For three years of my life I lived in Webb City, Missouri, a little town north of Joplin. We moved there in the fall, just before my eighth-grade year of school, so my father could teach in a small Bible school, and we stayed for a year in an old house that served as the administrative headquarters of the school, the kitchen and dining room, and the girls' dorm.
There were only four girls dorm students that year so they all stayed in the attic. Our family lived on the second floor. My three sisters and I all stayed in the large master bedroom, Dad and Mom had the corner room with the phone. Dad's office was in a third bedroom; there were two guest rooms, and one large bathroom with a claw-footed tub and marbled walls.
We simply loved Missouri, and the house was amazing with elaborate features--stained glass, chandeliers, old pictures with gilt frames, niches for statues, and a laundry chute that led from the second floor. past the kitchen to the basement. (We used to wad the kitchen towels after we finished drying dishes and throw them hard enough to open the hinged chute door on their own.) There was an intercom system from the kitchen to the master bedroom and to the attic.
Since the house was almost a hundred years old, the intercom didn't use electricity, just hollow pipes with a hinged lid that had a tiny hole in it. If you blew into the pipe in the kitchen, it would whistle at the other end. Someone--either the master of the house or a servant in the attic depending on which pipe you had opened--would answer. Magic. In the full basement there was a "print" shop where the school paper was folded, stapled, and assembled for mailing, a laundry room, boiler room taken up by a large boiler which heated the water and pumped it up to radiators scattered throughout the house, pantry, and a ping-pong table room--frequented by the students in their free time after supper or lunch.
After a year in that house, we moved a block away and into our own house, a two-story frame affair that had been a boarding house and had an old stove in every bedroom. For two years we worked on it, tearing out old plaster walls and lath, and replacing them with sheet rock, turning a downstairs porch into a bathroom and a laundry room, texturing, painting, paneling and roofing.
It was grand. For the first time in our lives we had room. With four bedrooms upstairs we each had our own space. Downstairs was room for a living room, den, master bedroom and nursery for our baby brother and sister who were both born in Missouri, which we had come to love. The house was located near this ancient church, and the blocks all around were filled with old homes.
In Missouri you could ride a bike--all over town, without an adult tagging along. You could walk around the block to the library and check out a dozen books in English. I discovered Erle Stanley Gardiner, Agatha Christie, Mary Stewart, and Victoria Holt.
After school you could walk a few blocks home, stopping at the little grocery store along the way and buying two large sweet tarts for a dime. In the fall there were trees in glorious colors I had never witnessed--having spent my younger years in the tropics. In the spring there was something--I never knew what--in the air. I remember standing at the window of my third-story chemistry class breathing the fresh, outside air, and wanting to leave the building and wander the streets all day just to be out in it.
Sadly, our citizenship in that little town came to an abrupt end. The school moved to Houston, Texas, a muggy megapolis full of complicated freeways. They sold our house for four thousand dollars, and the school for twenty. I left the streets full of lovely old homes with shaded yards, and moved into a tiny, rented house on a flat street with empty lots full of fire ants and air that smelled like the hold of a fishing ship.
After thirty years I persuaded Turtle to make a detour on a trip so we could go look at Webb City again. It was depressing. Most of the old homes had fallen into disrepair and that little town had a hopeless, grungy, neglected feel. The house we had remodeled was gone; there were weeds and garbage on the empty lot where it had stood and the boarded windows of an old warehouse loomed in ugliness over it all. Still, I showed him the library, which was still standing, and the high school which wasn't, and we drove away in sad silence.
The little cafe where I ate breakfast was lively with customers and scurrying waitresses who were talking about opening a branch business. Main street was clean. Everywhere I walked I saw old houses being repaired--scaffolding and paint.
The big brick house on Pennsylvania street was still there, bigger than ever and loaded with air-conditioners in every window. (Even though it wasn't labeled as such, I suspected that it was serving as some kind of boarding house.) It was interesting, that in this economy things would be looking up.
It wasn't until later, when I drove out of town and straight onto Joplin's Range Line road that the explanation hit me: Joplin had been struck by a huge tornado this year; they lost over a hundred lives and hundreds of homes. I'm sure people who had no place to go moved into the little, neglected town five miles away and began to restore the houses. Out of tragedy came order, beauty and the new life that's caused by people willing to sigh, pick up a broom and a hammer, and try again.