Tornado Chronicles, continued: the stuff we lost, the stuff we found

My first motmot painting, circa early 80s, a little worse for wear...Cotter was my unmarried name.

“It’s just stuff” is often said when someone’s house burns down, or is hit by a tornado, or washed away in a flood. It’s generally said in gratitude and relief (if the person lived through the disaster), it’s said philosophically and bravely (by the survivor); and sometimes it’s said by bystanders who haven’t lost all their stuff. Because once you start sorting through it, there’s a hierarchy organized by level of sentimental value, of stuff, Stuff, and STUFF.

Here’s a thought experiment: close your eyes, and visualize your home room by room. Start with your bedroom- what do you see? a bed, nightstands and lamps, maybe a chair? How about the artwork on the walls? a rug on the floor? that stack of books on the nightstand? can you picture everything that’s hanging in your closet? It’s easy to tune out the day-to-day objects of your life. The focus isn’t as sharp as you think. Were there wedding photos on the dresser? your grandmother’s jewelry tucked somewhere safe? A teddybear that comforted you in childhood? The mattress and boxsprings and probably the dresser are stuff. The teddybear and your grandmother’s jewelry are STUFF.

We found the bed-good thing we weren't in it.
Here's what was on my nightstand; hadn't even finished reading it.

One thing about retrieving your Stuff after a tornado: it’s been impregnated with what we’re calling Tornado Grit. Tornado grit is a particulate of fiberglass hairs, drywall powder, broken glass, torn leaves and mud. It gets into everything and it’s unbearably itchy when it gets on your skin. Which it will when you are digging around in rubble. If you find any of your scattered clothes, you’d better wash them well and several times, and even then you might have to toss them out. When the twister passed over us, it drove a load of grit through the shelter vents, coating us with fine, gritty brown fuzz.

A 30-year old guitar bites the dust. The sound hole is filled with tornado grit and fiberglass insulation. P.S.: it was a Martin D-35 copy, not the Real Deal, but it was a very good instrument up until the last moment.
Recovered in fine shape: a 1929 Gibson Mastertone. You'd weep, too. Photo by Mike Kaspari
Old photos are especially precious. They come under the category of STUFF, irreplaceable things you can hardly bear to lose.

In this age of digital photography physical photographs are even more meaningful. The family album is now likely to be on Facebook, not on a shelf. I used to snap away with my trusty Nikon FM and an assortment of wonderful lenses (all gone). My photo albums were numerous and overstuffed. I took thousands upon thousands of slides for artwork reference : birds, plants and overall habitats; every trip to the tropics was documented step by step. A whole shelf was filled with archival slide boxes arranged carefully: raptors, shorebirds, songbirds, wetlands, desert, tropical rainforest.

But here’s the scoop: we found a lot of photos, many in good shape. Same with my slides. Although we lost a lot of near-irreplaceables and irreplaceables (coming under the heading of Stuff and STUFF)  we got a lot back, too. We took every recovery as a miraculous gift.

This miracle was brought to us by our beloved trees, which were destroyed utterly. As a parting gift, they fell inward onto the roof, holding down what was underneath. This included a floor-to-ceiling bookcase at the center of the house. When the house fell, the bookcase dropped face forward; books stayed in place as they fell, the solid wood back of the bookcase adding its layer of protection. Although the wall behind the bookcase crumbled, roof and shingles fell straight down on top like a lid, and heavy oak limbs latched it down tight. In the days that followed, volunteer crews dug through and pulled apart the debris. The search was like a hunt, and every object we found gave us a clue to what we might find next. I grew hopeful that we would find my sketchbooks. They had occupied three full shelves.

Drying out the photo albums makes you relive the past as you rescue it. Every picture takes on new significance, irony, poignancy. If you are lucky enough to recover your photos, a libation for angst relief is recommended.

16 thoughts on “Tornado Chronicles, continued: the stuff we lost, the stuff we found

  1. Muriel Fahrion says:

    And there you were standing before in my house, alive, with your zany hair set free by the rain. Oh how I love stuff, maybe more then some, because I started life with so very little but oh how I love being able to give my friend a hug as she stands in my living-room because she is the “real” stuff that made it through the nightmare.

  2. Penni Jo says:

    Tears came to my eyes as I read your account and rolled down my cheeks when I saw you with your banjo.

    I am so sorry for all the stuff that is gone but rejoice with you in the treasures found.

    God bless you both.
    Penni Jo

  3. Sara in Michigan says:

    It is just wonderful to see the photo of you holding your banjo, it brings tears to my eyes, too. Listening to your music on “Heart’s Desire”, it is clear that the banjo and the banjo playing are extraordinary but now we know the banjo is also the STUFF of legend, a classic, irreplaceable Gibson ! I live in Kalamazoo, Michigan, original home of the Gibson Guitar Company, so your 1929 Mastertone was crafted just down the road, at a time and place where excellence was the rule. In the midst of disaster, I’m happy for you that your banjo is fine and grateful for hard shell cases and miracles.
    May life get easier and the way clearer, day by day.

  4. julie Zickefoose says:

    This is searing and real. We all need to be reminded what it is not to have everything all around us, all the time. Yes, it’s just stuff–unless it’s yours. I have lost things in my life that I still think about and yearn for. One was a rock I found in Saskatchewan. Stuff like that.
    Keep writing, Debby. Your words are the most powerful stuff.

  5. Leilani says:

    I don’t even play an instrument, but the photo of you with your banjo still makes me tear up.

    I hope you found your sketchbooks …

  6. Joan says:

    Hi Debby,

    I was shocked to learn of the catastrophe that has shaken your lives and caused you to lose personal, private treasures that mean so much. The picture of you hugging your banjo is part of the next generation of your memories. You were just meant to be together..

    Over the years you have given me so much pleasure with your blog and your exquisite sketches and paintings that it is painful to see you bereft of your art works. I hope you find at least some of them but know that they still exist “in the cloud” of the internet. And your talent and skills remain intact.
    I don’t know what else to say to someone , who has lost everything: I wish I could be of help. I am so sorry.

  7. kathiesbirds says:

    I have never heard of tornado grit. What a horrible thing! Yuk! I’m itching just reading this! As for the stuff, well, in my opionion, things like clothes and furniture can be replaced providing they are not heirlooms or antiques but art work, books and photos fall into that priceless catagory for me. I would die if I lost all my journals! I don’t blame you for loving and hugging your banjo. It lets you sing your soul. It is a friend, lost and now found. I am happy for you in this. I hope you discover more treasures. Wish I could be there to help in person.

  8. kathiesbirds says:

    p.s. I always think of trees as sentinals and guardian angels. Apparently yours were. Did they have names? I have known a few trees in my life. They tell me their names.

  9. zeladoniac says:

    Kathie, you ask a great question- there was a trio of giant oaks I called, “the Three Sisters”; they were the grandest things, wrapped in Virginia creeper and holding up the sky (and the hammock). I cried when I saw what was left of them. I mourn the Three Sisters more than anything else.

    Spot on, Sara, about Gibson and the great instruments that have come out of Kalamazoo. That would be one factory tour I’d really enjoy. I can’t believe my good luck in recovering my good old banjo:-)

  10. Joanne says:

    I haven’t visited your blog in a while, so when I arrived there this morning, I was shocked and saddened by your loss – but so happy that you, your husband and kitty were safe. Thank you for your fantastic account of the tornado experience. I think you should one day write a book about it. In the meantime, may you recover more STUFF! ((hug))

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