The Stuff of Life

Katrina’s survivors lost more than homes and jobs. They lost the ordinary, everyday objects that defined their lives.

By Karen Spears Zacharias

The suede straps on my husband's Birkenstocks are so worn that they flop and curl around his feet like earthworms. The soles need to be recorked. He's got plenty of other shoes to wear but, like a child clinging to a threadbare toy despite all the new ones in the play box, he prefers the Birks. They are his favorites.

I have my own favorites—a pair of strappy black heels, sexy and comfortable, and on more casual days, the red leather Borns. We routinely buy new running shoes, new dress shoes, and new flip-flops, but neither of us is willing to toss out the old stuff.

And the older we grow the more we value the old stuff. Like the footlocker that I bought at the Army Surplus store when I was getting ready to leave for college. It's sitting in the garage. The white paint I'd used to spruce it up is chipped, but the flower-power decals are still intact. The fitted sheets and stacks of composition books once stored inside are long gone, the remnants of my coed days replaced with the twins’ first pair of Nikes and the monogrammed jumpers I sewed so others could tell the girls apart, and all the rest of those adorable reminders of childhood. I probably should toss all of it; after all, the girls have left for grad school. But I just can’t.

Stuff helps define our lives. It tells us who we were, what we've done, what we value.

My husband is a historian. I am a writer. We have boxes in the garage, in his office, in my office, crammed with papers and private journals. Somewhere in those files are the vows we wrote one late summer afternoon after a hike in Oregon's Wallowa Mountains. We sat lakeside on a splintered pier, and didn't talk until we'd penned our own promises to respect and honor each other through life's droughts and stormy seasons. We haven't always been as faithful as hoped, but we've somehow found the grace to forgive.

I will never throw away those crossed-out, scribbled out vows. My kids can do it after I'm dead. But they probably won't, not if they are like their parents.

We cherish the old stuff. The snapshots of all four of our children, three in diapers, spoons in hands, carving the innards out of the pumpkins. The vinyl record of Carole King in bare feet and nappy hair, positioned to feel the earth move. The blue letterman jacket that Tim earned as a star athlete in the 1970s. The cowboy boots that Papa Gene paid $30 for so his grandson, barely old enough to walk, would be well heeled for Chief Joseph Days. And the pouch of airmailed letters, postmarked Vietnam, that Mama received after Daddy was killed-in-action. She gave them to me because she understood as a daughter, as a writer, how much I would cherish them.

This is the stuff of our lives. It is our memories made tangible, the only means we have of traveling back in time, even for a few seconds. With it we feel connected to the past. Without it we are lost, struggling to keep hold of who we once were and what we once held dear. When we lose everything, as the victims of Hurricane Katrina have, we search desperately through rubble, hoping to find a remnant of our past intact. Even a piece of wood from the old house is something to be cherished forever; its very scent could propel us back in time, and for one brief moment we would once again be part of that life that is gone forever.

The survivors of Hurricane Katrina are lucky to be alive, blessed to have each other. But they've lost more than just homes and jobs. They’ve lost something even more tragic—they've lost the very innards of their lives—its stuffing.

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Karen Spears Zacharias is author of the nationally acclaimed Hero Mama, and her commentary has been featured in the New York Times and on National Public Radio's “All Things Considered.”

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