published Sunday, May 8th, 2011

Kennedy: Debris like postcards sent from heaven

My 4-year-old son and I were gathering the mail one day last week when he stopped short of the mailbox.

“Look, Daddy, some tornado,” he said, pointing to a 6-inch length of foam insulation lying in our front yard.

Later that day, he flew through the back door with a section of light-brown vinyl siding that had been chewed off somebody’s house like a stick of Juicy Fruit.

I heard the screen door slap behind him, and he arrived breathlessly in the doorway.

“Look, this is from Alabama,” he said, handing me the siding, before darting back outside to look for more storm stuff.

Storm artifacts from the killer tornadoes of April 27 spread across the South like confetti. I imagine we will be finding things in strange places for months, maybe years.

My eeriest memory of April 27 was standing in the Times Free Press parking lot about 6:15 p.m. and watching small pine branches fall straight down from the sky, with no rain falling and no discernible wind blowing — as if the sprigs of greenery had been dropped delicately from a hot-air balloon.

In the days after the tornados, my phone in the newsroom began ringing with calls from readers reporting artifact sightings.

A homeowner in Hixson found some ATM receipts from the Huntsville, Ala., area.

Another Hixson resident, Bill Gillmore, found a tiny gold locket with a note inside that read: “Chelsea we are proud. Love and hope.”

Laura Williams, from Philadelphia, Tenn., said she found a Christmas photo from Georgia in her backyard. She scanned it and sent it to me by e-mail. In the photo, four people — including a man in a Santa hat — were sitting at a dining room table, the remnants of some long-ago Christmas dinner still on their plates.

Lin Parker, one of my co-workers here at the newspaper and an artist, has saved a bag full of storm scraps. She has small squares of roofing tile, tar paper and a deposit slip for $90 from Cullman, Ala., found on a baseball field at Baylor School. One day she plans to turn it all into an art book.

On NPR, I heard about the lady who set up the Facebook page that has become the official lost-and-found bin for the storms of 2011. She told the story of a teenager’s quilt that traveled 100-plus miles before finding its way home.

Somewhere along the line, these artifacts stopped being novelties to many people and became prayer objects.

With the death count at 329 and counting, some have used the disaster to question the divine design of the universe. People of faith, on the other hand, see grace and healing at work here in these postcards from the heavens.

I once heard the late author William Styron talk about having a vision as a child. He said that in a moment of utter clarity he sensed that everything in our physical universe is connected. His world view changed in an instant.

When the sky rains down lockets, quilts and family photographs, somebody in charge seems to be suggesting we join hands.

I think they used to call this a miracle.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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