My mom remembers the distinct feeling of crawling up the basement stairs and seeing the bright blue sky above her. The ceiling was gone. The second story of the house was gone. Everything around her lay in chaos. Gas lines hissed and frantic sirens began to pierce the stunned silence. But in her hands she clutched my brother (then 9 years old) and my sister (then 7). They were safe after hiding under the basement stairs during a vicious tornado that destroyed our neighbourhood in a matter of seconds.
The tornado happened 27 years ago, but now that I’m a mother I’ve begun to understand the story in a whole new way. I was 10 at the time and on the road to Girl Guide camp. My mom reports screaming, “I want my Kelley!,” over and over again as the wind threatened to take everything away from her. Only now do I accurately understand how desperate she must have felt, crouched under the basement stairs and not knowing where her child was in the ear-splitting obliteration taking place outside.
Meanwhile, my dad, who was at work, heard the news and rushed home, but safety crews had already moved in. Our street was closed. No one was allowed to enter – not even my dad. Now I appreciate how powerless he must have felt, standing at the bottom of our street and wondering where his wife and children were among the total devastation. I imagine what it must have been like for him later, as he drove to Girl Guide camp to find me, passing mangled vehicles on the side of the road.
After scaling a large, locked gate that surrounded my camp, Dad finally found me. I was tucked safely inside my tent. It was the first time I had ever seen him cry. For whatever reason, whether it be out of fear, or simply because I didn’t want to miss out on a good time at camp, I didn’t want to go back home with him. Now that I’m a parent I know how he must have wanted nothing more than to scoop me up in his arms and never let me go, but to his great credit he let me stay. Later that night, when he arrived back without me, my mom looked out the window of a friends’ house and saw that I wasn’t with him. Her heart plummeted in a way it has not since. 27 years later, I get that.
I also finally understand that what my parents did in the weeks after the tornado was pure magic. Loving aunts and grandparents offered to take my brother, sister and me so our parents would be free to focus on re-building. I would have jumped at the chance, but my mom and dad wouldn’t hear of it. They felt strongly that the family needed to be together. They focused on gratitude – constantly expressing their thanks that we were all alive and unharmed. They found what was funny – the toilet that landed on our front lawn, the photo of me found blocks away in a friend’s garden, or my grandmother’s Royal Doulton figurine sitting unbroken on a pile of rubble. They found a home to rent on a street they knew was brimming with our school friends. They talked about how thankful they were for good insurance and how helpful people were being. When the sky grew dark and a storm appeared to be coming they would orchestrate great campouts in the basement. Cuddled in a sleeping bag on the floor, I thought it was just a fun game. Little did I know it was because they were terrified of another tornado.
Thanks to my parents’ determined focus on the positive, for me the months after the tornado were a 10 year old’s nirvana: I was off the hook for homework, we got to stay in a hotel until our rented home was ready, we ate in restaurants and picked out new clothes. Circle Square Ranch offered a free week of camp to all tornado victims; my brother, sister and I went together and learned how to horseback ride and shoot bows and arrows. Mattel rolled into town with a transport truck filled with free Cabbage Patch Kids for all children affected by the storm. Impromptu street parties and neighbourhood barbeques broke out as our community came to together to clean-up and re-build. For a kid, life was good.
For my parents, it must have been a different story. Now that I’m a mom, I understand the stress and anxiety they must have felt. Ten days after the tornado my brother crushed his finger in a school door and had to be rushed to a city an hour away from us to have his finger reconstructed. My mom went to stay with him for two weeks. I try to imagine the pressure and tension she and my dad must have felt. But I don’t remember any of it. Neither do my brother or sister. Perhaps we were really oblivious kids, or perhaps it’s the selective memory of childhood, but Yogi Bhajan, Master of Kundalini Yoga, taught that, “Children are super-sensitive, full-fledged people, with high potency antennae that record every vibration within their vicinity completely and deeply.” If this is true, the fact that I don’t remember the tornado as a traumatic experience isn’t because I was an ignorant kid, but because of my parents’ ultimate strength, grace and generosity of spirit.
I think its okay for kids to see their parents upset or stressed. Parents don’t need to be perfect, especially in moments of crisis. But after nearly three decades I finally appreciate the great gift my parents gave us in the tornado’s aftermath. Because of them, none of us have a fear of storms, we are all relentlessly optimistic, and we don’t place an excessive amount of importance on material things, which can be blown away in seconds. The tornado had the potential to be a damaging experience that impacted our entire lives. But to my parents it was an important teachable moment – a chance to teach us how to cope, how to focus on what really matters in life, and how to be grateful for what we have. Thanks, Mom and Dad.
About Kelley Powell
Kelley Powell has a Master’s degree in international development and has worked at a home for impoverished women and children in India, on a domestic violence research project in Laos and with the Canadian government’s family violence prevention unit. She met and married her husband, Imran, in Laos and is now happily at home with their 3 children, aged 7, 4 and 2. She teaches yoga and meditation in Ottawa and specializes in teaching parents, pregnant women, children and teens. When her children are napping or at school, she leaves the dishes in the sink and the toys on the floor and she writes. Her publishing credits include The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s and New Moon Girls magazine. She is currently seeking a publisher for her young adult novel. Kelley is a partner in Satya Communications, a freelance writing company that creates compelling articles, reports and communication for a variety of clients.