ISaturday, May 12, 2007; C01
Matt Deighton grabs a broom and starts sweeping the living-room floor, a chore clearly more cathartic than practical in the ruins of his childhood home. The cozy little bungalow is a heap of splintered wood, jagged glass, broken brick and shredded drywall now, like everything else in this heartland town that disappeared a week ago when a 200-mph tornado tore through just around bedtime.
Greensburg is gone, all but a few of its 1,500 residents homeless, left to shovel and bulldoze and sweep entire lifetimes into piles of debris. Sometimes treasures are discovered -- a widow's wedding band, a little girl's favorite teacup, a beloved Bible -- but mostly it's just trash. Insurance adjusters drive up, take one glance and write "total loss" on their work sheets. The homeless homeowners nod their heads, sign the papers, then go back to sifting.
Once the Deightons started digging, though, three generations of them, something they couldn't describe seemed to be set in motion, and they found themselves reluctant to stop long after it became clear that nothing more could be salvaged. And so they kept digging, for hours and then days, from morning until the evening curfew, because what was being unearthed in the rubble of Sycamore Street was more important than any possession they had lost.
Sometimes, they learned, the wind takes away what we need to give up but can't, things invisible and intangible, wrestled from a stunned heart's grasp.
* * *
Arlene Deighton sits on a folding chair in her driveway, watching the artifacts of her 76 years pile up around her. The noonday sun blazes down on the floppy white hat her older daughter, Sheri, insisted on getting at the Wal-Mart 30 minutes away. Arlene, her four grown children, a granddaughter and a handful of in-laws are living in the clan's two RVs now at a county lake that's always been a favorite retreat for them.
Arlene sometimes forgets what happened that Friday night eight days ago, when her younger boy, Matt, rushed her through the hail into a neighbor's fortified basement across the street. Matt, 44, moved back home a few years ago to get his bearings after his catering business failed in Texas, and he became his parents' caregiver. Jim Deighton died of lung cancer last summer, but Arlene insists it was three months ago.
Sheri, her sister Lori and Lori's 23-year-old daughter, Lacey, took Arlene to Wal-Mart after the siblings found her and Matt unharmed in an emergency shelter in the neighboring town. Sheri, 51, remembers how irritated her mother was as the girls kept piling things into the shopping cart -- a hairbrush, underwear, shampoo, cheap clothing. "I don't need those things!" Arlene protested. "Put them back, I have all that at home!" No you don't, the girls kept saying, remember the storm? Back and forth they went, until finally Sheri lost it. She wishes now she hadn't been so harsh.
"Mom, if it's not in the cart in front of you, you don't have it."
Now Arlene wears her new Wal-Mart pantsuit and chats with the public health nurses who are walking through the streets giving everyone free tetanus shots. Ambulances cruise slowly past, their crews offering cold water and Gatorade. The Red Cross truck comes by with ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Arlene's older son, Mike, 57, who flew in from Florida to help, emerges from the foul-smelling basement wearing a rubber Bob Dole mask.
"You know, through all this, we found out you can still laugh," Arlene remarks. "No use crying."
Arlene says she isn't sure whether she'll rebuild, but the decision isn't hers alone to make anymore. She has emphysema and arthritis. Her children worry about the dementia that's still in its early stages, suddenly making her forget what a toothbrush is.
At night at the campground, the kids discuss her future. Maybe it's time for assisted living. "I mentioned I might like to come to Florida," Arlene later reports, "and Mike said, 'C'mon down!' But I imagine once I got there, I'd just want to turn right around and come home." The kids aren't sure how much of this she truly grasps. "Mom's kinda in her own little happy place so we're just leaving her there," Sheri says.
Another snowy-haired survivor sits in the driveway with Arlene. Lori Deighton married the boy two doors down, and Ora Ellen Doyle, her mother-in-law, was still living there. What the tornado didn't destroy, rainwater and burst pipes did. The sodden floors and collapsed walls are about to give way completely, and it's not safe to go back. Ora Ellen can't bear just sitting here in Arlene's driveway, though, and they keep finding her poking through her life's debris with her cane.
"Every time I go over to my house, here comes my son," Ora Ellen complains after Lori's husband, Jerry, has fetched her back yet again.
"They don't want you there in that rubble," Arlene replies tartly.
"I haven't fell yet," Ora Ellen answers.
Arlene's yard is starting to look like an apocalyptic flea market. "This was a family where you were brought up never to throw anything away," Mike explains dryly. Matt and his mother were the most avid collectors, both nostalgia buffs who used to enjoy yard sales and the rural auctions where they could bid on vintage pieces like the three Victrolas that survived the tornado. Matt found the John Deere pedal-tractor he had when he was 5, and the old wooden highchair with puppy cowboys on it is unscathed. Arlene doesn't exclaim or cry or even say much about any of the things recovered. Her lack of sentimentality dismays Ora Ellen, who wants whatever she can reclaim, no matter how damaged, of the papers and photos and belongings that were once her own parents' and grandparents'. "I just like those things," is how she explains it.
"I had it long enough," Arlene says of her belongings, "it's time to move on. There are so many things I want to tell him." Her husband, she means. His overcoat is hanging from a rack in her front yard. "I know he's not coming back," she says. This loss is nothing compared to that.
Her children keep surfacing with more things they've recovered. Cheese graters and old toys and the newspapers with Kennedy's assassination. Mike finds his football trophies, and Matt rubs his leg at the sight of an old lawn-dart game, remembering the time Lori accidentally speared him. Their mother watches them idly.
"There's some good tea towels," Arlene tells Matt, spying some dishrags in the mess of her twisted kitchen.
"You're getting new ones, Mom," he replies. "These went through the insulation and have asbestos on them, they're dangerous."
Arlene sees an unopened bag of kibble. "Matt, would you be afraid of that dog food?" she wonders. His Dalmatian, Molly, is safe at the kennel.
"Yes," he says with a laugh, adding, "Can you tell Mom went through the Depression?"
Ora Ellen jumps in.
"Not really," she snaps. "She don't want to save nothing, and that's not Depression."
She bends down to pick up something glistening in a mound of Arlene's rubble. It's a tiny glass deer, unbroken. She holds it up to Arlene, her voice half-challenge, half-lament: "You want it?"
Arlene shrugs elaborately and scowls. "Probably," she says curtly.
Ora Ellen gently places the figurine on a cracked table and goes back to her chair, waiting for the chance to slip away again, to her own ruins.
* * *
"C'mon in, sorry the house is such a mess!" Matt calls out to everyone who wanders up, never tiring of the joke. He is the emcee of this little open-air amphitheater, the one who jubilantly points out the ugly brown folding chair that he and his father found in a New Orleans alley when driving home from a Florida trip a couple of months after Katrina. The chair survived this beating, too. Matt is starting to feel like the Katrina chair himself. Losing his business, taking care of his parents, his dad dying, a great-nephew drowning, now this. Matt's voice is too loud, too buoyant, when he tells friends on his cellphone: "I have no tears left."
He goes for a tour of the demolished Main Street. Here was the old Rexall drugstore with its old-timey soda fountain, where the same guy had been making Green Rivers and Black Cows since he got the job as a teenager. Now Dick Huckriedy is 73, and the wind took away what he couldn't give up. Next door was the print shop where Matt hollered hello every morning to the buddy who ran it, and across the street was the town's beautiful art-deco gem, the Twilight Theatre. Movies were shown on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The last title up on the marquee was a comedy: "Are We Done Yet?" Matt can't help but laugh at that. That tumble of bricks was the high school, this concrete cave was the beauty parlor.
The sun never felt so hot, so punishing, in May before. Those skeletal trunks were big shade trees -- chestnuts and cottonwoods -- now stripped of leaves and bark. Thirteen people died in the storm, and everyone says it's a miracle there weren't more. Survival has no rules of logic. Five chocolate cupcakes can be seen intact in the rubble of a home with absolutely nothing else left.
The insurance adjusters are coming, and they'll cash out Mom's house. That's what the siblings have decided. Matt is worried. Do they get it yet, that he's a victim, too? He drives past the National Guard checkpoint to the next town, 18 miles away, where he spends five hours filling out forms for federal disaster relief, Salvation Army vouchers, unemployment, a new driver's license, a post office box. His brother has been telling him to get a job, move on with his life, but Matt feels rooted here.
Back at the house, the women are digging with bare hands through a teetering pile of debris, oblivious to the jagged wood and jutting nails.
"It's here, Matt, I can feel it!" Lori cries. "It's right here." She and Sheri have been searching for days for the heavy white ceramic teapot their mother always kept atop their fridge. "It had Dutch people on it," Lori recalls. The kids were forbidden to touch it, growing up. Lori is determined to find it now.
"I guess I never realized the significance of it," Lacey admits, joining her mother and aunt in the treasure hunt.
"It was The Teapot," Sheri explains. "We could never touch it."
An insurance adjuster is trekking through the debris, too, using a laser device to measure what used to be the dimensions of what used to be a house. It was a modest place, two bedrooms and a basement, 1,200 square feet, by the adjuster's calculations. Arlene doesn't remember what they paid for it when they moved here in 1976, but it was a pretty little place, she says.
Lori suddenly lets out a little yelp. In her hand is a tiny plastic doll, which she winds up. "On my sixth birthday, I got a dollar, and I went to Robinson Hardware and got this little baby for 88 cents and she's still crawling." Lori chokes up, and Mike, the big brother, pauses from his work.
"You got the change?" he deadpans.
Mike is the authority figure here, "the one who thinks he's the boss," his mother says with some amusement. The tension between Mike and Matt is palpable. Sheri usually finds a way to intercept with a pleasant family memory or an offer of sunscreen. Lori is the fixer, a role she's taken on literally now, collecting pieces of even the cheap china with fervent vows to glue everything back together. She and Sheri like to make stained glass, so what can't be repaired, they promise to re-imagine and give a new life. Shards will become sun-catchers.
Mike wants Matt to help him drag a fallen wall away, to give them better access to the bedrooms. And they should roll back that wet carpet. Maybe Mom's diamond ring is hidden in the fibers somewhere. They found her gold band sparkling on a stair the first day. Maybe they'll be lucky again.
They've been sifting for four days now, and it's Lacey who observes that most of the digging "is just to occupy the time so you don't have to think about it."
The tornado has been strangely liberating, Lacey thinks.
"I hate to be a part of this, but at the same time, I'm very humbled by it," she says. She sees a strength of character she never really appreciated before in the two homeless grandmothers sitting beneath a vast Kansas sky full of promise one moment and menace the next. Lacey starts nursing school in two weeks, and the volunteer effort she's witnessed in Greensburg this week has made her think about going into disaster relief.
She and her Aunt Sheri went for a long walk together, stopping to chat with people clearing out their own debris. "It's like walking around in Mayberry," Lacey says, "no phones, no Internet, no TV. It's the simple life, and every once in a while, you need to live it. The world has slowed down." They've all been robbed of the illusion of control, scoured clean, left no choice but to start fresh.
When Sheri spots a butterfly, she swipes at the tears that roll down her cheeks again, moved by the flash of color in this sepia-toned moonscape. "Where did you come from?" she asks.
* * *
The insurance company has sent out a second representative, a young man whose business card reads "Scope. Appraise. Replace." He's here to inventory and put value on every item lost. The Deightons borrow a game room at a friend's farm, sitting around a poker table trying to remember everything.
How many waffle irons? the adjuster asks. How much were the bean pots worth? Any rolling pins?
"Mom was a really, really good baker," Matt says, remembering chocolate cake with white frosting.
"Tea towels," Lori adds to the list. "Aprons."
"Aprons, aprons, aprons," adds Sheri.
"She loved aprons," Matt agrees.
On and on they go, itemizing one family's history, salt shaker by salt shaker. Arlene and Ora Ellen are back at the lake. Everyone will decamp this weekend. Both the grandmothers will be going to Oklahoma, it seems. A house went on the market next door to Lori's, and Ora Ellen will lease it for a year. Arlene will go to an assisted-living home.
Matt's only plan is to stay behind, to keep churning through the ruins of Sycamore Street, not looking for anything in particular, just digging until the wind whispers that it's time now to go.
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