Parked outside my front door are two city trucks, hazard lights flashing. Three or four yellow-vested men stare into the naked branches of a sweet gum tree and the limb that dangles dangerously overhead. A neighbor kibitzes with the workers as they ponder how to extract the limb before it falls on someone’s head. A woman stops to talk while her dog sniffs beneath the trees. I drink my coffee and watch this impromptu scene gathering before me.
The limb is a remnant of the storm that ripped across town last September, a microburst, the meteorologists called it, which, according to the fireman I’d asked, is basically a tornado turned on its side, flying, tumbleweed-style, just above the treetops. Three months on, we still talk about that storm, contractors enumerating how many roofs they’ve repaired, homeowners counting their blessings about the tree that sliced neatly across two yards and tore down a fence but didn’t hit anyone’s house. There are stacks of split logs in endless backyards. Here and there are crooked stumps. And in the woods, trees are stretched across the ground as if merely resting.
* * *
Like many residents, I watched the storm blow in, standing at my back windows as the rain turned to hail and the skies blackened and the umbrella in the outdoor table was blown toward overhead electrical lines. If there was any warning, I didn’t hear it.
The storm blew past in minutes, taking the power with it. We prepared to resume our lives: The chicken I’d planned to cook, now on the grill. The reading my husband wanted to get done. “Mom,” my son called. Then more urgently, “Mom. Come look outside!”
Broken limbs were scattered across lawns and the street that divided them. Trees were felled in back yards and leaned against rooftops. We stepped outside and began to clear away limbs. One neighbor gathered sticks. Another stepped outside and stood, hands in jeans pockets, staring. A man, summoned by his wife, returned from his golf game to assess the damage a tree had done. Neighbors went from house to house, checking on others who weren’t yet outside. Were they OK? Did they need anything?
We worked until we could work no longer. A neighbor I barely knew promised to come down the street with his chainsaw in the morning. We went into our houses and ate dinner by candlelight.
Early the next day, we gathered, meeting in back yards where work needed to be done: dragging brush to the curb, reporting downed electrical lines, rolling logs against a fence, occasionally pausing for a drink. While we worked, I spoke with people I’d never before met. I worked with people with whom I’d previously only exchanged waves. For three days, as we worked, we were a community.
Then the storm was over and power was restored. The mess was largely gone. We returned to our lives, everything back in place. And yet, something had loosened: That weekend our barriers had dissolved somewhat. Each of us, I think, so very much wanted to recapture that feeling of unity we’d briefly shared, one neighbor posting pictures of the cleanup, another going from house to house with homemade ice cream as a thank you.
Does it take a natural disaster to bring people together? Is it not in our nature to be otherwise sociable?
* * *
Now, I sit and watch this temporary gathering of people addressing a problem that needs to be solved, wishing I could have preserved the community that formed after the storm like the strawberry jam I put up every year, opening it come winter to be reminded of summer.
The man returns to his house. The woman continues walking her dog. The men drive away in their trucks. And I sit, remembering and wondering.