The photo of Sarah Broom that was in my head as I began her memoir is from the NYT; her look is that of a stylish woman of the 1940s. Maybe you’ve seen this image in their review. So as I began reading this memoir of her family that begins with her grandmother, born in 1916, then reaches back to her largely unknown great-grandmother, I had that picture in mind. Later as I read what she wrote about her teenage years in the 1990s, I saw more recent images and everything shifted.
The story of this singular family in New Orleans is dramatic even before that yellow house was destroyed by Katrina. I want to remember Sarah’s mother, the central figure of that family: Ivory Mae, petite, beautiful and energetic. She married when she was young and after two years of marriage, her husband died. She had two children and was pregnant with a third. She bought the yellow house and she married a man 19 years her senior whose first wife died. Their three children came to the yellow house and eventually Ivory had 12 children in her care. Her second husband died shortly after Sarah was born. Ivory Mae’s pronouncements are always italicized, honoring her wise statements.
The yellow house was in New Orleans East, an area developed around 1960 and was near Chef Menteur Highway (yes, that’s “chief liar” highway). The house was a source of great embarrassment to the family and only family members were invited to visit. Her father had built onto the house, but somehow never got around to putting in stairs. He made repairs with found objects so that holes in the floor resulted in a bump up rather than a hole. And then, the rats. Ivory May loved beautification and was great at curtains and decorating, but couldn’t make those underlying fixes happen. Sarah says,
There was the house we lived in and the house we thought we should live in. There was the house we thought we should live in and the house other people thought we lived in. These houses were colliding. And the actual house? My memories of the house’s disintegration have collided, the strains impossible to separate, its disintegration a straight line always lengthening, ad infinitum.
I love this book partly because it made me rummage around in my own memories. The house-shame made me think how everyone has some level of shame about their own home. When I was growing up, our basement flooded regularly and my father’s solution was to lower the driveway, one wheelbarrow of dirt at a time until part of it was about a foot lower than the rest. My friend Fran backed her rear wheels into the lowered part and getting out was a production. And there was the reluctance of friends to come visit because my father was likely to put us to work washing rocks that we moved from one pile to another for his sidewalk building projects.
We had water in the basement, but they had Katrina, which the author refers to as the Water. By then she was living in New York City with one of her sisters. There was the horror of being in New Orleans and there was the horror of not knowing what happened to family. They all survived, but six siblings, her mother, and many nieces and nephews were scattered throughout the US; some returned, but many never did. And the house,
The house looked as though a force, furious and mighty, crouching underneath, had lifted it from its foundation and thrown it slightly left; as though once having done that it had gone inside, to Lynette’s and my lavender-walled bedroom and extended both arms to press outward until the walls expanded, buckled, and then folded back on themselves.
The house was damaged beyond saving and was demolished. Carl, the brother who had amazing stories of his time during the Water and its aftermath, could often be found on the lot in later years, sometimes joined by Sarah.
Sarah, the voice of that family, is honest and loving in showing us their lives. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Sarah Broom, The Yellow House, Grove Press, 2019, 376 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.