[The back porch is what I loved about the house on first visit. In the few weeks we were living there, I had great satisfaction in displaying my collection of old plates, baking pans, canisters, and other treasures from family. It held the stamp of our identity and history.
Now a new one is being built in its place—bigger and improved—and I’ll be able to make it ours even more so with colors and furnishings of our choosing.] May 2016
I have avoided writing the back story to this blog entry as I resisted thinking about the terror and pain associated with the house fire.
January 26, 2016: As I was drying my hair, the lights and hair dryer went off. So I called down to my husband that we should check the circuit breakers. We went to the garage and tried to figure out which was the correct one out of all the poorly labeled and hardly legible breakers. [We had lived here only three weeks and this was the first time we had opened the breaker box since the one time the previous owner was showing us where it was.] We took the team approach, and I went to the top of the stairs where I could see the bathroom and could tell whether or not the lights came on as he tried the various breakers. Finally, with our mission accomplished and the lights on, I went back to getting ready to go to work, and he returned to eating his lunch in the den.
In just a few minutes I heard him desperately shouting my name. I walked out into the upstairs hallway and noticed that the smoke detector was beeping and, indeed, some puffs of smoke were drifting up from downstairs. When I entered the den I was totally unprepared for what I saw and heard and smelled. I can only describe it as the most horrific evil I have ever encountered.
One entire wall was engulfed in flames. The half bath off the den was a hot box of fire! I stood there momentarily stunned and watched as the blaze grew, creating its own energy and producing a wind that moved it along the paneled walls. My dear husband was still there, now screaming for me to call 9-1-1.
That evil hand of fire waved me back as the reality of what was happening began to sink in. The sound of breaking glass, the snap and crackle of burning wood, the acrid odor, the stinging heat and smoke—all at such an intensity that any brief hope I might have had of extinguishing the fire left my mind as quickly as the instinct to survive set in.
I crossed the room and grabbed the phone from my desk and dialed 9-1-1. As I was making my way to the garage, where the only exit from downstairs was available as the fire had now engulfed the wall where the exterior doors were, I realized I should move my car outside. I quickly ran back to retrieve my keys from the den and once again was struck with the devastation and hopelessness being seared into my heart and soul.
I drove my car out of the garage, the driveway, and onto the side of the road in front of our house. As I sat there, stunned and alone, I didn’t know where to go. My husband and I were alive. Beyond that, there was nothing to do but wait for the fire trucks.
My husband was out in the road near our house hoping to steer the fire trucks quickly on to our house. It seemed to be taking forever. Unfortunately, we’d had about twelve inches of snow the week before and there was still lots of ice and snow left on the roads. We learned later that all the fire trucks had chains on their tires making their arrival to our house a bit slower than usual.
By the time they arrived, the fire had totally engulfed the entire lower level and was moments away from spreading to the upstairs. Smoke and heat and ash filled the upper level covering every piece of furniture, wall hangings, light fixtures, even seeping into closets and drawers of every room. But the important thing is that the firemen did an awesome job of extinguishing the fire once they got there and had there been any further delay we might have lost the entire house and everything inside it.
“It held the stamp of our identity and history.”
Over the past seven months we have lived in temporary housing and worked closely with contractors and other restoration specialists recommended to us by our insurance adjuster. We have continued with our downsizing and simplifying (see my posts from May and November 2015) in ways we never imagined. Most things in our den were unsalvageable.
One of my favorite features of the den had been the bookcase and cabinets that extended across one full wall. The night before the fire, I had just finished unpacking the last of the boxes and arranged treasured family photos, books, mementoes and collectibles. As I chose how to arrange them, I enjoyed the memories associated with them.
There were the old, single one-of-a-kind photos of close family members, some dating back into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And there were high school and college yearbooks, photo albums and scrapbooks stuffed with old newspaper clippings recounting family achievements and interests spanning generations. All of these things I promised myself to leisurely revisit as soon as we were settled in.
And so many books! Finally, I had a place big enough to hold ALL our old, treasured books. Like those textbooks we never wanted to discard because they were still interesting and valuable to us. Books and journals that had been owned and saved by our elderly aunts, uncles, and parents. And then there were the children’s books, especially those original creations which had been written and illustrated by the kids when they were in grade school. There was quite a collection of Dr. Seuss and the Scholastic Readers books; I remembered how often I had read those to my children and grandchildren. They were tattered and worn, but I was saving them for the future generations of children in our family. I looked through some of the travel books collected during trips to some of our favorite places like the Grand Canyon, Washington DC, Savannah, Sedona, Virginia Beach, Hawaii, Alaska, Italy, France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand and others. I could never have imagined not having those around.
Speaking of things that are most difficult to let go, there was the collection of “Alex” memorabilia: my favorite photos of him and the one with his buddies celebrating the last New Year of his life in 1994; the trophy he received from the volunteer fire department as Cadet of the Year when he was fourteen years old; the Tour books from his deployment to the Middle East and Gulf states (BEFORE the wars there, thank goodness); and the greatest treasure for me, the American flag presented to me at his funeral—it was encased in a wooden and acrylic box for safekeeping.
Which brings me to one of many heartwarming stories related to that house fire.
I will have to say that we are anxious to rebuild and get re-settled in our new neighborhood. The neighbors, whom we had met only once just a few days before, were just over-the-top awesome. By the end of that afternoon, no fewer than four new friends were telling us they loved us and were going to take care of us. And they had already done so much. I had left the house in such a hurry that I had no coat or shoes on. As I was sitting in my car by the side of the road, our neighbor from across the street convinced me to go inside with her. She took me into her den, sat me on the sofa, and proceeded to get on her knees so she could take off my wet socks and put warm ones on my very cold feet. She brought in a heating pad and a blanket, but her kindness had already warmed my heart and soul. Her house became the gathering spot—more like Grand Central Station—for other concerned neighbors (one of whom was taking care of my husband as he was extremely distressed and had also left the house shoeless and coatless; she provided him dry socks, boots, and warm coat and escorted him to the Red Cross station to have him checked out for other injuries as his hair had been singed and his ear burned when he discovered the fire); the firefighters; and representatives from the Red Cross so they could find me when necessary.
One thing that was very heavy on my mind was Alex’s flag. I casually mentioned that to another one of those awesome neighbors. She went out and talked to one of the firemen and the two of them went into the den (by now the fire was out) and found Alex’s flag and brought it to me! The case was black and charred, the acrylic totally melted into an immovable clump, but the flag seemed to be mostly intact. There were a few ashes on it and it was soaked. The fireman said that in order to preserve it, I could have it cleaned (which of course meant it would have to be unfolded, something he said he knew was not supposed to happen under ordinary circumstances). He then offered that he and some of his colleagues would come over with an honor guard and refold it for me whenever I was ready. All I could think of was how proud Alex would be; it is just the thing he would have done for someone.
And the circle continues unbroken.