“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.
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.
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.