Last week, I stood at the kitchen sink washing St. Joseph with dish soap and a toothbrush. The bristles worked the dirt out of the crevices in the carving, but I scrubbed gently because I didn’t want to take off any paint.
When he seemed free from grit, I dried St. Joseph with a dishtowel and stood him on the windowsill in front of the sink, next to the tropical fish salt-and-pepper shakers. The statuette didn’t look any worse for wear. The bearded and robed saint held a saw at his side, ready to take on a serious building project. In his left arm, he cradled what looked to me like a shoeshine box, but probably represented another carpentry tool. His face still wore a placid and patient expression. This part seemed miraculous because six months ago we’d taken a spade and planted him upside down in the ground like a gladiolus bulb.
After my husband and I announced last winter that we were moving to Tennessee, a friend gave us a “St. Joseph Home Seller” kit. The little figurine came in a decorative box, complete with detailed directions on how and where to bury him. According to ancient tradition, this action is supposed to attract a buyer quickly. We laughed and thanked our friend for the gag gift. The box was tucked into a drawer and forgotten.
Yet, we began hearing an astonishing number of unsolicited accounts from friends about the power of St. Joseph when it came to selling houses. One was a prominent New Orleans real estate professional. He advised us to bury two St. Josephs – one on each side of the house. “Sometimes it takes more than one if you’re really emotionally attached to a place,” he said.
Finally, the sheer number of testimonials convinced us to give it a go. We picked an early spring day. The pamphlet with directions contained a prayer that was part of the process and I read it aloud as Larry tamped down the soil. It was a sweet prayer, asking for the right people to come along and love our home the way we did. My sudden tears surprised us both and I had to stop reading for a minute. It may have been selfish, but I didn’t want to think about driving by in the future and seeing other people - even if they were very, very nice people - hanging out on the front porch like we do most evenings.
I recovered enough to read the end of the prayer, in which we asked St. Joseph to bless our new home. I thought about the charming historic cottage we’d already bought in Chattanooga. The neighbors we’d met were wonderful, the location was lovely, and business opportunities seemed promising. We could be happy anywhere, right? I looked up at Larry when I finished. He was wiping his own eyes, but it might have been seasonal allergies.
We both understood that as much as we loved our house, the real loss of moving would be severing daily connections with our friends and neighbors. And while common experiences create bonds in towns all over the planet, few other places have been challenged like our Bay-Waveland community. The rigorous workouts have toughened our ties. In the weeks, months and years after Katrina, we lashed our little individual and family-unit life rafts together for survival, creating an undulating flotilla of survivors. Everyone rowed like hell toward a shore we couldn't see. We lost some along the way, but most of us somehow made it back to solid ground safely.
Now we’re on dry land we don’t like to think about those days anymore. But those links remain, tempered and hardened like hammered steel. Even new residents and visitors sense that something is different here, that some strong and bright energy runs beneath the normal social interactions. Like a magnetic current it pulls at the heart, making it wrenching to leave.
After Larry and I buried St. Joseph in March, our circumstances began to change. By the time Katrina’s 9th anniversary rolled around in August, I was writing notes to potential buyers thanking them for their interest, informing them that we’d taken the house off the market.
In hindsight, perhaps we should have gotten two statuettes like my friend suggested. Or maybe we should have ordered dozens, an entire army with sharp-toothed saws to help us cut through our community ties. But we’re thankful now that we only used one St. Joseph and ours turned out to be lazy. Or perhaps just wise.
His burial place remained marked by a solar yard light until I remembered him last week while planting winter pansies. Despite the marker, I couldn’t find him at first and panicked a little as I dug, wondering if he’d run away somehow or if our dog had beat me to it. I unearthed the little saint with a sense of relief. Now that he’s been properly bathed, he stands watch on the kitchen window sill, where we are sure to notice him several times a day. His new job is to remind us of our good fortune.
Since he didn’t come with a deactivation prayer, we're hoping this will serve:
St. Joseph, We appreciate the hard duty you’ve done these past months, buried here in the soil near the azalea. We are most grateful that in our case, you saw your job description as being different than the one advertised on your box.
Continue to guide us by example. As a carpenter, you teach us that building is the most important work of all - whether it be bonds with neighbors, relationships with friends, or creating community. We ask that you remind us daily to celebrate our lives, our families, our neighborly connections and the multitude of gifts that surround us here in this sweet place, the one named Bay St. Louis.