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Set in a small, handmade wooden frame is a piece of wall from my childhood nursery. This fragment is only a small section of what was an entire room covered in nursery rhyme-inspired paintings, the framed piece showing a mouse holding onto a star, which was part of a greater series depicting the nursery rhyme “Hickory Dickory Dock.” Awaiting their first child, my parents put a great deal of thought into the decoration of this room, including the consultation of both my grandmothers, one an amazing artist and the other equipped with a thoughtful eye for design. From old pictures, one can see scenes from “Humpty Dumpty,” “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” cleverly leading into each other across the walls, showcasing the stories my family had planned to teach me as I grew up. While this artwork clearly bears great significance to me, this piece of wall tells another story that is quite the opposite of the childhood fairytales painted on it. It is the only piece of my childhood bedroom that was retrieved after Hurricane Katrina devastated my hometown.
Unlike many, my first memory is not from the town I grew up in. I was two years old when Katrina hit, and my parents were forced to evacuate without more than a few hours’ notice, bringing only enough clothes and supplies to last a week. My first memories are of sitting in the car alongside our family’s dog on our way to San Antonio, where we would be living for the next six months, and of my father’s college roommate’s house, where we stayed for the first few weeks. When we were finally able to return home, my parents found our house completely destroyed. Most of the roof of our small, one-story home had blown off in the storm, walls were caved in or collapsed, and on the walls that still stood there was a seven-foot line showing the height the floodwaters had reached when the levees broke. The architect who was initially tasked with evaluating the damage done to our home was a close friend of my grandmother and when he saw that the painted mouse remained safely above the flood line, he saved it, framed it, and gave it to my family to put in our next home.
Ever since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, each hurricane season there has been a looming sense of anxiety over the city of New Orleans. It is impossible to avoid seeing evidence of the storm while driving down the street over sixteen years later, and there is always a doubt in our city’s ability to survive something like that again. When moving to New York City for college, Hurricane Ida began heading towards New Orleans just like Katrina did on my first day of preschool, making landfall the day I moved into my dorm. As I stressed about my family, my home, and the news reports claiming the storm to be “the worst since Katrina,” my mom reminded me of a lesson my entire city learned sixteen years ago: “It’s just stuff.”
Every New Orleanian who experienced Katrina has a profound appreciation for the relationships they build with each other and has learned the lesson of the insignificance of material things. New Orleans is known to be a beautifully diverse city, attracting both residents and tourists from every background imaginable. Despite this, we are all bonded by tragedy. Anyone who lived in New Orleans in 2005 lost something during Katrina and for those of us fortunate enough to have evacuated, we learned that lesson as we packed only what we absolutely needed and left the rest. Diplomas, sonograms, family heirlooms, wedding dresses, and even my own birth certificate were destroyed or lost, but like so many others, we had to learn that it did not matter. Despite being only two years old when Katrina hit, I still find myself and my family less attached to material items because of what the experience of Katrina instilled in us. The irony is, the painted mouse that now sits on my desk is the most significant material possession I have because it represents the insignificance of material things.
Every time I return to my hometown and see the painted mouse in my bedroom, I am reminded of the resilience of my family and community. Instead of lamenting our losses and abandoning our city, my family and so many others stayed and rebuilt the town we love. From rebuilding our own houses to volunteering in more severely affected neighborhoods, New Orleanians have shown nothing but strength and determination in the face of a tragedy we never could have imagined.
Though I have few memories from that time, it has undoubtedly influenced the way my parents taught me to lead my life. I cannot claim to be completely detached from materialism, but I can say that I am lucky to be habitually reminded of the greater importance of community and relationships with family, friends, and peers. The diplomas, sonograms, wedding dresses, and birth certificates are not important because of their material value, but because of the memories they symbolize. Important parts of New Orleans culture such as crawfish boils and Mardi Gras celebrations center around the idea of spending quality time with one another, not any physical possessions that may be tied to them. Though this small, cut-out piece of wall does not reveal every aspect of my personality, such as my deep appreciation for a well-cooked bowl of pasta or my affinity for card games, it represents the way I view the world. It represents my love of experiences over possessions, of trying new things over making money, and of the best friendships over the best new things. Though I understand the importance material things can hold, my childhood was made more fulfilling when my community was forced to focus on the love we have for each other and our city because, as my mother has often recited, “it’s just stuff.”
About the Author
Madison Hales is a first-year student at Fordham University Lincoln Center pursuing a major in Digital Technology and Emerging Media. Originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, she enjoys sharing the culture of her city through her writing, as seen in her work “Significant Insignificance.” She spends her free time exploring New York with her friends by visiting local restaurants and museums.