Inside a white envelope, Birdell Owens finds several $20 bills. “Look at what that woman just gave me.” When asked who handed her the money, she says, “I don’t — I’ve never seen her before. And don’t call me Birdell — my friends call me Birdie.”
A pack of cigarettes in one hand and a bundle of cash in the other, Birdie turns around and yells at her family to get ready for a free lunch at Second Mission Baptist Church. “Y’all better get up there.”
Meet Birdie Owens — mother of 13 children, 57 grandchildren and 42 great-grandchildren.
She spent most of her life in New Orleans, and most of Birdie’s flock still calls the Louisiana city home. Or at least did, until Hurricane Katrina hit two weeks ago.
To date, 25 Owens family members have made it to Missouri. Including those who live here already, about 40 are spread between Mexico, Mo., and Columbia. The rest remain in and around the New Orleans area, unsure of their next move.
Birdie is pleased that all are still alive.
Four teenagers in Birdie’s front yard sit on yellow chairs suited for toddlers, their knees above their chins. They aren’t complaining, since the apartment is full of people. They joke and make the best of their newfound surroundings.
Asked how things have been in Mexico, one of them smiles and says, “Boring.”
Birdie opens her screen door and enters her one-bedroom duplex in a field of identical units. She sits down at a kitchen table made for two and lights a cigarette.
“Don’t be smoking in here with him sitting next to you,” one of her daughters says as she rushes out the front door.
Birdie looks her visitor in the eyes and says, “This is my house and I’ll do what I want to do.”
On Aug. 28, the day before Katrina hit, Birdie spoke with the seven children in New Orleans. She also has two sons in Mexico, and a daughter in Columbia. Three of her children died earlier.
As she watched CNN, the matriarch wondered if her kids would beat the storm.
Birdie pulls at her cigarette and can now admit she was out of her mind with worry. She knows the city; she was born there and only moved to Mexico seven years ago.
If Ebony, one of Birdie’s granddaughters, had known her apartment would be looted and burned down, she would have packed better.
Ebony Nelson decided to leave New Orleans before the hurricane hit. She placed her children’s baby pictures on her bed and threw some clothes in the trunk of her car.
She herded her four sons into the car and hoped that she hadn’t forgotten anything.
Sitting in 10 hours of traffic — normally an hour’s drive — on her way to Biloxi, Miss., Ebony realized she had left the pictures behind.
On the phone, Birdie had told Ebony to get a hotel in Biloxi. But rooms there were going for $100 a night. She moved on.
Her car tire had a slow leak, and she had to fill it every 80 miles to avoid driving on the rim. Cash was low and she didn’t have any credit cards. She met another sister in Port Gibson, Miss., and they made a caravan to Columbia.
Diane Nelson, Ebony’s mother and Birdie’s second oldest, was not a stranger to floods. Diane knew to get herself and her 16-year-old son, James, out of the west bank of New Orleans and to move her valuables to the second floor of her house.
She expected to return in a day or two.
Instead, Diane ended up in Memphis, where she had to pay $160 for two bus tickets to Columbia to join her daughter Thursday and rest in Ebony’s hotel room at the Econo Lodge in Columbia.
They were the last of the Owens family members to arrive in mid-Missouri.
When they arrived in Mexico, James ran from Ebony’s car to hug Birdie in the front yard. Birdie’s oldest, Joyce, walked over, reached down and embraced her sister Diane. “Isn’t that sweet,” said one of the grandchildren.
Word of mouth travels fast in a small town.
When a member of Mexico’s St. Paul’s Central Methodist Episcopal Church wondered why some children in a local park weren’t in school, it began what would become a whole town effort.
By Labor Day, a committee of church members, businesspeople and school district officials formed the Mexico Operation Recovery for Hurricane Katrina Victims.
Jessie Jackson was one who helped sound the alert. “I guess I have a big mouth,” she said.
Birdie’s son-in-law, Jerry Cline, is speaking Wednesday at a benefit luncheon at Second Mission Baptist Church, one of five predominantly black churches in Mexico.
“We are not refugees. We are citizens of the United States,” Jerry says. The crowd shouts back in approval and gives the Owens family a standing ovation.
Neither he nor his wife had eaten on the 18-hour trip from New Orleans.
“We only had $20 — enough for the kids to have a bite, but not Mom and Dad,” Jerry says.
Fern Williams takes charge of the donation bucket at the luncheon. “That’s how we do it in Mexico — we’re all on one accord,” she said. “White, black — it’s not a race thing.”
Mexico is a town of about 11,000 residents with less than 10 percent making up the black community. The mid-Missouri town has welcomed the Owens family with open arms. Jerry says his family is not suffering,
“We have been swamped with food and clothing,” he says.
The U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development is offering apartments. Businesses have jobs to fill. Mexico Public Schools are open to all. And the Chamber of Commerce serves as a clearinghouse for everything else.
Back at Birdie’s place, Birdie tells stories and shows off her new bracelet, a gift from one of her daughters. It has portraits of saints, and she is quick to comment, “You don’t have to be Catholic to pray to saints.”
In the middle of explaining the Owens’ family tree, Birdie starts a new conversation as her daughter-in-law, Kenya Patterson, walks by.
“Women aren’t supposed to like their mother-in-laws, but with me, it’s different, right Kenya?”
Kenya smiles and nods.
Kenya is on her way to the doctor’s office to get her baby a checkup. Kenya and her family stayed at a shelter in Lafayette, La., and she wants to make sure that her baby wasn’t exposed to anything harmful.
Inside Birdie’s apartment, the light is dim and the temperature is warm. To combat the constant opening and closing of the front door, Birdie turns the air conditioner off. A large fan in the middle of the living room helps circulate the air, and fly strips hanging from the ceiling help control insects.
Birdie tries to find comfort in her own home. But a little boy runs inside and asks Birdie to heat up a frozen pizza. “Find somebody else — I’m not messing with that.”
Not everyone is dealing with the change so well.
Sitting in an empty room in her new apartment on West Broadway, along with a couple of half-alive crickets near the baseboards, Ebony stretches out and lies on her side on the musky smelling carpeted floor.
She waits for her furniture and wonders how a city girl like herself is going to deal with quiet mid-Missouri. “They don’t do my kind of dancing here,” she said. “New Orleans is different.”
Asked about how she is dealing with her new surroundings, she says, “I have at least one daily breakdown. I go into the bedroom and cry.”
At 27, she dreams of working as a hair stylist for the rich and famous. But before she can finish explaining, her 7-year-old, Jordan, shouts, “Mom, I want a pickle.”
The constant interruptions are a metaphor for her life. Every time she starts something, whether it’s a sentence or a new career path, the realities of daily life and single motherhood veer her path.
There’s a lot missing in the apartment, and nearly everything smacks of irony.
The new PlayStation doesn’t match the television’s connection outlets and will need an adaptor. Ebony is all dressed up in a flaming pink outfit, but has no where to show it off.
She has a new one-bedroom apartment designed for two. Within a week, it will have five people living in it.
Ebony is thinking about moving on to Atlanta, where she can network to become a platform hairstylist. New beginnings with new options are a reminder that she wants to be somewhere else.
The other members of the displaced Owens family — 10 in Columbia, more than 20 in Mexico — don’t know how long they will stay in Missouri. There is little to return to in New Orleans.
The oldest daughter, Joyce, has a job at Mexico’s Dollar General. Kenya expects it will be easy to make it here and looks forward to raising her six children. Diane, on the other hand, can’t wait to return to where she was born and raised. “I will definitely move back to New Orleans. And so will everybody else when the Saints make it to the Super Bowl.”
Less than two weeks ago, Birdie thought she was going to lose seven children to Hurricane Katrina. The Owens family tree was shaken, but it did not fall.
To celebrate, Birdie cooked a big dinner on Sunday for more than 30 relatives.
She takes the turkey out of the oven in preparation for the get-together at son Stacy’s house and shouts to nobody in particular to grab the potato salad. She eyes the kitchen to make sure she hasn’t forgotten anything and prepares for the feast ahead.
The house slowly fills, men migrating to the football game in the front room, women to the back of the house and the kids in the sunshine of the front yard. This is the Owens family. Nicknames are exchanged throughout: Red, Blackie, Buzzard, Burt, Ernie, Happy Jack, Pac Man, Bubba, Peanut and Freedo. Taking it all in, Birdie balances a child on her lap and says, “It feels good when your grandchildren love you.”