An Accidental Haven

Nearing another anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I recently went back to visit the Alexandria couple that took my family in for a week and helped us cope with the tragedy as it unfurled.

We decided to leave New Orleans Saturday morning as the news reports got dire. With my mother and my two-year-old son, I packed the car and left my house in Mid-City, a house I had bought only six months earlier, the first house I ever owned.

Even though we left before the mandatory evacuation, it took six hours to get from Mid-City to Kenner. Knowing all the hotels would be full, we decided to head toward Alexandria where a friend of the family lived. His house was already bursting with children and grandchildren in the same predicament, but he told us to come on, and that his daughter and her husband, neither of whom we’d met, would put us up.

After 15 hours of driving in excruciating traffic, we would have been happy with any modest guest room, couch, or even floor. What we found was a jewel of a home with plenty of extra bedrooms, a garden so heavenly I wondered if I was dreaming, and an angel named Janet.

Janet and Carl Ahrens’ large, brick ranch-style house in southwestern Alexandria sits in a vast and soothing pool of green grass and shade that knocks 10 degrees off the thermometer even in the hottest month of the year. But the serene oak trees and the modest facade of the house belie the treasure that rests inside and in the mystical garden in the back.

Exhausted, anxious, and stiff, my little family blinked and shuffled in, worrying about whether we’d have the resources to be polite to strangers, even these kind ones. But within minutes, Janet and Carl put us at ease, fed us a hearty dinner in a dining room full of happy spirits, and made us feel like family.

I have rarely seen a home so filled with intriguing art and unusual objects. Most of the pieces have spiritual significance or mysterious aspects. We would learn that much of the art sprang from the hands of our hosts. And family photos lined the hallways—school photos and military portraits, wedding receptions and birthdays—so that, by the time we left a week later, we felt we knew the entire extended families on both sides.

As in many homes, the “formal” front entry of the Ahrens’ house is rarely used. Everyone enters by way of the carport, into a living room filled with art and flowers and inviting upholstered furniture. Up a few steps is the den, a room all in red that somehow combines the feeling of a vivid gallery and a cozy place to chat. The dining room follows to the left and the kitchen to the right, with a hall leading to the bedroom wing straight ahead.

The house forms an L that wraps around an enormous green expanse of shaded lawn with magical nooks and niches filled with fun-spirited and spiritual plants and works of art. A wide porch wraps around the rear of the house, and it, too, bustles with pottery heads, comfortable furniture, and fascinating found objects. A large circular fountain burbles in the center of everything, adding that essential element of water to the mix.

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