Today marks seven years since the horrific weather event that forever changed the lives of so many of our friends and family. 62 tornadoes. 252 deaths. Over 2,000 injuries. That day made history, but as my favorite weatherman, James Spann, is wise to point out regularly, on any given day if your life is affected by one tornado, that is your April 27th.
Coming across a stash of my grandmother’s photos from her 1933 tornado evoked the same feelings on this April 27 that tornado images always conjure up. Awe, sadness, fear. Hope. Some things from 1933 haven’t changed; when tragedy strikes, it often brings out the very best of human nature. It sure did in 2011. And as my grandmother’s life proved, it did in 1933.
Immediately after the 2011 Alabama tornadoes, I had a heartfelt conversation with my grandmother; as she reflected on how a tornado had forever changed her life eighty years before, one thing became very clear. People may feel helpless during these tragedies, and gestures may seem small and meaningless in the face of catastrophic problems, but sometimes the smallest of acts can change the course of a life. My grandmother is proof of that, and here is her story as I wrote it for her just a few weeks before her 2011 death. (I am sharing this from our office in Helena, Alabama, which happens to be a restored home that survived the same 1933 tornado that changed my grandmother’s life. I cannot believe that is an accident).
A Pretty Red Dress
One spring day in 1933, despite the hard economic times, somewhere there was a nice lady who decided to donate a pretty red dress to the Red Cross . I know this because that red dress changed the course of my grandmother’s life.
My grandmother, Ollie Smith, was a vivacious young lady with lots of brothers and sisters, strict parents, a natural talent for playing the piano, a hard scrabble existence, and a proud stance against taking charity. Church was the cornerstone of her community, and the Smith Family was well known around Jefferson County, Alabama, to showcase amazingly good throw-down gospel singers. Life in Adamsville had a pretty typical and normal rhythm; until the tornado hit.
That tornado must have been a doozy. If you ask my 96-year-old grandmother today, she can’t tell you what day it is but she sure can describe in vivid detail what it felt like to be caught between the house and the storm pit when that tornado came. She talks about the wind picking her up and dropping her back down, and about the roaring sounds, and about the terror. Her baby brother Fred was not too young to remember later that the tornado carried him acres away from the house and dumped him into a field. There were bumps, bruises, and breaks, but all survived. The house and all their belongings were destroyed; a complete and total loss.
Being in Alabama during the Spring of 2011 has brought to life for me what the days after the 1933 tornado must have been like for the Smith family. Despite their almost fanatical stance against receiving charity, they gracefully and gratefully accepted help from the Red Cross and from generous neighbors; boxes of necessities and clothes came in and a new house went up.
In one of those boxes was a pretty red dress.
Ollie and her sister Mabel scrapped over ownership of that dress, and for some long forgotten reason, Ollie won. When she ventured out to a singing in Republic, I wonder if that red dress gave her some extra swagger up there in front of the congregation. I wonder, too, if the church family felt close, and prayerful, and thankful like we all feel now. I wonder if the reason my grandfather, Calvin Garner, decided to visit that church with his buddies that day was because of the recent storm and the aftermath.
The rest of the story is not up for debate. When Calvin Garner saw Ollie Smith in that red dress, he knew. He had to meet that girl; he had to brave his friends’ warnings that those Smith gals were shielded from rascals like him by the strictest father in the county. He proved his character, ran the gauntlet, and got the girl. The smiling, singing girl in the pretty red dress.
That tornado was eighty years ago, and yet that simple exchange still lives on. The giving. The receiving. The generosity; the gratitude. A garment handed over; a garment worn.
Proof that a simple act of giving can be much more than it seems. A donated red dress can change the course of a life.