WAYNE — A lifetime of memories is now so much rubble scattered across fields about 13 miles southeast of here.
Robert and Milly Thomsen spent the past 67 years in their rural Wayne County home, raising four children and farming the land.
That all changed Monday night when a tornado ripped through the countryside, destroying their house and outbuildings and flinging their possessions to the wind.
“I still shake,” said Milly Thomsen. “But God was with us. I prayed all the while the storm hit. It was bad.”
ROBERT AND MILLY married in Emerson in 1947, took a one-day honeymoon and then started their life together in their home outside of Wayne.
“My parents were poor; we didn’t have running water or anything,” Milly said. “And I came (to my new home), and I had one little suitcase and I set it down in the kitchen and I thought I was in heaven. We had running water and electric lights, and so I never left.
“We actually wanted to stay out here until we died.”
Robert, 87, and Milly, 84, had weathered many storms throughout their lifetime together, and any tornadoes in the area had always gone around them.
The system Monday night, however, headed straight for them.
Doreen Heinemann of Springfield, one of four Thomsen children, said Milly hadn’t been down to the basement in a long time before Monday.
“Mom and Dad came down here after much reluctance and hesitation. Dad finally talked Mom into it. Then he stood on the stairs (to the outside) and stayed there until he saw the trees breaking,” Heinemann said.
When Robert finally retreated to the basement, he found Milly in the southwest corner, sitting on a chair, under a blanket with their Shih Tzu, Tommy-Tom.
“Mom said the tornado sat over them for about 20 minutes. I watched on radar on my iPad, and it did look like it was right over them for that long,” Heinemann said.
Robert said he and his wife survived, thanks in part to their home’s structural integrity.
“Most of the houses, they make the bricks just to ground level. This (wall) goes down to the basement,” Robert said.
ON WEDNESDAY morning, Heinemann and her sister, Janeen Berg of Syracuse, walked among the debris of their family’s history.
Lost to the storm were a barn, a machine shed, several buildings, a garage, three steel bins and granaries. A vehicle was badly damaged, and most of the trees in the shelter belt were broken or uprooted.
One side of the Thomsens’ home was completely torn off, and the entire second floor and attic were gone.
Nearly everything that had been inside the house was strewn across the property and beyond. A spattering of mud and manure from the barn coated the Thomsens’ possessions outside, and insulation covered the inside of the house.
“Mom had saved everything they had for 67 years,” Berg said. “And now, it’s almost all gone.”
A watch given to Berg as a teenager by her grandmother and a pocket watch that had belonged to Berg’s grandfather were miraculously found among the wreckage.
Heinemann said Berg was “screaming and crying” when she found the timepieces.
“It’s the little things that are important. Janeen found a barrette from when she was little, and that was special,” she said.
“We know we aren’t finding everything, but we’re finding some things, and it’ll be enough to get us through. . . . If (my parents) hadn’t lived here for 67 years, it would be different than if it was a house they bought a couple of years ago. It’s so hard,” said Berg, while struggling not to cry.
While Berg said she is feeling a little better about the situation every day, her sister feels differently.
“For me, today is the worst yet. Today is the day they started burying things,” Heinemann said, motioning to the broken trees being moved by a tractor into a deep hole.
“Until then, there’s always been hope we’d find something,” she added.
AS NEIGHBORS, friends and family worked to clear the property and sift through the aftermath, the question remained as to where Robert and Milly would go now.
“We stayed in a motel in Wayne, but we can only stay there three nights because they’re so busy,” Milly said. “Some of the people from the Pilger tornado are staying there, too.”
Berg said she and her siblings are trying to find a home for their parents to buy in Wayne.
“It took God’s power to get them to move off the farm,” Berg said.
Though the situation seems bleak now, the Thomsens and their children are grateful for the support and assistance they have received since their lives were uprooted.
“We had lots of people come out here and help,” Milly said
Wakefield’s Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church has been providing food to the Thomsens and those helping them. Numerous friends and neighbors showed up immediately after the storm hit on Monday to make sure the couple was OK, and to help pack up the belongings they could save.
“The people around here are very generous,” Heinemann said.
Paramount, too, are the people from all over who have been praying for her parents, she said.
“We had a church in California praying for them. It’s a miracle they’re OK. I think God’s angels were just watching right over them,” Heinemann said.