JOPLIN, Mo. – When the tornado ripped through Joplin six months ago, Carry Cook and her two young sons, with their dark hair, full cheeks and soft features, were in the way. They escaped their apartment just before the twister obliterated it and most everything inside.
Cook stood recently on a construction site, recalling her losses -- heirlooms, kid art, a ring Cook's parents gave her as a girl.
"It had a diamond from my grandma who had passed away when I was six years old," Cook said. "And it doesn't, those thing don't make me who I am -- it was just a reminder."
Like a lot of people here, Cook didn't have much money or carry much insurance. So the storm wiped out not only mementos, but much of her accumulated wealth.
"I kept thinking I was just going to be living with my mom in a two-bedroom house indefinitely with my two little boys. And it was hard not to get depressed about it," she said. "I just kept saying, the boys are my rock, and I am their rock, and I just wouldn't succumb to the depression."
Looking Forward to the Future
Now, six months later, Cook is making room for another sweeping change: The construction site she stood on was the site of her new home.
"That's my new kitchen," Cook said, giving a tour. "This is my new living room." She laughed happily. "I'm excited. I got to lay some of the new floor today."
Cook's small house is one of ten Habitat for Humanity is putting up here this month.
Outside, treeless lots, tornado-blasted ruins and construction sites stretch for miles.
Inside though, everything's bright and new. It smells of fresh paint, and the Christmas tree is up early.
"Absolutely. This year we're not waiting [to put up the tree]. We're just looking forward to the future and happy times," Cook said.
What Do You Do With Your Life?
But Cook's radiant gratitude and optimism are strained by the suffering that seems to permeate Joplin.
Patricia McGregor, a psychologist in Joplin, says that for many, Thanksgiving only tends to make things worse. Calls to Joplin's counseling centers are up.
"Well, if you lost your spouse and your children, if you lost your home, and you don't have any of the memorabilia or the things that you use to help define yourself, what do you do with your life?" McGregor asks.
"People who are saying, I can't stand the thought of the holidays -- I just don't want to see them."
Even the most resilient and grateful tornado survivors live with pain.
Judy Spurgeon thanks God she survived a close call. But the tornado destroyed just about all of her stuff.
"Every day you find something that you wish you had."
For Spurgeon, that sense of wanting something back that was taken away hit hard the first time she tried to bake her mom a pie.
"The pie filling scorched," she said, "because it wasn't my pan that I always used. Well, I threw the thing in the trash, I threw the pan in the sink, and I started crying. And I said, all I want is my life back the way it was. I want my furniture, my clothes, my appliances and everything back."
Slideshow: Joplin, Six Months Later (Photos by Frank Morris/KCUR)
And Then You Move On
Most tornado victims feel a similar sense of loss and longing, but not all of them.
Martha Goldman and her boyfriend could easily have been killed. They're both in their early 30s, and were home, huddled in a closet, as the storm ripped up their rented house, scattering all the books, records, art and vintage furniture they'd packed into it. No insurance, but Goldman tries to laugh it off.
"I would say that we were handed this amazing gift," she said.
"So, when we realize we're missing something -- 'oh yeah, I used to have that' -- we'll kind of do the 'whaa whaaaa', you know. It seems to be a better way of dealing with it. And then you move on."
But the storm dispersed them. Ian Coday, Goldman's boyfriend, crashed with friends and kept working in Joplin, while Marth moved in with her folks three hours away. It was a sad and confusing summer. But, Coday says it clarified their priorities.
"Strangely enough, the disarray that the tornado threw everything out of order, it made our story clear up," he said.
With backing from their friends and parents, they decided to go for it -- they bought a farm.
Now they are fixing up this place, a plain little old farm house, just outside Joplin. Goldman's already slathered the kitchen with bright turquoise, lime and pink paint. Come spring they plan to start planting fruit trees and vegetables on their ten acres of rock pasture.
"It won't be tomorrow, but hopefully someday, I'll have a little truck farm, and truck some fresh produce up to Kansas City every once in a while. That's kind of a dream, you know," Coday said.
For a lot of the people in Joplin, this Thanksgiving is going to be one more to endure than to celebrate, but new dreams are slowly taking root in the rocky soil here. And while the losses here have been terrible, they've left a lot of people here more grateful to be alive than they were last Thanksgiving.