The one where I do what my mother would do

Yesterday on my drive to work, about five houses down from me, I thought I saw a burned-out firefighters coat in the yard of a house. “That can’t be what I saw,” I thought (glancing at the house as I drove past), “that house is fine except for being a burned out shell.” Errr? I slammed on my brakes and drove backwards (9:15 AM on a Sunday morning in my ‘hood isn’t really known for heavy traffic). Sure enough, the house was gutted.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it for most of the day. Did she get out? Was anyone injured? It looked like the kind of fire that probably took someone’s life. It looked… violent. Angry. Frightening.

So of course I wanted a photo of it. Voyeuristic? Sure, a bit. But I’m reminded of a story my mom told me, about the house next door, when we lived in Baltimore, catching on fire. And the only thing she could think to do was photograph it, because that helped her process what was going on. And since – and you might not know this if you don’t know my mom – I pretty much am a carbon copy of her, I did take a photograph.

And then of course, I wanted to post the photo in my Photo-of-the-Day album. I’m trying to keep those photos as yarn-free as possible; I started doing the project again because while I love yarn (obviously) I am around yarn 24 hours a day, and I really need one thing in my day that isn’t about knitting. But this is an awfully personal photograph for the family involved. So post it? Or not? After much chewing over it, I decided to post it.

Here’s why: this is affecting me on a number of levels. Although it might sound like it, I’m really not trying to make the actual fire all about me – for fucks sake, I slept through the whole 2 AM event! – but I think the repercussions of this are going to be felt through my neighborhood for a long time, and I’m going to be blogging about that as it happens, so I want a starting point. A place to reference. A place to come back to.

In no particular order, here’s what’s on my mind…

It’s the only wooden house on our block. Every other house, I think (there’s more wooden houses over on 8th) is like mine – cinder block. In looking at it (and granted, I’m not a professional), and in chatting with the neighbors, we all think they’re going to have to raze the house and rebuild. That there’s no way to just… renovate this. And razing and rebuilding takes a long time; there will be long days of loud noises, big trucks blocking our already small street. I’m sure there will be days the entire ‘hood will want the noise of rebuilding to be over, and yet feel guilty for thinking that because of the magnitude of her loss.

I want to get a second smoke detector for our house. And get new batteries for the one.

I can’t imagine the fear of waking up to the sound of breaking glass. Apparently that’s what woke her – she thought someone was breaking in, and grabbed a flashlight. Opened the door from the bedroom and found the whole house in flames. She couldn’t get out the door, but broke a window and got she and her two grandchildren out alive. I would like to think that I would be able to think that fast in a crisis, that I wouldn’t panic. But when I try to imagine it, all I can think of is the fear.

Her daughter lives down at the other end of the block. She’d been watching her grandchildren that night. I can’t fathom the guilt that she must feel, for something like this happening– guilt of it happening it all, coupled with relief that she saved their lives. How do you cope with that? Which direction does your heart go?

Everything was ruined. Everything. Of course my first thought of loss goes to family photos, heirlooms, antiques, books; things that can’t be replaced. But when you say everything, that also means living the next few weeks wearing clothes donated by strangers (I’m going through my closets now for things that I don’t wear but look new, as a few other women on the block have already done; one has already bought her new clothes and a gift certificate so that she can buy more). She’s staying with her daughter right now, but… will she be able to stay there for the duration of building a new house? Will she even want to move back into it– she’d just gone through her savings, renovating the 60-year old house slowly over the last couple of years. Everything. Shoes. Socks. Jeans. PJs. Towels. Shampoo. Camera. Favorite coffee mug. Dishes. Pots and pans. DVDs. Music. Everything gone, and she has to start over. Do you look at that like a million tiny losses, a million tiny cuts to your soul? Or do you shrug it off and move forward, looking ahead to rebuilding your life? Is there a middle ground in there somewhere?

OK; I need to quit typing and start getting ready for work. I’m sitting here at my computer, with my coffee mug, getting ready to go into my shower and then dry off with my towels and get into my clothes. I have it lucky. I have things we take for granted every day. But all of that could change, for any of us, at any moment.

3 comments

  1. If only more people could respond with so much thought and understanding to the tragedy experienced by others, our world would be so much better off. I can’t get past the fear either… my bedroom is at one end of our upstairs hallway, and my kids sleep at the other end. I can’t imagine what I’d do if I couldn’t get to them through the center of the house. It’s easy to say “it’s just stuff, and it can be replaced” but there’s stuff and there’s STUFF that has pieces of our lives inside. I can imagine the devastation and gratitude, battling for the upper hand. I hope the support of you and your community helps to heal at least a few of those tiny cuts to her soul in the days to come.

  2. Oh, at first I thought you meant I’d slam on the brakes and drive backwards. Yes, I’d take pictures. And I hope I would be as nice as you and donate clothes, etc.)I gave clothes for people who lost everything in Hurricane Andrew, then I was told my donations would have ended up in the landfill as people only wanted money for new clothes.) One of the scary things about the Balto fire was, that house was an exact mirror image of ours. Touring it later was bad. I’ll have to find those pics and post them. I think if I lost everything, including my house, in a fire (or hurricane or tornado) I’d collect as much insurance as they’d give me and I’d move as far away as I could, something like Hawaii, and become a minimalist. Since I have so many family heirlooms and pics, some dating back to the late 1800’s, they couldn’t be replaced. The link to my ancestors is important to me. At least I’ve been able to put a lot of the pics on flickr, so maybe all would not be lost. I hope your neighbor can begin to recover. I’d be in a state of shock for a long time.

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