The slightly scary basement actually offered a real playroom for all the kids, a bathroom where the bathtub always seemed to be home to a litter of kittens, and an off-limits workshop where every tool imaginable had its own pegboard hook.
Much of the flooring throughout the house was parquet hardwood, cool and comforting to my bare, outdoor hardened feet. In the days before air conditioning, this house was the best place to be in the summer as the attic fan continually provided a cool breeze regardless of the temperature outside. The crank out windows added their own breeze source and allowed in just enough night sounds to lull a contented, tired child to sleep. The seemingly endless backyard had wonderful hiding places, a mean tetherball that could turn on you at any moment, and a plum tree which tempted young hands even when the adults warned you would make yourself sick if you ate too many.
With all the amazing bonuses this house offered, the setting was a crucial aspect of its magnetism. Forest Lake Drive was a dead-end dirt road in those days and included about a half dozen houses. My aunt and uncle’s house was second to the dead-end. From the top of a short hill, it looked out over Forest Lake, which was surrounded by a family-oriented neighborhood of all types of homes. Some of them were very simple and straightforward while others were quite unique.
Forest Lake was a duck haven and could readily be explored in the small rowboat that sat on the shore by the huge tree in front of the house. For a child like me, going to Forest Lake was like taking a vacation only a few minutes from home. It provided its own special peace and sense of oblivion to the world while generating a feeling of contentment and ease.
My last visit to Forest Lake Drive was Friday after the tornado. My brother lives in the Forest Lake neighborhood and while his contractor was securing his damaged home, we went to Forest Lake Drive to help a friend pack up what could be salvaged from her home which sits at the end of the cul-de-sac and opens out onto a view of the whole of Forest Lake. Most of the homes around the lake were completely obliterated, as if a bomb went off, and the characteristic huge old trees were uprooted, stripped, and broken. A refrigerator landed in the middle of the lake, a perfect symbol of the absolute topsy-turvy strength of this storm.
As we sorted through, packed up, and carried boxes and furniture to pick up trucks waiting to make a storage unit run, we entered and exited the house through the front door which opens onto the lake. Despite the terrifying destruction, this home, with its broken glass, shredded insulation, and other wounds, as well as the decimated lake, seemed to speak to us and remind us of their strength and endurance as well as the resilience and resolve of their neighborhood. For years its homeowners have fought with all reasonable means to preserve the dignity and integrity of this family neighborhood. Looking back down the road, my aunt and uncle’s now former home, bearing hopefully, only roof damage, also proudly stood reminding us of the unrelenting spirit that has moved this neighborhood for so many years.
Just a few blocks over on my brother’s street, we did some basic clean-up work in and around his house. We had numerous pleasant interruptions from churches offering food and water, search and rescue teams from North Carolina checking to be sure everyone was accounted for, and people of all ages with tools and supplies, offering to help.
A neighbor who served in Iraq took a break from his home’s clean-up to answer our questions about his own search and rescue of his neighbors in the first critical minutes after the storm hit. Even when warned that another storm was imminent and taking shelter in the nearby church was suggested, he would not leave his self-assigned duties until he had checked on each and every neighbor.
A group of University of Alabama students with tools also showed up within minutes after the tornado ended and provided invaluable labor to help remove trapped neighbors from their homes.
While clearing out debris around what had been the garage, a family member discovered two special items. One of these treasures was a letter dated September 10, 1944, written in tidy, careful handwriting by an unknown World War II soldier serving in France. Information is conveyed in very general terms discussing cold weather, mail from home delays, and the gift of being able to do laundry, in order to avoid the marking and cutting out of the censors. However, this lovingly written letter to a sweetheart takes us back to those incredible war years which were frightening, required sacrifices from everyone, and brought our country together in unprecedented ways. In the aftermath of this extremely evil storm, very similar critical issues are arising and similar unifying, positive responses are thriving.
A dirty, torn out title page from the Bible also resurfaced in the garage debris. The unknown owner of the book had written the references to eight verses on this page, from both the Old and New Testaments. Although there is no hint explaining the significance of these particular verses to the person who made the list, the wisdom of several of them speaks eloquently and relevantly as lives are being rebuilt in the days, weeks, months, and years following this storm. Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
In communities all across Alabama, the ravages of unparalleled storms bring forth the dedicated, unrelenting spirit of our neighborhoods. The very best of human nature shines through in the very worst of circumstances. Lost and scattered treasures recall the incredible unifying capability of horrifying events and remind us of the comfort found in recognizing a power much greater than ourselves. After looking back and then moving forward, we see the bold spark of hope growing out of the once seemingly endless darkness — a spark fueled by the innate generosity, kindness, and essential goodness of the human heart.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890.