by Eileen Brener

A long time ago—way before the flood in New Orleans, I took private tennis lessons from a devilishly good-looking coach named Luis.  I loved him as only a middle-aged woman can love a tall, tan, thirty-year-old man who watches her for an hour and talks—even if it is about a wimpy backhand.  All the women in my set vied to get on his schedule.  He smiled at us with a studied nonchalance as though he didn’t know that we each found him more attractive than Tyrone Power.

I always tried to get the last lesson of the day so that I could buy Luis a drink at the clubhouse bar.  He had a net full of stories about his Mexican parents’ great expectations for him and he enjoyed telling them.  Luis was a suave fellow with a devil-may-care way about him.   He was in the U.S. to perfect his English, to make business and social contacts, and to have a good time.  He was slated to return to Mexico City to take over the family business.  He was confident—even arrogant—about his future success.

Over drinks I often asked him personal questions.  He didn’t seem to mind.   One day he told me that he was in love with the most beautiful girl in the world.  “Really?” I said.  “Yes,” he answered, starry-eyed.  Elsa was Swedish and in New Orleans for a six month training program.  She was due to return to Sweden in a week or two and had invited him to accompany her and meet her family.  Luis told me that she laughed when he praised her beauty, saying that in her family she was average.  He couldn’t believe that she’d ever be considered “ordinary looking,” as she described herself.

Luis returned from Sweden with his tan faded, his dark eyes clouded, his broad shoulders drooping.  He told me with a solemn face he had to agree that his formerly “most beautiful girl in the world” was  “ordinary looking” in the company of her two sisters who were taller, blonder, and more athletic than Elsa.  Luis was brokenhearted.  “I really thought I’d found the most beautiful girl in the world,” he said.

A bum knee kept me off the courts for several months, and during that time I wondered and worried about Luis and his prospects for romance.  When I returned to play, I learned that he had been called back to Mexico City.  Disgruntled, I decided to quit taking tennis lessons.  The new coach seemed so ordinary.


As a New Orleans attorney in my pre-IRP days, I occasionally—lord help me—taught legal writing.  Now thanks to the writing workshop, I’ve left lawyerly letters for the fun of writing memoir and fiction.  



















The Best of Times

by Eileen Brener

Walker Percy[1], the Louisiana novelist and philosopher, wrote that people feel better in hurricanes because, he theorized, the everydayness of life is dispelled by a good storm. People find the best of times in the worst of times and everyone is “…focused, connected, engaged. We know what we are supposed to do and we do it.”  (Quoted by Walter Isaacson in NY Times Book Review, 8/9/2015, p. 32)

Percy’s theory held up, for in 1985 when I celebrated an important birthday,  my daughter’s gift to me was a weekend trip with her to visit my parents on Siesta Key, an island off the coast of Sarasota, Florida.   It was the end of August an auspicious time for hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico.

On that Friday, as we prepared to leave New Orleans for the airport, Dad telephoned to say there was a hurricane predicted to hit Sarasota on Saturday.  He insisted he didn’t want to discourage us from visiting, but he thought we should be watching the weather.  Hurricane prediction then wasn’t what it is now, and in New Orleans we’d heard the weatherman cry “wolf” so often that we no longer paid attention to him.  We told Dad that we were coming—hell or high water.

Our flight was delayed for two hours.  When we finally arrived at Sarasota airport at 10 p.m., my parents looked frayed.  Mother said ours was the last plane to land before the airport closed for the storm, and she feared we had brought the hurricane with us.  Dad added he had just heard on the radio that Siesta Key was being evacuated.

Helen, my daughter, and I couldn’t believe our rotten luck.  “Evacuate? Us?” We shuddered.

“Your mother and I have been discussing where we’ll go.  She votes for the Ritz Carlton —of course—-and that would be comfortable unless the storm knocks out the power.  I think we should follow the mayor’s suggestion and go to the elementary school because they have a generator,” Dad announced with a finality I knew too well.

“Oh, my god,” Mother sighed, “You and that school.”  It was a little joke with my parents.  When my father had retired from his position as comptroller of a large corporation, he became a volunteer fourth grade math teacher at the local public school.  There he relished all the small achievements of “his” class and knew in detail the strengths and weaknesses of the school’s physical plant.


Helen and I exchanged a look, suddenly realizing what we were in for.   My parents had been in relatively good shape since their retirement—-relative, that is, to their prior health when both had suffered more than their share of afflictions.  However, the sun and sand of Siesta Key agreed with them.  The cancer and heart disease seemed to have retired too.

“I’m glad we’re here,” Helen whispered to me with the confidence of youth. “I think we can help them get through this.”  I nodded in agreement, remembering with a chill that in the many hurricane scares we’d lived through in New Orleans, we had never once been told to evacuate.

When we got to the condo, my tiny mother, normally content to play lieutenant to my father’s general, took control, barking orders:  Dad was to bag up blankets, pillows, and towels; Helen, to pack cheese, crackers, chocolate and bottles of water; me to find flashlights and a battery radio, while she got toiletries and considered clothing for herself and Dad.  Here she slowed down.  She held up a warm-up suit rarely worn and asked me if I thought it would “work under these conditions.”  I laughed, Dad frowned, and Helen assured her it was exactly right.  Within thirty minutes we were back on the road, this time heading for Sarasota Elementary School.

The Red Cross was there before we were.  They had a table set up in the front hall where volunteers were registering guests as they arrived—-“Just like the Ritz Carlton,” I whispered to mother.  Dad listed our names on the forms and then asked if we could stay in the kindergarten.  Mother looked at him quizzically and he whispered that a new, thick rug had just been laid there.

We were the first evacuees in our room.  My parents did a quick visual survey and decided to set up camp in a corner area where ordinarily small students napped.  We spread out our thick towels, covered them with blankets and pillows, sat down on Lilliputian chairs and set out our picnic on a Lilliputian table.  We had all been nervous until that moment, when suddenly our situation seemed hilarious.  Helen read us a sign proclaiming the Rules of the Classroom:







We laughed until tears ran down our cheeks.  Dad couldn’t tell us why kindergarten students—who presumably couldn’t read—would have such rules.  We agreed it was a good idea not to lean on the wall or carry our trays over our heads, but we weren’t convinced we’d obey the other rules.

The discovery of our bathroom was our next comic moment.  The kindergarten and first grade classes share bathrooms. The proximity was an advantage, but the height of the bathroom fixtures was a decided disadvantage:  the toilets were ten inches high, the sinks twenty-five inches.  We were huge Alices in a shrunken wonderland.

Only two other families chose the large kindergarten room that night, and they were quiet and well behaved—-having read the classrooms rules, I guess.  We woke early and were surprised:  we all slept through the night.  However, getting up was a challenge.  Mother, the most agile of us, was the first to get on her feet; then Helen, who gave me a hand, and they worked to pull Dad up.  I couldn’t help there because my back suddenly issued one of its “stand still” orders and I was not moving much.  To make matters worse, Helen began a sneezing storm.  We had no antihistamines.   And there we were—my ever coping parents worrying over us—-and the four of us standing quietly that early morning in a darkened classroom as though we were lost in a fairy tale wondering what monster we were likely to meet.  Dad broke the spell by reaching for the radio.  The storm, according to reports, was stalled in the Gulf but still likely to hit Sarasota.

Helen and I knew from experience that food is the best antidote to hurricane anxiety.  We prayed that the powers at Sarasota Elementary were on to that too.  Mother, who wasn’t sneezing or aching, volunteered to be our scout and went out to find what-—if anything—-was cooking.  She returned pleased to report that we would be called to eat breakfast at 7:30.   Sure enough, about that time, a woman’s voice came over the intercom:

Good Morning! This is Mrs. OMeally, your principal here at Sarasota Elementary School, welcoming you to our cafeteria for breakfast. Ive learned that we have a volunteer teacher staying with us and Id like to give a special welcome to Mr. Ben Keiley who is in the kindergarten. 

You are to come to breakfast, by classroom, beginning with the kindergarten.  Mr. Keiley, lead your group to the cafeteria.  As soon as they have been served, the first grade visitors will be invited and so on through sixth grade.

Dad shook his head, knowing that stories and jokes about this effort to keep us from harm would probably outlast his lifetime.  But he soldiered on taking us to a pancake breakfast prepared by a local restaurant and served in the cafeteria by Red Cross ladies.

Then the real work began.  My parents went through the school looking for friends with telephones in their cars.  In 1985 portable phones were large and cumbersome.  Dad didn’t have one in his car.  In the library, Mother found a couple she knew; they had chosen the library because they were told sleeping in the rocking chairs would be more comfortable than on the floor.  Ed and Mara were about ten years older than my parents, and their children had given them a car phone.

In a hard rainstorm, Ed, Mara, Helen, my parents and I all went to Ed’s car to use his phone. My dad’s idea was to find a flight to New Orleans out of Miami, which was south of the hurricane’s path, so that Helen and I could get home.  Alas, all flights out of south Florida were grounded at the time and no one could say when they would be flying again.

We went back into the school where my parents contentedly played bridge with Ed and Mara in the library, while Helen and I restlessly paced the hall.  She had quit sneezing and I was limbering up, but we could not be called “happy campers.”

Soon Mrs. O’Meally came on the intercom again to invite us to a pizza lunch, and, she announced, there would be a movie in the auditorium at 2 pm.  The Towering Inferno was being shown.  A disaster movie!

We didn’t go to the movie.  We went back to Ed’s car.  Dad called and found one flight leaving from Miami for New Orleans at 6 p.m.   He got us reservations and planned to drive us to the airport.  However, Mother reminded him of a rental car office near the school.  She suggested Dad take us there.  None of us noticed it was no longer raining.  Helen and I felt terrible leaving my parents to spend another night at Sarasota Elementary, but they handled it well.  We were ecstatic to be escaping.

Everything worked for us on the trip home.  We arrived in New Orleans about twenty-four hours after we left, and we did realize that it was raining pretty hard. My telephone was ringing when I walked into my living room.  It was my parents.  The threat to Sarasota ended, and the evacuation order was lifted almost immediately after Helen and I left.  They were home now putting things away. “Have you looked at your weather report?” Dad asked me.  I had not.  “Well,” he said, “the hurricane is now predicted to hit New Orleans in a few hours.”

And it did, but that’s another story.   My daughter and I frequently recall what have become unforgettable episodes from this almost hurricane story with my resilient parents, the classroom rules, and how “focused, engaged, connected” we all were.

In her story Eileen Brener enjoyed reliving a long ago adventure she shared with her family.  Thanks, Voices.

[1] Walker Percy died in 1990, long before Katrina drowned New Orleans.