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IN OUR EMBERS IS SOMETHING THAT DOTH LIVE
A child's toothbrush, a pair of sunglasses snatched off the hall table, and the pajamas they were wearing. That's what our neighbors saved from their burning house.

I think of all their history, their shared memories, the scrapbooks, the photo albums, their daughter's crayoned scribbles melted to the charred husk of the refrigerator.

It's all just stuff, isn't it? But it's YOUR stuff. If it went up in flame and ashes, do you think you would feel freed? That you were winnowed and lightweight and had a free hand to start over; a clean slate? Or would you perpetually be mourning your past, your lost life, the sooty residue that smears and crumbles under your searching hand?

They built the house before they had a child, before she was even conceived, and 2 years later were already lamenting that it was really a bit too small. They were thinking, maybe they could raise the roof, add a story beneath the eaves, a playroom perhaps...a bedroom or two. Instead the roof crashed in, crackling with flame and now, someday after the blackened timbers are removed and the lot is swept clean, they can build again, a bigger house; a better one.*

We built our house at the same time, a bit later perhaps, but within the same rough time frame. We built our house precisely BECAUSE our last house was really just a bit too small. We wanted a playroom, another bedroom, a bigger yard.

You look around at these solid walls, the vents that let in air, the windows that let in light and you wonder what would you snatch up and cradle to your chest as you hurried and herded your children out the door? A pair of sunglasses, a teddy bear. There isn't time to think or rationalize. There isn't time to SAVE. There isn't TIME.

Martin and I walked past the house today, but we didn't stop to gape. It feels as if we would be gaping at the ruin of someone's life. The urge to slow and stare is nearly overwhelming, and it seems as if the reason is because of the awfulness of sympathy and horror that rises up like bile in the back of your throat. When you stare at a burnt-out house, or a car wreck as you inch past on the highway, you are not just gaping at the ruin of someone else's life. You are gaping at yours. What if that was ME? What if that was US? Was OURS? What if time had stopped and the roof had caved in? Would the ruin of our life look like this? How would we go on? How could we ever get up off our knees?

I think about my books, my artwork, the baby keepsakes carefully packed away in my children's closets, the careful accumulation of years. I think about the things I've saved and the things I love rising ashes on the spiral airstair of flame. If we got out, amid the crackle and the terror, our children's hands clutched tight in ours, bare feet cool in the early morning lawn, if we only got OUT. Ultimately, no one gets out of life alive, but if we got out, this time, a neighbor's pounding fist on the door, breath caught and awful realization and then the spare horror and relief of safety, there would be all the time in the world.

***

*The family is living with friends in a nearby town. The house is already being dismantled, and a shiny rental car was parked next to the burnt-out shell of their former car today. The neighborhood is taking up a collection to give them a gift certificate for furniture and household items. They're out and they're alive and they'll rebuild, in time.

Check it out! Mosaic Minds: Anticipation issue is up! I'm pretty pleased with the masthead, if I do say so myself, and for this issue the muse struck and I pulled a poem out of my, erm, head, as well.
 contemplative
mood: contemplative
music: Lloyd Cole—A Long Way Down


Comments

These tragedies that strike nearby do cause us to stop and take stock, don't they?

I actually did find myself in such a crisis situation when Michele was a baby. We lived in San Diego and her father was on sea duty. She and I were taking a nap when I heard a helicopter right outside my front door. A megaphone announcement put everyone in the neighborhood into high gear: a fire in the canyon behind our house had broken out and we had no more than ten minutes to evacuate before the fires would be too close for our safety. In a panic, I called my best friend and let her guide me through it. "Grab a bag and stuff some clothes for you and Michele in it," she said. "Then pictures. You can replace everything else but you'll miss your photographs if they burn up."

Our house ended up surviving the worst of the canyon fire's consuming flames, but I'll never forget her advice. I think she was right.

Yikes, how scary! I can't believe you took the time to phone someone! But she did give you great advice. I think about all my big heavy photo albums, and know those would be toast. I'd only be able to grab some of the framed things, and even that isn't a given, depending on time. Our neighbors had no time to even think like that, they only had time to get out.

A fire is one of my worst nightmares... A house can be rebuilt, furniture can be replaced, but it's all those personal things that can never be replaced.

My house was once broken into and they emptied my jewellery case. There was nothing of real value in there, but there were items in it that had value for me. There was a tiny little ring it which my grandmother gave to my mother and she gave it to me. And the burglars probably threw it away because it wasn't worth anything at all to them.

I'm glad to hear the family is being looked after.

I had several things stolen when we lived in Chicago, both from my car (and including my car, once) and from our storage unit. It's such an invasion, and to realize that the thieves just pitch stuff that to them has no value, but to you has great meaning is an awful feeling.

Apart from having lost the jewellery, what got at me most was indeed how invasive it was. To see how perfect strangers had gone through my house, opening all the cupboards, touching everything... They even took some bags and pillow cases to store all the stuff in; they stole so much they couldn't even carry it... And then you have the insurance company to deal with, who treats you as a criminal since they automatically assume you're going to claim a lot more than was actually stolen... Plus they stole cheques and emptied my bank account, so I had no money for a whole month; they stole my passport, which I had to have replaced. I think it took me two months to arrange the whole thing with the insurance company and to replace important items.

How awful, and what a HUGE pain in the ass. :(

Yes, and that was just a burglary. So I can only imagine how terrible it must be if you've lost everything...

What a shock it puts one into to be such a victim. Many years ago some friends stayed in our home for two weeks after a fire had burned theirs. They vacillated between shock and grief for the experience and things lost, and joy that they were all safe and unhurt. Their home was caught before everything was lost, but most everything that wasn't lost had smoke damage.
It was quite an experience just watching them at close quarters with what they were going through.

That's so powerful--thank you for sharing.

I keep thinking I want a new life, with much frustration, and feel myself pulling at the things that tie me to myself, but they're ties of love and familiarity and fondness. I would never want those ties to be cut.

Perhaps it's possible sometimes to gently untie them and leave them dangling for a bit until we're ready to pull them fast again.


I wonder how they sleep. No matter where they are. Lying on the bed, dreading the sound of a neighbour knocking at the door. And the call again, of "Fire".

I wouldn't really miss our stuff that much, I think what would be hardest would be trudging through the long process of rebuilding. The beauracracy of insurance companies, unreliable contractors, and having no place to call home for so long. Poor souls.

I think you're right. I was a therapist who got assigned to Pensacola Beach for almost two years after a hurricane destroyed everything. Not so many months after I started I was doing a LOT more counseling with kids about the fact that their parents were divorcing than any other kind of crisis-counseling. The rebuilding was just more than most of those marriages could withstand. :-(

Building the house the FIRST time is a lot more than some marriages can stand. It's a huge strain on a marriage, and when you factor in grief and guilt and loss, added to re-building, I'm not at all surprised that people fold under the pressure, even with the joy and relief of being safe and alive.

(Anonymous)

OH wonderful....best masthead ever! But, am I prejudiced??? And I really like the poem! I always like your poems! And not just because I'm your Mother! As to the loss of stuff, that's all it is. We can weigh ourselves down with it- or just float on memories when necessary. People are the only important things, as you realize!
Love, Lizardmom

The thing is, memories are so fragile, and easily lost as well. It's an awful feeling to think that those mnemonics and visual aids are gone and can't help you later when your memory might not serve you so well.

(no subject) - (Anonymous)

I'm so glad they had the dog with them!! WOW. I'm glad they are doing okay and recovering. I'm sure it's like any loss, in that you do slowly get over it, but what a shock to have it ALL go like that at once.

(Anonymous)

Oh how I feel for this family. I am so happy they are all safe, but I can't imagine how they feel ~ how much there is to rebuild.

~Sprigs

You know I'm not a saver/hoarder, so I suppose I'd have it easier than most in case of fire or other disaster...but one does think about "What would I grab?" I remember years ago when I lived in San Francisco...it was a Sunday afternoon...and the Oakland hills were on fire...I remember the smoke in the distance and thinking how it wasn't just one family's life going up in smoke, but dozens... You always hear fire victims say on the news, "We're just happy we got out alive." But, man oh man, what a toll the rebuilding of a life must taken on someone. I feel for that family in your neighborhood.

Anders talked to some of their friends tonight, and they said the hardest thing right now is not knowing what to say to well-meaning people who ask them how they can help.

That's why I am happy to share all the family history research I've done over the years. For example, Cds of all the scanned photos given as gifts to my sisters and brothers. They are my offsite backup. Furniture, clothes, etc are just things but the photos of my greatgrandparents are irreplaceable.

Visiting you via Lynn of Sprigs

Welcome! That's an excellent idea. I think I shall try that as well. I DO have some pictures saved on web servers of course, that I could access later if necessary, but certainly not all of the important ones!!

WIth the current state of my house, there are definitely moments when I would say, phew! thank you fire for taking care of that mess for me. But then I would be crushed by the loss of some things and even more crushed by watching my loved ones saddened by the loss of their things.

One thing I've always wondered with these "we barely made it out alive" kind of disasters is, how well do smoke alarms actually work? Are we fooling ourselves into thinking we are safe because they go off when the french fries burn? One year in college there was something about the smoke alarm system in my building that was faulty. It took them the better part of the year to figure it out and fix it so that the overly sensitive sensor would stop going off everytime a breeze blew by. In the meantime, we endured all manner of middle of the night fire alarms with mandatory evacuation. We all knew they were false alarms but we had to leave just the same. My roommate and I talked about it one night, what would we take if it was real. We actually went so far as to arrange things on our desk so that with one swipe of the arm, we could shove all the stuff we wanted to keep into a milk crate and make it out the door in five seconds flat.

The thing is, you can't live like that for long, ready to scoop everything and make it out the door. Actually, right after this happened a friend was telling me about a study that was done with fire alarms and sleeping children. Guess how many children who were asleep heard or reacted to a fire alarm going off? Not one. :(

Then they tried experimenting with recordable fire alarms, where the parents could record themselves saying the child's name(s) and telling them to get up get UP GET UP!! and THEN the children reacted, even if they were heavily asleep. I want some of those alarms!!

Although I don't know the people, I still remember when a newly built four family house in the outskirts of the town burnt down in March 2005. Only two families had yet moved into the house. One young woman, whose two children fortunately were staying with their dad, didn't even get one night of sleep in her new home before it was burnt down. As far as I understood, the cat was caught in the fire. :-(

http://www.vlt.se/artikelmall.asp?version=133167 (in Swedish)

And just because I'm posting this, yesterday afternoon another row of terrace houses in a village on the other side of town burned down. Four families evacuated, only some inventory in the outer two houses could be saved. It surely is scary, and only marginally better if you're at work while your home goes up in flames.

It's awful scary, and that it happens so FAST. :( I don't know that it even makes a difference if your house is brick or stucco like ours. I suspect it would go up quickly anyway. Poor cat!!

(Anonymous)

it really makes you think

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