After the Tornado

Last week my hometown was hit with a tornado.  New England does not often encounter such natural disasters.  Tornados are seen only every few years, and are usually rather small.  But these tornadoes were large and strong and destructive.  In a fraction of a moment, a swirling black wind angrily devoured houses, businesses and churches, transforming a sleepy little town into a pile of rubble.

From my apartment in New Hampshire I watched as the television screen showed the streets I had played on as a child.  The First Church of Monson, known by residents as “The Congo” is a beautiful white church with stained glass windows that stands at the top of Academy Hill.  Friends gathered there to give me a baby shower when I was expecting Abby.  I played guitar in the sanctuary during summer sessions of Vacation Bible School, and sang there in a community Christmas choir.  No matter what denomination people belonged to, everybody in town had been to the Congo at some time or another.  Now the steeple was ripped off and lay in splinters amid downed trees and crushed bushes.

The grocery store where my sister Teri has worked most of her adult life is torn apart.  The old Academy buildings are destroyed.  Trees that for decades have stood sentry around the little hamlet have been snapped in half and lie strewn across roads like fallen soldiers.  Cars teeter on their sides like children’s Match Box toys.  I watched the screen, stared and the pictures and fought back tears.

During the past several years I have watched people around the world cope with disasters- Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Japan.  The world is brought into my living room through the flat screen across from my couch.  I am moved.  I feel sad. I feel helpless.  I shut off the T.V. and go to bed, and in the morning, I go on with my life.

But this time it is different.  On the screen are faces that look vaguely familiar and I realize these are people I grew up with.  I painted scenery with that woman tearfully hugging her daughter.  I delivered newspapers to those houses that are now piles of toothpicks.  I skipped rope with that lady searching for her cat.  The man whose crushed car lies under a fallen maple tree played basketball at my high school.

My heart aches for these people, because life as they knew it will never be the same.  Whenever we experience trauma, the event marks the forever change in the continuity of our lives.  We talk about the passage of time by marking the days before and after the event; Before the war.  During the depression.  After September 11th.

When I was a little child, my hometown endured a horrible flash flood.  Lives were lost, roads were eradicated, property was mutilated.  The black and white photographs my parents took documented the vast destruction.  The landscape looked surreal- huge crevices were carved into Main Street, and boulders the size of a small house lay on front lawns.  If the pictures did not tell the tale, the people did.  For much of my childhood, people from town talked about The Flood.

“She lost her husband in The Flood.”

“That happened before The Flood.”

“That is the new house we built after The Flood.”

What I learned is that the people of my home town were strong New Englanders, hearty as the granite buildings that withstood The Flood.  They hugged. They cried. They cleaned up and they rebuilt.

I look at the people from Monson now.  Their homes are in ruins. Their lives are shattered.  They will never bask in the naiveté that believes that tornadoes do not happen in New England, or that disasters happen to other people, but not to them.

But I remember that the people in my home town are still strong New Englanders. They withstood The Flood before, and they will withstand The Tornado.  They will hug. They will cry. They will clean up and they will rebuild. 

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