The ties that bind

November 27, 2003

ON THIS FIRST Thanksgiving after Tropical Storm Isabel, thousands of Marylanders will find it impossible to celebrate the harvest of their lifetime labor. What remains of it is a scarred landscape of condemned homes and shuttered businesses, scattered communities and upended lives.

Isabel's unwelcome tide washed away the material comforts of Harry Wujek's waterside retirement at Millers Island in southernmost Baltimore County. All of his wife's clothes, his first-floor furniture, all the tools he'd inherited from his father and planned to leave to his sons, 14 broken-out windows -- the insurance claim catalogs 40 items per page, more than 50 pages so far.

A nomad since the September 18 storm, he has lived with his son, in a motel, now in an apartment. In time he hopes to return home. Meanwhile, he recalls each box and drawer that once lined his well-ordered tool shed. During the storm surge, when neighbors' outbuildings floated down Chesapeake Avenue, his remained tethered to the house by a power cable -- a lifeline. The contents are lost.

He is moved to exasperation by contract fine print and the labyrinth of dead ends and red tape complicating the quest for reconstruction and recovery aid. Then he laughs at a sudden gallows but practical thought: Others in his stage of life leave behind a mess for their children and grandchildren to sort. What Isabel didn't take, he's been forced to throw out. "There's a positive side to it. It forces you to do things, to take care of things that would've been left up to your family," Mr. Wujek says.

When he sits with his son's family tonight for the Thanksgiving ritual, he'll be looking for the silver linings of his storm and the intangible moorings of the human spirit needed when nature takes instead of gives.

The theme of deliverance rings truest in this season of gratitude. Though often associated with providence and plenty, many of America's earliest recorded thanksgivings celebrated triumphs over adversity. To mark the end of famine or epidemic, it was customary to declare a day of thanks.

It was only after Abraham Lincoln's wartime call to unite a divided citizenry that the holiday became an annual routine, ingrained in the American identity. His 1863 proclamation evoked the bounty of "fruitful fields," but more passionately appealed for a healing of the nation's wounds, a restoration of peace and harmony, a remembrance of those least fortunate. Inviting all to set apart the last Thursday in November, he wrote, "I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable strife in which we are unavoidably engaged."

Today, with the nation at war and jobs hard to find, a Maryland flood survivor's Thanksgiving prayer is yet one more reminder of what is universally precious.

"They have each other," says Eileen Kelley, pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Edgemere, where more than 3,000 victims have sought disaster relief, tools, clothes, furnishings, referrals to social services, a shoulder to lean on. "Even when they've lost everything, they'll tell you, `I have family, I have friends, I have my church.'"

Today, thanks will be uttered again for the many lives spared when Isabel's waves poured over thresholds, tossed furniture and cast futures into the dark unknown.

Thanks will be given for a roof overhead, whether in FEMA trailers, subsidized motel rooms, or the hall of St. Luke's Catholic Church in Edgemere, where an anonymous donor today is catering a banquet for at least 70 storm survivors. And in Turners Station, Bowleys Quarters, Millers Island; in Havre de Grace, Chesapeake Beach and Annapolis; in Fells Point and communities all along the Bay and Maryland's rivers, where memories of loss remain fresh.

Today, Marylanders again will recall heroes who navigated unrecognizable streets in rubber boats to reach families huddled at second-story windows; merchants who donated their inventories of power tools, lumber, baked goods and coffee; neighbors who lost nearly everything and still volunteered to keep relief centers and pantries open for many dawns after the disaster; strangers who waded in to help.

Thanksgiving came early to many parts of Maryland -- today is just the official commemoration, and another chance to note the indomitable spirit of Maryland communities in times of great trial.

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