I was 25 when I understood thankfulness. I had always thought I understood it, but those other times had been mistakes. Those were other feelings, like appreciation, contentedness, enjoyment, and general good humor. During November’s deluge of “thankful” Facebook posts, I found myself wondering how many of my friends who were “thankful” for their iPads and Grey’s Anatomy were making similar substitutions. How many had ever truly witnessed raw thankfulness? It is rare because it makes its home in the last places we would think to go looking for it.
APRIL 2012: My mind had been able to hold the storm’s devastation at arm’s length, but reality crashed through my thin barrier the instant I stepped out of the car. Debris was strewn everywhere, and houses were reduced to twisted piles of rubble. Broken glass reflected sunlight from all directions, creating a blinding white shimmer. Barefoot children picked their way down glittering, glass-covered streets towards a red-cross truck. I picked up my camera, and coughed as I adjusted to the haze of dust and drywall that still hung in the air.
Walking slowly down the street, I passed a small blue house with a tree sticking out of the roof. An elderly woman clutched her broom, sweeping dust off of the porch. I must have looked as horrified as I felt when she happened to look up. “I’ve gotta start somewhere,” she called to me, her ancient, dark face opening into a smile. I smiled back, grateful for what seemed like permission. I wanted to feel normal, but it hadn’t seemed appropriate.
Relaxing, I continued down the street, and began snapping the pictures I had been hired to take. “Are you with the news?” a gruff voice took me by surprise. The man was middle aged, white haired and wiry. He wore a plaid shirt, dirty jeans and ancient work boots.
“No, I’m working for a production company that wants to make a commercial for a home restoration company.”
“A what?” He spoke loudly, maintaining several feet of distance, probably for my benefit.
“It’s for a ServPro commercial,” I said, a little louder.
“Oh, I thought you was with the news.” He grinned. “They been all over here. If ya want, I’ll show you what I showed them, where the worst part is.”
I looked around. There was a crew of volunteers from a church on several of the nearby roofs, a police cruiser parked at the end of the street, and there were people in driveways and on porches up and down the road. “Ok, sure.” I said. “Thanks.”
“Follow me.” I followed the man through the gap between two houses into a backyard. The fences were all gone, so we could cut straight through to the next street. He stopped and pointed. “Go straight between that tree stump and that gray house with the busted out windows. When you come through there, you’ll see the houses that got it the worst.”
“Thanks,” I said, and I started walking. “Thanks for your help. Stay safe.”
“Well, I do what I can,” said the man, turning back. I wondered briefly if he meant he did what he could to help, or he did what he could to stay safe. For the first time, I wondered where he had come from, where he would stay tonight. Would he sleep in one of these houses?
The debris was heavier here, so I picked my way across the road to the place the man had pointed at. I turned sideways to slide through the narrow gap, and when I emerged on the other side, my breath caught in my throat. These houses were only representations of houses. They were frozen in various stages of gone. There were houses with bites missing out of them, and there were concrete slabs where houses once stood.
The eeriest place was a house that looked like a dollhouse. All four facades were peeled away, leaving the house completely open from end to end. Dinner had been abandoned as the tornado hit, and the food was still on the table. The furniture was still arranged in each room. I wanted badly to go inside, but I felt like I should ask first, and nobody was home. It wouldn’t have been safe anyway. I walked around the perimeter instead, gazing in astonishment at each room, with every detail in place. The toaster and coffee pot half full of coffee were still on the counter. The pillows and blankets were still on the neatly made beds.
At the SW corner of the house, there was a small bedroom with a white dirt-spattered wall where people had written messages. They were mostly things like “get well, Grandpa” and Bible verses, but someone had written, “Even when the storm comes, I am washed by the water” in green marker. My heart lurched as I read it, and I snapped a photo, unsure why tears had come so quickly to my eyes. I stepped back and wiped my face. Everyone had been wiping insulation out of their eyes all day, so I knew that nobody would think anything about it. I walked back to the street quickly, uncomfortable with my emotional response and eager to be someplace else.
About three houses down the road, a dark-haired little girl came out of her bombed-out house giggling and shouting in Spanish to someone inside. She scurried up to her big sister, who was packing something into the family van. “Guess what I found!” she shouted. The tall pre-teen turned and smiled broadly at the little girl, who was hugging a pair of dirty pink roller skates. “Both of them!” the little one gasped.
I watched as the older girl packed them into the van with the other items the family had saved. She seemed to be packing with only one hand, and I noticed for the first time that she had a bright pink cast on her left arm. As she stood up again, she noticed me. “Are you with the news?” she asked, looking at my camera.
“No, I work for a company from New York that makes TV commercials.” I smiled. “They’re going to make a commercial about people that fix houses after a tornado.”
“Oh. You came from New York?”
“No. They hired me because I live closer than them.”
“Where do you live?”
“Oh.” She smiled pleasantly. Her blank expression said that Oklahoma City seemed just as far away.
“What happened to your arm?” I asked. “Did you get hurt during the storm?”
“No. I fell playing soccer three weeks ago,” she said. “Do you want to come inside?”
“Maybe you should ask your mom first.”
A moment later, the daughter reappeared with her mother, a small, lovely woman with curly hair. She smiled at me, and spoke in broken English, aided by her daughter. “Hello. Would you like to come inside? We still have some glasses if you want a drink of water.”
“I’m not thirsty,” I lied, “but thank you.” I don’t know why, but I couldn’t have stood it if this woman had gone even a tiny bit out of her way for me. I explained why I was there and she agreed to let me photograph the house. Then, we spoke about the storm in stunted Spanglish. The girl was there to help if either of us was stuck. The woman told me that her family had escaped just in time and driven to a relative’s houses, where they were currently living.
“Are you doing well?” I asked. “Is there anything your family needs?”
“You know, the storm is good.” She smiled and hugged her littlest daughter to her. “It gave us time. Nobody died. Everything here can…we can buy again.“ She patted the little girl, who sped off into the rickety house again.
“Well, I hope that my company will use your house. If they come here to make the commercial, they will pay you $500.” I remembered that this was the entire reason I had agreed to take this job. $500 would pay someone’s deductible, or buy necessities.
The woman paused for a moment, then smiled again. “Yes, that will be good. Also, when you finish taking the pictures, I will go with you across the street. I’ll show you.” She pointed across the street at a wreck with half of the roof missing and an uprooted tree lying in the front yard. “That lady, who lives in that house, she works very hard. Maybe the company will use her house too.”
“Mama!” shrieked the little one. “Look!” She bounded to her mother, smiling ear-to-ear and grasping at a dirty purple cardigan pulled from God knows where.
“Fine, mija!” laughed her mother, taking the sweater as the girl held it out to her. My heart threatened to burst for this little girl’s glee over a simple sweater. Her mother turned to me, looking amused. “She always hated this sweater before.”
There is no safety in this life, and thankfulness is nothing more or less than the acknowledgement of grace. It is all we can give in return for the gift of distance from what might have been.