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We had to park a mile away. The sound of generators, utility vehicles, FEMA personnel and relief workers invaded my efforts to prepare myself for the sight to come.

It was Election Day; one week after Hurricane Sandy. For the first time since the storm, my mother and I were returning to her Staten Island home – which once offered her the best of urban living – 1,500 feet from the beach, two blocks from the park and an hour from Broadway.

It took three strong missionaries and the city housing inspector to knock down the front door. That was after they had cleared a kitchen sink, two mattresses and a giant wooden beam from the front steps. Inside, the smell of mildew and rot overwhelmed me, despite my face mask, and the water mark on the wall was higher than 5 feet. Given that her tiny home had no basement and no second story, 5 feet of water was enough to damage everything she owned.

Before fleeing to Buffalo, my mother had packed old photos, my grandparents’ wedding gifts, her laptop, camera and flood insurance papers. On the ride back to New York, she lamented the things she could not pack – the shawl my grandmother crocheted for her, my grandmother’s sketches, wooden statues my parents collected from their travels – keepsakes from a life well lived. She also told me about the box of photos, too heavy to carry, that she set on her mattress, hoping it would be safe.

My mother stood outside the house in a state of well-composed shock as the missionaries and I went to work. With quick hands but full hearts, we dumped the entire contents of her home onto the lawn – refrigerator, sofa, sewing machine, toothpaste – all mixed together like tossed salad.

The water that flooded her bedroom had risen higher than the top of the mattress. But although the mattress was wet, the box of photos my mother had set on it was dry. Evidently, the flood waters entered and the floating mattress kept the photos safe – a small miracle in a tragic landscape.

While we worked, people – angels, really – came by with blankets, food and moral support. When we finished, two Navy recruits from Atlanta, recently home from Afghanistan and now on deployment to Staten Island, helped carry the heavy, wet load of rescued items to the car. Then, despite the surrounding chaos, my mom waited in line to vote.

On the road back to Buffalo, we made a list of the work ahead: develop a spreadsheet of home contents, get quotes from contractors, file with FEMA and find new housing.

This holiday season, I am thankful to have my mother. I am also thankful for faithful missionaries, hard-working military personnel, floating mattresses and the loving support of friends. I am thankful for a government that helps people when forces outside their control make it impossible to survive without aid. I am thankful for the right to vote, and the ability to do it in trying circumstances.

Back in Buffalo, I watched my mother prepare a vinegar solution to painstakingly clean the mold off the few items we brought home. All that remained of the photos of my youth was laid out on the dining room table to dry. From now on, everything will be before or after Hurricane Sandy. But some constants emerge renewed: love of family, pride in country and belief in the spirit of humanity.