When I was in my twenties, I lived on the East Coast for a few years -- at various times in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. First, as a nanny, then just as a young woman trying to make true the line, "If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere." And, like most small(ish)-town girls gone to the big city, I got asked where I was from a lot.
"Oklahoma." I'd answer.
"Oooooooklahoma, where the winds come... something, something, something about the plains!" they'd sing.
Or, "Oh? Like, near where the Oklahoma City bombing happened?"
Sometimes even, "Oklahoma? Where is that, exactly?"
But, as often as not, I'd get some variation of, "Oh. Tornadoes! Yeah. I could never live there."
For me and my fellow Okies, it's a word that we're used to. It's probably one of the first words we hear as children. We play "tornado" with our friends -- running around and hiding under tables and or bathrooms, just like we're taught at home and in school. We assign the role of "weather person" to one friend, the role of "tornado siren" to another (usually the kid with the loudest voice). We "go to the cellar" when the alarm is sounded. We act scared and scream... and then laugh and move on to another game.
As adults, especially in the spring, we dutifully note the appropriate weather watches and warnings. We are the best armchair meteorologists you will ever meet. We know all about dry lines and wind shear. We have more than a passing familiarity with updrafts and hook echoes. We know the Fujita scale and the TOR:CON index. We can tell cirrus clouds from cumulus. And we are great at geography. We know our counties. We know our small towns. We not only know if they're North, South, East or West of us -- we know Southwest, Northeast, North-Northeast. Tiny degrees of direction that tell us whether this watch or warning is something we need to worry about. We watch the weather, make the appropriate mental calculations and go on about our business.
Yes, for us, "tornado" is our normal. In the spring, it can be, quite literally, our every day.
But this. This is different. This, most definitely, is not our everyday. It is anything but normal. This is something that we don't even dream of in our worst nightmares. This is something that no amount of experience, no ingrained, Okie-native understanding of the weather or geography can ever prepare you for. When they teach tornado drills in school, they don't tell you that if it gets really bad, your teacher will throw her body on top of yours in order to save your life. They don't tell you that even that might not be enough. The part where your parents watch helplessly as fireman, policeman and other first responders dig frantically through rubble to save you is not a part of the game. And all of our geography prowess goes right out the window when the landscape is so decimated that you can only tell east from west by the rising and setting of the sun.
No, this is not -- thank God -- every day.
Going forward, this event will probably come to define us to people who have no other frame of reference for us. Oklahoma will forever equal "that terrible tornado" in the minds of people who will probably never come here or really know any of us personally. In the future, other Oklahoma girls will go forth to other big cities and people will ask them where they're from and they will say, "Oklahoma" and people will say, "Oh" and their expression will probably say the rest.
That terrible tornado.
BUT we are so much more. We are a feisty bunch. We are so strong. We are so brave. We are so generous. We are so tenacious and stubborn and kind and lovely. We will get through this together. Those of us who can will open our hearts, our homes, our businesses and our wallets to our friends and neighbors who so desperately need us. We will reach down and pull them up and out. Then we will help them forward. It will be a long and hard road. But do not ever doubt for one second that we are up to the challenge.
Maybe by the time fall rolls around we will go back to being Sooners or Cowboys. Or Lions or Jaguars or SaberCats. Or republicans or democrats (yes, there are democrats in Oklahoma). Or Baptists or Presbyterians. We will debate if Tulsa or Oklahoma City is better or which lake is our favorite. Or whatever it is that divides us in our every day life -- A life that, at the moment, seems very far away.
But for now, we are all just Okies.
And this is home.