As a child, I loved visiting my grandmother and uncle in the city. I say “the city”, but it was a modest 30,000 people at most. That didn’t matter. It wasn’t Birmingham or Atlanta, but it had a shopping mall and a movie theater, and a pretty river where hundreds of egrets nested each year.
I cherished my weekend visits. I didn’t need an escape from home, but I needed a change of scenery. While I enjoyed romping in the woods all week, I loved the perceived commotion of that little city. I got to go to the movies, play with other children on my street (there were none at home), and see my biological father.
Everything has an exception. Those trips weren’t an escape, but one time, my weekend visit truly shielded me from disaster. It started commonly, with my grandmother taking me to church while I drug my feet. After, I raced in the door to see my father. Everything was fine, until my mother came to the door.
She never came on Sunday, and especially not early in the day. It was Palm Sunday, and I was still in my church clothes from the special service. I already hated church, but that’s a different story. I was eager to change out, but instead of getting to change and go play, I was taken into my living room to talk with my mom and stepdad.
They sat me down and very calmly told me the news: a tornado had come and destroyed our home. We lived in a gray trailer in the hills, right next door to my maternal grandparents. Their home was half-gone too, I was told. My aunt and uncle’s house up the road was gone. The church where all my kindergarten classmates went was gone. Half of our tiny community was just gone.
As I recall, it didn’t really hit me. I thought they said ‘tomato’ at first, instead of tornado. I thought it was a little silly. Had someone come and thrown tomatoes at our home? Could it really be ‘gone’? When they said I had to go home right away, I thought nothing of it. They put me in their car and drove me away to see the truth.
As we approached our road, I started to notice things weren’t right. Patches of trees were missing – actually missing. Shattered wood lay scattered across patches of road. It started to truly creep into me when we drove past a yawning gap in the trees, like some sort of terrible beast had chewed its way through the woods. The other side looked familiar, but I couldn’t place why.
We turned down our own road. As it snaked to the right, we ran parallel to the massive tree-tunnel. Then, we reached the crest of the hill. Where our home should have been, there was nothing but a wasteland of broken glass, pulverized furniture, and the still-wet corpses of trees.
My breath left me. I remember placing my hands on the glass and watching with emptiness as we drove up to our grandmother’s house next door. Half of it was gone. Only half. Gnarled metal lay in heaps beside it. My toys filled their half-wrecked bathroom, as if our gutted trailer had vomited them out.
According to my grandparents, the storm came while they got ready for church. When they heard the roar, my grandpa didn’t even have time to get to the window to look before our trailer struck the side of their house, peeling half of it away. The trailer wrapped around what remained like a candy wrapper blown in the wind. It looked like a slain creature, laying pitiful and buckled, as if it were in pain.
The tornado was selective in its cruelty. It completely pulverized my aunt and uncle’s house down the road, but their neighbors were fine. The storm cut my grandmother’s house in half, and took half of the magnolia tree beside it, too. The tree lived, and has a chunk missing to this day. The mailbox only twenty feet away was unharmed. It’s still there, too. The shed, which stood close beside the trailer, lost only its roof.
We pulled into the driveway and I got out of the car. I walked over to the pile of wreckage and touched it. That’s when I cried.
Our pets were missing. The furniture was gone. Little was salvageable, aside from some durable houseware and some of my toys. I dug through them feverishly, weeping, as I searched for my favorite stuffed animal. My stepdad bought it for me at a junk shop some time before. I loved it more than anything in the world, and I wailed as I looked for it. I didn’t find it.
Mom swears she saw a bluebird of happiness perched on the mailbox that day, while emergency vehicles and community members started to show up. Nobody was injured.
In the coming weeks, I stayed with my grandmother and uncle as my family tried to clean up. I don’t know what they did or where they stayed during that time. The school closed, and half the community was displaced into hotels and low-income housing in the nearest town. I guess that’s where my parents stayed, but I never asked.
A couple days after the storm, I caught a break. I came home for reasons I don’t recall, and followed my grandpa around as he collected anything worth saving. I carried a few things for him. He never actually said this, but I think I know what he was really looking for. If I’m right, he found it. After combing our large yard, he looked up in the tree to find my stuffed animal there, hanging from a limb.
I was beside myself, because while we’d located it, we weren’t sure if it could be rescued. My stepdad and grandpa launched a coordinated effort to return it to me, and eventually one of them managed to reach it from a ladder. It fell to the earth and landed in the mud, half the stuffing gone, but I scooped it up and held it tight. It was more than just a toy at that point, but something familiar from the time before. Something from my old life that I could love. My grandma fixed it, and I carried it with me ever since. It’s sitting on my bookshelf right now.
Not all news could be good. When school started, I had to go home. I stayed in one of those cramped rental homes in town. The school set up counseling for all of us. Some of my classmates survived the storm. From what I’m told, they’d been in that church that crumbled almost instantly in the storm.
One of them didn’t come back. I won’t tell you his name, but I will tell you that I considered him a friend. I don’t remember anything about him, other than we played together at recess and were reading partners in class. I returned to school to learn that he was dead.
For most children, their first encounter with dead is a grandparent or a family pet. It’s not another child. It shouldn’t be another child. I don’t even recall being sad right away, because I didn’t understand. It’s still strange to think about. I know I talked about it with my parents, and I cried when the yearbook came out the following fall and there was a full page dedication to him.
A copy of that yearbook now rests in the abandoned shell of our second trailer, which sits on the same spot. We moved away when I was eighteen and took almost nothing with us, and the trailer sat there to rot. I sometimes go to visit our old things when I’m in town. The yearbook is on a shelf in the living room. My little friend is entombed there.
Sometimes, I think about how he has family somewhere. They probably never heard my name or knew I existed. They have no idea that somewhere in the world, an adult still has this tattered memory of their dead son, and that memory has some meaning. Like I said, I remember almost nothing about him. I just remember he was there, that I cared for him, and his name. You just don’t forget about your childhood friend who passed. Not only was he the first touch of death in my life, but his passing remains a reminder that I could have died, too.
That’s how it goes, I guess.
What a terrible world.