Beneath the Ashes

“The fire which seems extinguished often slumbers beneath the ashes.”
Pierre Corneille
I’ve been debating all day whether to write this or not . . . but I’m still thinking about it so I guess I will go ahead.
I came across a blog post today in which the author described some “must have” items as (paraphrased) “things I’d save in a fire,” complete with little flames dancing inside the letters of the title.  And it bothered me.  I contemplated saying something to this person (whom I don’t know at all) but I didn’t want to make her feel bad.  And I felt like I was overreacting to her light-hearted post.  After all, I myself once wrote a post entitled “Kids’ Books You Can Read without Wanting to Shoot Yourself in the Head,” without ever thinking my jocularity might trigger some unpleasant feelings for those who love people who have actually shot themselves in the head (although not because of crappy kids’ books).
It just goes to show that you never really understand things until they happen to you.  I mean, even when you say to people, “That must be so terrible.  I’m so sorry,” you don’t really know what it’s like–whatever IT happens to be.  You know it sounds awful, but you don’t know how awful.
Yesterday William remarked, “We’ve had our house burn down and we’ve also been robbed.  Those are two unusual things and they both happened to us.”  And truthfully sometimes it’s almost unbelievable to me that such a terrible life-changing event did, in fact, happen to us.
It happened a little more than three years ago now, and the anniversary passed without comment.  I thought about it a few days before, thinking about writing something, and then forgot on the actual day, because life goes on and life is busy.
But that post today brought back some of those feelings of loss, as do the all-too-frequent occurrences of fire-as-plot-device in the books I read.  People’s homes burn to the ground, and everyone is all like, “Oh, how terrible!  You lost everything!” and then they put them up somewhere and plans are made to rebuild or something, and everyone just happily moves on about after a day of sad.
I bet you’ve had the conversation, haven’t you?  The one where someone asks you what one thing you would save if your house was burning down, and you say, “My kids,” and they say, “Your kids are safe.  Pick a thing.”  I know I had that conversation and I think I always said I would save the (supposedly fireproof) box that contained the negatives for all our photos. Which ironically WAS saved after the fact, but it wasn’t waterproof, so that was a bust.
So I started thinking today, if I could go back in time, and save five things from that house before it burned down, and those five things didn’t have to be my children, what would I save?  The pictures didn’t even make the list, frankly.
The first thing that came to mind–and it came to mind immediately–was the pack of love letters that John wrote to me, at first every day, then less frequently, during the first year we were dating.  I kept them in a drawer in my bedroom, and I used to read them over, which he couldn’t stand because he found it embarrassing.  I know I’m just as glad all the letters I wrote to him aren’t around to be read in the future!  But after the fire when I thought of those letters, that was the closest I came to crying over anything I’d lost.
The next item was easy too.  I had a little board book which I kept next to my bed.  It was called Global Babies and it was the only thing I had bought for the baby we lost.  I used to hold that book and cry and cry.  I could buy another copy, and maybe someday I will, but it won’t be the same.
After that I had to think.  I had a box of things that were Mima’s.  There was some jewelry I had given her.  And a scarf that still smelled like her.  The program from her funeral.  At our Victorian house I had made kind of a little shrine to her with those things.  I would have liked to save that box.
And I wish I could have saved the bag of newborn baby clothes, the one that would have had things that belonged to both me and John when we were babies, as well as special blankets our babies were wrapped in, and the outfit they wore home from the hospital, and the sweet little fluffy snowsuit they all wore.  I would like to have those to hand down one day.
I couldn’t settle on a fifth thing, although it would probably be something wedding-related . . . and I’m not going to spend any more mental or emotional energy on it because it’s kind of pointless anyway, isn’t it?  The fact is, had I been there, I would have run around screaming gathering children and cats and wouldn’t have thought for a second about saving anything, I’m sure.
And it’s only just occurred to me as I’ve been writing that I haven’t given a single thought to five things I would save if by some cruel twist of fate THIS house were to burn down.
entire house 2

What Dreams May Come

Last night I dreamt that my family and I were standing outside our house (only, because this was a dream, it wasn’t THIS house, but rather the one I lived in from age 11 until I got married).  We heard that scary cracking sound that lets you know that a big tree branch is about to fall and quickly we all ran for cover, and then watched as an entire giant tree fell directly on the house.  Instead of knocking a hole where it fell, though, it FLATTENED the entire house like a pancake.
I love analyzing dreams and this one is an interesting mixture of what had happened to me yesterday and deep psychological stuff.  William had been begging me to watch the extended edition of   The Fellowship of the Ring with him, and I obliged him last night.  When the Nazgul enter Bree, they knock over the gate, flattening the porter.  Later, Saruman orders the destruction of Isengard, and enormous trees are soon toppling all over the place.  Hence the visual images of the dream.
Lorelei and I were selling cookies at Walgreens yesterday with the Brownie troop leader and her daughter.  I mentioned something about our fire, and the little girl had questions, and we talked about it for awhile, especially about all the things we lost.  Finally, I’ve been reading a book in which the main character’s loss of her home due to fire is a pretty major plot device.
An aside:  You probably won’t have noticed this, but it is pretty damn amazing how often people’s houses burn down in books.  It’s also unbelievable, from one who’s been there, how the incident gets glossed over in the rest of whatever book as the romance or whatever made them need to burn down the house in the first place continues.  The loss (except if a death occurs, of course) gets talked about for a couple of sentences and then everyone moves on.
Since I’m still dreaming about houses being destroyed, I have obviously not moved on.  During our conversation yesterday, Lorelei’s troop leader shared with me that she knows someone who 30 years post fire can’t bear to talk about memorabilia or pictures.  It’s just too painful.  That’s not me, but I understand.
In last night’s dream, Lorelei and William were concerned about their things being destroyed.  I, on the other hand, just kept saying, “Thank God we did not go in the house.”  I don’t remember feeling upset about the destruction itself at all.  A few months ago I dreamed our house burned down.  My mother had to break the news to me and I was like, “Are you serious? Again?”  What I remember feeling in that dream was not loss but embarrassment because people would probably be tired of helping us out by now.
I’m still not sure whether my current detachment from/reluctance to acquire material possessions is positive or negative.  Maybe both?  Anyway, writing about it helps me work it all out, so I hope I’m not boring you yet.
fire do not crosswhat remains

About Those Crocs . . .

Before the fire, my closet was overflowing, mostly with clothes I couldn’t fit in anymore but couldn’t bear to get rid of.  Seriously, I had the dress I wore when I graduated from college in there.
Truth to tell, most of the things I actually wore lived in a laundry basket sitting in the middle of my bedroom.  And most of my day-to-day wardrobe was . . . frumpy.
Because we were in Baltimore for a funeral when the house burned down, the four or so outfits I retained (I had consciously packed very lightly!) included some of my dressier items along with the t-shirts and yoga pants I brought along for the nine-hour drive.   I made do with this minimalist wardrobe for some time, going out to buy only the barest of necessities.
As I’ve slowly bought things, I have consciously tried to go with somewhat nicer-looking items than those I was wearing before (as far as the clothes I wear to be seen in, that is.  If you want to know the truth, at the moment I am wearing an exceedingly frumpy but cozy oversized Wal-Mart sweatshirt.).  And when anything I’ve purchased has made me feel dowdy after I’ve worn it a few times, I’ve promptly given it away.
I will probably be writing for years about the fire and how it has affected me.  I am not finished figuring it out yet and writing helps me do that.  One thing I know is that I get a strange satisfaction from looking at my nearly empty closet and mostly empty drawers.  Having lost everything I don’t see the point in collecting new things to get attached to.  I feel anxious looking at the huge amounts of stuff that everyone but me has already acquired in the last two years.  I enjoy filling up bags with Goodwill donations and getting them out of here.
030But none of that really explains the Crocs, does it?
The fire left me with one pair of shoes, I believe–my black summer sandals.  And then my hiking boots were rescued from the basement.  Which was a shame, because I have trouble finding comfortable shoes that fit, let alone that are stylish.  I have very flat feet so every attempt at heels ends up with me kicking them off and walking around barefooted for the rest of the night.    I originally wore size 9.5 N.  Many companies skip the larger half sizes, and they also seem to assume that if your feet are long they are wide also.  A 10 M used to fall right off my foot, so most of my shoes had to have straps of some kind.
After five kids, I probably measure more like 10.5.  So that means I have to buy size 11, and I don’t know of you’ve happened to look at that section of your local Payless, but blink and you’ll miss it.  And let’s just add the latest twist, which is that for the past several years I have been experiencing unilateral edema, so that while my right foot remains narrow, my left one varies from narrow to wide, depending.  (Depending on what?  No clue, really.)
This house has wall-to-wall carpet.  So after years of wearing shoes indoors because of gritty hardwood floors (What?  Yours aren’t gritty?  I hate you.) I now go barefooted inside to minimize staining (WHY IS ALL CARPET BEIGE OR TAUPE OR CREAM?  WHO THOUGHT THAT WOULD BE A GOOD IDEA?).  I have a pair of slip on shoes outside my garage door and outside my front door for quick trips when I don’t want to go all the way upstairs to put on my shoes.
Now, William apparently has some sensory issues and the only shoes he can stand to put on his feet are Crocs.  For about two years now, we have just bought a new pair when the current ones wear out.  And one of his pairs broke a strap recently.  William being William, he left them outside on the front porch, and one day I slid my feet into them because they looked like they would be just my size.
They were!  And they stay on, and are completely flat, and don’t hurt my feet when I walk (I get plantar fascitis from time to time on top of my other woes.).  All anyone ever says about Crocs is how ugly they are.  No one ever told me they would be so comfortable.
At first, I just slipped them on to drive William to school.  Then I wore them on one of my walks up and down the street.  Then for a quick trip to the grocery store.  Pretty soon I was even wearing them IN FRONT OF PEOPLE, when I picked Lorelei up from school.
What I haven’t done is buy new ones in colors to match my clothes.  Yet.

Spring Cleaning

Winter cleaning doesn’t sound right, and actually it was fall when we did it, but we (mostly me) thoroughly cleaned out our garage a couple of weekends ago in preparation for the arrival of the contents of Grandma’s house. [Update:  And I will be doing it again this week in preparation for the things we are getting as a result of my mother-in-law’s move to an apartment.]
Shortly after we moved in last September, we went to the storage space we had rented right after the house burned down and retrieved our belongings (except for our patio furniture and three other pieces we saved from the basement, it all fit in a 5 x 5 unit).  We brought the boxes home and put them in the garage, and there they sat for over a year.  Why?  Because they were boxes of movies and books (many, many books) that escaped burning but were thoroughly blackened with soot.
I’ve hated going into the garage because of the smell of fire.  And it was hard opening the boxes that had been closed, because the smell was even stronger.  But it was also good, because I found some things I did not know had been saved.  And even though it will blacken my hands to read them, I still can, if I want to.
The books that were in the basement were children’s books (left behind because at some point I got overwhelmed and just wanted to leave), homeschooling books, and series we had collected:  Star Trek (tons of these), Agatha Christie (I had them all!), Patricia Cornwell, Anne Tyler, and a few others.  We cleaned and covered the basement shelves, and now they are all out where I can see them.
Star Trek Books
And now that it’s done, you know what?  The fire smell is going away!

Embracing Change

I don’t like change.  I never have liked change, and anyone who knows me well knows this about me.  Now I would assume that it would be hard on ANYONE to lose every single personal possession to fire, to have to move into a new house with all new things in it, but it’s got to be even worse for a person who is resistant to change, right?
For a long time I felt kind of like a stranger in my own home, like I was just staying in a really nice hotel.
But my bedroom was different.  It quickly began to feel like home, safe, a sanctuary.  The furniture we were given for that room is nice furniture–French Provincial in style, like the bedroom set I grew up with (gone in the fire because it had been passed down to Emily), but made, I think, of walnut.  Someone gave me a bedspread that was just like one of Mima’s that I had.  I put out Mima’s afghans that had come back to me.  I filled the room with books.
Most of the furniture we lost in the fire was antique or at least vintage, most of it acquired from my friend Antoinette’s store, Myrtle’s Mess.  It exactly suited our Victorian house, and it suited my taste as well.  We had pieces from many eras, and I grew to love the Art Deco style.  We had a cabinet radio, two bureaus, and a wardrobe for this era.  They were scattered about the house but I cherished a vision of the future when these pieces would be united in one room and maybe I would get more of them.  My Granny had the waterfall style pieces in her bedroom, which may have been one reason I felt drawn to this style.
Now, John’s grandmother had an absolutely gorgeous bedroom set.  Below are pictures I took of it right after her funeral.  You can just ignore that person who appears in the mirror. 😉
I had coveted that furniture for YEARS, and Grandma knew it, too.  She had told me directly that I could have it when she was gone.
And last weekend was the unexpectedly early moving day.
Problem was, when I took the above pictures, I had JUST FOUND OUT (like, less than 24 hours before) that my house had been burned to the ground, that I had nothing and that I was homeless.  Whereas, now, I’ve been living in this house, in my sanctuary bedroom, for over a year.  And whenever I started thinking about the new furniture coming, I started feeling strange, almost panicky, like I even might start to cry.  And yet I knew I loved and had always wanted the furniture, and that moreover ours is the only suitable room for it in the house.
I understand what was going on with me psychologically, that the resident furniture was a comfort to me in a traumatic time and that was why it was so hard to let go of.  But those feelings definitely added to the stress of last weekend, as did memories awakened by the cleaning out of the garage (the subject of my next post, probably).
But I did it.  I embraced change, and in a day or so I will have pictures of my newly-decorated room to share.

Give Thanks in All Circumstances

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” I Thessalonians 5:18
I first encountered that quotation as a child when reading The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom.  Corrie and her sister Betsie have been imprisoned in a concentration camp for hiding Jews in their Amsterdam home.  One day Betsie reads this Bible verse and declares that she and Corrie are going to thank God for everything about the situation they find themselves in, like the fact that they have been assigned together, that there was no inspection so that they retained the Bible, even the crowded condition of the barracks which will mean more women with whom to share God’s word.  But when Betsie starts giving thanks for the fleas in the barracks, Corrie objects: “Not even God can make me grateful for a flea!”  Her sister reminds her that the words were “give thanks in ALL circumstances,” not just in pleasant ones, and adds that “fleas are part of this place where God has put us.”
Betsie’s faith is justified when the soldiers who routinely rape the women in the other barracks avoid their unit because of the fleas.
I haven’t reached the point yet of thanking God that our house burned down.  Maybe I will someday.  But for now it is enough to recognize some of the very real blessings that would never have come our way otherwise.  Today I am thinking about the blessings of friendship.
I think of a couple at church who were barely acquaintances before and became our friends because they offered us office space to use until we found somewhere else to live and work.  I think of a friend whom I had not talked to in a while, and his wife whom I had met only once, who went above and beyond with gifts and time and financial assistance and concern.  I think of people whom I knew at our kids’ schools, especially football parents, whose kindness and support has bridged my innate shyness to make me feel closer to them.  I think of my new next door neighbor, whom I would never have met if I had not moved here, and the book club she invited me to be a part of, and the many fun evenings I have spent in her company.
And I think of YOU, my dear online friends, especially those in the blogging world.  Because the fire made me blog more–I HAD to write, to process this experience:  I am still processing it, obviously.  And I don’t think I would have become as involved in these online communities if it had not been for the fire.  Being online was a comforting refuge, something familiar and safe when things were strange.
I love this month of Thanksgiving, and the challenge that so many of us strive to meet to post on Facebook each day something to be thankful for.  It can be life-changing to realize that no matter how bad things seem there is always, always something to be thankful for.

The Things That Really Matter

Closet space.  Is there ever enough of it?  There were next to no closets in our Victorian house.  We purchased three armoires from Myrtle’s Mess for the bedrooms, and crammed them so full the doors would barely close. (John’s enormous oak armoire is one of three pieces of furniture salvaged from the fire.)
So we were excited when we moved into what the kids now call “the burnt down house” to distinguish it from “the old house” and “our first house.”  I had a walk-in (or at least “step-in”) closet and John appropriated the closet in the office for his clothes.  (Teddy still had to use the armoire, which is why it was in the basement and survived the flames; the other two were stored in the garage.)
And we crammed those closets full.  Mine had clothes in several sizes, even some things that were twenty years old.  Some I hoped to wear again one day, some had purely sentimental value.  There were old pocketbooks, and scarves, and lots of shoes.   And of course I had a dresser crammed full of socks and underwear and t-shirts.  And an overflowing laundry basket with the clothes I wore most of the time, which never seemed to get put away.
It sounds strange to say that the timing of Grandma’s death was a blessing, but it was.  Not only did it probably save our lives, since we were all out of the house when it exploded into flames, but it meant that we all had several days’ worth of clothes with us (and our computers!).  The clothes I took to Baltimore (and wouldn’t you know I had tried to pack as light as possible) were all that I had.
It didn’t take long before our kids had more clothes than we knew what to do with.  Family had already started buying things for Jake and Teddy before John and I and the little kids made it back to Knoxville.  Donations poured in from near and far on a daily basis.  Lorelei ended up with a wardrobe fit for a little princess.
John did not do badly either.  Thanks to my cousin Melissa, who works in a medical practice, he ended up with a closet full of doctors’ dress clothes (which are pretty much the same as attorneys’ dress clothes!).  She also gave took him on a shopping trip in Uncle Charlie‘s closet.  He did have to buy a couple of new suits, but he soon had more clothes than he started with!
I had a harder time.  Much of what was donated either did not fit or did not suit me.  And although I had some gift cards, beyond replacing absolute necessities I never seemed to make the time to shop.
When we went to look at houses to rent, realtors would talk up the storage aspect and I would just laugh, because we had nothing left to store.  Our new house sports a walk-in closet so big you could hang out in it (and in fact sometimes I do read in there at night!).  Until my last trip to Walmart (when I added about three outfits) this is what my side of the closet looked like:

I have a dresser that actually has EMPTY DRAWERS.  I don’t own enough underwear to make it through the week.
Now this is not a pity-party or an attempt to solicit gift cards.  🙂  I held onto a Christmas gift card for several months before I finally went shopping.  The point is that I have been trying to sort out in my own head what I have learned in the past year, what it all means.  Because if something like that happens to you and you don’t at least get some wisdom from it, that would really suck, right?
So one thing I am learning is what THINGS (in the literal sense of the word) matter to me.  And clearly clothes don’t rank high on that list.  It’s probably no surprise to anyone to find out what does, what I already have more of than I can use, what I accumulate more of weekly.

Standing outside the Fire

I’ve written this post in my head dozens of times, each one different.  It’s an anniversary, and I knew I should–that I wanted to, NEEDED to–commemorate it in some way.  But should I talk about what I’ve learned?  The good things it brought about? Just start off with “one year ago today”?  Reassure everyone (and myself) that everything is okay now?  Shoot for inspiring, or tragic?
Maybe my confusion stems from the fact that I haven’t fully processed it yet.  That there are days when I think–or even say–“I just can’t believe that happened to us.”  Not out of self-pity, but in honest disbelief because it seems unreal at times–almost magical.  Everything changed–everything GONE–in a few minutes’ time.  Maybe I haven’t been “standing outside the fire” long enough to know exactly what it all means–and maybe it’s going to take more than one anniversary post to sort it all out.
So let’s start with this:  one year ago today, I woke up in Baltimore, fully expecting that the next day, after the funeral, I would be returning here:
Not here:
But that’s what happened.

Thank Heaven for Little Girls

I love sharing pictures of my new house with you and I hope you like seeing how far we’ve come since September.  The reason these postings are few and far between is that the rooms have to be clean before I photograph them (got to keep it Pinterest safe!).
Today’s feature is Lorelei’s room.  Her room makes me really happy because it is a blend of a few salvaged things from our old life and new things that were given with so much love.
I also love it because she’s seven and it’s about time she had a nice room to call her own.  When she was born we still lived in our big Victorian house.  There were four generous bedrooms and one small one–so guess who didn’t have a room of her own?  Not that she cared–she slept in bed with Mommy and Daddy, we kept her clothes in a dresser in William’s room, and her toys were in a basket in the den.  We were excited when we moved to the next house–there was a small room just right for Lorelei.  There were problems, though.  No closet–except for the utility one with the leaky, noisy AC equipment.  Her room was part of what had originally been a mother-in-law apartment, which meant she had to go through Teddy’s room to get to hers–and Teddy did not always want her barging in.  Finally, it was a long way to Mommy in the middle of the night!  Inevitably, she ended up sleeping with us again.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Her room suffered only water and smoke damage, so we saved a few things, some of them quite precious, as you will see in the pictures.
This picture (one of a pair) hung on the wall of my Uncle Walter’s nursery, just about 100 years ago.   My grandmother unearthed them when my little sister was a baby, and they hung in her room throughout her childhood.  When we moved to the Victorian house, we put them in William’s room (he was the baby then).  I don’t even remember why, but they were not hanging up at the time of them fire, but were in a sheltered spot in the basement where they suffered very little damage.  My middle sister had them reframed behind special glass to preserve these treasures and now I have them back–the only family heirloom I have left.

Detail from the picture above

Here’s another picture that made it.  Actually all the pictures on Lorelei’s walls were saved, but most have now been relocated to other ares in the house–including a couple now in the room of their original owner, big sister Emily.
One of the very first people to respond with concrete assistance after the fire was Laura, a friend from law school days whose generosity I wrote of in an earlier post.   Her little girl is growing up and was ready to part with her four poster bed and matching mirror, and her Disney Princess lamp.  And Laura loaded all this up in a U-Haul trailer and drove to and from Nashville (that’s six hours round trip, folks) less than a week after the fire.  Did I mention that we had not even seen her in over ten years?  I hope it won’t be that long until we see her and her family again.

A bed needs a mattress and sheets and pillows and such, of course, and those were provided by friends from church.  They had them ready long before we had a house to set them up in.  Aren’t they pretty?  And other people provided spares, both old and new.
We used an end table (and where it came from I couldn’t say) but we still needed a dresser.  Enter more Good Samaritans!  If you live in Knoxville you’ll have heard of The Brown Squirrel furniture store.  I’ve been hearing the commercials my whole life!  And its owners have kids at KCHS.  Mrs. Matthews came by the house with a notebook and a measuring tape, asking what we still needed.  Within a couple of days, we had a dresser and a rocking chair.

Note the afghan, another treasure salvaged from Lorelei’s room. It’s the one Mima made for Teddy’s crib.

One last piece of furniture rounds out the room–the fanciful bookshelf below, which was a gift to Emily on her–I think–seventh birthday.  I did the best I could, but it’s still a little sooty.  Like so much of the furniture we once had, it came from Myrtle’s Mess.

Oh, and did I mention the closet?  No one likes to think of a little girl having all her pretty clothes burn up.  When it came to donated clothes, Lorelei won the jackpot.  I had friends I’ve never even met in real life mailing her boxes of beautiful things.  So thank goodness that her new room also has a walk-in closet!

Here is Lorelei on her very first night in a new bed in a new room in a new house:

Just don’t ask me where she sleeps now.