Storm experiences reveal the meaning of family

The weather people called it the perfect storm, the worst in almost four decades.

It brought two feet of snow and sleet, downed power lines everywhere, roads blocked by fallen trees and left 50,000 people without power in our county alone, a million in all the Northeast.

My neighborhood was without electricity and telephone for four days. We learned how it is to be cold, unable to sleep well, isolated and with no place to go. We also gained new insights on compassion and on the meaning of family.

It took three days to shovel a path to the street because plowing left the snow piled high against the driveway.

The power went out Thursday night. With each passing day, the house kept getting colder and colder. The charge on our cell phone, saved for an emergency, was almost exhausted.

By Saturday morning, the prospect of another cold night seemed unbearable. But every hotel room in the area was taken. From a neighbor, I learned that Ossining, five miles away, had power. So as a last resort I decided to seek shelter at Maryknoll, where I had worked for 30 years and my wife for 26.

On Saturday afternoon, we left a message at the telephone of Sam Stanton, executive director of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners, one of the three entities of that great missionary society.

I said we were coming to visit. Sam met us at the door with the word "welcome." We did not have to say why we were there, as another couple who had served as lay missioners had also sought refuge.

For Sam, a man who grew up in the Great Plains of Kansas, we were family, and he gave us the key not just to a sleeping room but an apartment, adding that we could stay as long as necessary.

I had met Sam and his wife, Cecilia, in Chile and written about their missionary work. When they came back, my wife, the photo librarian, had served Cecilia’s needs. We stayed for two nights.

The spirit of family is alive and well among the American people.

A family in the area that did have power opened its door to neighbors to come in and warm up or take a shower. Another, with a generator providing some power, also made their home into a refuge. One neighbor turned to them when she needed some place warm to receive a treatment related to her ongoing chemotherapy.

In my own parish, John Lally, a retired professor, and his wife, Mary, sell fair-trade coffee and chocolate at all the Masses several weekends a month to help the small farmers of Latin America.

A son of Jack and Dodie Pezanowski, who lives in Boston and works in the building trades, went to Haiti for a week to help with the massive cleanup left by the January earthquake that killed 250,000 people. He paid for his own airfare.

A group of parishioners cooks a meal for the homeless each month, financed by vouchers redeemed by a supermarket. There are doubtless many others who help the human family in other ways.

What a contrast their generosity in time and money makes with the take-no-prisoners conflict in a dysfunctional Congress. The minority leader of the House stands before the microphones and says "the American people" want health care legislation defeated.

I am confident that, in the spirit of family, the opposite is true; people want adequate insurance for the 46 million without it. Many, no doubt, are also like me, whose 49-year-old son, Michael, is excluded by a pre-existing condition, high blood pressure.

Sandoval is a columnist for Catholic News Service.

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