MONSON, Mass. — One year ago, a series of tornadoes tore through western and central Massachusetts. The most severe one carved a 39-mile path of destruction from Westfield through Springfield, all the way to the town of Charlton outside Worcester.
One of the hardest-hit communities was Monson, a town of about 8,000 residents, halfway between Springfield and Sturbridge. The tornado damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes in Monson, along with the town hall and police department.
Bethany Road, a residential street near Monson’s downtown, was particularly hard hit. Pia Rogers lived there when the tornado hit.
“We’re fine. It’s just stuff, right?” Rogers said at the scene the day after the tornado.
When we met Rogers in June 2011, she was in shock and frankly, rather jovial considering her family’s old Colonial home had literally blown away. Just the granite front steps, foundation and basement door remained on their lot on Bethany Road in Monson.
I asked her where the house had ended up.
“It’s up there, and it’s over there, and it’s over there, and some of it’s in Milton, Mass.,” Rogers said.
Milton, because that’s where a package of some of her paperwork — checks, specifically — had landed.
Rogers had been working at the coffeehouse she owns in the town of Sturbridge when she got a message from police that there was a problem at home.
“We came here and there’s no problem; it’s completely gone!” she recalled. “Completely gone. Just amazing.”
In the year since then, the Rogers family has been living in Sturbridge, in the inn where their coffeehouse is. The sound of espresso machines fills their days and evenings.
Rogers’ son and daughter still commute to fourth grade and kindergarten 20 miles away in Monson — but the family will soon move into a house in neighboring Brimfield, which belonged to Rogers’ mother.
Rogers says the move is best for the family right now, even though she vowed the day after the tornado she would rebuild in Monson — a town she grew to love after her husband convinced her to move there from eastern Massachusetts.
Rogers has not ruled out rebuilding there, so she holds on to her Monson property — a completely empty lot: no bushes, no trees, just a pile of foundation stones and those old front steps.
“You know, it still feels like home there. It’s just [there's] no home,” she said.
From the coffeehouse, Rogers still drives to Monson every day to get her mail from the mailbox on a post in front of the empty lot, and to sit on those steps and read it.
I asked her why she doesn’t just get her mail where she’s been living, in Sturbridge.
“I guess I’m not ready to let go,” she reflected. “I guess I’m mad that I was forced to go, you know what I mean? And I fell in love with it, and now I can’t. So that’s my one tie to keep me there, I guess. I mean, to get my mail. It’s what you do every day. You get your mail, right? I never realized it, but I’m not ready to let go.”
She salvaged just a carload of storm-damaged belongings after the tornado. She still searches the dirt for a treasured ring lost in the storm. Still misses pieces of her past — things like clay hand prints from her kids.
“Their first hair cuts, you know, their baby books,” she said. “I don’t have that stuff anymore. That’s the stuff that really means the most.”
Rogers says she plans to bolt a safe to her new basement floor in Brimfield, to hold important mementos. She wishes her marriage could feel so grounded. It’s struggling under the stress of a life uprooted. And she acknowledges she’s not quite as jovial after a year of experiencing the tornado’s aftermath.
“It’s a lot different. I still have the life is too short thing, don’t worry about things,” she said. “I’m so happy to be alive. I am so grateful to be alive. It’s just all the little things now. You know, finally we’re getting into a house. And you know, you think of the good side is you get all brand new stuff. But then you think when you get to the store; it’s not fun buying all new stuff. It’s overwhelming. I guess I’m tired, too. My brain is tired.”
I asked her what has driven that.
“Just thinking all the time,” she explained. “You’re always constantly thinking, you know? It’s the same thing that I was thinking about the day after the storm. How did this happen? You still think about it, how did this happen? Technically it could happen again.”
Rogers says thankfully, her kids have weathered the changes well. And, she says, some negative effects of losing her home to the tornado have turned into positives — including an 87-pound weight loss.
“This is how it happened: We’re digging through the stuff, you know, we weren’t eating,” she recalled. “So I started losing weight, you know, the stress started happening. And then I was like, ‘Oh, I’m starting to lose weight. Let’s go for a run.’ ”
So she’s continued running a few times a week, often when she returns to Bethany Road in Monson for her mail.
“[I] have a lot more energy. I feel 20 years younger,” she said. “So just keep going. Why not?”