25 Days Before the Hurricane

By J. L. Starkey

Find the place inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.

– Joseph Campbell
Evening in New Orleans, August 2005

“…and you see that other one over there?” the doctor asked. “That’s an older lesion,” he continued. “This looks to be a….relapsing-remitting form of this disease.”

The doctor paused, and then he looked at me.

I turned to my husband, and for a moment, time just…stopped. Well, we expected this, didn’t we? It was a fact now, and that was that.

There are certain things that put life into perspective very quickly, and hearing, “You have Multiple Sclerosis” just a few months after your thirtieth birthday? Well, that is one of those certain things.

A Tumefactive MS lesion found on my MRI.

The words swirled around us:

“- some very effective treatments, so…”

“Do you have needle phobia? Because now they make -“

“Let’s see how you walk, ok? You’ll do this test every time you’re – “

“…might need to get yourself a cane, honey.”

Instructions, questions, and plans blended together as my mind wandered. Yes, I wanted to start treatment immediately, and no, I didn’t have needle phobia. Yes, I would schedule injection training with a home health nurse, and yes, it was good to have options, wasn’t it?

But inside, a little voice was asking, “What if you can’t walk in a year from now?”

No, I told myself, that wasn’t going to happen. The odds – and modern medicine – were on my side. Still, there were things we wanted to do right away (much to my doctor’s dismay). In the midst of so much uncertainty, we wanted to celebrate life.

In times of pain and sadness, there is no better place to find your joy again than New Orleans, and our spur-of-the-moment 2002 trip was a great example of that. We danced in the street as a performer sang “The Tracks of My Tears” (per my request – he wouldn’t even accept a tip!). We laughed a lot, and we cried a bit. We ate too much, and we drank too much (because it was New Orleans, after all). And every day of that vacation, we celebrated life.

About the only thing we didn’t do was visit a cemetery, because that would have been depressing, right?

Oh, younger me…how little you knew.

Three years later, just 25 days before Hurricane Katrina would devastate New Orleans, I would learn a thing or two about the magic of those cemeteries.


Exploring The City Of The Dead

Entrance to Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, August 2005 [family photo collection]

Our 2005 visit to New Orleans was different than the one in 2002. No longer uncertain about our future, we knew that life was good. Maybe that was why we decided to visit a cemetery. Life was short, and it was time to find out what all the fuss was about!

Built in 1833 as the city’s first planned cemetery (and still in use today), Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is said “to exude the strongest sense of subtropical gothic” of all New Orleans cemeteries [1]. If you feel a sense of déjà vu when you enter its wrought iron gates, you’re not alone. The cemetery can be seen in movies including Interview with the Vampire, The Originals, and Double Jeopardy. It was also a filming location for the video “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” by NKOTB. (I won’t tell anyone if you watch it right now. It’ll be our little secret, ok?)

Indeed, this hallowed ground is said to be the most filmed cemetery in New Orleans. Beautiful, peaceful, and just a bit eerie…Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 has it all.

A “depressing” place? Hardly.

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, August 2005 [family photo collection]

There are approximately 1,100 family tombs and more than 7,000 people buried in Lafayette No. 1 [2]. Tourists can visit the graves of Judge John Howard Ferguson (of the landmark Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court Case), and of the Ferguson family, who lost three children in just two days during the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic [3]. I wanted to see both of those graves, but instead, my inner genealogist made a surprise appearance that day.

Grave of the Ferguson children
[Michael Homan – Flickr: [1], CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31891404]
Obituaries of the Ferguson children [4]

In 2005, I had yet to discover the story of my great-great-grandfather Henry Hansen’s disappearance, and I certainly wasn’t looking for family surnames in Lafayette No. 1. But it was New Orleans, and a bit of magic was to be expected.

Still…a Hansen grave? That was not on my radar.

I would later learn that of the almost 10,000 names in the records of Lafayette No. 1, only two were spelled H-a-n-s-e-n, and both were on the same marker [5]. Honestly, what were the odds of finding that marker?

On a sultry August day in 2005, the odds were apparently pretty good, because within minutes, I was staring in amazement at the final resting place of Ivar and Rebecca Hansen.


Grave marker for Ivar and Rebecca Hansen, August 2005 [family photo collection]

Family Connection – or NOLA Magic?

Ivar Oskar Hansen was born in Norway in 1891 and immigrated to the United States around 1911 [6]. He didn’t have deep roots in New Orleans; in fact, he didn’t have roots there at all. He and his first wife Anna originally settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin [7]. Anna passed away in May 1951, and in December of that year Ivan married New Orleans native Rebecca Minor Columb [8].

Rebecca Minor Colomb (indicated by red arrow) at her high school graduation in 1933 [9]

I didn’t know any of that back then, of course. I just figured it was a neat little coincidence, and on 6 August 2005, I had prints made of the Hansen grave photos. I would later learn that those prints were made exactly 24 years to the day after Ivar Hansen’s funeral [10].

Hmmm…did some of that New Orleans magic follow me home? Perhaps it did.

A few years ago, as I attempted to break down a few brick walls in my Hansen line, I took another look at that neat little New Orleans coincidence.

What I discovered was nothing short of remarkable.

Ivar’s Hansen’s legendary ancestor-in-law, Stephen “Don Esteban” Minor
[Portrait attributed to artist William Edward West]
Rebecca’s grandfather, Col. William Minor [16]

In academic terms, Ivar Hansen married into a family that was just a few generations removed from southern royalty. A Google search of the Minor surname leads to a wealth of documents housed at places including Louisiana State University and the Library of Congress.

The New Orleans society pages probably would have put a different spin on things, and simply stated that Ivar Hansen married up.

Ivar’s bride, Rebecca Minor Colomb, had deep roots in Louisiana and Mississippi [11]. The daughter of James and Rebecca Gustine (née Minor) Colomb, her great-great-grandfathers included Major Henry Chotard, an aide to General Andrew Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans, and Stephen “Don Esteban” Minor, the first president of the Bank of Mississippi [12].

She was also a great-granddaughter of William J. Minor, a wealthy plantation owner and – wait a minute – Union sympathizer [13]?

Indeed he was.

William Minor owned at least three sugar plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana, including Southdown Plantation, which the family managed from 1847 through 1932. Minor initially relied on slave labor to keep his plantations running, and his antebellum diaries provide a shocking and sad look at a tragic chapter of American history.

It seems unbelievable, but William Minor actually opposed secession, and he sided with the Union “for the stability of the sugar trade” [14]. He was also a staunch supporter of President Abraham Lincoln, calling him “the most conservative and ablest man in the Washington Government” [15].

Today, the Minor family’s Southdown Plantation is home to the Terrebonne Museum.


There is Joy There

Main House of William J. Minor’s Southdown Plantation
[Z28scrambler – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21186909]

Two names on a headstone in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 led me down a fascinating rabbit hole, despite the fact that I had no family connection to those names. I am holding out hope, however, since several of the Hansen/Minor family surnames (and a few common locations) also appear in my own family tree. It would be amazing to find a connection to this family that I discovered all those years ago, 25 days before the hurricane.

Yes, there is magic in New Orleans. There is joy there, even during times of pain. And on that beautiful August day, as we explored the city of the dead, we marveled at the magic – and the joy – all around us.


Author’s note

This is a revision of a post I wrote in 2019. I’m thrilled to share the “new and improved” version to commemorate World MS Day on May 30, 2021. Observed annually, it is a day that “brings the global MS community together to share stories, raise awareness and campaign with everyone affected by multiple sclerosis (MS).”

When we make #MSConnections, we are #NotAlone.


Citations

  1. “Lafayette Cemetery No 1,” Lonely Planet website, retrieved from https://www.lonelyplanet.com/usa/new-orleans/attractions/lafayette-cemetery-no-1/a/poi-sig/381595/362207.
  2. “Lafayette Cemetery No. 1,” Cemeteries of New Orleans, www.saveourcemeteries.org. Retrieved from https://www.saveourcemeteries.org/cemeteries/cemeteries/lafayette-cemetery-no-1.html.
  3. “The Lafayette Cemetery #1 in New Orleans,” retrieved from https://freetoursbyfoot.com/lafayette-cemetery-1-new-orleans/.
  4. “Ferguson,” Times-Picayune, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1 Sep 1878, p. 6, col. 3. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.
  5. Lafayette Cemetery #1, Interment.net Cemetery Records Online, http://www.interment.net/data/us/la/orleans/lafayette/lafayette.htm.
  6. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #: 2108; Volume #: Roll 2108 – Certificates: 221850-222225, 28 Sep 1922-30 Sep 1922. Retrieved from ancestry.com.
  7. 1940 United States Federal Census, Milwaukee, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Roll: m-t0627-04565; Page: 12A; Enumeration District: 72-570. Retrieved from ancestry.com.
  8. Ancestry.com. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. (See also: “Hansen,” Milwaukee Journal, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 29 May 1951, p. 17, col. 2. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.; and Hansen, Ivar, Marriage Records Index, State of Louisiana, Secretary of State, Division of Archives, Records Management and History. Vital Records Indices. Baton Rouge, LA, USA. Retrieved from ancestry.com.)
  9. “Four Girl Graduates Get Special Recognition; Fifth Gets Husband,” Times-Picayune, 24 Jan 1933, p. 3, col. 2-5. Retrieved 27 May 2021 from genealogybank.com.
  10. “Hansen,” Times-Picayune, 5 Aug 1981, p. 21, col. 4. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.
  11. 1920 United States Federal Census, New Orleans Ward 14, Orleans, Louisiana; Roll: T625_624; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 244. Retrieved from ancestry.com. (See also: Times-Picayune, 3 Jan 1952, p. 31, col. 1. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.)
  12. Chotard, Henry. Henry Chotard. 1814. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/maj004097/>. (See also: Henry Chotard Collection, Louisiana State Historical Center.)
  13. William J. Minor and Family Papers, Mss. 519, 594, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA. (https://louisianadigitallibrary.org/islandora/object/lsu-sc-p15140coll10%3A8491)
  14. Sitterson, J. Carlyle. “The William J. Minor Plantations: A Study In Ante-Bellum Absentee Ownership.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 9, no. 1, 1943, pp. 59–74. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2191379. Accessed 27 May 2021.
  15. Sitterson, J. Carlyle. “The Transition from Slave to Free Economy on the William J. Minor Plantations.” Agricultural History, vol. 17, no. 4, 1943, pp. 216–224. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3739528. Accessed 26 May 2021.
  16. “Col. Wm. Minor, Former Planter, Dies at Home,” The Times-Democrat, New Orleans, Louisiana, 20 Dec 1913, p. 5, col. 6-7. Retrieved 25 May 2021 from newspapers.com.

5 thoughts on “25 Days Before the Hurricane

  1. How coincidental that we would both write about New Orleans cemeteries this week! That would be really cool if you found a connection between Henry and Ivar. Hope the MD is not severe. That’s got to be one bummer of a diagnosis. 😔

    Like

    1. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be in that top tier of MS patients at almost 20 years post-diagnosis (a great doc and good attitude really does help!). Makes me want to call the doc who advised against that New Orleans vacation to tell her I was right!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah! Who needs that kind of negative attitude from a health care provider?

        Like

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