Saturday, April 10, 1999

Community safe, serene and vulnerable

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The telephone begins ringing after dawn. Local friends calling first, then family and friends from across the country.

        They know Montgomery as my hometown, and Pfeiffer Road as my exit. They see pictures of the destruction on television in Minnesota and Colorado and Cleveland. They wonder if my family is alive.

        We are fine, the house is fine, the cat is fine, everything is fine, I assure them at first.

        But by afternoon, I realize that is not true.

        A few streets over, friends have lost homes. Favorite trees. The trampoline in the backyard.

        This morning the winds blew, buildings fell, people huddled in basements and came up to destruction. This lovely place that we worked so hard to make safe and impenetrable wasn't those things after all.

        That was the first lesson of this difficult day. That we are fine. But that all sorts of things have changed.

A previous encounter
        What I know of tornadoes I have learned the hard way. Fourteen springs ago, my sister-in-law's home was turned to a pile of shattered glass and splintered wood by a twister that tore apart Newark, Ohio.

        Up close, the most striking thing about a tornado is the utter care it takes in destruction. Things are not merely broken. They are twisted, shredded, smashed, pulverized.

        Then, just down the road, a house sits perfectly intact.

        This is why we fear and hate twisters so, for their perverse and arbitrary nature. We can understand them no more than life itself. Why is one house destroyed and the next one left? Why does one person grow old and another die young?

        Seat belts, sun block, Vitamin C and oat bran are supposed to protect us. But when the forces of life blow against us, we are frail as a flower.

        That is the second lesson of this uncomfortable day.

The final lesson
        My mother's voice trembles over the phone. “I'm just so glad you're safe,” she says. “I love you all so much.”

        I am silent for a moment, looking around my kitchen. No shattered glass spewed across the floor. No walls caved in. Nothing looks different from yesterday.

        But had it come a quarter-mile southeast, the storm would have hit here.

        “I love you, too, Mom,” I say. “We're OK.”

        I hang up the phone and call a friend. “How are things there?” I ask. “We're glad you're safe. We love you guys.”

        No shattered glass. No walls caved in. Nothing looks different, but everything is.

        Foundations have been laid bare, and so have emotions.

        There is no way to protect ourselves from the storms of life. Still, we know how to pick up the pieces.

        That is the final lesson I have learned: Life shakes us and shudders hard, but the best things remain.

        Krista Ramsey's column appears in Metro on Saturdays.

        Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at the Enquirer, 312 Elm St. Cincinnati 45202.