We were all worried about George's reaction to what we had done to his house. After the flood, he left on a trip to Tennessee. When the 3-1/2 feet of creek water receded from his house, he had been too dispirited to start the cleanup. He was due back late that night, and we were all frantically putting the finishing touches on his new interior.
Of course, the outside of the house was another matter. Old appliances, ruined furniture, and miscellaneous belongings sprouted from the mud flats like strange crops.
Both George's cinder-block house and the farmhouse of his neighbors had been casualties of the floods in Pennsylvania following the Blizzard of 1996. Only a few weeks after digging out from under the snow, waterside dwellers were bailing out their houses. The Susquenhanna River and all of its offshoots were over their banks.
I was on my way home from a trip and stopped to visit old friends, who were George's neighbors. I knew that they'd been flooded. What I learned later, though, was that they had retreated to the mill on their property when the creek had risen dramatically. The phone was out for several days. Sharon showed me the water marks and the buckled wood floors. It looked as though traffic bumps had been randomly placed in their kitchen and living room. Their front porch was stacked with water-damaged furniture.
My friends Sharon and Bill are not strangers to floods. They've had water in their house before. It was a new experience for George, however, and an overwhelming one.
Sharon and Bill, their children, Ben and Emily, and several friends decided to clean up George's place while he was in Tennessee. George is a collector and is proprietary about his things. His friends were torn between wanting to help him and not wanting to intrude on his privacy. But the desire to help won out, and the makeover started with painting the floor. Then someone thought a new paint job on the woodwork would spruce things up. The trim around the windows and doors was painted teal. It made such a difference that a friend who did carpentry and electrical work decided to put a new light fixture in the kitchen area. Since the kitchen was already disrupted because of the ruined appliances, someone thought the cupboards should be rearranged. After that came a new work counter, with a hand-laid tile surface and shelves underneath.
Some secondhand furniture was found to replace the water-damaged couch and chairs. Somehow the white vinyl sofa didn't look out of place. Wood was stacked beside the stove. Pottery was arranged on the shelves.
The helpers were seeing the cinder-block cottage as theirs - and of course, as George's.
Efforts were made to tailor the redecorating to George's habits: "He'll need a light on this side when he works at his desk."
"The tapes should go over here on this table."
"Now he needs a bird feeder outside this window beside the kitchen table."
Emily had bought a goldfish for George. In front of the bowl she propped a welcome home card with suggested names for the goldfish. The list included "Jorge" (Emily was studying Spanish), "Noah" (the ultimate authority on floods), and "Muddy Waters" (George liked to listen to the blues).
It had been dark for several hours, and the renovation team members knew they had to get out of the house. George could drive up the muddy dirt lane any time now. Would he come in the creekside door or the back door? Should we leave one light on? No, we wanted the transformation to be a total surprise. We turned out the lights as we left.
We went back to the farmhouse and waited for George's return as we sat around Sharon and Bill's large kitchen table. We heard the rattling of the wooden bridge over the millrace, and then George was in the kitchen, giving a brief summary of his trip to Tennessee. He was tired and guessed he should get back to the "disaster area." We had trouble keeping ourselves from breaking into goofy grins or sneaking conspiratorial glances at one another.
The phone rang in a few minutes, about the time it took George to drive down the lane and walk into his house. George was overwhelmed again - this time by neighborly love. He was delighted with our efforts.
Disasters are memorable not only for the physical destruction and upset to daily life. They are also memorable for the acts of human kindness they unleash. Besides the buckled floors, ruined furniture, and mud, these creek dwellers will remember the fixing up of George's place. And I'll have a fondness for that time after the flood of 1996 when I had the opportunity to take part in a community effort.