Emily: Let’s really look at one another! I can’t… I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye , good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners… Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking… and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?
Stage Manager: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.
Emily: I’m ready to go back.
-Thornton Wilder, Our Town
The news cycle never stops to take a breath, does it? It’s an insatiable beast, and because most world news happens in somebody else’s town, it’s gotten relatively easy for us to move on as well. In the 24-hour news cycle, everything is breaking news so nothing is.
Only this time it happened in my town, and it reminds me how fast things happen and change and grow and live and die and rise up again. The news cycle will shift as it always does, and the camera trucks will leave, and the world will turn away from Gifford, Illinois, and it will probably never come back.
Before it goes, I want to try and tell you about how the lawns all looked.
Gifford has the best lawns and yards in the world. Lawncare’s a high art where I come from, and the pictures you’ve been seeing don’t let you see what I’ve seen for over 40 years. I want you to see the way people hang flags and tie yellow ribbons and wave at strangers, and the way the sheriff would just as soon drive home the guy who had too much to drink uptown and how they’ll probably be sitting next to each other at church this Sunday. I want to tell you that Little League games and girls softball games still matter very much and every summer for 70 years men have played semipro baseball on an impossibly green field where I once played, too. I want to tell you about the hardware store that my friend’s dad used to run. Now my friend does. His birthday is March 31st, as is another classmate’s. Another two classmates – M. and J. – shared a different birthday – July 11th. You tend to remember these things when you had only twenty or so kids in your class. M’s house – where I attended several of his birthday parties – is gone now. So are the homes of J’s aunt and grandmother. The hardware store appears to have sustained some roof damage, but I’m not sure what else yet.
There’s unspeakable physical damage… and mental, too. I wish I was there. I want to be there. I feel helpless here – with nothing more than a keyboard and tears. But until I can get home and put on some gloves and grab a shovel, I wanted to just tell you that we are so much more than the destruction you saw. The EF-4 tornado might have robbed many of much, but I promise you it did not take their will, nor did it take their appreciation for life and each other. In fact, if anything it strengthened it, and if the cameras could only stay (and, of course, they can’t), you’d see a spirit rise up from the rubble and watch strangers helping strangers.
Because that’s maybe the biggest thing… these people know how to work… and help others… and do what’s right and do what’s hard and do what’s necessary. I just wanted you to know that. I know you’d want to help them, too. I know you’d like them. I love them. Doug and Anna and Andy and Erin and Becky and Buddy and Duane and Carolyn and so many, many others.
Because when you’re lucky enough to grow up in a town like Gifford, you might move away, but you never really leave.
I’m ready to go back.
(If you would like to help financially, a fund has been set up to help the victims of this storm. Send donations to The Gifford State Bank, P.O. Box 400, Gifford, IL 61847. Make checks to The Gifford State Bank Tornado Relief Fund. Or you can visit http://www.uwayhelps.org/gifford to help through United Way of Champaign County. Thank you for your kind words and prayers. We hear them.)