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Relief. Depression. Freedom. Grief.

It's Hard to Know What to Feel After Your House Burns Down.

November 04, 2001|JANE MARLA ROBBINS | Jame Marla Robbins is an actress, playwright and screenwriter

A year ago, the house I'd been renting for six years in Topanga burned to the ground. The Los Angeles Fire Department concluded that a faulty wall heater was a probable cause. I had been asleep downstairs, and never heard the flames on the roof. My neighbors and a smoke alarm woke me. The house burned, but I survived, which is a lot to be grateful for. An amazing number of people, on hearing that my house had burned, seemed inordinately eager to say: "You'll have a new life, how wonderful! You'll see, you'll rise out of the ashes like a phoenix!"

I wanted to respond, "No, I'm not like some weird bird that probably never even existed. You see any feathers? What might have been nice, though, would have been for us to have had a simple, human moment together, maybe a little hug. I would have shed a few tears. Except now I have to be Lazarus for you because you're obviously terrified of thinking your own house might burn down."

Of course, I was silent.

When the fire was out, only ashes remained. I lost everything: from rugs and couches to my grandmother's jewelry, and the costumes and props of the three one-woman plays I had acted, danced and toured in, on and off for 30 years.

Before the fire, had I known what to say to someone whose house had burned? I have friends to whom it has happened, like the 81-year-old movie director who lost scripts, posters and a lifetime of papers. I hadn't known what to say to him. He hadn't wanted to speak of it. But after my house burned down, I'd meet a total stranger and feel a need to blurt it out. "My house burned down last week." I sounded cheerful, but I was relentless. "My house burned down last month." Like anyone cared. Occasionally, I talked about starting a new life and said I had wanted to stop touring anyway. But the truth was that I was mainly numb.

During the first month after the fire, I stayed with five different friends in five different houses in Topanga. Their offering their homes felt like an unbelievably beautiful gift. I felt cradled by my friends as if they were midwives to the new self that, presumably, was being born.

Still, two weeks after the fire, left alone at one of my friends' houses, I mistook the sound of gentle rain on the roof for flames, and it took me a half hour to stop sobbing with fear and shaking in what felt like the marrow of my bones. Another day, when I mistook a microwave's beeping for a smoke alarm, it took me 15 minutes to stop


A month after the fire, I started renting my own apartment. It was part of a house owned by a firefighter, which, though it sounds corny, made me feel somewhat safe. The apartment had a bed, a table and a chair.

I guess we sometimes forget what we need until we don't have it. I bought a pot, a cup and a lemon for my morning hot water, but I was surprised to discover on my first day that I had no knife for the lemon. Silverware! I had forgotten to buy silverware.

I thought, "Two. I'll buy two spoons, two forks, two knives."

I told this to my mother in New York, who said, "You'll buy five." If you think I took direction well as an actress, you should see me in shock after a fire.

I went to a department store that was having a flatware sale, and I saw matching forks and spoons and knives that I liked. Best of all, there was a sign over them that said, "Five." I didn't notice that it actually said, "Set of five." I made my purchase, came home and saw that all I'd bought was one big fork and a little one, one big spoon and a little one, and a knife.

I wasn't thinking or hearing clearly. I also admitted to myself that what I buy seems to make very little difference; a big part of my psyche doesn't want to buy anything. Somewhere inside, I'm afraid that anything I buy will only burn again.

One evening, I took myself out to dinner and started to talk to a couple at the next table. "My house burned down." (I later learned that traumas are apparently healed by describing and redescribing them.)

The man at the next table, a writer and probably close to 70, seemed to be a little hard of hearing. "Your husband died?" he asked. Though I corrected him, I later realized he understood more than I did. He was right; there had been a death, the death of a way of life, of the dance between me and the things I had lost. I'd been in denial. And I would have to go through the stages people suffer after a death: shock, denial, anger, grief. I was still in Phase One. But at least I had some silverware.

"My house burned down" turns out to be a litmus test for other peoples' preoccupations. One of my least-favorite responses, though a common one, seems to be, "You're so lucky! I've been trying to get rid of all my old stuff for years." I hold my tongue, thinking that sudden disaster may not be the best way to clean house. In my more balanced moments, I know these people may subconsciously be hoping that it would be that easy if a fire burned their life away.

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