In Joplin, Appreciating The 'Thanks' At Thanksgiving

Nov 24, 2011

For a lot of the people in Joplin, Mo., this Thanksgiving is going to be one more to endure than to celebrate. But new dreams are slowly taking root in the rocky soil here.

While the losses from last May's tornado have been terrible, they've left a lot of people here more grateful to be alive than they were last Thanksgiving. Some residents are deeply grateful for what the storm didn't take, and even for what it gave them.

When the tornado ripped through Joplin, Carrie Cook and her two young sons, with their dark hair, full cheeks and soft features, were in the way. They escaped their apartment just in time. The twister obliterated it and most everything inside.

Cook stands on a construction site recalling her losses — heirlooms, her kids' art, a ring Cook's parents gave her as a girl.

"It had a diamond from my grandmother, who passed away when I was 6 years old. Those don't make me who I am, it was just a reminder," Cook says.

Like a lot of people here, Cook didn't have much money or carry much insurance. So the storm wiped out not just mementos, but much of her accumulated wealth.

"And I kept thinking [that] I was just going to be living with my mom in a two-bedroom house, indefinitely, with two little boys. And it was hard not to get depressed about it," Cook says. "I just kept saying, you know, 'The boys are my rock, and I am their rock,' and I just wouldn't succumb to the depression."

But Cook was in store for another sweeping change. This construction site? It's hers.

Cook's small house is one of 10 that Habitat for Humanity is putting up here this month. Outside, treeless lots, tornado-blasted ruins and construction sites stretch for miles. Inside, though, everything's bright and new. It smells of fresh paint, and the Christmas tree is up early.

"Absolutely, this year we're not waiting. We're just looking forward to the future and happy times," Cook says.

The Way It Was

But Cook's radiant gratitude and optimism are strained by the suffering that seems to permeate Joplin.

"Well, if you lost your spouse and your children, if you lost your home, and you don't have any of the memorabilia or the things that you use to help define yourself, what do you do with your life?" says Patricia McGregor, a psychologist in Joplin. McGregor says for many, Thanksgiving only makes things worse.

Calls to Joplin's counseling centers are up, from "people who are saying, 'I can't stand the thought of the holidays. I just don't want to see them,' " McGregor says.

Even the most resilient and grateful tornado survivors live with pain.

"Every day you find something that you wish you had," says Judy Spurgeon. She thanks God she survived — and it was close. But the tornado destroyed just about all her stuff, and that hit hard the first time she tried to make her mom a pie.

"And the pie filling scorched because it wasn't my pan that I always used. I threw the pan into the sink, and I started crying," Spurgeon says. "And I said, 'All I want is my life back the way it was. I want my furniture, my clothes, my appliances and everything back.'"

A Gift

Most tornado victims do — but not all of them.

"I would say that we were handed this amazing gift," says Martha Goldman, who says she and her boyfriend could easily have been killed. They're both in their early 30s and were home, huddled in a closet as the storm ripped up their rented house, scattering the books, records, art and vintage furniture they'd packed into it. They had no insurance.

The storm dispersed them. Ian Coday, Goldman's boyfriend, crashed with friends and kept working in Joplin while Martha moved in with her folks, three hours away. It was a sad and confusing summer. But Coday says it clarified their priorities.

"Strangely enough, the disarray that ... the tornado threw everything out of order, it made our story clear up," Coday says.

With backing from their friends and parents, they decided to go for it — live a dream and buy a farm.

Now, they are fixing up a plain little old farmhouse, just outside Joplin. Goldman's already slathered the kitchen with bright turquoise, lime and pink paint. Come spring they plan to start planting fruit trees and vegetables on their 10 acres of rocky pasture.

"It won't be tomorrow, but hopefully someday I'll have a little truck farm, and truck some fresh produce up to Kansas City every once in a while," he says. "That's kind of a dream."

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