by Peter Marcantel
Christmas means family gatherings and good times, but it can also be a melancholy time as we remember loved ones who are no longer there to share the holiday with us. Sometimes the ache of missing someone can be lessened by knowing that as long as that person lives in our heart they are never really gone. And sometimes, it seems, they’ll reach out to us in some way to remind us of that fact.
My mother-in-law, Jeanne Pavy Sellers, did just that one Christmas a few years ago by showing up on our doorstep in Mesa, Arizona, as a Hurricane Katrina survivor–even though she died three years before the storm destroyed New Orleans.
Jeanne was not only my wife’s mother, but also her closest friend. We moved away from our home in south Louisiana almost twenty-five years ago, but Tina spoke with her at least once a week on the phone up until the time of Jeanne’s death from leukemia in 2002. Before her death Jeanne met with all nine of her children to ask what keepsakes they would like as part of their inheritance. Tina asked for a portrait of Jeanne that had hung in the family home since her childhood. A family friend did the oil painting in 1937 when Jeanne was ten years old. Tina had always loved the picture and could think of nothing better than owning it as a wonderful remembrance of her mother.
It was only after Tina’s father sold the family home in 2005 that the promised heirlooms were divided among the children. Tina and I were visiting Louisiana that summer and brought the portrait to my father’s house to prepare it for shipping to Arizona.
Although the picture looked beautiful through sentimental eyes, it had certainly lost much of its original luster. Years of dirt and grime had dulled the colors and the wooden frame was on the verge of falling apart. My brother, Greg, who is on the board of a Louisiana museum, offered to send the painting to an art restoration specialist in New Orleans and we quickly agreed. That was July of 2005.
On August 29th my wife and I watched with the rest of the nation as Hurricane Katrina roared ashore and the terrible devastation of New Orleans unfolded. We were horrified to witness the suffering of so many thousands of people as floodwaters inundated the city. Even as our hearts ached for the victims, we could not help but wonder if we, also, had lost something precious to the storm.
The enormity of the tragedy affected all of Louisiana, and it was several months before we felt it was appropriate to contact my brother to ask what became of the portrait. Greg confirmed our fears: the art restorer’s studio was in the heart of New Orleans in an area that had been hard-hit by flooding. Greg had tried phoning the man, but had never been able to reach him. He assured me that he would write to him at the New Orleans address, but he had no idea where the artist may have gone because most of the city’s residents had become virtual refugees.
Tina clung to the hope that somehow the painting had survived, but the facts did not look promising. All we could do was wait.
Greg called me in August of 2006, one year after Katrina. He had been contacted by the restoration specialist; somehow the letter he sent to New Orleans had finally made its way to where the artist was now living in Mississippi. The man had the painting, and could Tina please contact him?
With a mixture of joy and trepidation, Tina made the call. What kind of shape would the painting be in? Had it been submerged in filthy floodwaters for weeks? Was there anything left to salvage?
The artist told her the amazing story. The three-story studio was, indeed, in the downtown area that had flooded; there had been six feet of water in the first floor of the building. In addition, the winds had torn the roof off the building and the top floor was destroyed. Jeanne’s portrait, though, was in the middle floor of the studio and had been virtually untouched. He had lost most of his paperwork and did not know how to contact us. “Once we removed the grime, the colors just lit up,” he told Tina. “She has on the most beautiful blue sweater, and her face really came to life.”
Tina cried as she listened to the story. After thanking the man profusely for his care of the painting, she exchanged contact information with him. There was still work left to be done to restore the picture and the frame, but he promised that we should have it back within a few months. In mid-December we received a call to let us know that the restoration was finished and that the painting was on its way and should arrive by Christmas.
And so it was that on Christmas Eve of 2006, Jeanne Pavy Sellers arrived at our doorstep with her characteristic promptness. The beautifully restored painting hangs in our home as a constant reminder that love and memory can survive time and the most challenging circumstances.
We share our story with the hope that each of you reading this will connect with your own joyful thoughts of those who are not physically present to share the holiday with you. May love and comfort fill your heart.
Peter and Tina Marcantel