Friday morning we’re back at the parish, and this time the place is lively. A couple dozen teenagers and not a few grown-ups have turned out for the looming clean-up. This is for the elderly couple whose home was flooded Sunday; we’ve been waiting all week to be able to get in there and clean everything out. Debbie gives us a briefing: Expect it to be nasty, do not throw anything away until the owners have given thumbs-up or thumbs-down, and keep those masks and gloves on.
The street is crowded when we get there. The neighborhood has probably never seen so many visitors at once. A U-Haul is parked in the driveway, and it’s the owners’ sixty-something daughter, whose home this is also, who is on site to assist. Somehow I had imagined the residents still living there, because that’s how you think of homes: People live in them. Not this one.
Debbie has the kids form a line, like a bucket brigade but for wet, moldy, muddy salvage. Initially just she and one or two other adults go in, and begin passing things out. It takes us maybe five minutes to get an initial process figured out, we adults on the outside scrambling to get a system in place to receive all this stuff coming our way.
In the next twenty minutes we start to specialize: A lady who saw a thing on the news about how to do it starts salvaging photos at the back of the U-Haul; another lady is carefully stacking the china and porcelain in the one or two bins we’ve got at the outset (more come later); most of us are tasked with the many shades of trash detail.
I walk up the road to fetch contractor bags, and when I come back, someone tells me some of the kids have started working inside. “Yours were among the first volunteers,” she says.
I’m impressed. I will remain impressed, because I am old and creaky and already in charge of my life.
Just the older two went in, no way someone’s letting the younger ones do anything but salvage-brigade safely outside on the sidewalk (and still with masks and gloves). I don’t know it then, but I’m going to spend the entire rest of the day repeating, and repeating, and repeating, to my eleven- and nine-year-old that no, they may not go inside that house under any circumstances.
The family had flood insurance. It’s a creek-side lot, and so you always knew there was a chance for a little bit of water maybe coming up to that deck if it really got raining. No one ever imagined a dam would burst and two elderly retirees would be rescued from their home by the neighbors who heard them screaming for help, trapped in water up to their armpits.
Because they had insurance, the fact that nearly everything they own is now a moldering heap of waste will not be the financial blow that does them in. But because they had insurance, they had to wait for the wreckage to be assessed before they could begin the clearing-out process.
There are still a few dry things. Paintings that were hung up high, a stack of towels from the upper shelf of the linen closet. Most of the furniture had either particle board or upholstery on it, neither of which are doing so well five days after a pond rushed over them. Late in the day the dining room table comes out, a classic work of solid wood. It could be salvaged, if you had the time to clean out the mold growing in the detailing, and then wanted to dry and refinish the thing. Someone places it at the outskirts of the mound of scrapped furniture covering the front yard; maybe an enterprising soul will claim it and give it new life.
People from churches bring sandwiches, and chips, and drinks, and pizza, and more masks — good ones. I have never been more thankful to reside in the obesity capital of the nation: Generations of church picnic committees have been honing their skills for just such a time as this.
I meet one of the volunteers for the first time after lunch. She’s young, athletic, just out of the army. She tells us that showing up to volunteer this morning was the first time she’d set foot in a church in ten years. She’d heard about the job and wanted to help. “This reminds me of Haiti,” she says.
“Well,” I tell her, “there are no bodies in there. No cholera, either.”
She’s willing to settle.
I recruit volunteers from down the street to help move the fridge, and in the process we meet the friendly neighbor lady who offers us use of her facilities — she’s got electricity and running water both.
There are limits to our communal powers. The refrigerator comes out, but valiant efforts to keep the thing shut are thwarted in the end. The kids don’t seem to mind the stench, but I find I have to work in parts of the yard upwind.
It would be facile to contrast the legendary self-absorption of teenagers with the selflessness I am seeing today, and all this week. It would also be false.
Because I live here, I am unsurprised that South Carolina can be having a massive natural disaster and manage it with such skill and grace that the national news mostly ceases to bother with it after a few days. Nothing to see here, let’s move on to something violent and angst-ridden. Goodness doesn’t sell.
But I hadn’t understood this other thing.
We talk about evangelizing through beauty: People are naturally drawn to the true, beautiful, and good.
But then we turn around and dismiss young people because they are so wrapped up in the culture of clothes and fame and sports and selfie-sticks.
What we have missed is that they aren’t on a quest for shallowness.
It’s that young people don’t just want to spectate. They don’t want to look at beautiful things we point out for them to admire.
They want to be it. Not just be “beautiful.” They want to be beauty. Be it. Be it.
They want to be the thing they were made to be.
Some of the older high school boys come up the hill to the top of the driveway to get drinks, and I realize they are still there. They’ve been working in the house for hours, passing sopping scraps of domestic life out through the windows, and then turning around to mine for more. Something I will never forget is looking in through the front bedroom window as a group of teenage boys with crowbars are allowed — allowed — to demolish a dresser right there in the room.
That is pure joy: The moment when a talent your parents have been frustrating for years suddenly becomes the one thing needed most.
Artwork: Émile Vernon, The Three Graces, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons