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Amid the devastation, one couple holds fast to the bits of their lives

BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss.—Buddy and Lois Thomas came home the other day.

Lois Thomas, 79, who presided over a loving home for more than a half-century, walked into a kitchen caked in Katrina's mud and began sweeping. Nothing moved, so she found the mop, two walls away from where she'd left it. She swished and swished the floor, but that only made a bigger mess than the storm had left behind. This was done not to clean up but simply not to give up. It felt right, this sense of yesterday, in the swish of mop and broom.

She cleaned the kitchen because she had to. Buddy Thomas, 82, searched for his white tank tops, even those polka-dotted by disaster, because they were important to him. He removed sodden pictures of his five grandchildren from the wall because they were precious.

Then the couple, together for 58 years, sat on a battered porch once hugged by magnolia trees.

They talked about their stubborn plans to stay at their home of 20 years. About a favorite grandson who'd begged them to leave just before the storm. About the wind that screamed for most of that Monday. About the eerie quiet that followed. About the long road home.

About Lois Thomas' heart condition. About hot water and cold pork and beans. Lost T-shirts, a 1987 Mardi Gras poster, a pink flowered housecoat and a note to "Grammi" that never moved from the refrigerator.

There are many people like them in this small patch of the South, people hanging on to the bits of their lives, to the moments before. They cope by holding on, by absorbing, by remembering and sometimes by ignoring Monday, Aug. 29.

Survivors cook on grills that used to be for the good times or eat handouts from the bellies of trucks. They wash dishes outside in old Home Depot buckets with dishwashing liquid found in the yard.

They wear other people's clothes, and sleep on mattresses nearby or not so nearby, in shelters or in their damaged homes. They scrounge for cash, then wait for hours to buy gas to take baby boys and baby girls to safer places, to enroll them in schools far, far away.

For the Thomases, this is the sunset of a beautiful life that began in the third ward of New Orleans, in a home built in 1897. Two girls and a boy after that beginning, they moved to Bay St. Louis, a village in the western shadow of Biloxi.

Buddy had met Lois in 1941; she was 16 and the "new cute girl on the block." He wooed her with his big-city way; she softened him with her pedigreed Southern heart. When he returned from World War II, she was waiting for him, right there at the house where they met.

They moved here to be grandparents in a home two blocks from the beach. It reminded them of an old country town, rural in its spirit but with a spectacular view of the Gulf of Mexico.

Lois Thomas collected all the grandchildren's pictures, framing every snapshot, crowding them onto walls too small. Buddy Thomas made the rooms pretty for his wife, with antique pieces, lace and doilies.

"If somebody stole everything in here they could get nothing for it, but we would never sell it 'cause it meant the world to us," he said.

So when it was time to go before the storm, the Thomases said their prayers and stayed put. Only after their grandson called and called and called, the day before the storm hit, did they pack up and head to a daughter's home, to the northwest, in Covington, La.

Before she left, Lois Thomas folded each of her crocheted throws and a tablecloth and placed them in closet storage, never quite believing that anything too bad would happen. But just in case, she grabbed a favorite doll from her bed. She and her husband waited out the storm at their daughter's house.

The next day, they returned to a nearby friend's home. They fretted about the losses, and barely slept that night. On Wednesday, the Thomases went home.

"I walked through the house and cried. I cried until I was exhausted. And then I started cleaning," Lois Thomas said, wiping away tears.

She spent the first hours in the kitchen, rescuing her most precious items and placing them on the porch. She found her plastic sink-drainage rack, which became the perfect place to lift, separate and dry all the wet photos. Then she headed to the living room to find the tablecloth that her mother had crocheted years ago. Buddy Thomas was in the back rooms looking for the only picture of his mother, his wife's beloved housecoats and a pair of wine goblets.

He found all three. Each piece the couple found had its own story, made more meaningful by the storm.

But many of the searches were in vain. A grandson's beta fish, lost. A vintage desk, broken. A portrait of a wild duck, gone. They did this domestic search and rescue for three days and nights, taking frequent breaks on the porch to rest body and mind.

Sometimes they turned to what had become comfort food: canned peaches and Vienna sausages.

The couple worked to restore order to the living room, where the furniture had tumbled to and fro. Lois Thomas told her husband that she needed her home back, because that was the way she could cope, the way to make things right.


(Burch reports for The Miami Herald.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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