Tag Archives: House Fire

The House Fire Chronicles: Homecoming

images[3]Just over a year ago, I went for a walk out in the bright autumn sunshine to survey the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  Though the fall colors were still vivid, the trees’ angles were all wrong.  Trees should be vertical, yet most tilted; many lay horizontal—a fall against the road having crushed someone’s  wrought iron fence.  The horror of it was breathtaking: all these magnificent sycamores and sugar maples and oaks, felled overnight to be sliced up and carted away in chunks.

Today, as I drive my son to school, what I notice most about the trees that still stand are the colors themselves.  What is breathtaking is the way they’ve burst into fiery reds and oranges, gold against the sparkling sunlight.  Life, they tell us—the seasonal cycle of our corner of the planet—continues.  And just because it is the anniversary of that natural disaster, when lives were lost as well as trees, doesn’t mean the survivors won’t put on their annual splendor.

A year ago, I had just learned that my house had been mostly consumed by a fire.  I was trying to keep my children calm and recreate some new normal for them, while my husband dealt with the insurance company and the fire department, and we both searched for a place to live.

We were not alone.  Countless others in the region had their homes destroyed by winds and floods, as well as some fires.  Schools were closed for days.  Most everyone had lost power.  Even those whose homes were unscathed had to regroup as the rest of us figured out how to rebuild our lives.

We have been among the lucky ones.  Our insurance was sound.  Fire, I’m told, is insured more easily and completely than flood or wind damage.  There were three categories of coverage: non-use, which meant our rent was covered, when we found a temporary home—contents, which referred to everything that was lost that we’d need to replace—and lastly, construction, which meant the costs of fire/smoke remediation (which was extensive) as well as rebuilding and renovating.

The good news is that one year, less one day following our fire, we moved back home.  My children slept in their old-new rooms in their new beds.  Our home was beautiful to me before, though nothing had been changed or renovated since it was built in 1958, but now, renewed and polished, redecorated, with the gracious aid of our friend Gina (and do check out her site, By Design Interiors) it kind of blows me away.

Here is the dining room before:

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And here it is today:

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The leaves are falling outside, but for us, it is the season of renewal.

On the eve of our homecoming, while I was shuttling our belongings from the rental to our “real” house, I had a moment of identity confusion, similar to what happened when I first saw the effects of the fire: where am I?  where do I belong?  Oh, yes, here.  Home.  For real.

There are so many still displaced by the hurricane.  Still homeless, still being shuffled from shelter to hotel and back again.  I listen to their stories on NPR while chauffeuring my kids around.  I know all those other mothers want for their kids what I wanted—what I have—for mine.  Normalcy.  Space to breathe and play, somewhere to put the donated items they’ve received during the course of the year.  This year we’ve been recipients of generosity but we’ve also done what we could to give back, making donations to the Red Cross and other organizations that help hurricane survivors, including those in Haiti (even harder hit than we were).  But we can’t give these families what they need most: Permanence.  I now have an inkling of what it’s like to crave that.

Sometimes I think, what did I do to deserve to survive this so easily?  Of course the answer is nothing.  We have amazing friends; there aren’t enough words to express our gratitude.  We have good insurance.  As I said, we are lucky.   And lately I fall asleep at night with this phrase on my lips: Thank you.

The House Fire Chronicles: The Things I Wore

Serving cake in my favorite purple sweater

Serving cake in my favorite purple sweater

I don’t write about clothes.  I’m not a fashionista; I don’t think I’m qualified to give anyone wardrobe tips.  But I’ve had to think about clothing—my clothing—a whole lot in the little-less-than-a-year since our fire.

What a strange almost year it’s been.  Living in a house that isn’t mine, several blocks away from the house that is mine.  So close to home but not home at all.  Everyone asks about the house (it’s coming along nicely; we’ll move back very soon) and about the kids (doing great considering.) Everyone asks how our insurance has been (pretty good—not perfect) and of course how we all are.  We’re doing really well, given the whirlwind it’s been.  I haven’t written about the fire for months and months, mostly because after the first few posts, I couldn’t.  I was sick of hearing myself talk about it.  I just needed to live and take care of my family and make the best of the situation we were in.  We’ve been so lucky, to have insurance that really took care of us, for friends that helped in too many ways to count.  For the supportive schools my kids are in, both of which cushioned the blow.  We are beyond grateful for this community.  We are more than fine.  My family is whole and mostly healed and poised to move back into our new-old house.

I wrote early on about the mementos and pictures and trinkets we managed to save.  Enough of us for us to feel like ourselves.  As for the little things we no longer have, we think of wistfully of them from time to time and move on.  Things occur to us, like the wall where we’d marked off our children’s increasing heights over the years.  We’ll never get that back.  But for everything we lost, it seems like there are many more important things we recovered.  Pieces of our identity.

But for me, there’s something I realize I’m still mourning just a bit.  My clothes.  My boots and dresses and silly sweaters and jeans that might have been sort of out of date but who cared?  The things I put on every day that went into making me me.

There were the a-line skirts I’d bought in the 1990s at the Limited, which had held up for some reason.  There was the blazer I’d bought before my daughter was born, at a stoop sale in Brooklyn Heights, tweed, hip-length, by some German designer, which was just about the most flattering thing I’d ever owned.  It went with anything, could turn my casual-mom outfits into work-ready ensembles in the blink of an eye.  Utilitarian sweaters in abundance, one for every mood, every configuration of my body image, every kind of weather.  And dresses, little black ones, flowing, floral ones, more dresses than I needed, but a memory was tied to each.

Right after the fire, the insurance company gave us a lump sum that we were to use right away, a short term advance to replace what we needed immediately.  The fire took place right after Hurricane Sandy, on November 2nd.  Winter was coming, so what we needed were warm clothes.  For my kids, this meant replacing hoodies, easily done since the cut of zip-up sweatshirts doesn’t fluctuate much from year to year.  But I needed sweaters, and found nothing anywhere to replace a single one I’d lost.  (When I shop, first stop for me is always Target, then Kohl’s, before I’ll even consider moving up to Bloomingdales.)  All the sweaters I found were drape-y and thin: no buttons, not even a zipper to close and keep in the body heat.  Otherwise they were skimpy and low-cut with funny, asymmetrical ties.

Here’s the truth: I’d expected to show up at a store and find ALL MY OLD CLOTHES, waiting for me cheerfully from their racks, as if to say: Surprise!  Here we are!  We weren’t in the fire after all!  And there would be a big reunion.  Me and those amazing, quintessentially-Lisa wardrobe finds dating back to 1989.

Of course it wasn’t like that.  Nothing on the racks felt very much like me.  I spent the winter, and then the spring, in a few basics from the Gap and some hand-me-downs from a friend who is close to my size but way more fashionable.  It will take time to rebuild my closet, adapting what I have of a fashion sense to what there is out there now.  Slowly but surely I’m doing it.

I know I am very fortunate; our insurance company was good in terms of content loss.  This isn’t about money; it’s about missing old, faithful duds, my reluctance to replace them with strangers.  Almost a year later, I still remember how each piece felt, how it looked, what it went with.   Some of them I still see in the photographs we salvaged—not always flattering, but a record nonetheless of what I once wore.

House Fire Chronicles: A Very Brief Update

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This beautiful painting by Zoe was on the wall in our playroom.

Thank you all so much for your kind wishes, hugs, prayers, meals, gifts and really fabulous hand-me-downs (I love Montclair!).  We are so grateful to the wonderful friends who gave us their comfortable third floor for the past month.  We are also missing them a little bit now, as we’ve moved into a rental house that is just about two blocks away from our actual house.  We feel very lucky, even though the day we moved in here some men in trucks arrived to dig a huge hole in the front lawn in preparation to clean up an oil leak (this originated from the neighbor’s tank which was removed about a year ago).  I write this, by the way, to the beat of a jackhammer outside my window.  No biggie;  it will all be over in a week or two, the guy smoking a cigarette on my porch tells me.  Besides, I have to say again, I am so grateful to be here, this close to home.   It meant a lot to me that, while we’re waiting to move back (a year from now), our orientation to the town is basically the same as usual.  Close to school, close to neighbors, close to the construction, which should begin sometime soon.  Zoe is back on her old school bus and both kids are right around the corner from their friends. 

This would be more heartbreaking, I think, had our place just burned to the ground with all our stuff inside.    Instead, all our stuff is mostly intact, caked with soot, ground through with smoke-stench, but still there.  In a strange way, this has given me a chance to say goodbye.     

 Though the air inside good old 14 Victoria is really not safe to breath, though it is a darkened horror show, full of broken glass and other hazards, every few days, I put on a mask and sneak in to see what treasures I can rescue—a drawing that’s not too charred, an old favorite stuffed animal (I was able to scrub it fairly clean in the machine, though it still smells like smoke), a bra (seriously).  My clandestine game of search and rescue is coming to a close soon.   The place has been picked over and inventoried and assessed by salvage and content experts one of whom eloquently declared our stuff to be “toast.”  Read: not worth trying to salvage.  Which we’re now ready to hear I think, ready to move on. 

The next stage I think, is demolition.  Or something like it.  Stay tuned.  A phoenix is on the horizon.

My apologies for not blogging much these days, not following much and posting the same thing on FB and WP.  It’s not just a case of laziness or being overwhelmed.  I am writing, though mostly my book—which is keeping me sane—and limiting the time I spend at the computer.  The kids need it more.  And me.

Love,

Lisa

The House Fire Chronicles: Why I Almost Kidnapped Someone’s Dog

It is a strange feeling, for a mostly home mom to be displaced, living with your family in the home of another family with another mostly home mom.  My host is the best imaginable.  Not only is she generous enough to put us up while we look for alternate housing for the year (minimum) that it will take to rebuild our house, she is also flexible enough to let my family’s schedule and quirks melt naturally into the flow of hers.  Somehow a routine is forming for us all.  If your house is destroyed in a fire and your kids are in school and you need time to find a big-enough-for-four, comfortable-enough-to live-in-for-a-year rental, there simply could not be a better situation.

Still, the fact remains that I cannot go home.  Not all the way.  I can go look at my home, I can smell my home, but I cannot provide a life for my family there.  And that’s a big piece of my mother-identity, on hold until we can go back.

People are amazed at how upbeat I seem, how well I’m taking it, how calm  I am.  They say this because I am not usually calm.  I am normally type A, with a long checklist of daily rituals and  requirements—for exercise, productivity, family care—in order for  the day to count.  But now that I’m removed from all that, I am indeed surprisingly calm.  I’m able to be so thanks to our god-sent host family and also to the fact that I have to be calm for the sake of my kids.

Still, the loss hits me in strange ways when I least expect it.  For example, our local paper ran an article about someone else’s generator fire.  In it was a flippant mention of another freak fire that had taken place the week before.     Something about “a house fire, just last week, when a family went out, leaving a lighted candle.”   By “a family,” I realized they meant us.

We hadn’t gotten the fire report yet, so it was news to us that we’d left a lighted candle.  The truth was we’d blown the candles out before going upstate and checked the house twice for stray ones.  However, there was one big pillar candle, a fat one—the kind you don’t think you need a base for—which we had blown out, but apparently NOT WELL ENOUGH.   There was still an ember, deep inside where we didn’t see it, an ember just strong enough to reignite.  It took all day and probably most of the next night to melt all the way down to the dining room table, for the wax to melt, serving as an accelerant, igniting the table, which burned through the floor, which fell into the basement, and so on, and so on.

But we didn’t know that yet, and reading the quote in the paper felt so demoralizing.  Careless couple torches own houseGoes up state to do laundry.

This enormous sense of helplessness hit me while I was driving, running some post-fire errand.  Helplessness because I could not undo this horrible thing, which was such a fluke, after all.  Helplessness because it was now something that felt so public casting a harsh, cold light on what should have been our private pain and loss.  Helplessness, because no matter which way I drove, I could not drive home.

As I came to one of the town centers, I noticed a small, white dog—a poodle mix of some kind, running across the street.  She was alone, no Frisbee in her mouth, no leash dragging behind her.  She scurried through the traffic, now up on the sidewalk, now back into the vehicular current.   Clearly frightened, she ran in circles; I was terrified that she’d get hit.  Now I noticed three young men in pursuit of her, meaning to stop her and keep her safe, but the dog didn’t understand.  All she knew was that three big humans with deep voices were chasing her.  She turned a corner and they followed.  I thought fast, made a three point turn (on a busy street), and drove around the other way, where I hoped to head the dog off and save her myself.  Surely she wouldn’t be afraid of a nice lady with a soft mommy voice, right?

Suddenly I knew: I had to save this little dog, whom I took for a stray.  I wanted to take her home, though I myself had none to share with her.  It didn’t matter; I had children, a husband; we were the perfect family for this animal (who looked like a non-shedding mix, which would be okay for Jon and Zoe’s allergies).  In fact, it was kismet that I had seen her on this day, of all days.  She was my phoenix, rising from the ashes of our home.

The morning after we learned our house had been destroyed, before we returned to New Jersey to view the damage, my husband and I had taken our kids to brunch at a little Rhinebeck diner.  We’d been talking about the year ahead: where we would live?  What we would do, while our home was being rebuilt?  We’d all cried and bemoaned the loss and now were at a new stage of grief: crisis management and making the best.  Without consulting one another, my husband and I had made the same, seemingly spontaneous promise to the children:

“When this is all over and we move back in, we’re getting a dog.”  The ultimate silver lining, as far as the kids were concerned.   My gaze had met Jon’s over the remains of an omelet.  Did we mean this?  Yes we did.

It wasn’t that spontaneous an idea.  Unbeknownst to the kids, we’d been thinking of it for almost a year, but now, we felt suddenly ready.   Partly, it was the loss of our gerbils in the fire, the tiny triumvirate who were themselves dog-placeholders.   But the fantasy of family life, complete with dog, somehow eased our homesickness.  As if having a dog in place would make our new home more solid than the one we’d lost.

The runaway pup had disappeared around the corner of Walnut and Christopher, where there was a big, leaf-covered schoolyard.   Once I’d made my illegal three-point turn, I sped ahead, whipped around Label Street and then onto Christopher, anticipating that the dog would be running toward me.  She was, with the three young guys still in hot pursuit.  I stopped abruptly, which startled the dog.  She froze, staring at my car.  I got out, approaching her slowly, one hand extended, addressing her in the gentlest tone I could, as I might talk to a lost toddler.  The guys followed my lead, but this seemed to make the dog even more uneasy.  She cowered just a little, black eyes darting from me to the guys and back.  I asked if they knew her; one guy said he’d seen her
around.   But when he took a bold step toward her, the little dog growled at him.   The young man jumped back as his friends chuckled.

“Uh—she really doesn’t like people.”

I refused to believe it.

“Hi sweetheart,” I said, keeping my voice high and soft.  But she was afraid of me too:  the crazy lady with a minivan who seemed to be sniffling for some reason.  I knelt and repeated my words until she began inching toward me, meaning to sniff my outstretched hand, anxiously seeking  someone to trust.   How I wanted to be that someone.  But then, one of the guys made a sudden move which spooked her again.  The dog bolted, ran through the school yard, across the street and up the front steps of a house on the far corner.   By the time we caught up with her, she was pawing at the door, though no one seemed to be home.  The guy who knew the dog explained: he’d seen her there before and thought she lived there.

So the dog had a home, a rundown little home where no one seemed to be missing her at the moment, but still, a home with toys out front: a red wagon, a Little Tikes house and truck.  A home with children.  And now I could see that the dog had a collar and tag: a red, heart-shaped tag.   Someone had taken the care to provide her with that.

Finally–since no one seemed to want to harm her–the dog allowed one of the guys to get close to her.  First he let her sniff his hand, then gently he patted her.  She didn’t growl or otherwise object, though her tail did not wag.  The guy rose to ring the doorbell.  We all waited.  No one came.  The dog seemed to relax nevertheless, trust growing; we might be her friends.

The guy rang the bell again and still, no one came, so he called the phone number on the dog’s tag.  By now, I knew they had her under control.  There was no reason for me to stay any longer.   I was glad the dog was safe, glad that I might have played a role in her rescue.  Though as I walked back to my car, I felt this overwhelming sense of empty-handedness.

Here was my real fantasy of the rescue: I whip my car around the corner of Label and Christopher, the little dog stops, unsure, but sensing a loving presence behind the darkened windshield.  I get out, slide open the side of my minivan, crouch down to her level and say:

Here, Sweet Doggie.  Come: be safe and loved.   I have a family who needs you, who have lost a home just like you have.  Together we can make a new one.

It doesn’t take much coaxing, because her instincts are strong and she understands truly who I am and what I mean.  With a little yip and a wag of her tail, she hops inside and rides shotgun as I bring her home to begin a new life for us all.

House Fire Chronicles: Saving Humpty Dumpty

November 11th, 2012:

Ventured into the house today—not all the way in, just a foot or two inside the front door, which stood wide open “airing the place out,” which, as I’ll explain in a moment, is a laughable impossibility.  The electricity is turned off in preparation for repairs to start, so the whole place is dark.  In this photograph, you can see all I saw.

I reached into the coat closet, which is still littered with our shoes, mostly mine:  about six pairs of soot-caked flipflops under the cover of all my soot-caked coats.  Now, I’ve been warned that even though a lot of our stuff looks “surprisingly okay,” it will never be usable again because of the persistent smoke odor.  It’s more than an odor, the fire inspector has explained (backed up by our former landscaper who—alarmingly—used to be an arson specialist).  According to these experts, all our stuff is so deeply penetrated by smoke, that the smoke has essentially changed the chemistry of each item so it is now actually part smoke.

There’s something very sci-fi about that but it seems to be true.  Yesterday, my husband brought a bin of Stuff-From-The-House over to the house we’re staying in.  He couldn’t bring it inside or our friends’ house would very quickly smell as if the fire had taken place here rather than there.

Jon told me to pick over the bin full of notebooks and school books, jewelry– mostly my daughter’s–and a few little chachkies, to see what might be usable.  A cloud of toxic dust rose into the air as I lifted the lid of the bin.  Gasping for breath, I rummaged, though it was clear that anything inside would need major rehabilitation before resuming its intended function.  But all my daughter’s beaded creations, acquisitions from Claire’s and friendship bracelets were in there, a memory attached to each.  If I could rescue just one trinket as a memento, I thought, just a pair of Zoe’s earrings; it would mean so much.  I gulped air as I hunted; the  soot and smoke smell from the bin’s contents was near asphyxiating.  Everything was thrown together and a uniform shade of dark grey, too, making it difficult to identify anything.  What I finally came away with were a pair of pink Eiffel Tower earrings from the Epcot Center.  So tiny, I thought, and so easy to clean.  Well, I scrubbed them for about fifteen minutes—black muck kept spewing from the diminutive crevices.  Each time I thought the earrings were clean, there was more.  Finally they sparkled.  Triumphantly, I presented them to Zoe.

“Do they smell?”  She asked, because even pre-fire, she was very sensitive to bad odors.

“I don’t think,” I said, not realizing that by this time I smelled just like the earrings and was past the point of noticing.

She smelled them herself.  “Yuck,” was the verdict.  She handed the earrings back.  I left them in the bathroom, but later returned to find that the whole place now smelled like an old man with a bad cigarette habit.  Just from those tiny earrings!  Into a Ziploc they went.

It occurred to me then that if these earrings couldn’t be salvaged, even after being cleaned to look like new, the job  of salvaging bigger stuff, of fumigating and reconstituting our home, is a bigger one than I’d thought.  Today I hauled my “go-to” every day boots  out of the coat closet, as well as my snow boots and (alas) only one of Zoe’s.  (I didn’t bother with Theo’s stuff because, number one: he’s not attached to any clothing and, number two: hand-me-downs have been raining down on him and on Jon since this happened; Theo has six pairs of snow boots now; Jon has five “pre-owned” new suits.)

I was so glad to get my boots out, even though I could see and smell that they’d function better as smokestacks now than garments.  But hey—they were black to begin with, right?  I’m putting them in a garbage bag and going to research online to see if there’s a fairy godmother for rescuing your favorite boots when they’ve been through a house fire.

What’s weird though, is how easy it is to get rid of the stuff that was just stuff.  From a whole toasted-up drawer of paraphernalia, to extract one special thing: a letter, a photograph, a rock with a tree painted on it and my son’s haphazard “THEO” crayoned on the bottom—and then to say: toss the rest without a single pang of regret.  We had so many things we didn’t need, I realize now.   This kind of reboot does nothing if not show you what really matters.

I have here (in a Ziploc) this one tiny composition book in which I recorded some sweet, early anecdotes about both children.  A treasure rescued.   It is worth more than all the wedding china that lies splintered all over my basement floor.  A sample:  Theo, aged two and a half—we were reading Mother Goose and had just gotten up to Humpty Dumpty:

“Hey, Mommy.  How come Humpty Dumpty gotta go up on that wall every time?”

Humpty just didn’t get cause and effect no matter how many times we read the book.  I’ll take this recorded memory over the good china any day.  I don’t really care how it smells either.