For Chris and Cindy Payne, life and trees are filling up 10 years after devastating tornado

BRIMFIELD – Ten years ago, Chris Payne looked at the shattered, leafless trees and angry bands left by an EF-3 tornado and comforted his wife, Cindy.

“In 10 years everything will be pushed back,” he said, as they gazed at their home, now twisted on its foundations and open to the elements because two walls had blown in the wind.

His words sounded incredible. The devastation was too great. Ten years would be so long.

But now, a decade later, from the back deck of their new home, one can see that a lush, green forest has emerged. Fast-growing poplars came first, and other trees, some still hidden in the understory, are coming back as well.

After: 10 years ago: three tornadoes ravaged the region, leaving the path of destruction

A single large, dead tree, whose top broke into a jagged breach, remains. A skeleton, sentinel between the past and the future.

The red-winged blackbirds and the cardinals soar. As the moon rises, a whip-poor-will cries out in the night air. It is peaceful.

The Paynes said their place at 65 Haynes HIll Road feels right at home and that they have settled in for good, collecting art for the walls, sowing lettuce in planters and sinking deep into Adirondack chairs for a drink after a day of work.

Chris and Cindy joke that after the tornado they were the first to come out … and the last to come back.

They almost immediately demolished the little green Cape Cod-style house they had loved so much. It hurt, like ripping a bandage off a wound so air could hit and healing to begin – but the scar would take a long time to fade and might never go away.

Everything that happened that day, June 1, 2011, would forever change the course of the Paynes’ life. This would make some of their goals impossible to achieve and force them to adjust to uncomfortable situations. This would increase their tenacity and cause them to use their own skills when others failed them, all with the goal of returning home.

Stopped for gas

Cindy was returning home from her teaching job in Southbridge that day and had stopped to gas. She spotted another teacher who asked her if she had heard that there was a tornado in Springfield. Cindy hadn’t done it and she thought very little about it, it was far away and the weather was fine.

She turned to Haynes Hill Road and encountered the tornado head-on as it rushed down the street, the winds blowing. She doesn’t remember hearing anything. Adrenaline rushed through her and she had a heart attack while driving her Mazda as she tried to pull away from the storm.

Emergency personnel came to her and provided care and when Chris arrived at their house and didn’t see the Mazda or his wife he was frantic. Cell phone service was sporadic and Cindy was not answering.

Their neighbor joined in the search and got lost in the woods looking for Cindy. Every familiar landmark was gone. It was difficult to navigate in a now strange land.

Eventually Chris and Cindy, college sweethearts who had married other people, divorced and reconnected to find their love still strong, were reunited after the disaster.

While doctors told her the heart attack was not caused by heart disease and that she was doing well, the event came back to haunt her when she went for hip replacement two years ago. and the hospital called for heart tests, wondering if she was okay. for surgery because of it.

Without the tornado, the Paynes would have recently celebrated a milestone. In fact, ten years ago, they were planning to throw a mortgage burn-off party around that time to celebrate owning their home.

They were going to save money and retire. Now Cindy plans to work another year and Chris, who works in the lumber industry, will extend her career so they can eventually pay for the new and beautiful post and beam house.

There are also things that come with being ten years older. Cindy’s new hip, Chris’s plantar fasciitis for overdoing it on a hike, their dog, Willow showing her age, a herd of new grandchildren, weddings & mldr; normality.

Feel lucky

Today, says Cindy, she feels lucky regardless. This day could have been very different.

“What if I hadn’t stopped for gas,” she asks, knowing that if she had gone home and maybe taken refuge in the basement like others have, she wouldn’t. probably wouldn’t have survived.

For this reason, the new house has a “safe room”. A reinforced closet, according to Chris, will hold up if another tornado hits and Cindy has spent time in there during thunderstorms.

“If he’s home, I’ll watch (the storm),” she said. “But if he’s not home, I’ll go to my closet.

Chris, meanwhile, puts a camera in the window and collects videos of incredible streaks of lightning blazing across the sky.

The Paynes are adept at adapting to change and they’ve had to take losses as well. It was their home first and the constant discoveries of things forever broken or missing from the tornado, like Chris’ baby bracelet.

Then at Christmas in the new house, they celebrated their high ceilings with a huge tree that lost its balance and crashed to the ground in the middle of the night, shattering the ancient glass ornaments that had somehow survived. the tornado.

When COVID-19 hit last year, it again brought lifestyle changes and loss worse than anything so far.

“I lost my mom last summer,” Chris said. “It wasn’t COVID, but it was because of COVID.”

She was in a nursing home and suffered a spill, he said. The staff were downsized and his broken pelvis caused internal injuries. She fought back but in the end, on a Facetime call, Chris knew she was in trouble.

“I called my sister who lives closer (to the facility in New York) and said, ‘Get her out of here,’” he said.

This is exactly what her sister did and went to the hospital to be with their mother whose time was running out.

“They dressed her (her sister) like a nurse so she could stay with her,” he said. “We spoke on the phone and Facetimed and we said goodbye.”

When she was 90 years old, her mother was healthy until her fall and her death seemed premature. Cindy touches Chris’s hand and gives him a loving look as he talks about it, pain in his voice.

There have also been changes in the neighborhood. New people have moved in across the street and there is a house next door on the land where a family named Rabbit lived when the tornado hit.

They never rebuilt. Eventually they settled in Sturbridge, Cindy said, and they’re doing well.

The couple spend quite a bit of time in the basement where Cindy has pretty much put her soap making business aside and now creates paintings using an acrylic casting method.

Chris has filled up with glass and fuses pieces of glass in an oven, creating his own unique work of art. He still has a piece that survived the tornado with just a small broken piece.

Growing sunflowers

Perhaps, they said, they will soon open an Etsy store or return to the craft fairs they once enjoyed to sell their designs.

In 2011, months after the storm, a grove of sunflowers, Cindy’s favorite, appeared in the yard as a peace offering from Mother Nature. The bird seed from their feeder must have been scattered and germinated.

Every year since, Chris, who often makes sweets for Cindy, plants dozens of sunflowers. Some grow to 18 feet tall, some have huge yellow, brown or burgundy flowers, others are shorter with profuse blooms.

Cindy takes a picture of them. The birds come and appreciate the seeds. It pleases his heart.

Last year, the remains of a hurricane hit the stems and may have destroyed the flowers. Chris, not to be defeated, got stakes and rubber hoses, backed them up and hoped for the best.

The sunflowers turned their faces to the sky and bloomed beautifully in a sweet victory over the last storm.

After: The loss of a beloved horse, more than a storm-devastated house, still stings for JoAnn Kass

After: For Westons, owners of Hollow Brook Farms in Brimfield, the tornado turned marriage affairs upside down

to play

Aerial video: Landscape overview, 10 years after devastating tornadoes

Alli Cleveland recounts her tornado experience on June 1, 2011, when she lived with her son on River Road in Sturbridge

Christine.peterson, [email protected]


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