest had given the American army chaplain half a dozen tickets. Fred grabbed one. As Mary put it, “He was one of the lucky winners.”
And a winner Fred was. But wait, the rest of the story doesn’t play out as one might think. Mary did attend the dance but she didn’t even talk very much to Fred that evening. In fact, Fred got friendly with her brother, not with her. Mary wasn’t bothered. “American soldiers had a bad reputation as all soldiers from occupation forces do,” she explains. So it was definitely not love at first sight!
Perhaps it was all part of Fred’s plans.
Mary lived in Glasgow with the rest of her family and somehow Fred became a regular visitor whenever he could get off base. Mary and her sister took turns as his personal tour guides. For awhile, you couldn’t tell whom Fred liked more. “If I wasn’t home he would go out with my sister!” Mary notes matter-of-factly.
In the end, Fred chose Mary. However, Mary’s mother wouldn’t let them get married. She told him to go home to his family first and if their love endured across time and the Atlantic they would figure things out.
When the war ended, Fred went home to the U.S. and they corresponded for a year. “He never wrote a letter, he only wrote notes,” the ever facetious Mary says.
Obviously, whatever words of endearment Fred jotted down in those notes did the trick. Mary was soon on her way to New York on a passenger liner. Fred met her in the city and they journeyed together to New Orleans to meet his family.
A few months later, on January 25, 1947 (the birthday of the famous poet Robert Burns Mary points out), Mary and Fred were married.
The happy married couple settled into a house in New Orleans’ Gentilly neighborhood, one of many that had been built for returning soldiers. Over the next 20 years, they had 11 sons. As their family grew, Fred added more and more bedrooms. “Fred did all the work, I cooked,” says Mary.
With 11 boys and a husband to feed, quantity was key. When it came to food, Mary cooked lots of it and whatever was cheapest. “The boys were easy to please just as long as it tasted OK.”
The menu ranged from a Scottish dish here and there to typical Louisianan fare. The kids loved red beans and rice and Mary often fed the family grits at breakfast and sometimes supper. Other favorites were gumbo and jambalaya, one of the few Southern dishes she actually liked. Instead of crawfish pie, she made a tasty Scottish meat pie. Mary didn’t care too much for seafood but her kids would go crabbing and fishing all the time and bring the still-wriggling morsels back home for her to cook.
Today, Mary’s children, 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren are scattered across the U.S. Several live in New Orleans and within the state of Louisiana; her son Brian lives down the street.
Mary loves gathering her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren together. They visit often, mostly for happy occasions like birthdays and holidays. However, one of Mary’s most recent memories is of the time they all rallied around her in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that struck on August 29, 2005.
On that fateful day, Mary was sitting in her living room with her son Peter. She describes the events briefly in her own words.
“We were watching parts of our neighbor’s house being blown against our windows. The waters started to rise and we couldn’t get out the front as the oak tree had fallen into the front yard as well as the telephone pole.
We stepped out the back door into four feet of water. Peter made me put on a life jacket but I wasn’t afraid. We swam down the block. The water was about 5 or 6 feet high.
Peter didn’t know how to get me over the neighbor’s fence. Then we saw part of my privacy fence sail past us like a raft and we climbed on top of it and sailed to the end of the street. Then we went up the embankment.
We had planned on taking my car but the windows had blown in and there was glass everywhere. So we climbed onto Peter’s truck but Peter didn’t have his keys. So he had to swam back to the house to get them. He left me with the dog on the tailgate of the truck. The dog was bigger and heavier than me and he wanted to follow Peter. We were having quite a struggle (she laughs).
Peter came back with the keys and we drive a block away to the arena where we spent a night on the floor. Denis came and took us to the levee board offices and we stayed there for a week. We were allowed to stay there only because Denis worked there. It made me feel so bad. There were people behind us but they wouldn’t let them in.
Then we got word that we were going to Baton Rouge. We spent a week here, a month there, with family.
When I left the house, it (the water) was up to my chest. I knew everything was gone. I was absolutely in shock. I didn’t believe it had happened. My life was gone but I was still alive.”
A few weeks later, when people were allowed to return to their homes, Chris came with a crew of volunteers to strip the house where Mary had lived for 58 years.
Mary’s house, post Katrina, is on the left. (Photo: Chris de Veer)
Mary stayed away. She couldn’t bear to set foot in the house. It was too painful for her, knowing all her important papers, as well as her family’s history had been washed away in the flood. (Thankfully Chris had digitized some old photos before the flood and Mary still had those to cling to.) The emotions Mary felt were familiar but no less painful. “I can’t say I was used to the feeling but I felt like that during the war when I was a young girl,” she explains.
The street number framed by deer antlers Denis had placed out in front. (Photo: Chris de Veer)
Mary’s children congregated to clean up the house and salvage items. They went through the house and managed to save certain things including furniture (such as the coffee table and TV cabinet) that her husband had made. “He made them to last,” she says proudly. “All the store-bought ones were all gone.”
Other items like silverware, bowls, and plates were intact and just needed a little cleaning up from the mud. To this day, even after 3 years, some things are still covered in mud.
In August 2006, Mary moved to a rambler (her children all pitched in to buy it for her) in Tallow Creek in Covington on the North Shore, about 25 miles away from New Orleans. But things will never be the same. Everything that Mary was used to is no more. She misses the familiarity of the neighborhood and her independence, not to mention the memories ensconced in the house she lived in for all her married life. There isn’t a post office or grocery store within walking distance and Mary has to rely on her children who live a short distance away.
Mary’s new house in Covington is modern but devoid of the memories (Photo: Chris de Veer)
Yet Mary acknowledges that she’s one of the lucky ones and she knows she’ll get through it. “I guess you could say I’m a survivor.”
Good Old Fashioned Trifle
The trifle lasted long enough for me to take a picture of Mary with it.
Trifle is a traditional Scottish/English dessert usually comprising sherry-soaked sponge cake layered with preserves and custard. Typical of immigrants, Mary adapted the dish to suit her American family (I doubt instant jelly is a staple in Great Britain). Mary had already started losing her sense of taste even before Hurricane Katrina but it’s gotten worse since the storm, she says. “Nothing tastes the same.” Trifle is one of the dishes she can still make without much effort. While I was visiting, I was tasked with whipping cream and decorating the trifle. It’s really easy and doesn’t require a recipe. Just go with whatever amounts suit your fancy.
Sponge cake, lady fingers, pound cake, dessert shells, or jam rolls (stale cake holds up better, says Mary)
Sherry, brandy or rum
Frozen strawberries, thawed and drained, saving the juice to make jello (you can use fresh as well)
1 packet instant strawberry jelly
1 packet instant vanilla custard
Canned pears or peaches
Line the bottom and sides of a large bowl or individual serving-sized bowls with the cake. Drizzle with a little sherry.
Spread the strawberries evenly over the sponge.
Cook the jelly according to the package directions (Mary likes quick-set jello) using the reserved strawberry juice. Allow it to cool before pouring it over the cake and strawberries. Put the bowl in the fridge to set.
Cook the vanilla pudding according to the package instructions and set aside.
When the jelly has just set (about 30 minutes to 1 hour), pour the custard over. It will dribble down the sides of the bowl but it’s OK.
When everything has set, spread as much whipped cream as you’d like over the trifle and decorate with strawberries, pears and/or chocolate shavings to your taste.