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Time will blow away all that you possess

The tornado that struck the Western suburbs is doing quickly what happens to us all, eventually.

 Residents survey the damage to several homes on Evergreen Lane near Janes Avenue on Monday, June 21, 2021 in Woodridge, after a tornado ripped through the western suburbs overnight.
Residents survey the damage to several homes on Evergreen Lane near Janes Avenue on Monday in Woodridge, after a tornado ripped through the western suburbs overnight.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

My mother-in-law, may she rest in peace, owned six roasters.

You know, those large oval roasting pans, heavy black steel with removable lids. Speckled with white dots, for some obscure aesthetic reason.

Six.

A fact her family discovered after she died, 10 years ago, and we began to go through her house. Roasters stashed in closets, on shelves in the basement.

I wish I could have asked her: “Why so many?” Though the answer would almost certainly have been a chuckle and a wave of the hand. Our guess was it had to do with the Great Depression.

She did cook a lot.

We kept one roaster that reminded me of a World War I dreadnought and unloaded the rest for a couple of dollars apiece at the estate sale. We never use it, and I wonder if the others are also just being stored until they’re on the move again, passed along to new owners, down through the generations. I hope at some point somebody roasts something.

We are, many of us, surrounded by such enormous shoals of stuff that its utter superfluousness seldom occurs to us unless the stuff’s owner dies, and we’re in charge of deciding what to keep (not much) and what to give away (most everything).

Or some natural disaster suddenly sweeps it into the street. When I heard Monday that a tornado had hit Naperville and Woodridge, my first impulse was to race there and talk to residents picking through their devastated homes.

Because I still remember, vividly, Plainfield after the tornado hit in 1990. An older couple going through their flattened home, finding a teacup, intact, and just laughing. They were glad to have the teacup, plucked out of the chewing jaws of nature.

People in such disastrous situations are invariably a) happy to be alive b ) happy that their pets are alive and c) grateful for whatever remnant wasn’t destroyed.

That’s important to keep in mind. Because we lose absolutely everything, eventually, and a dry run, while unwelcome at the time, can have a positive lasting impact. I’m sorry that my mother-in-law died, but disposing of her possessions changed the perspectives of my wife and myself.

Since then, we toss far more than we acquire, hoping to spare our kids the sad task of disposal, feeling that with each trip to Goodwill we are not diminished but increased. Not losing something but liberating ourselves, an echo of Thoreau’s observation that possessions own you far more than you own them.

I didn’t rush to Naperville, by the way. Not just out of laziness, I hope, but knowledge that the Sun-Times has a deep enough bench, and numerous colleagues already were there, on the job, doing exactly what I had in mind. And indeed they were.

“RIGHT NOW, I’M JUST GLAD I’M ALIVE” was the headline.

Are you glad you’re alive? I sure am. Our houses shouldn’t have to blow down for us to realize it. Not, I rush to add, to minimize the difficulties facing the 125 or so families whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the tornado in Naperville, Woodridge and parts nearby. That is horrible.

The heartbreaking loss of family heirlooms, photos and keepsakes, and the daunting practical concerns. A toothbrush isn’t really important unless you don’t have one. Then it’s vital. Nobody died, and that is a blessing, But it’s still hard to let go of things.

As they were cleaning up the mounds of rubble their material lives have become on Monday, I had a quick lesson in just how hard it can be. I had lunch with a source at a local restaurant, got there early and brought along the newspaper to read.

After lunch — we talked so long we were the last diners — I departed, leaving the paper behind. Which I realized when I got back to the car and pulled up to the exit. Let it go, I thought. It’s just a newspaper.

Then I sighed, and pulled out of the exit and directly back into the parking lot entrance. It was my paper, and I wanted it. I drove to the entrance, got out and grabbed the handle on the restaurant’s front door.

Locked. Fate steps in where we fail, sometimes. I didn’t knock but made myself get back into the car and drive away, leaving my newspaper behind, figuring I would find a way to adjust to the loss.