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A Tornado Taught Her the True Meaning of a Perfect Christmas

The storm ripped through her house, destroying everything. Well, almost everything.

Carla Harris with her husband, Richey, and sons, Jackson and Clay, in front of their new home
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Our house looked like the holiday spread in a decorating magazine, with garland framing the front door, stockings on the mantelpiece and bowls of cinnamon spice potpourri scattered about. But was it possible for a wife and mother ever to be completely ready for Christmas? Nine days, that’s what I had—and a million things to do. How would I get our Christmas cards done when I couldn’t even take a decent picture of the kids to put in it?

“Boys!” I snapped, on edge. “Picture time.” Jackson, four, and 19-month-old Clay came running. I’d taken 72 shots of them and wasn’t happy with a one. This warm Saturday morning I was determined to get it right, even if the boys would be hot in the outfits I’d chosen. I fussed with the presents and rearranged the porcelain Nativity with Baby Jesus front and center, animals in a neat semicircle around him. Everything had to be perfect.

I popped a roll of 36 into the camera and looked through the viewfinder. Jackson was holding his favorite stuffed animal. “Honey, we’re not gonna put Rabbit in this picture, okay?” Jackson handed him over, grudgingly. He loved Rabbit. He slept with that old thing every single night, and it showed. Rabbit’s neck flopped to one side and his button eyes were off center. He was so threadbare I had to wash him in the gentle cycle inside a pillowcase. When Rabbit was in Jackson’s arms, all was well with the world. But that didn’t mean he belonged in our Christmas card picture.

“Okay, boys, heads together. Say cheese.” Click. “Clay! Sit still.” Click. “Smile. No funny faces, Jackson.” I took the last shot as my husband, Richey, came into the living room.

“Hey, Jackson,” he said, “let’s hit the mall for some last-minute shopping.”

“Good idea,” I said. “Clay and I will get the film developed at that one-hour place by Mama and Daddy’s. Mama and I still have to settle on the Christmas menu.”

I went to my room and put on something cooler. The weather wasn’t exactly cooperating in the perfect Christmas department. Temperatures in the seventies! In December! I saw my Bible lying open on the nightstand and closed it. That book stayed as close to me nights as Jackson’s Rabbit did to him. Lord, I prayed, help me prepare for your day.

My big guys drove off. Clay and I went in the opposite direction. We dropped off the film, and I looked up to see an eerie gray bank of clouds approaching. Tornado weather. I flicked on the car radio. “Warnings are in effect for the following counties,” the announcer said. Thank heavens, South Tuscaloosa County, where we live, was in the clear.

By the time we got to Mama and Daddy’s, the wind was howling. “Carla!” Daddy said. “Where are Richey and Jackson? That tornado’s a real threat.” I prayed they were safe and rushed to the TV. The forecast had changed. “If you are in South Tuscaloosa County,” the meteorologist said, “get to your safe place immediately.”

“Let’s get to the Jaggerses’ basement,” Daddy said. I swept Clay up in my arms. Halfway there, Daddy turned and looked behind him. His eyes said fear. I had to see for myself. I looked—

A black, undulating mass, huge as a building, bore down on us. “Run!” I screamed. Mr. Jaggers met us at the door. “Everybody’s downstairs!” he shouted. We scrambled into the basement and bolted the door. What about Richey and Jackson? Lord, keep them safe. Keep us all safe. That’s all I ask.

Finally the wind died down. It was okay to go outside. That first step into daylight was always the worst. You never knew what would be waiting out there. A yard strewn with tree branches—or an empty hole where a house once stood. We came out of the basement to find the neighborhood unscathed. Mama and Daddy were lucky. What about my house?

“I have to get home,” I said. Richey was probably already there with Jackson.

“Daddy will go with you,” Mama said. “I’ll keep Clay here. Just in case….”

All the way home traffic lights were out, water spewed from hydrants, big oaks lay uprooted. We turned into our neighborhood. Folks stood outside their houses—some with sections of roof missing. Furniture, paper, clothes, appliances and lumber lay everywhere. “Just drive, Baby,” Daddy said. We reached our street. My heart pounded. Houses untouched by the storm stood next to others that had been destroyed. I turned the corner. And then I saw our house—the picture-perfect house with the garland around the door. The home I had readied for Christmas.

The garage and front porch were demolished. The second story was ripped clean off. The first floor’s interior walls stood bare and exposed. A stray garland dangled from a pipe. Richey and Jackson walked up. I got out of the car and fell into my husband’s arms. Daddy took Jackson. “I’m sorry,” Richey said. “I’m so sorry.”

Hand in hand, we stepped over the threshold of what had been our house and picked our way through the debris to the spot where the Christmas tree had been. We’ve lost everything, I thought. Everything.

I made my way to our bedroom and wiped the tears and dust from my eyes. Then I saw it—my Bible, lying on the bed-side table, exactly as I had left it that morning. I opened the cover. The inside was wet and gritty. The acrid, fishy smell of the storm permeated each page. But it was there, still there, unmoved even by a tornado. Yes, Lord, you kept me and my family safe. Thank you.

Friends showed up. They took our linens home to wash, boxed up what was salvageable, carted off furniture to storage. Somebody we didn’t know delivered sandwiches and coffee. Darkness and rain stopped our work. We camped out at Mama and Daddy’s for the night. Clay was young enough to think this was an adventure. Jackson kept up a brave front.

“There’s so much to do,” I moaned to Richey when we finally lay down to rest. “Where do we start?”

“With a good night’s sleep, Carla. Close your eyes,” he said.

The next day, December 17, dawned clear and cold. We were back at the house by 8 a.m., sifting through the wreckage. Jackson had begged to come with us. I watched him out in the backyard, hands clasped behind his back, head down, moving through the debris one step at a time. I knew what he was looking for. Rabbit. We’ve lost everything we own, and all Jackson can think about is Rabbit.

Just a day before I was worried about the packages under the tree, our Christmas cards, the dinner menu. Now there were no presents. There was no tree. No house to celebrate in. There was no Christmas. But Jackson didn’t comprehend the totality of our loss. For him, there was simply no Rabbit. And that sting distracted him from the real pain of realizing we had been completely wiped out. Maybe, in a strange way, that would be Rabbit’s final comfort for my son.

I wondered about all the people surrounding us, friends and strangers alike. Their Christmases hadn’t been ruined. What about their last-minute preparations? What were they doing here with us? Nobody talked much while we worked, but word got around about what Jackson was looking for so hard.

A coworker of Richey’s found a framed photograph of Richey and me in his yard, five miles away. I had always cherished that picture. It was taken in the early days of our marriage when we used to talk a lot about what was most important to us and what we wanted out of life. To love and be loved, we agreed, first by God and each other and the family we hoped to start. I stooped down and pulled a soaked baby sock from a pile of bricks. A lady crouched next to me. “We all put a few Santa gifts in the backseat of your car for the boys,” she whispered. The woman patted my shoulder and went back to sifting through the wreckage.

I looked up at the sky. To love and be loved, I thought. We did, and we were. The worst had happened: The tornado had blown apart my perfect Christmas. But Christmas didn’t need me to make it perfect. Wasn’t it perfect already? Made perfect by the love God sent the world 2,000 years ago. That’s where Richey and I would start to rebuild our lives: We’d start with Christmas. I never thought I’d say it, but I was truly ready for it.

“Hey, everybody!” my brother-in-law shouted. “Look over here! Look what I found!” He held something high above his head. Jackson scrambled over the rubble. “Rabbit! You’re alive!” Jackson grabbed him and danced around. Everyone cheered. All was well with the world. It was Christmas, all right.

I had a hard time choosing a photograph of the boys from that last roll of 36. Tree out of focus, the boys engaged in high jinks…every shot was a winner. Not perfect, maybe, but real.

Last night in our new house, three years after the tornado, Jackson slept soundly in his room with Rabbit. I sat in my room with my Bible open in my lap. I’ve grown accustomed to the smell, but I’m still cleaning the pages. I take my time. I slide my hand down, wiping off the grit slowly, clearing verses before I read the truth of their words. The grit in my Bible kept me real while I prepared this past Christmas. I left the perfect for the One who is.

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