‘I could never leave this place’
By Julia Sellers
Habitat homeowner Mary Patterson. ©Habitat for Humanity/Steffan Hacker
Mary Patterson’s Habitat home, as seen from the window of a destroyed house across the street. ©Habitat for Humanity/Steffan Hacker
Mary Patterson’s kitchen served as a gathering place for five generations of her family. In it she’d served soup to the downtrodden and offered comforting slices of sweet potato pie to those in need of her 73 years of wisdom. Her door was always open.
Then one of the many tornadoes that ripped apart Alabama on April 27, 2011, blew the kitchen wall off the back of her home.
As the winds howled, Patterson bargained with God. You can take my house, take the pecan trees my father planted, but let me live one more day in your grace.
“I know I’m working on my eternal home. God answers prayers, and I know this,” she said, indicating the empty lots around her, “is just temporary.”
“I was born in a house on the corner,” said Patterson, pointing a block down the hill. “And I was married in the church next door,” she added, gesturing to the two-story brick facade that’s near the edge of her property.
Eleven months after the storm, Patterson was back on her Mildred Avenue lot, helping to install siding on her new Habitat home.
The weekend skies fluctuated between brilliant bursts of sun and unsettling clouds of steel blue, resembling the skies the day the tornadoes hit. But Patterson and her family kept hammering, determined to put the home ahead of schedule for its dedication on Easter weekend.
“I can’t wait to get back in my home and make a spread on my table,” said a beaming Patterson. She has been living with one of her sons since the storm hit. “I can’t do my routine where I am. I miss our gatherings on Sundays.”
Patterson has tried to be mindful of her son’s household and not waking others, which has meant giving up late-night phone calls to her best friends. So she’s looking forward to catching up with her “neighborhood sisters.”
Fall of grace
The day the tornado barreled down her neighborhood streets has become another testimony in Patterson’s arsenal of faith.
Two of her 10 grandchildren were over for the afternoon, playing in the living room while Patterson attentively watched newscasts. As the wind kicked up, Patterson moved her grandchildren to the closet. “We had maybe five minutes before the tornado came through,” she said. “My grandchildren kept reciting the Lord’s Prayer.”
The pecan trees her father planted when she was born cracked and creaked as the whirlwind ripped off the back wall, exposing the kitchen.
“I kept telling God that I can plant another tree, and to let the trees fall to the side of the house instead of on the house,” she said. “The thing is, He saved my life, and I know I still have work to do.”
When the wind stopped, her grandchildren went to walk out the back patio and discovered that the steps were gone, along with most of the other homes her porch overlooked.
Planting new roots
As cleanup began, Patterson kept to her church roots, offering a hand to others first and cleaning up her lot when time allowed.
At her pastor’s recommendation, she called Greater Birmingham Habitat for Humanity.
“It was a whole lot of footwork because we had quite a time with claims to the deed,” said Patterson. “But we’ve started, and I come out every day and greet everyone with a hug.”
Patterson’s paperwork shuffle was a headache many recovering families faced. Often one generation had passed on their home to the next without taking care of the deeds and documents that became necessary during repairs or rebuilding.
As construction wound down, Patterson said she’ was grateful to have the opportunity to return to a home that’s not only safe and energy efficient, but one that continues to let her burrow her roots deeper into the one place she’s ever called home.
“It’s an old city, but it’s my home. And you’re not going to tear down my city. I was born and reared here. We’re the type of people that will fill you up if you’re hungry and take you in if you need a home. I could never leave this place.”
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Tornadoes and flooding in the central U.S.