RALEIGH — Last of an occasional series
When a tornado upended their lives in April, a home for the holidays seemed an impossible wish for the Miller family.
But if this year taught the Miller family anything, it is to expect the unexpected.
Theirs comes in a new 2,000-square-foot home finished just in time for Christmas.
All that stands on 1521 North King Charles is completely fresh, built from scratch after an insurance adjuster told Paul Sr. and Ruby Miller that their home of 32 years couldn't be saved. The tornadoes that ravaged Raleigh on April 16 dragged through the Millers' East Raleigh neighborhood, pushing 100-year-old oak trees onto the modest brick homes that lined the streets.
Across from Paul and Ruby's home, trees crushed the house owned by their daughter, Allison Miller. Hers had to be stripped to its bones and rebuilt; she moved back just before Thanksgiving.
Two generations of Millers were among the 1,000 or so households in Wake County forced to significantly repair their homes after the tornadoes ravaged the state.
The storm stole the Millers' sense of security and all they thought to save as they raised three children, cared for aging parents and welcomed two grandchildren into the world.
But for all the tornado took, it brought as many gifts.
The Millers had the chance to test friendships built over decades. And they fostered dozens more: the kind manager at a furniture store; the ladies in the leasing office at the apartments where they lived temporarily; the insurance adjuster who walked them through their claim. The builders - Theresa, Curtis and Eric W. Smith - became extended family, often working seven days a week to get them in their home before their insurance housing assistance ran out.
Many of those new and old friends crowded into Paul Sr. and Ruby's home last Sunday, quietly grinning as they heard Paul walk toward the door in the garage. The Millers are pranksters who love surprises, so they kept Paul Sr. in the dark about their Christmas homecoming.
"Welcome home, Dad," Allison Miller shouted at her father as he leaned against a cane and stared at the crowd in his new living room. "You are moving in today."
"How in the world did you do that?" Paul Sr. said, shaking his head and looking at the decorations his son, Paul Edward, and Allison had hung the day before. "This is so unbelievable."
Paul Sr., 73, paced through the house, staring at all the fancy touches as if he were a visitor at a museum. Crown molding wrapped around the walls in every room. The kitchen faucet turns on with a mere touch. The shower in the master bathroom is level and open, so Ruby, 67, can one day roll in the wheelchair she may need when her arthritis worsens. An automated chair lift will glide up and down the stairs.
In the past week, nearly all the hardship the year brought fell away.
The worry over what the tragedy would do to the Millers' savings, the nightmares that kept Allison awake at night, the pain of ruined antiques left by relatives who have died, the shame of taking help from local charities.
It all seemed so long ago.
The storm's scars are still easy to spot along King Charles, one of the hardest-hit areas in Raleigh.
Blue tarps still cover some roofs. Construction company signs and port-a-potties dot the yards. A few fallen oaks have yet to be cleared away.
At Paul and Ruby Miller's house, a lanky dogwood stands in their front yard, the lone tree on a parcel that once held 12 oaks. Patches of grass, laid in recent weeks, are plush and green. A porch stretches across the front of the house, hosting rocking chairs and a bright red door.
The Millers are among the first families displaced by the storm to return to King Charles. Some of their neighbors still wrestle with insurance claims, fight with contractors who abandoned work and negotiate with the city to buy more time to meet deadlines for repairs.
The Millers pushed hard to get insurance adjusters to deal with their claims quickly.
But as contractors cruised their streets in the days after the storm, offering discounted rates for speedy work, the Millers hired a father-son team that had been tackling small renovations while the economy sagged.
Within weeks of meeting with the Millers, Eric and Curtis Smith were invested fully in the family's recovery from the storm.
"From the start, it wasn't just a project," said Theresa Smith, who helps run the company owned by her husband, Eric. "It was about making a family whole again."
The Smiths guided Ruby and Paul Sr. through house plans and a redesign that would allow them to stay put as they aged and their health worsened. Eric Smith is a perfectionist, so he stayed at their home long into the night to inspect each detail. Theresa took Paul Edward and Allison shopping for decorations, gently advising them on what they could afford.
Ruby began calling Curtis Smith her extra son and brought meals when she came by the house. And when Curtis noticed that Paul Sr. felt anxious about progress, he made a four-page list of their work plan and talked him through all they had completed each time he visited.
"They kept me sane," Paul Sr. said of the Smiths.
Paul and Ruby Miller stretched the limits of their insurance policy. Including money for demolition and the apartment, State Farm has and will pay them about $467,000. Paul Sr. marvels at the return on a house they bought in 1978 for $43,000.
Even with the sizable payout, it was a test to complete the job within those price constraints. Still, Theresa Smith refused to let the Millers go without amenities she knew would make life easier for them. So, when they couldn't fit a shower seat into the budget, Smith visited local vendors and asked them to donate one.
The finished product is something fitting an entry in the Parade of Homes. Granite countertops. A handicapped accessible shower. Closets with custom shelving. A tankless water heater.
Paul Sr. couldn't get over the transformation.
"The home we thought was nice in 1978 looks like an outdoor bathhouse compared to this," he said.
More memories, less stuff
The Millers are hoarders. They came to Raleigh in 1978 after years of hopscotching the country at the behest of Paul Sr.'s superiors at IBM. When Ruby saw the brick ranch shaded by stately oaks on North King Charles, she told her husband that she was home and would never move again.
She filled the attic and closets with everything they had collected over 50 years of marriage, the birth of three children and two grandchildren, weddings and funerals. China doll collections, NASA memorabilia, T-shirts from their trip to Walt Disney World. Wedding dresses, photo albums, a collector's Scrabble set.
They had promised each other for years they would sort and organize their stuff, but the right day never came.
The storm forced a reckoning.
In the days after the tornado, the Millers and their friends sorted the treasures soaked by the rains that came through the holes in the roof. Most landed in the trash pile. The remainder found shelter in a storage unit until they could return home.
Since April, the Millers' lives have been stripped down to the essentials. They ate off rented plates, wore donated clothes and bought groceries in the spring with assistance offered to tornado victims.
"I realize I need far less than I thought," said Allison, a critical care nurse at Rex Hospital.
When Allison, 38, opened her mobile storage unit last month after she returned home, she took two steps back.
The smell of mildew made her gag. The massive piles overwhelmed her.
She pulled the items to the curb and hoped a passersby might find use for her old stuff.
She vowed to live with less. To save memories, not stuff.
As she emptied the unit, she felt a weight fall away.
A chance to give
Last week, the Millers took a break from unpacking and shared lunch at their new dining room table. They ticked through the Christmas Day menu.
Captain Crunch holiday cereal and Jewish coffee cake for breakfast. A giant turkey and more than a dozen sides for lunch. Turkey sandwiches for dinner.
The talked about the grandchildren and how they'd keep up the legend of Santa one more year. They plotted to fetch manure and sprinkle it through the yard to leave tracks for Santa's reindeer. They wondered if any forgotten presents were tucked away in the storage containers outside.
They debated taking in a dog orphaned when her owner recently died. Ruby and Allison discussed whether they'd gotten enough toys for the three children in the needy family they adopted this Christmas.
The Millers are rescuers who spent the year humbled by dozens of small rescues. In their new homes, the Millers felt whole, and it was time to give again.