Unbreakable in New Orleans - My Family Travels

My mother collects Christmas ornaments. She buys them everywhere we go. Every vacation, road trip, journey — each place we visit becomes a decoration to hang proudly on our tree. The ornaments hold the memories of travels passed — of laughter, joy, and adventure.

One hangs prouder than the rest. Its color is faded a dreary gray-blue, and the dust and dirt that coat it suggest it’s no ordinary glass ball.  It cries a different kind of story.

Like many of the people of New Orleans, our delicate ornament survived the storm.

After the Hurricane Katrina disaster in August of 2005, I felt completely helpless. The anguish caused by the largest storm to ever hit our country was unfathomable to me. Mostly it was curiosity that persuaded me to join a local church group on a mission trip to New Orleans in July 2006.

I was told that we would be sleeping in close quarters with thirty to sixty other volunteers in a church just outside of New Orleans, and during the day we would be helping our assigned family to rebuild their home and their life. I was far too excited for self-doubt, and our arrival in Louisiana was a joyous one.

The next day, crossing the bridge into New Orleans, all joy was suspended. Turning a slow circle in the middle of a street, I saw nothing but debris in all directions — no people, no pets, not a single sign of life — just rubble where entire neighborhoods, people’s homes, had been standing just a few months earlier.

It was an hour before we saw any indication of hope. Walking the empty, haunting roads of a neighborhood just below the levee, we noticed two women standing beside a vacant lot. The two women, mother and daughter, told us how they fled the city in fear of the coming storm. When they returned, their home was gone. My mom and I, the mother and daughter with everything — our hearts broke for the mother and daughter with nothing. The storm had taken everything but their faith.

A man from our group yelled across the barrenness and momentarily broke our sadness. “Don’t you collect Christmas ornaments?” he called to my mom, while pulling his arm from a pile of debris. In his hand was the ornament, a perfect, delicate sphere, dirty and faded but otherwise unscathed.

The human spirit is a lot like that ornament. It may seem so fragile, but when everything around it has crumbled, when all hope seems lost, it somehow finds a way to prevail. Those women we spoke with, along with the families whose houses we rebuilt, may have at one point thought themselves as breakable as a glass ball. If there is one good thing to come from the Katrina disaster, it is that those families now know that they are strong enough to live with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the hope in their hearts.

Sometimes even glass refuses to break.

Megan Mulrine of Easton, Pennsylvania won Honorable Mention for this essay.

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