By Kelly Kazek
The Riddle home on Rosie Road was filled to the brim, inside and out. Situated on 16 acres on a rural south Limestone County road, the doublewide mobile home had been fitted with a cozy porch, a flower-dotted patio and a mechanic’s shop in the back yard. A tiny studio-like home at the front of the lot was used through the years by different family members as they transitioned through various stages of life.
By March 2011, the last mortgage payment made, Janice and Glen Riddle owned the property free and clear.
The driveway was lined with Bartlett pear trees and rose bushes that bloomed in every color. Branches of huge crape myrtles formed a canopy over the gravel parking area.
Inside, the home of Janice, 54, and Glen, 55, was chaotic. Janice loved to collect – ceramic roosters and porcelain angels filled shelves.
It was the floor, though, that spoke volumes.
It was filled with playthings of every type and for children of any age or gender: Baby dolls and Barbies, Legos and toy cars, tutus and Happy Meal toys.
If love were measured in material things, there was no doubt how much Janice and Glen loved their grandchildren – Blake, 9; Katie, 7; and Savannah, 4.
But as any grandchild knows, love cannot be measured – certainly not in pieces of plastic.
Their love was evident when Janice and Glen took legal custody of Blake and Katie as babies, as their mother, Janice’s daughter Vanessa, was struggling to untangle a life that had grown complicated.
That love was evident when Janice quit her job at Walmart to stay home with the kids, later including Savannah, and when Glen worked extra hours to support his family.
It was there in Janice’s tired and frazzled voice when Janice’s niece, Teresa Montgomery, would talk with her on the phone and the children were acting, as children do, rambunctious.
“I don’t think anybody realized how much Aunt Janice sacrificed for those kids,” Teresa said on a recent breezy day, sitting on a slab of concrete that is all that remains on those 16 acres.
But people do realize. On April 27, 2011, Janice and Glen made the ultimate sacrifice. They died as they lived, protecting their precious grandchildren.
After the final tornado struck Limestone County that terrible day, Janice was found clutching a crying and badly injured Savannah.
Janice and Glen did not survive but thanks to their selflessness and the courage of Janice’s visiting brother, Kenneth Montgomery, the children would.
This story is one of a love that endures, through thick and thin, through calm and storms.
On a recent day, Teresa Montgomery walked through shin-high weeds to the back of her aunt Janice Riddle’s property on Rosie Road and replaced the weathered white wooden cross with a new one. The cross, decorated with pink flowers and ribbon, marks the place where Janice’s body was found one year ago today. A few feet behind it, a cross decorated with yellow flowers marks the place where Glen Riddle’s body was thrown by the massive EF5 twister that killed the Riddles and two others — Jan McElyea and Shannon Sampson — in Limestone County that day.
Teresa maintains the crosses in honor of her beloved aunt and uncle.
Each time she visits the property, she finds pieces of trinkets that were blown from the home — the wing of a ceramic angel, a bottle of nail polish, a key.
Each time, the pain is renewed.
Teresa recalls that night she talked to Blake, now 10, at Athens-Limestone Hospital, the cut on his head swathed in bandages. He described how his grandparents, whom the children called Meme and Papa, and his great uncle Kenneth shielded them with their bodies.
“He said, ‘Papa and Uncle Kenneth ran into the house. Meme was trying to get us into the room where the washing machine was,’” Teresa said. Blake was the first one to lie on the floor, followed by Katie and Savannah, with the adults on top. “He said, ‘Then the floor was gone. I was holding on to grass. I looked around and the house was gone.’”
Teresa later learned Kenneth, who was still in recovery from a triple heart bypass in October 2010, immediately began rounding up the children to get them out of the torrential rain. Blake was nearby in the grass. Katie walked up from the back of the property, bruised but otherwise unharmed. Savannah lay near her Meme, who was beneath a portion of a wall.
Savannah was facedown in the mud and Kenneth was worried she could drown in the heavy rain. But because of her injuries — a broken pelvis and leg and a ruptured spleen — Savannah kicked and bit when Kenneth and Blake reached her.
Finally, Kenneth got the three children to the shelter of the overturned 18-wheeler Glen drove for work and kept in the back yard.
No one realized at the time how seriously injured Kenneth was. He suffered a broken back and a punctured lung, as well as more minor injuries.
Kenneth had only been at the house by chance, Teresa said. He was given the green light from doctors to resume driving following his surgery just days before and he was taking a drive from his home in Courtland. As the weather worsened, he stopped at the home of his sister Janice to wait until the storm passed.
“Can you imagine if he hadn’t been here?” Janice asked, with a shake of her head.
Today, the children are thriving. They live with their mother, Vanessa, and their wounds have healed.
The emotional scars are less obvious and will take time to heal, Teresa said. All have undergone counseling for the trauma they endured.
At the first of May, Janice’s and Glen’s children received a deed in the mail for the Rosie Road property that had been paid in full.
In June, Teresa agreed to take Aunt Janice’s place organizing crafts at Vacation Bible School at New Hope Baptist Church, although she admits she’s not as “crafty” as Janice.
In December, the children were showered with gifts, as if to distract them from the fact that Meme and Papa were not there.
In March, Teresa was driving along U.S. 31 when she spotted a white Toyota Corolla coming from Rosie Road.
“Aunt Janice!” she thought. She quickly turned off and pulled alongside the car to say hello. But when she rolled down the car window, the other driver stared back in confusion.
In that split second, Teresa’s brain triggered the memory. It happens from time to time and, each time, the recollection is a shock.
Often, Teresa visits the land now grown over with weeds and sees a church steeple over the tree line.
Bethel Freewill Baptist Church has a new building after losing its sanctuary in the storms.
Some day, perhaps a new home will be built on the Rosie Road property and another family will live there.
Some day, the pain of losing Janice and Glen Riddle will ease to a dull ache with the salve of happy memories.
Until then, Teresa wanders the property, picking up a plastic dog and Glen’s insulin tester, picking up pieces of her loved ones’ lives.