A Hurricane Rita Story: No One Understands a Mom Like Another Mom

It has been ten years since the stark horrors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans influenced thousands of Southeast Texas residents to flee the oncoming Hurricane Rita just a few weeks later.  This is a true story, a quiet little reminiscence, of two moms who evacuated together with young sons.  It was written several years ago and is now dedicated to the memory of Theresa Crespo.  She is one of my inspirations for writing a cookbook, and I sometimes channel her in the kitchen.  But that’s another story.


No One Understands a Mom Like Another Mom

It Started with Sippy Cups and Toddler Parks

Theresa and I have been friends since we both had baby boys around the same time in the late ‘90’s, my Thomas a first (and only) child, her Andre a little brother for 5-year old Nick. We discovered together that “Mommy” – a word and role we both love and ardently sought – could be a plea, an argument, a jailer’s key, a tardy bell, a sob, or a love song, sometimes all at once. We instinctively knew that no one understands a mother like another mother with a child of the same age, and this knowledge was very comforting. We first bonded over sippy cups and toddler parks, Duplo Legos and potty training, wine and weariness. We moved on to dinosaurs, Star Wars obsessions, backyard baseball, trading cards and the competitive world of Little League, and quickly learned that no one understands a Team Mom like another Team Mom. (One of these days we’ll write a book about that experience; our working title is: If Moms Ran Little League. We expect it to be a best-seller with the mommy demographic.)

Everyday Life in Small-Town USA

Shiner used to come looking for Theresa at my house if she wasn't home.
Shiner used to come looking for Theresa at my house if she wasn’t home.

From the beginning, our friendship was wallpapered with the everyday exchanges of any working mom’s life: picking up each other’s kids, trading off Saturday afternoons so that one of us could shop for groceries in peace, alternating sleepovers, having our windows broken by backyard home runs and bandaging a variety of knees, elbows and wounded adolescent pride. We were each other’s backup: she kept my son when I had to travel for work; I was Mom on Duty when her new catering business occasionally required her time at night. Both of our husbands worked nights – mine as a professional jazz musician, hers as managing partner of a popular Houston restaurant – so we spent a lot of evenings together, always with the kids, who loved each other and fought like brothers, and Theresa’s dog, Shiner.

Theresa and I shared weekend trips, meals, recipes, triumphs and setbacks. Like all moms, we occasionally doubted our maternal instincts and parenting skills, and our long, probing conversations at the kitchen table while the kids were building gargantuan Thomas the Tank Engine tracks close by were more valuable than expensive therapy sessions. No one can reassure a mom like another mom and a glass of Pinot Grigio.

We lived in a Leave It to Beaver kind of neighborhood where everyone looks out for each other
We lived in a Leave It to Beaver kind of neighborhood where everyone looks out for each other and kids ride their bikes in the street

We lived on the same street in Old Sugar Land, just outside of Houston, a Mayberry-like neighborhood where Wally and “The Beav” would have felt at home. Pastel-painted wood frame cottages from the 1920’s stand proud under stately old oak and pecan trees, and kids play baseball and hopscotch in the streets and dart through the alleys to each other’s houses, even after dark.

The 80-year old elementary school was at the end of our street, and Theresa and I walked the boys to school together each morning, accompanied by Shiner.  The Little League fields were just a few blocks’ walk and we spent many evenings and weekends cheering, sweating, keeping score and serving cookies, both of us playing the role of team mom during season after season of baseball.

100_0498
The boys enjoying 2005 Little League Opening Day festivities, just a few blocks from our houses.

Dealing with Real-World News: Hurricane Katrina

It was an idyllic setting for raising a family, and yet of course the real world was ever-present. We struggled with how to explain the violence and hatred of 9/11 to our toddlers. We struggled again in 2005 when we watched CNN in shock as Hurricane Katrina drove flooded New Orleans residents to their roofs, desperate for rescue. Like everyone else, we couldn’t stop watching. Our children couldn’t understand the chaos and devastation, and we couldn’t either. For the first time, America seemed like a third-world country, and it was difficult to translate this new world view for our wide-eyed and horrified children. “Mommy” had changed to “Mom” by then, but they still looked to us to interpret the world for them.

Desperate to help, Theresa led a local clothing drive for the Katrina victims who came to Houston after the mayor’s “Sanctuary City” declaration. A mountainous pile of castoffs and new items grew on her front porch overnight after her email to our neighborhood asking for donations. The boys helped pack up the boxes and it comforted them to know that they were actively involved in the recovery and helping the victims.

Hurricane Katrina refugees in the Houston Astrodome (NBC News photo).
Hurricane Katrina refugees in the Houston Astrodome (NBC News photo).

Food and clothing collections were being staged at the Houston Astrodome, where the buses of New Orleans refugees were also arriving. Theresa called me from the drop-off at the ‘Dome, sobbing, completely overcome with empathy for people who had lost everything and seething with frustration at the pandemonium. She was particularly upset by the plight of the mothers with small children, who for days had had very little food, no permanent shelter, no basic necessities, no toys to soothe their children. No one can empathize with a mom in trouble like another mom.

We felt a collective survivor’s guilt as we continued to watch the aftermath of Katrina and the clumsy recovery efforts, and our kitchen table talks were now dominated by the tragedy. Relocated children from Louisiana began attending the elementary school with our sons less than two weeks after the hurricane, and the stories our kids brought home were horrific.

Hurricane Rita Threatens

Less than a month after Katrina exploded permanently into our nation’s consciousness, Hurricane Rita came along and threatened the Gulf Coast again. Our little town was 50 miles inland (north of Galveston) and located in one of the projected paths for the storm; our mayor, like many others, was cautious and recommended voluntary evacuation. (No one wanted to repeat the confusion of the preparation for Hurricane Katrina, and no mayor wanted to be compared New Orleans’ Ray Nagin. That sentiment remains true today.) Automated phone messages went out from the city telling citizens to evacuate about 48 hours in advance of the storm, and schools were dismissed at midday that Thursday. Mandatory evacuation orders had already been issued in Galveston, and Houston’s mayor was urging residents to leave, as well. The local news stations were broadcasting warnings and updates about Rita’s path alongside news about the continuing problems from Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, heightening the tensions and fear in our community.

What to do? Theresa’s husband was obligated to stay behind to prepare his restaurant for Hurricane Rita, and to keep it open if the storm’s path changed. I was amicably divorced by then, living alone with my now 7-year old son. So Theresa and I were moms on our own, and decided that we’d either both stay, or both go. Mulling over scenarios, we finally made the decision to evacuate after envisioning our 100-year old trees felling power lines, the potential of a week or more without A/C in the 90-degree September weather, and the kicker: trying to keep three high-energy boys entertained and happy through it all.

One of our frequent kitchen table discussions centered on the notion that our kids feed on and absorb our attitudes, and we were both determined to exude calmness, efficiency and confidence during this situation: we wanted their Hurricane Rita experience to somehow be a positive life lesson rather than a bad memory of fear, anxiety and tension. We faced an uphill battle considering what they had seen the month before with Katrina.

Theresa and I work well together. She gathered and packed provisions, the most important being things that would make us all comfortable and happy, and I searched for accommodations. Hotels and motels for hundreds of miles were booked, but a back-door online Hilton Honors points-retrieval system secured us one room for one night at the Doubletree in Austin, just 3 hours north. (That was a personal victory – Hilton points earned from all that business travel I was doing paid off when we really needed it.) The Doubletree didn’t accept pets and Shiner was coming with us, but we decided to worry about that later. Agreeing to frame our trip as a little unexpected holiday for the boys, we found a place for the second and third nights along the Frio River in Concan, where we had just spent a wonderful week’s vacation with the boys and several other families earlier in the summer. It was a few hours further, so staying in Austin on the first night would be a good way to break up the trip. It was only one room but had two double beds, so each 7-year old could share with his mom, and Nick and Shiner would get a pallet on the floor. We had a plan.

On the Road

Taking two cars to keep our return options open, we packed the kids and Shiner into Theresa’s car for the first leg of the trip and I led the way in my car. The boys were excited about leaving school early, worried about the hurricane, and antsy. We left at 4:00, planning to stop at the halfway point for dinner, imagining we’d arrive in Austin by around 9:00. We took a back road that leads to Interstate 10, and so did everyone else in Texas. (We later learned that we were part of the largest evacuation in U.S. history – click here to read all about it in Wikipedia.)

The roads were jam-packed full of evacuees who had left Galveston and other coastal cities earlier in the day. We crawled along at less than five miles an hour, conferring a few times by cell phone (“can you believe this???”) and eventually came to a complete stop less than 20 miles out of town. There was almost a party atmosphere among the evacuees as people got out of their cars and talked to each other, especially as night began to fall. Theresa left the boys playing video games in her car and we chatted in mine for more than an hour until traffic started to move again, slowly.

Questioning our decision to evacuate as we saw car after car give up and turn around to head home, we kept going, and eventually made it to Sealy, only 45 miles from home, at 8:00 p.m. We stopped at a forgettable and mediocre roadside restaurant that hadn’t seen so much business since they opened 45 years ago, and yet it was somehow one of the best meals we ever had. The boys were beginning to adopt the attitude that we were on an adventure, and collected savory leftovers in their pockets to feed Shiner, giggling about how they were sneaking it out. It was hard to face more seemingly endless bumper-to-bumper gridlock, but Theresa knew of an obscure back road based on her experience as catering manager for a country inn and convention center – if we could just get to it. Now with me, the boys dozed off as we crawled along in the darkness, then suddenly Theresa zoomed off to the right onto a tiny, curvy two-lane road. We were in business!

“We Brought Our Dog, Too”

Sound asleep in the back seat
Sound asleep in the back seat

An hour later, at 2:00 a.m., we arrived in Austin and awakened our groggy boys, strategizing about how to get Shiner into the hotel without being caught. Nick did some recon for us and located a side entrance that could be opened with a key card.   There was a long line of very tired evacuees from the Houston/Galveston area waiting to check in, but we celebrated another perk of my business travel: my Hilton Honors card put us in a members-only line and we checked in right away. It really mattered to me that night; it’s amazing how a tiny little victory can improve your outlook on a stressful day.

Theresa swaddled Shiner in a blanket like a sleeping toddler (a really big one – Shiner was at least 60 pounds, and I think she lied about her weight). We nervously entered through the side door and thought we were home free because no one got on the elevator with us, but then it stopped on the 2nd floor and a tired-looking man in business clothes with a full ice bucket and no shoes got on. Argh! Shiner was still enveloped, but she wagged her tail, dislodging that part of the blanket. Did he notice?! We chatted nervously about being hurricane evacuees to distract him – and then he got off on our floor with us! He headed down the hallway in the opposite direction, then turned, smiled, and said, “I brought my dog, too. So did everyone else here.” This was comic relief after so much tension throughout the day, and we laughed with the boys for a long time afterward before going to sleep. The next morning, we heard lots of barking from other rooms on our floor while we were tracking the storm on the hotel TV and knew we wouldn’t have to hide Shiner on the way out.

It wasn’t clear when we awoke if Rita was headed straight for Houston Galveston, or would move to the east or west. There was an undercurrent of anxiety: Where will it go? When will it hit? Will it be like Katrina? Will our Dads and our houses be OK? Reminding the kids that we were on an adventure, we left for Concan with thoughts of swimming in the cool river, and enjoyed a beautiful drive through the Texas Hill Country. The last town we passed through before reaching Concan had a portable sign out front that said “Welcome Rita Evacuees”. This was an omen: we were heading to the place where we were meant to be.

A Hill Country Haven from the Storm

Rio Frio Rope Swing - Thomas Rio Frio Rope Swing - Andre'Our little riverside cabin was a perfect respite after spending 12 of the last 20 hours in the car. There was a long, knotted rope swing for the boys to take Tarzan-like leaps into the river and a jungle gym with swings; inside, there were two bedrooms, a decent kitchen, and a living room – with no TV, which was both a blessing and a curse. We spent the afternoon enjoying the outdoors: swimming, exploring, playing, watching Shiner romp – and trying not to think about Hurricane Rita coming for an unwelcome visit back home.Rio Frio Rope Swing - Nick

Our cell phones didn’t work (which we later learned was from cell tower overload because of all the hurricane-related calls), so we went into town for news and dinner at the local café and used the pay phone to catch up with our loved ones back home. Rita was still moving toward the Texas and Louisiana coasts, and we still didn’t know where it would hit. Theresa’s husband reported that our neighbors who had decided to “shelter in place” were having hurricane parties. We weren’t sure that was such a good idea.

Repeated visits over the next 24 hours to the pay phone and the café with the TV revealed that Rita missed Galveston and Houston completely, and had delivered a devastating blow to the coastal cities at the Texas / Louisiana border at around 2 p.m. on Saturday. The boys continued to enjoy the river that day, but Theresa and I finally allowed ourselves to feel the stress we’d been denying. We had one of our kitchen-table talks at the picnic table by the river and shared a tremendous sense of relief coupled with the same survivor’s guilt we had felt after Katrina. We worried and wondered if we had done the right thing: uprooting our kids, traveling all that way, and now facing the same traffic snarls to somehow get back home. Did we teach our kids the lesson we wanted to teach, or did we teach them to overreact? No one can feed a mom’s self-doubt like another mom.

Theresa is a wise woman, though, and she knew that what we need was time off, to benefit from the same support that kept us both sane in our everyday lives and gave us breathing room. “Let’s take turns being Mom on duty. I’ll take tonight and entertain the boys, play cards with them or something, and you can have time to yourself. You can take the morning and I’ll sleep in.” No one understands a mom’s needs like another mom.

I spent a few very pleasant hours that night reading alone in my room, loving the feeling of not being responsible for anyone but myself. I woke up the boys early the next morning and gave them juice boxes and breakfast bars at our picnic table by the river. Watching them splash and play, I knew we had done the right thing. Staying at home, we’d have been bombarded with constant images of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction and during those 3 days our children would have worried constantly. We were role models for that tired but effective cliché, taking the lemons that life gives you and making lemonade. We were great moms together! I couldn’t wait to share these thoughts with Theresa. No one shares a mom’s joy like another mom.

I was planning to give her another half hour to sleep when Theresa suddenly appeared, glowing, carrying a picnic basket filled with the most delicious breakfast tacos I’ve ever tasted, each one wrapped individually in foil and piping hot. She had used her “me time” while I was Mom on Duty to enjoy herself in the kitchen, alone with her thoughts. There was homemade pico de gallo and assorted fruit, all from the provisions she had packed before we left. Then she did the most remarkable thing: she pulled out a thermos with a breakfast cocktail, some kind of rum and fruit juice concoction that she had just made up and could probably never be recreated, which should be named the Hurricane Rita. It was delightful, and decadent, and just what we needed. I shared my epiphany about our evacuation decision being right and we laughed a lot and even cried a little. It remains one of the best moments we have ever shared, because we truly understood each other and were exactly in the same place emotionally.

Our kids were exuberant about the breakfast tacos and ate them together at water’s edge, laughing, talking, just being carefree like boys are supposed to be.  When we told them it was time to go inside and start packing, they squawked about leaving a little bit, and my son said, “I really like Evacuation Vacations!!  When can we go on another?”

Evacuation Vacation!!??  Out of the mouths of babes – what a marvelous way to describe our three days together! Theresa and I looked at each other, knowing we were both thinking, “Yup, we did the right thing.”

No one understands a mom like another mom.

**********************

Afterward

With Theresa in my kitchen in 2011, two moms bonding over food
With Theresa in my kitchen in 2011, two moms bonding over food

Ten years have passed since that memorable Evacuation Vacation; Theresa and I continued for much of that time to bond, support each other and alternately fret and rejoice over our sons. I documented our Rita adventure story a few years ago as part of a get-well package for Theresa when she learned she had cancer and threw herself into the cycle of chemo and prayers, interspersed with normal everyday mom/wife life. She wrestled with that wicked illness for two years before it robbed us last May of her remarkable and unique presence. But while she had cancer, Theresa remained her amped-up self, and did many things: 

We met Governor Rick Perry after our memorable showing at the Round Top Chili Cookoff in 2013
Theresa, Nick and I met Texas Governor Rick Perry after our memorable showing at the Round Top Chili Cookoff in 2013
        • Entered a chili Cookoff in Round Top, Texas with me (we met the governor of Texas that day after spilling most of our chili on the way – that is another story).
        • Took meals to shut-ins.
        • Started writing a book and had several ideas for new businesses.
        • Was an active and busy wife and Mom, sending one son off to college and attending baseball games (she was the one cheering the loudest), sports banquets and other high school events for the other.  She was the epitome of “Mother Bear” and loved her boys ferociously.
        • Kept her catering business going strong with her husband, providing wonderful food made with love for countless weddings, parties and special events.
        • Spent time with friends and family (it was always a party if Theresa was there, and she always brought something yummy).
        • Refused to let her life be about her illness.  It was easy to forget she was sick, and many people may not have even known she had cancer.

Theresa, you were always seeking and it was a joy to join you for different parts of your journey, including the Evacuation Vacation.  Miss you, we will.  Forget you, we will not.

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