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The Eye by Barbara King

They were in the middle of telling life stories

But now those homes are silenced by the wildfires. And the past within them is lost.

October 30, 2003|Barbara King

Just AN EMBER FALLING ON the roof, and everything -- every material evidence of your life -- is gone. Your home, the most secure place you knew in the world: gone. Your four-poster, your old recliner, your hallway of family photos, your high school yearbooks, your parents' love letters: gone. There this morning, gone this afternoon.

The house where you put up the Christmas tree in the same corner of the living room every year, where your daughter posed in front of the staircase in her first prom dress; the house that contained more than just things, it contained your best experiences, it was an extension of you, like everyone's house, because in fact it wasn't just a house, it was a home and all that implies: And now it's gone.

You had to leave it, just like that; a ferocious force of nature had declared war and it seemed absurd somehow, insane, that your safe haven all these years was now the most dangerous place you could be. Suddenly you were displaced, a refugee sleeping in a stadium parking lot, and all you wanted was for the siege to end so you could return. Go back home.

But it's not possible. You no longer have a home. You drive slowly through the charred remains of your neighborhood, and you see the smoldering ash of this neighbor's house and that neighbor's house, and you try to remember now exactly what they looked like. Blue frame, yellow stucco? They had grown too familiar to you. And then you come upon your own house -- or what used to be your house.

You recognize the brick drive. But nothing else registers. A limbless, black, upright log has taken the place of the big oak. Only the frame is left of the front door that you walked through thousands of times and tossed your keys on the entry table. A lone chimney stands where once there was a cluttered family room, everyone's favorite spot.

Emotion crowds your throat. Fear, rage, disbelief, disillusion, despair, what is it you're feeling? You don't quite know because you've never quite felt anything akin to it. You feel lost in the wilderness. It's too much. And straightaway you go on automatic pilot. Your posture goes limp and you stare with dull eyes at the ruins, the debris that represents decades of your life. You begin to sift through it, and all you salvage is a melted block of forks and spoons.

You'd like to believe that it's just stuff, that it doesn't really matter, and you know you'll have to be philosophical about it -- well, it is just stuff -- but right now you're not feeling that in your marrow. That stuff, those things, were infused with meaning. The dining table, all those meals. The guest bed, your crazy relatives who slept there. Insurance will replace all this, sure, but you can't transfer old experiences onto new objects.

When the TV reporter approaches, you say the same thing everyone else says. It's devastating, unimaginable, catastrophic. Priceless memories erased. Everything, down the drain. But you'll rebuild, you tell her. Your kids grew up here, and you can't say goodbye to that. Later, the reporter will go on air and mention how every single home belonged to a family, and every single family had a story.

Watching the newscasts, and listening to the interviews of people who had lost everything to these berserk walls of flames raging through the landscape, I was struck by how limited our vocabulary is to impart the depth and breadth of the emotional shock. The same words came to my mind too: devastating, unimaginable, catastrophic, never saw anything like it before.

It's true: Every single home did belong to someone, and every one of those homes -- not just every family -- had a story.

A young couple builds a one-bedroom cottage in 1922, and with the birth of each of their children they add a bedroom until, by 1931, it's quite a house, three bedrooms and a screened porch.

By the '50s they've remodeled a couple of times, put wall-to-wall carpet in, covered the kitchen floor with linoleum, expanded the den. By the mid-'60s, they've retired to Arizona, and another young couple buys it, starts over, makes it theirs. They leave the name they find carved in the hall closet, James David; it's sweet, they think. It's part of the history of the house. They stay for a few years, then sell. Two more sets of owners come and go.

The house changes, it's 80 years old, after all, but still, it's the same house, and it has collected all these moments of all these people who have lived there, like an anthology of diary excerpts.

The house has been a home to all of them. And now it's gone.

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