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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Flood Of Christmas Kindness

Have you ever wondered what you would rescue from your house if you suddenly had to evacuate? Family Bible? Grandmother's silver? Jewelry? Baby pictures? Snickers bars?

Ten years ago, in 1999, I got the answer to that question:
You take what breathes and has a heartbeat.


Throughout this post, there are seemingly random pictures of Christmas ornaments.
You'll find out why as you read. . . . it's a long story!


Ten years doesn't seem so long ago.

On September 16th of 1999, Hurricane Floyd rampaged up the East Coast of the United States. North Carolina took the brunt of Floyd's winds and rain; in northern New Jersey we were anticipating a quick fierce blow from a weakened Floyd, downgraded to a tropical storm.

We lived then in an old brick and cedar Craftsman house:

It sat up along a river, so we were wary of hurricanes and Nor'Easters, but Floyd was not supposed to pose a big problem. We thought Floyd had done his worst down South.  But Floyd thought otherwise, and dumped more than 12-inches of water in central and northern New Jersey in just a few hours.

Late that day, 40 knot winds and wicked lightning knocked out transformers, the power went out, and the girls and I went early to bed. Howard was in Boston on business.

The blare of fire engine horns and police loudspeakers woke us in the moonless pre-dawn dark. We had to evacuate. Our neighborhood was flooding -- fast.

I wanted to move things out of harm's way in the basement, but my flashlight showed that water was already half way up the cellar stairs. Too late.

I tried to reach Howard at his hotel, but the telephone company's (basement!) switching station had flooded, leaving New Jersey without cell or land line communication.

Outside, the street was rapidly filling with water. I grabbed my handbag, my little address book, my useless cell phone, hustled my two daughters (12 & 13) and our three dogs into the car, and left. My mother's teaching echoed in my head: "If it doesn't bleed, don't worry about it."

Water smacked at the bottom of the station wagon as I drove out to the main road,
and headed for my sister's house, 30 minutes away.

We were lucky. When the National Guard let us return, days later, we found a muddy, slimy, stinking mess in our yard and in our basement, which had filled to the rafters with floodwater. But our first floor was spared, by inches.

Everything in the cellar was ruined. Floyd had not just filled it with foul water, but had roared through with such power and speed that it swept everything up and smashed it around, leaving behind sodden, mud-slicked piles of broken ruined stuff.  Somewhere I have pictures of that mess, but I'd just as soon forget.

The Christmas before, I had the bright idea of putting all the holiday decorations into new Rubbermaid containers, and stacking them downstairs instead of in the back of our 2nd floor master bedroom closet.

Let's just say I've had better ideas.

Those Rubbermaid containers were upended and hurled around, and when Howard and I hauled them up into the hot September sun, and I opened them with rubber-gloved hands, foul dark water spilled out. Everything in them was contaminated, and lost.

I searched for something I could salvage, without any luck.

I opened the last bin. Right on top, the 2nd grade face of my daughter Annie smiled up at me from a glittered cardboard ornament she'd made in school, years ago, from a class picture. I picked it up, and it dissolved in my hand, the top layer of the photo rolling off its paper backing, leaving a blank dirty white oval where Anne's face had been.

That was my low moment; I finally cried. I knew, knew, knew that we were lucky -- there were people who had lost their lives in this storm, and some of our neighbors were coping with foul mud in their living rooms and kitchens. But I was momentarily overwhelmed, and I caved.

In the same box where I'd found Annie's precious little picture ornament, I found a sturdy ceramic ornament I had bought several years before. I thought maybe I could salvage it, as it probably would survive a scrubbing. Then I shook it, and heard flood water slosh within. That was that; I couldn't keep it; I couldn't clean the inside. As I reached to put it in the trash bag, it slipped from my rubber-gloved hands, hit the driveway, and broke ... into two neat pieces.

The brown smelly flood water poured out of it. I picked up the pieces. They fit back together perfectly, with not even any missing chips.  I could salvage this ornament! I could clean and disinfect it outside and in (God bless Clorox), and glue it back together.

That ornament was an adorable little Noah's Ark.

Every year, I hang that Noah's Ark on our tree,
and I look at its fine black repair line, and I remember.

Look under the window on the ark -- see the dark line?  It snakes around the ornament; it's the glue line.

We cleaned and disinfected every part of our house and yard that had been touched by Floyd, tossed massive piles of ruined items, including most of our fencing that Floyd had ripped away.  Howard, my brother Lindy, our brother in law Bill, and our friend Mitchel tackled cleaning the unspeakable basement, in Haz-mat suits, with power washers and disinfectants. I washed, and actually bleached, grass and shrubs, swings and outdoor furniture, and the few feet that was left of our fencing. A marvelous "dog friend" took our 3 dogs to her upstate New York home so they weren't exposed to the flood contaminants, my sister and her family housed and fed us, and ... in about another week, we were all back home, and life got back to normal.

Sometime in November, a package arrived in the mail.
It was from a woman I knew from an internet chat list-serv, about Cavalier King Charles Spaniels -- we had 3 Cavaliers at the time -- and in the box were some beautiful Christmas tree ornaments and a lovely note. How sweet to think of us, I thought.

The next day, another box, another ornament. And so it went, with the postman delivering a box nearly every day, and every box held ornaments -- sometimes one, sometimes many, some new, some old, some gleaned from family collections, some hand made. Our dog club friends had sent hundreds of emails, suggesting that our "Cavalier friends" swamp us with love that Christmas.

It was amazing. Our dogs even received ornaments especially for them.
Thankfully Dion DiPoochy did not eat them.

Some boxes came anonymously, some with wonderful notes of encouragement and caring. And some, sweetly, were sent to Alida and Anne, then 13 and 12, who keenly felt the loss of their familiar decorations.

On a Saturday night in Advent, our church held an ornament exchange party -- bring an ornament, get an ornament. Or so we thought. But . . . no. It turned out to be a party for us, a surprise ornament shower.

By the time we put up our tree, we had a generous tree's worth
of beautiful ornaments, all ready to hang.

But there was no tree topper. I improvised. I looped yards and yards of French wired ribbon into a big bow with streamers, and set that atop the tree as a reminder that it was decorated with gifts.

Christmas 2007, our last Christmas in our Craftsman house.

We have topped our tree with that bow every year since.

Christmas 2008, in the Parlor, our first Christmas at That Old House.

I have probably tripled my ornament collection with new acquisitions since 1999; Christmas tree ornaments have become a sort of obsession with me. I wisely store them in the attic at That Old House.

When the tree was finally done that year of the flood, and we stepped back to look at it, Anne said, "I don't want you to feel bad, Mom, but we have way nicer ornaments now then we used to have."

She was right, we did!

I don't have the words to express how thankful we were to the people who did this, some of them
Internet friends, some of whom I'd never even heard of! They rescued our
Christmas in 1999, and changed our loss into a celebration of kindness and generosity.

And what a wonderful witness of selfless giving, for us and
for our girls --for it is the Selfless Gift that is at the heart of Christmas.


Now about that Father Christmas, the one my brother carved for us in 1991,
the one from Monday's post? 
He's lucky he wasn't also drowned in Floyd.

I had not packed him away the previous January with the other Santa figures, but had left him out for the rest of the winter, in a little corner of our fireplace mantel. I tucked him into the jam cupboard for the summer, and there he stayed, safe and dry, all through the storm.

May we all stay safe and dry through any storms yet to come.

Postscript: The following year, our daughter Anne entered a statewide student invention contest.  She developed a collar for plastic storage bins that would steady and float the bins upright in case of flooding, thereby preventing water from entering under the lids. She won.

Merry Christmas, and God Bless Us . . . Every One!


  1. What a wonderful story, thanks for sharing. We, too, had a flood in THIS not so old house, but it came from the upstairs bathroom.. through the ceiling fan... onto the living room everything. Different kind of flood...miserable mess all the same. Love that Noah's Ark survived.

  2. That is one of the nicest Christmas stories I've ever read. (Not the flood part, of course, but the shower of ornaments part!)

    So glad you had wonderful people to help you through a sad time.

  3. If I can stop the tears long enough, I'll get this comment posted.

    This is truly a wonderful post and one I wish every single person could read. This is what we should be thinking about, how can we help those who have suffered a loss or a tragedy. What wonderful people who stepped up and made such a difference, by doing something so easy. This is the best of man, when people can come together and do something like this. Gosh, the ornaments are wonderful, but the best gift was the sharing of themselves. And the ones from strangers even more so. That is my favorite thing about blogging. I have seen so many people reach out to each other and they've never met in person. This is what each of us need to remember each and every day. Just be kind, just be thoughtful, just be aware.

    Thank you so much for sharing this story, thank you.

  4. O, Cass...I am filled with emotion. When I got to the part that said it was Noah's Ark, I just busted out crying. Not just tears in the eyes...but a loud boo-hooing type crying. It just hit me how our wonderful GOD works.....

  5. Cass, this is a beautiful Christmas story... I'm so sorry about your poor former home but thrilled for all of you about how it all turned out...Kudos to your wonderful friends!!!
    That Dion knows he's a looker in that Santa hat!!!

  6. What an amazing story, Cass. In the midst of devastation, miracles do occur. Thank you for sharing this during this holiday season.


  7. That is such a special and heart-warming story! I'm sorry you had to go through such a horrible flood. You mother was a wise woman :)

  8. Oh Cass this would have been perfect for our first Writer's Challenge that we did. I don't recall reading it so my guess is you didn't put it up.
    Much better to save this one for this time of year anyway.
    Aren't people amazing? Do they realize what a gift they have given and now you have passed on? I hope so.

  9. What a great story....and once again we learn of the love and caring of people we hardly know....I just loved this story, I am going to send your blog over to my SIL too, she has a Cavalier and theya re crazy about her! Your home is like something out of a storybook! So was the Craftsman....someday maybe I will get to own one of these beautiful dwellings...Merry Christmas!

  10. What a wonderful story -- it is amazing how caring people can be! Love the ornament pictures.

  11. I shed tears reading your post, but the goodness of humanity is the greatest gift. You have a beautiful blog and I'm glad I stumbled upon it today...with that touching story.

  12. You're lucky to be alive Cass!! What an incredibly wonderful story. It's what Christmas is really all about too. I am constantly amazed by the kindness of strangers. They often will show you more love than a neighbor or friend. I hope you find that Ark ornament, because I would really like to see it!
    Happy REDnesday and Merry Christmas!

  13. Cass, I knew this world was filled with generous people, known and unknown to us...your wonderful story has once again proved this. Thank you so much for sharing another part of your life with us. Your trees are beautiful, can't wait to see your 2009 tree with the lovingly mended Noah's ark.

  14. You touched my heart with your story as I know those who sent ornaments touched yours. It gives us faith there is still the best in mankind. I am so glad Noah's Ark still floats. Thanks for sharing.

  15. What a heartfelt post. I remember that since we had just moved into our new home in Jersey and after two weeks here comes the water in our new basement. Nice to hear that you had so many wonderful people sending you ornaments and glad your Brothers carved St. Nick was tucked away upstairs.

  16. Oh my!! I almost cried reading this post. Thanks so much for sharing this story with us.
    Drop by - I am having a giveaway.

  17. Cass,

    Your story gave me goosebumps and made me shudder. You really told it with a sense of impending drama and I felt so incredibly sad when you broke down in the driveway over Anne's ornament. I too, feel overwhelmed at the generosity strangers and friends showed you. How wonderful humankind can be.

    I am so glad I came back for this post. :-)


  18. You made lemonade with the help of lots of people. This was a lovely post. Thanks for sharing your story and the photos of your gorgeous tree with us. Have a great Outdoor Wednesday.

  19. That was truly a remarkable , sad then beautiful story . You should publish it as a short story .
    Merry christmas !

  20. What a heart-warming story! I like your mother's advice about what to take.
    When we were readying to evacuate due to forest fire (it never happened) I was touched to see what my then-sixteen year old considered essential - her teddy, her purse, a family photo and an autographed copy of a book by her auntie. That's it.

  21. I grew up in a 'flood plain'and have experienced flooded houses! What a mess, indeed!
    But what a wonderful story of God's care and providence. And you have the amazing Noah's ark to remember it by!

  22. Goodness Cass - you have so much to see ! Love it all and now I have to go back and look some more !

  23. This comment has been removed by the author.

  24. What a wonderful story! your tree is beautiful!
    Sorry I deleted my other post, because of a typo!

  25. Neat story. There is nothing more devastating than a flood. I think a fire would be right up there.
    they are so hard to recover from.
    But....with a lot of help from friends it can be done.

    Enjoy your tree.


  26. Well, Cass, you certainly win the prize for the best story today! How generous people are and how good God is! I'm so glad you shared your touching story with us. Thank you for stopping by and Happy REDnesday.

    Christmas blessings,

  27. What a tender and wonderful story. I can't wait to see Noah's Ark!

    I can relate - seven years ago our old house burned down in January (wood stove)and we lost everything - but - fortunately, at the time, we stored our Christmas ornaments in the barn. The only Christmas stuff lost were the set of Gurley candles inherited from my mother, which were still on the mantle.

    Also in the barn were my wedding album and many of the kids photos.

    Isn't it amazing how the goodness in people comes out in a crisis?

  28. What a story! I've always figured that after I gather all the living, breathing things I want to remove from the house in an emergency......I'll run back in and get my photo albums and home videos. Maybe I should consider backing them up online instead.

  29. Cass, what a remarkable story...I loved reading every word...your were truly blessed to have survived the storm and to have found such wonderful friends in the process. A powerful and heart warming Christmas story blesses me, and this one certainly is about giving, and you are right, we have been given the most priceless Gift...He is the reason we celebrate...He gave all for us, and its always so good to know that there are people willing to give all they can to make someone else's life better.

    Thanks so much for sharing your story and your photos...may this Christmas also bless you in other ways, in your "new" old house!


  30. Oh Cass what a beautiful Christmas story.

    It's nice to know there are still wonderful, caring people out there.

    I'm sorry you went through the flood but how awesome that it turned out to be such a blessing.

    God is good

  31. Hello Cass
    Thanks for your lovely comment over at my blog. I love your blog and your house is gorgeous...what I always imagine as a traditional American house! Thanks for sharing your story and the fact that Noah's Ark survived is pretty amazing.

  32. What a beautiful story. I love how people come together in times of loss. Beautiful tree!

  33. Okay Cass, thank you for starting my day off with tears! As I read your post I was having a hard time here at work from having those tears spill over and roll down my face. Awesome post. Friends I have found are such a special added bonus to our lifes. They maybe long true friends, friends from the past, from work and even ones that we have met on the internet...hold them close!

  34. Hello Cass,

    I found you via Outdoor Wednesday. Your story is very touching and beautiful.

    My favorite quote is in my sidebar... "Barn's burnt down,
    Now I can see the moon." After thinking I had lost so very much, I looked around and found I had everything that mattered. From your post, I see that you understand this quote too. :)

    Blessings to you and yours,

  35. I have just read your truly inspiring story,so beautifully told.When there is so much bad news coming at us from every angle,it's so wonderful to read of people who really care and want to help in some small way.


  36. Your tree is lovly . And what a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing . Can't wait to see Noah's Ark. And the carving of Father Christmas is great. So glad it was saved.Merry Christmas!!!

  37. I loved your Christmas story. How beautiful, of course I didn't mean the flooding but people that you hardly know helping to give you a Merry Christmas. I am sure that is one Christmas that you willl remember always.

  38. What an incredible story Cass. So thankful that your family was safe and the main part of the home was spared.

    Christmas ornaments surely become sentimental treasures, especially the ones our children make. I would have cried a flood of tears myself.

    It was so sweet of everyone to pitch in and make that Christmas special for you!

    We bought a blow up lawn decoration this year and I was quite surprised my daughter chose Noah's ark. I'll be thinking of you now every evening when it's all lit up!

    Merry Christmas,

  39. Wow has it actually been 10 years!? I remember how excited I was to be a part of the ornament party for you! Hope you have a wonderful Christmas!

  40. What a wonderful story.....all except for the flooding ofcourse...Strangers really can be wonderful people and do wonderful things....What a terrific story to tell your grankids someday...I'm glad you made it through the flood without too much damage and that it turned out to be such a heartfelt experiance....

  41. Mom, thanks for writing this :) you tell this story so beautifully - I posted a link to your story on my facebook, so I could share with my internet-friends our family Christmas miracle!!

  42. What a wonderful story! I needed to hear that this morning. Blessings to you for sharing!

  43. Just a beautiful story Cass of love and friendship...In 1999 I didn't even put up my tree as I had just lost my DH and didn't have the heart to see all the wonderful oranments we had collected through the years...I came home from Church and my grand daughter and daughter surprised me with a whole new tree and oranments and to this day its the one I cherish the most and put it up every year and it just makes me smile to know the love I had at that most diffuclt time of my life...Many Blessings to you my friend...Hugs and smiles Gl♥ria

  44. Wow...what an experience that must have been! I can't imagine being awakened by sirens and police yelling to evacuate. I'm sooo glad things were not worse than they were for you. Says soooo much about you that so many folks responded and sent ornaments! That is truly a special tree...a tree of love and friendship. :-)

  45. Dear Author !
    It really surprises.

  46. Such a heartwarming story, Cass! I am thrilled that you've shared it with us, so that I may pass a link on to others for them to read, too.

    It also makes me want to go clean my basement right now, just in case.....

    Merry Christmas, Hon!!


  47. Very pretty bow! Thanks for showing me!!

  48. What a touching story. It's encouraging and inspiring-makes me want to be the kind of person who would send an ornament. It must have been so exciting opening all those packages and experiencing other's kindness.

    I'm new to your blog and the photo at the top of the page is a thing that dreams are made of. Your house is beautiful!


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