After settling the boys on the air-mattress beside our bed, I opened the windows in our bedroom for some fresh air. It was still raining, but the gusts were less frequent. Dark as pitch, I couldn’t tell how much damage had been done but knew when dawn broke things would be different.
After a while, it was cool in the bedroom. Paisley sat at the foot of our bed, something he is never allowed to do, but he knew something was different. His chin rested on his salt-and-pepper front paws that stretched out in front of him, but his ears stood at attention, guarding us.
After a fitful sleep, a gloomy dawn broke. Slowly, the dark outlines of broken tree trunks and fallen limbs came into dark focus against a slate-grey sky. The view from the bedroom window was different. Colin began to stir, “Mama? Are you there?” he whispered. “Umhmm,” I hummed between closed lips. Colin is in the adolescent limbo of wanting space, but also wanting a grownup within shouting distance. “It smells like Christmas in here,” he said. Pine permeated the air, proof of trees broken and snapped.
Slowly, we got moving. Found shoes. Brushed teeth with bottled water. We emerged from the garage to explore outside, mouths agape. Trees planted hundreds of years before lay on the ground like a giant hand pushed them over in some sort of haphazard game. Root balls six and eight feet high stood above the ground, peeling back portions of our yard like an open grave, immodestly and awkwardly exposing roots gnarled and twisted.
We climbed over a giant tree that had fallen across the front of the garage, over another across our driveway. Wandering through the yard as astronauts walk on the moon, we quietly took high, cautious, slow steps. Instead of being upset, the boys were amazed and grateful that we and all we loved were alright.
With the children out of school on fall break, we needed a plan. So, we asked our in-laws if we could meet in Columbus and hand off the boys. They could stay in comfort and out of harm’s way until power was restored or school started, whichever came first. A quick suitcase packing and then figuring out how to drive out of the yard later, we spent our first day after the storm on the road.
Southern women are good in a crisis. We help put normalcy back into lives in turmoil. We jump in and begin chores that make us feel like we are reigning in chaos. By the time a southern woman is my age, she knows her role in the community tragedy: cook, clean and organize, run errands, make lists, write thank you notes, make tea, pray, listen. We know exactly what to do from years of watching mamas and grandmothers, aunts and sisters.
The trouble was, everybody was in turmoil. None of us could fill our roles, because we were all turned upside down. We were on our own – all of us. It felt weird. I should be doing something, but what? Our yard was a mess, but where to start? The situation was overwhelming. I am pretty sure I spent all day on the second day picking things up and putting them back down.
I’m not sure on what day it was, we got word the Mexican restaurant in Albany was open for cash only orders. Salivating, Jamie and I called Ginny and told her to meet us there. At the table, Ginny, who had very little damage at her house, was mapping out her plan for helping. She was in overdrive, for our friends, for her clients. She wanted to do something and help someone, and she wanted to do it yesterday. She started talking about working out at Mama and Daddy’s and how much she thought we could get done if we all worked together.
“Gin,” I said, my mouth full of the best shrimp nachos I’d ever had, “I can’t go out there tomorrow. I’m going to organize my dining room.” I continued, “The children are gone. The house is quiet. I can’t go to work. It’s the perfect opportunity to get the dining room organized before the holidays.” I saw something flicker behind her dark, deep blue eyes. She cocked her head sharply to the right like someone had jerked it with a string. Her voice was low and deep, almost a whisper when she said, “You’re going to do what?”
Undeterred, I kept right on, “Organize the dining room. I’ve got all this weirdness on the table and my linens need sorting.” It didn’t happen, but if we’d been filming a movie, this would be the part where she drops her fork and lets it clatter onto her plate in the seconds before she lurches across the table and grabs me by the throat. Instead, she folded her hands together to make a two-handed clasping fist and whisper-yelled at me through gritted teeth, “I don’t know if that’s the best use of your time. Do you?”
I looked at Jamie and smirked, “What is she talking about?” He stared straight ahead and didn’t say one word. I continued, “Gin, I don’t have any tools that will cut the trees at our house or at Mama and Daddy’s. We are going to have to wait until people with big chainsaws can get to us. What else am I supposed to do?”
She laughed a creepy, quiet, Godfather-chortle and said, “Let me put it to you like this. You are showing up in the morning at Mama and Daddy’s house to help them clean their yard, because they need help and we are family and that’s what family does. Do you hear me? Have you lost your mind?” She looked at Jamie, mouth agape and continued, “Is she crazy?” He stared straight ahead and didn’t say one word. She continued, wild-eyed now, ”I’m dead serious. I’m going to kill her.” I was confused until Jamie shrugged and finally answered her with, “Thank you notes, Gin. It’s just thank you notes.” He continued eating his beef tacos with sour cream on the side.
When Jamie and I got engaged, we wanted to have the ceremony at Elmodel Presbyterian and wanted to have the reception under the hundred-year-old pecan trees in Mama and Daddy’s backyard. Once that decision was made, the rest of our engagement became lovingly referred to as Sanders Work Camp. Every weekend, Jamie and I traveled down from Atlanta and LaGrange. Together with my Aunt Evelyn and her best friend Miss Janice, we painted the interior of the house, replaced boards on the front porch and painted the exterior of the house. We worked in the yard. We built lattices to cover the well and the propane tank. We built a dancefloor. Workcamp.
Although I don’t quite remember it the same way, Ginny and Jamie will tell that there were many, many times I would disappear from whatever enormous project Mama had put before us for the weekend only to be found in a quiet corner somewhere writing thank you notes.
Since 1998, whenever I use time in a way in which Ginny or Jamie disprove, they proclaim “Thank You Notes” as a not-so-subtle way to tell me I’m dottering around the edges of a pile of something much more important that needs my attention.
The next morning, I beat Ginny to Mama and Daddy’s. I was dressed for cleanup: old grey yoga pants, a bright blue shirt that had “Presbyterian Disaster Assistance” printed in big white letters across the front and a pair of old tennis shoes. I had my hair pulled up in a ponytail and didn’t waste the candlelight to put on makeup. I looked like I felt: frazzled, tired and out-of-sorts.
Mama was raking under the magnolia tree. Daddy had pulled their previously unused fire-pit under the tree and set up a mini-camp. Years ago, Daddy had won the fire-pit in a raffle while helping Jamie at a tradeshow in Myrtle Beach, SC. When he found out he had won, he asked, “What in hell am I supposed to do with that?” Jamie convinced Dad not to forfeit the prize, assuring him it would one day come in handy. Clearly, this was the day.
Mama was perking coffee in an enamel coffee pot. There was a Dutch oven already perched over the fire with all the makings for vegetable soup cooking inside. The little camp looked like something from an episode of “Little House on the Prairie.”
I parked the car and walked toward the firepit, super proud of myself for beating Ginny. Mama raised her head from her leaf pile and greeted me with, “Well, you sure look like a Presbyterian Disaster.” As much as I am convinced Mama loves me, she is an expert knife-jabber from way back. In recent years, we have talked about this- a lot. I don’t take it to heart anymore, because she really doesn’t mean it the way it comes out. I was too tired to get my feelings hurt and responded with, “Whaddya expect, lady? A prom dress?”
Inside her hug, I asked, ”What needs doing?” She sighed, “Look around.” Leaning on the handle of her rake she offered, “You can start by trying to help your Daddy. Although, good luck with that. He’s not listening to me, that man. You’ll notice he’s wearing a starched shirt.”
In the side-yard that was once full of cypress trees, perched on an 18th-century milking stool that Ginny had given him for Christmas years ago, sat Daddy. Until this point, Daddy had displayed the little stool on his chest of drawers in the bedroom he shares with Mama. Now, as he explained it to me, “it is the perfect height to get me eye-to-eye with what I need to work on.”
All 6’3” of Dad was balanced on the tiny, antique stool. With his long legs thrusting his knobby knees up around his ears, he reminded me of Ichabod Crane from the old Walt Disney cartoon The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. In his right hand, Daddy was using his Japanese double-edged pull saw in double time to saw through a cypress limb as wide as my upper thigh.
“Dad,” I tried. He ignored me. “Daddy,” I shouted as loudly as I could without being disrespectful and put my hand on his shoulder. I squatted down to get close, “Dad, whatcha doin’?” He pulled his head back in surprise and looked at me, not unlike Ginny had the night before, “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m cutting this limb, so I can move it.”
I tried again, “Well, why? Can you wait until I can get my hands on a chainsaw? It will take you forever to clean all this up with your bandsaw,” He looked up at me from over his pointy knees, lips tight and eyes squinted into thin slits, saying without speaking, “Why don’t you shut it, sister. There is no way I’m sitting around waiting.”
I tried to reason with him, “Dad, you are going to stroke out trying to do this by yourself. At least let me help you.” He pointed to a Davy Crockett style hatchet lying close beside him. “This?” I said, holding the little hatchet he used when I was little to split kindling for our wood burning stove. “These are the tools we are going to use to get all this mess cleaned up?”
He gave me his best go-to-hell look and in a voice, I instantly recognized from teenage years asked, “How do you eat an elephant, Elizabeth?” I had no choice but to answer, “One bite at a time.” He winked at me to acknowledge I had the right answer and kept right on with his little Japanese bandsaw.
Now more than ever, barely a month after the hurricane made landfall, I realize just how much home isn’t just a place, just a dot on a map. The South is a culture with distinct achievements and institutions, personalities and expectations. The devastation we feel here is a real, tangible thing. It’s something that can’t easily be articulated in a soundbite for the nightly news. It’s not just trees, crops and buildings we are mourning. We’ve lost years and years of sweat equity. Backbreaking, soul-searching, muscle-wrenching work done day-in and day-out with only the hope of reward.
Southerners are survivors. We know when it’s time to work and time to mourn, and we do both with intensity. We are pragmatic and value common sense. We make-do and work with what we have. We don’t ask for too much.
Southerners are tough. We know what it means to scrimp and save and yet, we are a generous, hospitable, charitable people. We know who our people are, and we love them anyway.
Southerners are smart. We know the difference between empty plaudits and sincerity. We know when to bear down and push through, and we know when to sit still and pray. We have grit.
This storm taught all of us lessons too numerous to articulate here, but one thing I know for sure: With rarely used fire pits, enamel coffee pots and Japanese band saws, we march onward, one bite at a time.