In the first ugly days after the March tornado ravaged “The Avenues,” my neighborhood on the northeast side of Jacksonville, I believed life would never be the same. I doubted that anything could be normal, including me.

We were captives the first few days in our cold, dark house, waiting for the utility companies to do their magic. There were hundreds of trucks with people working furiously around the clock (bless the hundreds of volunteers who were so much in evidence) to help “The Avenues” get back on its feet.

I pondered, standing out in the yard looking at my uprooted 200-year-old pine: I missed its presence. I counted the rings, only bringing on more sadness. I failed to notice the beauty around me that had begun to shine. I could not see it. It seemed I had a bucket over my head with just enough eyesight to see the bad.

Then, I began to notice signs of life. The dogwood was covered in blooms. The trillium were up. The azaleas were blooming, items covered in red mud were pushing up through the dirt and beginning to green up.

I admired their tenacity and realized that the cycle of life continued. I spent hours sifting through the piles of red clay, occasionally finding some delicate flower that had “made it.” Each find brought a tearful cheer.

I got out my camera and decided to keep a record of the beauty instead of the sadness.

I am embarrassed to say to friends that I have a deep fear that my beloved “Avenues” might take the path of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Katrina; residents simply could not commit to restoring their piece of the world.

I wish each of my neighbors — as everyone up here is a neighbor — the strength, perseverance and tenacity to stay, to rebuild our community and to make it even better and more beautiful. It will take us a while, maybe years, I am told. However, patience and work and a spirit of togetherness can bring us back to our “new normal.”

There will be bad moments when there is a stiff wind, or we find some stray object in our gardens that we do not recognize. There were lots of those weird findings the first few days. But my husband is still by my side, my golden retriever is close and friends are here, offering comfort and listening to my tale of March 19th.

I saw a good friend yesterday; as we held hands she told me her story and we admitted that a sympathetic ear was a necessity as we went from shock and disbelief to recovery mode. She showed me her photographs and I offered a silent prayer that she was OK.

She announced to me proudly, “I am not a victim” as she described her plans to rebuild, choosing new items for her house and looking ahead instead of behind. We may not all be able to do this, but I sincerely hope we can.

My favorite piece of poetry reverberates in my head and hangs prominently on a card on the refrigerator door. I would like to share it with all my fellow tornado survivors and anyone else whose life is not going well these days.

“Hope is the thing with feathers”

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.

— By Emily Dickinson

I offer a photo gallery of my garden’s survivors. They have brought a ray of happiness and hope for me. Maybe for you, too.

Sherry Blanton writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at sblanton@annistonstar.com.

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