Relatives filled my sister’s house and spilled out onto her deck in Cataract, Wisconsin, on May 21, 2011, the day of my nephew’s high school graduation. While I visited, I sat in a deck chair and cradled my brother’s two-month-old in my arms, drinking in the details of his new face.
“We should hit the road,” Husband announced late in the afternoon.
I placed the baby into the next pair of hungry arms and disbursed hugs to the family members around me. Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka gave Husband and me quick squeezes and then dashed off, disappearing into their play world again. They had worn us out with their begging for extended cousin time, and Mom offered to return them to us the next day when she would pass through Minneapolis. This meant Husband and I were embarking on a 24-hour date, culminating in the celebration of his birthday.
The next afternoon, we met our friends Mark and Susanne at the Northrup King Building in northeast Minneapolis, geared up to devour as much art as possible in the final hours of Art-a-Whirl. One had to be selective when taking in the nation’s largest art crawl in a day; there was no way to get more than just a taste of it.
As we left the Northrup King and drove on to The Casket Arts Building, the skies darkened. When we arrived, we bolted from the car, the rain pelting our skin. Inside, we lost ourselves in the art, only half noticing the sirens crying in the distance.
In a jewelry artist’s studio, Susanne and I browsed, chatting about the many uses for an old door. Her creativity overflowed as she spoke, and I caught some of it, hoping to pour it into my own projects later. As I admired a twisted copper coil on a chain, my cell phone rang. Dallas.
“Just wanted you to know your house is fine. A tree fell into Charlie’s—and more are down too. But you’re good.”
“Oh? It’s storming there?”
“Yeah, the winds were pretty bad. There’s some damage on our block.”
I thanked him for the call and hung up, telling Husband about it.
“That explains the sirens,” he said.
When the art studios closed their doors, we drove to a gastropub in south Minneapolis to celebrate Husband’s birthday. We laughed our way through the delicious meal. Before ordering dessert, I glanced at my cell phone. I hadn’t heard it ring amid the happy bustle of the restaurant, and I had missed six calls—some from only acquaintances. Puzzled, I listened to a few messages.
“I’m worried about you. Are you okay? Call me.”
“Hey! Just heard the news. Are you guys okay? If you need anything, call us.”
“Could you call me back when you get this? Heard about your neighborhood. I wanted to make sure you’re all right.”
I turned back to Husband, Mark, and Susanne.
“Everyone’s asking if we’re okay,” I said. “I think we should go home.”
We said our goodbyes and climbed into the car, our thoughts now steered toward the neighborhood.
As we approached our part of the city, Husband and I noticed the sluggish traffic. We turned on the radio. The newscaster pinned a word to the wicked winds from earlier in the day: Tornado. We peered outside our car windows. Emergency vehicles speckled the freeway and multiplied as we neared our exit.
“Wow,” Husband said, after making the turn at the top.
Screaming sirens shredded the air and mingled with the whop-whop-whop of circling helicopters. We crept along, following a string of vehicles that inched forward.
Our neighborhood was unrecognizable. Giant trees, having been slammed down, exposed their tangled roots. Fallen power lines snaked across streets. Some sidewalks had buckled, the concrete tented in places.
Battered cars. Decapitated houses. Splintered roofs. Snapped power poles.
Droves of people on foot pressed through the wreckage in the streets, surveying the devastation. The police parked on the sidewalks—or anywhere else they could. Mounted police wended their way through the chaos.
“It’s a war zone,” I said, incredulous.
My cell phone rang.
“I can have the girls back to you in a few hours,” Mom said on the other end of the line.
“Don’t come here, Mom. You wouldn’t believe what we’re looking at right now.”
“I’ll just take my time. Maybe it’ll be cleared by later tonight.”
“No. You and the girls have to stay away. For your own safety.”
Mom rented a hotel room in Woodbury and kept Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka with her that night.
Husband and I eventually made it to our street.
A tree had plunged into the roof of Charlie’s house, just as Dallas said. I was relieved it now stood empty. Glenda’s back yard was impassable; trees had crashed through her fence. The power line had fallen across our alley. I eyed our property. Husband stooped to picked up one shingle that had blown from our roof, landing on the front steps—the extent of our damage.
After the sirens and helicopters stopped, silence muffled our days and darkness swallowed our nights. The world could be going mad, but with no electricity, we wouldn’t know it. So a friend called each day to give me a report.
The girls and I listened to classical music on an emergency radio while we drew and colored pictures by candlelight. We still had hot showers, delivered by our gas water heater, but the food in our refrigerator spoiled. We spent an hour on the road trying to pass through our neighborhood to go for more.
One day, Dicka pointed at a Salvation Army food truck parked a block away.
“Can we get food from there? Please?”
“That’s for people who really need it,” I said.
The girls frowned, crestfallen.
“You can eat there,” Husband said. “We live in the neighborhood too.”
The girls beamed as the Salvation Army workers handed them goulash and applesauce on paper plates; something they normally wouldn’t have liked tasted good coming from a truck on the corner.
Our power was restored five days after the north Minneapolis tornado. I learned the deadly force had ripped a northeasterly path of destruction, leaving deep scars on some of the most depressed blocks in the city. But the twister that hit Joplin, Missouri, the very same day killed 162 people, grabbing the nation’s attention instead.
In the weeks that followed, valiant men and women surfaced to tend to our community. They flooded in from everywhere. Even some of our own rose up from the rubble to feed the hungry and care for the homeless.
But that wasn’t all that arose from the rubble. Just two weeks later, something new would spring into our lives—something we hadn’t considered embracing until we were faced with it.
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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.