What is irreplaceable? This would mean so many variables to any number of people… Valuable, life changing, and heart breaking. Given the chance, go ahead, name the item…
We moved to the mountains in December 2014, and from the moment we took possession of our home, I had a plan. As a dispatcher, we’ve heard the calls, handled the radio traffic, listening to the panic in the voices of callers, and the panic which can happen on a horrific call for service. I’d had a certain sense of complacency in the home we’d had for 10 years, sprinklers, the house had sprinklers. Now we were worried about a fire. Tornadoes, uh not, not so much, earthquakes, sure, but at least with an earthquake you know where your “stuff” is when the shaking stops. Broken didn’t scare me, fires not even, until we moved to the forest
The “perfect mountain home” became ours less than a year ago. I wrote about it to friends and on FB. I'd said "I stepped from the car, the first time I saw it, breathed in the clean, crisp mountain air, I told Scott, we’re home” …without even opening the door.
The irony of our current situation, the fires so close to home, the forest and foothills exploding … well our new dream home has already burned to the ground once before, 7 years ago, and the owners barely escaped with their lives. It wasn’t a forest fire, but human error. Escaped with their lives, over the railing of a deck 20 feet from the ground, the couple in their 70s. No time, no mementos, only the pajamas on their backs. They lost everything, even their dog. We were told the story by the agent who showed us the home, then over the next 2 months we heard about it first hand from the owners, we heard about it from the neighbors, the post office, the quilting ladies, the walking ladies, everyone knew about that home. They rebuilt the home from the remaining foundation, and it’s spectacular. We were given the ENTIRE file box from their rebuild, every email, every receipt, every vendor. A wonderful treasure trove to learn about our home.
We’ve just completed a road trip, getting back to California, we were away since Memorial Day, I flew home twice during our trip. We’d arrived in Truckee/Donner area on Wednesday, hearing of the fire, planning 2 days there before the Bay Area. We arrived in the Tri-Valley Friday 1:30, get the rig set up, picked up lunch and then our phones were exploding with messages about the fire shifting, evacuations, mandatory and advisory. Our son-in-law, Bobby and a strike team from Livermore-Pleasanton Fire had been on the lines for several days, and we were learning of other firefighter families we knew too…
We locked up the coach and headed back up to the Sierras, we’d left only that morning 150 miles north … As we drove, the news came in, some road closures and our neighborhood on advisory evacuation. With that knowledge we decided to go in a different route, let our kids and friends know the plan. Downloaded the maps needed, GPS on the truck all set, water, snacks, and bags to fill when we got to the house.
Our phones were messaging central, calls, maps, gps, and yet I had been preparing since the move in December, just for this exact scenario…
As a genealogist/family historian, I’ve ended up as keeper of the “stuff” … photographs, memorabilia, papers, pieces of ancestor lives. Albums, jewelry, household items… As a photographer I’ve also been working to save all the files from clients and the family. Scanned images, negatives, hard drives, back-up files, servers and the like …. Before the move I’d decided things were going to be in one center place in our home, grab and run if you will, organized, and labeled. The label maker, the plastic boxes from Target and archival poly bags were all my friends... All families grouped together and labeled, this way no one has to wonder which side, who is that, do I know them?
(This image from last year, when we moved, I drove as if I had a newborn in the car, fearful of anyone getting near me, and losing my precious cargo…)
I'd put it all in a single closet, clear boxes, photo albums, wedding albums, family bibles, and all the memorabilia. I’d started scanning some months ago, really making sure each bag of images was preserved in more than one way, and labeled, but not completed the work. We had made mental lists, really want to grab, would like to have vs. really irreplaceable.
We’ve seen the images on TV, the floods, tornados, fires, earthquake and the utter devastation on the faces on the victims flashing on the screen. Yet here we were … now what?
A phone call to a friend who also has a home within a mile, he too is on the road, driving back to California. He moved in to his house just a couple of months ago. He said he had family there getting some things of his, we asked if she’d go to ours too, just in case. Donna then called us, “I’ll get your key and call you."How do you tell someone what is your “irreplaceable” stuff?
She calls, I direct her and she’s in, I said “hall closet on the left” … she looked, and said “everything” yes please. We’d had the smaller items in another place, all together, she found those too, walking a home she’d never been inside, as I directed from my cellphone, praying I didn't lose the signal, while my husband is driving down the highway to home.
She was able to unload some things she was moving to her home, regular household stuff, in to my garage, and load up my irreplaceable things in their place.She said I’ve got it, I’m locking up and heading out. The relief inside was palpable as we drove the road. Now if we get to a point where we can’t get in, or are turned back, it’s ok.
As it was we made it there later that night, I was never so happy as I looked at the closet doors left open, and the EMPTY space, she took EVERYTHING. The photo albums of my children’s lives, the velvet albums of the great-grandmothers, the plastic boxes of the labeled family treasures, all out of harm’s way.
It was now safe for us to take time to walk the house, what do we see, what is important, what do we want. . . what a task, and yet it was easy as we looked around. The bronzed baby shoes my mother kept for me, then the 3 pairs I kept for my children, the cowboy boots my son wore when he was 3. Looking, scanning each room. Then remembering the boxes of negatives from our lives before digital, they’d been in another place. It took some looking, they were still inside moving boxes, but nearby. They represent the ability to recreate as needed…
Walking the kitchen it’s just stuff, until I see the kitchen scale my gr-grandmother used in 1895, in the Sierra logging town. I know it’s still stuff, but connected to me through time. Then my sewing room, it’s just fabric, until I see the stack of quilts, I’d made in the 80s and 90s. Remembering making them during trips to the cabin we’d owned, sitting poolside learning to hand-quilt while my girls played in the pool with Daddy. I filled a large bin with them, then I spy all the pairs of little baby shoes on the shelf, memories flooding in, of wobbly toddlers and their shoes.
Then my closet, and bathroom, there was the little tiny wind up clock, aged, used by another gr-grandfather over a century ago, in the bag it goes. A long box, the “new” watch my Dad bought for my son, with the note tucked inside.
Scott & I filled the truck, I grabbed my teddy bear, worn and missing his eyes, I grabbed the small baseball figurine made by a family friend for Scott, of his Dad Jack, given to us just a few years ago. I opened everything, the cupboards and closets, looking at “stuff” …. It was just “stuff” … ok, leave it there, those things are the day to day pieces of our lives, useful, but no meaning and memories attached.
Down to the basement, to the Christmas stuff. What do I want, only the box of the ornaments my little ones brought home from school, the Popsicle sticks, the glitter balls, the little scraps of life glued as a gift. Once again packing for the move only last year, I'd been sitting with one of my daughters, we went through the ornaments box, “time to sort I said to her” and we were on the floor with little piles for each of them. Things I’d brought for them from places we’d been, and the goodies they made for me. It was already done, I grabbed the box because I could… everything else, was the “stuff” … fun memories but everyday Christmas stuff.
Now the bedroom, I looked around, grabbed the guest book, we’d started it with our first mountain cabin, in to the box.Final glance and I see the piece of art a friend created for me, a photograph of my daughter which she then worked over with pastels in to an amazing image. In to the box, the image is digital it can be recreated, the art and the love, the gift are priceless.
The truck now packed, we decide to stay and sleep, we’d traveled 344 miles, which is an average on a road trip travel day, but so hard on the craziest of emotional days. The phone calls to the kids, where we’re going, how we’re traveling in since our road was closed, the calls to our Moms, “hi we’re home, but we’re going to the mountains, we’ll talk to you later”, the calls to the friends who had homes there, “do we need to get something from your place, our friend Sally joked, “the race car in the garage, except you can’t drive it, it’s in pieces”… the emotional roller coaster of “we’ve got this, to oh Lord, take care of our firefighters, they are everyone’s son and daughter” … we can replace, we can rebuild, keep them safe.
Back to reality, we left our home at 6am, truck packed, I walked the rooms with my camera, I photographed them, looked outside, wishing I could simply sit on the deck, and enjoy my coffee with the view, breathing in all the smoke, which hung like thick fog around us. Turn off the lights, lock the door, back out the driveway, “is this the last time, will we get back, will we see it again”, I’ll gladly put all the “stuff” back when I can ….
We’ve had one family gathering at this home, only one … it’s there waiting for the memories to be made, we’ve had the little ones there, we’ve made the pancakes for breakfast, pizza on the deck before we’d left on our trip. We’ve not had Thanksgiving or Christmas there, a few inches of snow for the little ones to experience last January, but not the snowfall days of sitting curled up by the fire. I’ve had the “girlfriends” up, 4 of them who were friends since kindergarten, we had our weekend only one, so far... The “ladies” as my grandson calls the other cherished group of women, we all met though our children, we used to walk together, shared our time, meals, the hair salon chair, we had one weekend too. . . Both of our Moms have been there for an overnight visit, but we have only the single memories.This is to be our place for the gatherings, back together in the mountains, making new memories like those we did in their childhood. New memories for the grandchildren of Papa’s house, the carved bear in the driveway, the little lake nearby, hikes in the woods, roasting marshmallows, the tree house which hasn’t been built.
Driving away in the eerie darkness, the shopping center blacked out, the gas station open, wondering how many others were able to take their mementos, where was their help as they listened to the news of the fire.
Down the hill the smoke was heavy as we went through Murphys, then on to Angels Camp. We saw some road closures, the CHP standing by, saw some fire trucks. The fairgrounds in town being reorganized in to a new base camp for fire operations. McDonalds was open, the Starbucks too…. We stopped, there was a table in front of the store, remnants of overnight free coffee still there …. Chatted with the locals sitting in front, the older man told me he’s retired from Cal Fire, I said likewise, retired dispatcher. He said, “I thought retirement would be easier, it’s not, easier would be working the event, not listening to the radio chatter on the his fire app., and knowing he can’t do a thing” … well said sir, I feel the same way, it’s not our event, it’s theirs, our next generation is fighting this one for all of us …. While we watch.
We drove back to the Bay Area, and we spent the day with our little ones, they loved being in “Papa’s train”, their name for the RV. A meal and more family, listening to the updates, answering emails, then the Face-time from Bobby, his crew all saying hi to Kendall as they chat. We told him we’d gotten our “stuff” but would appreciate it if they’d save our town. Their crew is stationed for structure protection in the town of San Andreas, which has been evacuated. To hear him say “it’s bad, this is really bad, it’s not moving in one direction, it’s moving in all directions” was so rough… we want them safe, we don’t want them there in harm’s way, we need them there, we need them home…it was so good to see their dirty tired faces on the little screen if the phone. Kendall tells him to stay safe, and there “I love you” is said all around. The worry never leaves us all ….
This morning the little ones are snuggling with Papa, they spent the night, and will stay this morning. Memories can be made anywhere, but we’re hopeful we will get the chance to make them again back in the mountains.