This was my home — Reflections on the Valley Fire

valley-fire_David-Thiessen_courtesy
David Thiessen/Courtesy

Small things take on great significance in hindsight.

For Labor Day weekend, I headed up to my parents’ home to decompress. I was one week into the new semester and should have sequestered myself in a back room with my books — but I couldn’t. My calendar for the imminent future was packed, and I didn’t know when I’d be back to the house. Dad had also just returned from Sacramento, where he works during the summer. Saturday had brought an autumn chill, so he built a fire in the fire pit, and we propped our feet around it, breathing in the smell of campfire and pine as we conversed over margaritas and watched the light show incidentally cast over the mountain by the setting sun.

Dad and a handful of volunteers devoted Sunday morning to installing signs he had made for an interpretive trail at the elementary school. Mum told me the trail was an especially nice one, so I made a mental note to visit it in the near future, maybe while the leaves were turning. The summer heat returned for what we hoped was a last hurrah, so we spent the afternoon at the community pool for potentially the last swim of the season. I sat on the grass, staring at the white, domed roof of the enclosing structure, framed against green-peaked mountains and towering pines as I soaked in the cinematic beauty of the scene. In the evening, Dad put on music while he and Mum gradually infused the house with smells of gravy and parmesan and other delectable aromas. I danced in the living room to Celtic instrumentals, safely embraced by the honey-pine walls of our home.

On Monday, Dad placed a large poster board in front of me, curious if I’d remember it. It was plastered with cutout drawings, poetry and a fictional biography I had created in grade school. Though I could not have summoned any recollection without this tangible evocation, one glimpse transported me back decades. I could feel the plastic scissors in my hands, smell the Elmer’s glue, remember the view from the stage when I’d delivered my speech. We talked about how hilarious it was to still have it on hand, how impractical it was to keep and how impossible it was to let go of. We all agreed that we should have these things digitally scanned in the future for easier storage. Then we put it away in the attic.

On Tuesday, I should have returned to the valley, the city, the hamster wheel that is life when you’re attempting to establish one. But I wasn’t ready. The hour of departure ticked by as I sat on the couch, engrossed in conversation from which the lecture hall failed to lure me. I guess I am still not quite a grown-up. “One more day,” my inner child protested as my inner adult hit the snooze.

That evening, we watched a film in the little-used room that was recently converted into the ghost of my grandparents’ cabin. My last remaining grandparent passed away last year, and after moving all of his things into our house, our basement has now become his living room. We sat on my grandparents’ living room chairs, watching a film on their television under the glow of the living room lamps my grandma made. Surrounded by their treasures, I was transported to the favorite place of my childhood, ensconced within the warmth of that sacred place as though it had never changed.

On Wednesday, as I prepared to depart, I gathered some towels that had been folded in a corner of my bedroom. Underneath them was a brand new drawing tablet I had received for my birthday. It was waiting until I could afford a computer that could accommodate it. This, in turn, was nested within a brand new bike basket, which was waiting until I could afford the accompanying rack. These I looked at wistfully for a moment and then left where they were.

On Sept. 12, my parents were preparing for a dinner party when the plumes of smoke first appeared beyond the deck. Just as they’d begun loading the car, the sheriff arrived with an order to leave. The fire had begun a few blocks away. It exploded to 40,000 acres within hours. By evening, the media were referring to our entire town in the past tense.

That night, I lay in bed, mentally wandering the walls of my family home, taking inventory. Family pictures on the walls with no digital counterpart — my parents sitting on a grassy hill before they were married; my uncle Bob, who died in the war; grandparents and great-grandparents; our favorite family portrait from that time we took Mum on the Napa wine train.

I see my dad’s National Geographic magazines, which he’s been collecting for my lifetime. I see his handmade furniture. I see the globe my granddad used to hold in his hands, tracking our travels on a map with his finger. I see all of my mother’s original paintings, her handwritten journals, her correspondences with her deceased sister. I see the letter composed in crayon that my militantly unsentimental dad kept in his cabinet. I see the antique medicine bottles we found in an old shed, still sealed with 100-year-old tablets inside. I see our childhood schoolwork and toys. I see the furniture that my mum made layaway payments for months upon end to afford.

The newspaper has posted pictures of complete devastation. It releases statements that “all is gone” within a 3-mile radius, at which we stand near the center. I spend hours scouring the Internet for any comment, any photo, any shred of reference to our neighborhood — anything to give me the slightest clue, the merest hope that we still have a home. But the closer I get, the more remote seem the chances. A YouTube video of a burning building is identified to be across from ours. A resort down the block is reduced to smoldering embers. As I walk through the halls of my family home in my mind, I desperately want to reach out and grab the things I can still clearly picture — snatch them out of the past and into permanence. But a new reality is taking shape. I see myself standing in a field of ash. My existence is suddenly defined by a photo of a sign hung askance from a once-charming trellis, now isolated in a barren landscape. It reads, “This is where I belong.” My past is gone. Everything has been erased, and all that remains is pencil dust.

A few weeks ago, my mum was trying to place a tray on a shelf just out of reach above the dishwasher. It fell and struck a handmade ceramic mug, which she had won in a Christmas raffle at the gallery where she used to work. It reminded her of the community she’d belonged to, and she still drank her morning coffee from it every day. It broke under the impact. My mum has lost a lot in recent years. She’s lost her sister to cancer and her parents, more recently, to age and disease. What little remains of happier times becomes priceless, anchoring us to memories ever more remote. It was just one mug, but it was also an era. It had a value impossible to express.

It was just one mug, worthy of grief.

Where do you begin to grieve for a household?

At 12:27 p.m. on Sept. 14, I received photographic confirmation, courtesy Adian Minty, that our house was among the properties to survive the firestorm. We were literally on the perimeter of the fireline. The title of this post is taken from a lyric that was running through my head during the two days I thought all was lost. This post is dedicated to the real victims of the Valley Fire and other natural disasters, who are still faced with this momentous reality. I wish for you strength of spirit and speed of healing. May fortune find the worst is behind us.