In One Book, Two Local Women Share Tales of Humiliation, Heartbreak and Hardship

Andrea Buchanan didn't know when she began writing Note to Self two years ago that the book would be released during the country's darkest hour in decades. Not bad timing for a compilation of tales about women transcending tough times.

The award-winning writer, producer and director -- best known for her work on VH1's Behind the Music -- was raised in Lewisville, and she visited Dallas this week to promote the book with one of its local contributors.

If you've forgotten the story of Sue Sandford, she's the University Park woman who, in 2005, took in not three, not five, but 20 -- yes, 20 -- Hurricane Katrina survivors. Some 30 people -- including Linda and James McCray, who'd flown in from New Orleans for the occasion -- gathered at the Uptown Borders Tuesday night to hear Buchanan and Sandford read.

Buchanan began with the introduction. Since the book includes personal and revealing stories from 30 women (including internationally acclaimed ones like Sheryl Crow, Marianne Williamson and Jenny Bicks), Buchanan felt it only fair that she too spill her guts about the "Big Three:" humiliation, heartbreak and hardship. The anecdote she read details what it was like to be a would-be '80s homecoming queen and aspiring model in Lewisville who was suddenly blindsided by a rare illness.

"At 14, I was 5-foot-10, 120 pounds, and wore a 34C bra. I had been voted both Sophomore and Junior Duchess ... Senior year was primed to be a royal cakewalk to the ultimate crown," she writes of the hopes that were soon to be dashed by the onset of Graves' Disease. "That summer, however, my body went rogue. I mysteriously packed on 30 pounds, developed a goiter in my neck, and almost overnight suffered from a serious case of the bug eyes." In the end, she tells how the experience ultimately -- and surprisingly -- became one of her luckiest.

Next, Sandford read her chapter, titled "Unexpected Guests."

"I once read a beautiful prayer that said, 'Bring a stranger into your house for three days and at the end of those three days, you'll know their true colors. Either ask them to leave, or you'll be friends for life,'" Sandford read. "I'd run across the passage quite randomly while reading one night before bed. I certainly never expected it to foreshadow one of the most moving experiences of my family's life."

Four years ago, Sanford was a cash-strapped mother of four still reeling from her divorce and the challenges of being a single parent in the Park Cities. University Park, she writes, "is like Wisteria Lane from Desperate Housewives with a Southern twang ... a nuclear family kind of place." In August, 2005, she had $11 in her bank account because of a doctor's bill for her daughter that she hadn't budgeted for. What she did next landed her in the headlines and was part of the story that led Dallas Morning News photographer Melanie Burford to win the Pulitzer Prize.

"When I saw footage of the hurricane on TV, I knew I needed to do something to help," she writes. "I couldn't have written a check even if I'd wanted to, but I wanted to take action."

A few days later, her four children were sleeping on inflatable mattresses in her room, she'd stocked the house with extra supplies and warned the African American family from New Orleans that she lived in an all-white neighborhood (later, several of Sandford's neighbors would tell her that, as a single white mother, she was lucky she hadn't been robbed, shot or raped). The McCray clan -- all 20 of them -- arrived and packed in into her four-bedroom home. James and Linda stocked the refrigerator and Linda immediately began cooking baby back ribs, potato salad and BBQ chicken.

"Even though we were together only 10 days," Sandford writes, "the McCrays and my family became one extended family. We weren't the nuclear kind, but one that is chosen out of love, trust and faith ... It was the family I had always dreamed of having, and I was finally home ... As crazy as it sounds, I really think it took Katrina to heal my heart and my family."

As she read the words at Borders, Sandford choked up. Most of the listeners seated on chairs before her were crying, including James and Linda McCray, who sat in the back of the small crowd. "It's easier when you're not here," she said to them.

After six months in the Dallas area, the McCrays returned to the Lower Ninth Ward and rebuilt their home. "We wanted to stay, but we couldn't," says James of their need to go home to New Orleans. "Sue is an amazing woman. We cried together when we left." The McCrays wrote each of Sandford's 19 neighbors a thank-you note before they left.

After waiting 18 months for electricity and more than two years for any government money, the McCrays have rebuilt their home and say they're one of a small group of families who have returned to their neighborhood, which remains largely destroyed.

"My kids and I visit the McCrays about twice a year and have the great joy of sleeping on inflatable mattresses on their floor," Sanford's chapter in Note to Self concludes. "They come up for the anniversary of Katrina and we always go down for Mardi Gras ... They send me a card every birthday, Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, and sometimes just because. I do not know what I have done in my life to deserve them, but I will never let them go."

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Megan Feldman
Contact: Megan Feldman