After the Flood, a View from Huntington Woods

Baby cradles. Rocking chairs. Plastic totes and crates and boxes of damaged photos. Memories and mementos, books and bookshelves. Couches, chairs, tables. All turned into garbage. All wrested away before anyone wanted to get rid of them.

It’s heart-breaking to drive through my neighborhood.

On every block – sometimes entire blocks, house after house after house – garbage fills the curb, toppling over into the street. It’s like a third-world country in some ways, the aftermath of unbelievable flooding, where basements filled with sewage and rainwater, destroying long-kept treasures, pictures, memories and moments.

Of course, this is no developing country. This is my very first-world neighborhood of Huntington Woods, Michigan, and families in most houses here are mourning the loss of everything they’d saved and stored for Some Day.

It’s amazing what the human spirit can get us through. The resilience we have because we must. The way we turn heartbreak into community-building, the way we come together in the wake of destruction.

A knot lodges in my throat as I slowly, silently drive through my neighborhood. I’m lucky. My basement got wet but not submerged. Our precious keepsakes, which we rarely look at, are safe. For now.

But our friends and neighbors? For some, everything must go, as the basement is stripped to studs. It’s a time of starting over, a time of letting the wound heal in the open air, hoping the memories in our heads and in our hearts are enough to carry us through a lifetime.

What about those for whom the bar mitzvah montage won’t be able to happen now, with no photos to pull together to a soundtrack of happy, celebratory tunes? What about the generational treasures to be handed down to generations yet to be born, all torn to shreds by the power of water that wouldn’t stop coming? Do we fully understand the pain of all that has happened?

I’ve kept our favorite board books and picture books for when I have grandchildren some day. They’re in a tight-lidded plastic tote in my basement (I may want to rethink that now), and I imagine I’ll pull out these family favorites, hold my children’s offspring on my lap, smell the sweetness in their silky baby hair and tell them before they can understand what it means that their mother or father loved this book, too, so many years ago.

What would I do if those were destroyed? I’d get through it, sure, but the sweetness would slip away in the flood waters.

This week, I have thought often about how we cling to stuff. We are so attached to our material things, all of us. I get excited at the notion of buying yet more clothing, or a piece of jewelry, or a new book that I can’t wait to turn the pages of, then store on my shelf for the unidentifiable day when I just might pick it up again.

No matter that I may never look at it again. Or the shirt I loved so much at the store may never be worn. We are so fortunate that we have more than we need. Before I moved in this past January, I went through everything I’d stored and kept and clung to in the old house and carted so much of it to the curb for days on end.

And still our shelves are filled to overflowing. What is it that we are holding onto, really? Why are we so attached to our things?

We all live among excess. It’s the American Way. Except when we lose it, it doesn’t hurt any less if we understand that we have accumulated stuff that is not essential to our daily lives.

When I had my first child, my parents offered me the white wooden rocking chair that I was rocked in as a baby. I took it for a while, until I could afford a fancy, smoother glider in newly upholstered stars and moons. The fact that my parents had that for so many decades and that I could rock my infant son in the same chair my parents held me as a newborn was remarkable.

And expendable.

We give away what we no longer need when we have full control over the letting go. But when something else dictates it is time to cut loose, well, we just aren’t prepared for it.

What is the message in so much devastation and loss?

I’m not sure I know.

What I do know is that every single day this week, I have been acutely aware of the fact that life is precious and fleeting and I look up at the sky or down at the ground or both and thank the moon and the stars and God above that I am here, I am sound, I am breathing and alive, I am well and well cared for and life is good. That has to be enough.

That, and the love that flows stronger than flood waters up and down the streets of my neighborhood, family to family, heart to heart, to build a community of people who will not be kicked down, no matter what.

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