I should be posting something about the election, putting together my concluding Race 2012 blog post. I should be reading other people’s posts on the election, clicking on some of those tantalizing titles. I’m not though. I can’t write about the election—delighted as I am with the outcome—or about race or body image or identity. Instead, I’m trying to wrap my mind around this one central fact that’s changed my life, my husband’s and my children’s irrevocably.
A fire destroyed our house.
While we were staying upstate with friends last week, seeking refuge from New Jersey’s widespread Post-Sandy power outage, while we were enjoying the heat, electricity and laundry of our friend’s country home, our own was quietly being consumed by flames.
We’d joked the night before about how lucky we were to be have lost power, forcing us into a splendid weekend getaway at a house in the country by a babbling brook, on acres of gleaming fall foliage. We’d brunched on French toast, omelets, and espresso, then embarked on an exploration of the town proper, with all its quaint little shops. I ventured into a consignment store, ogling a pair of wine-colored alligator pumps while my husband took the kids to the book store. The shoes turned out to be size six—way too small—so I went to rejoin my family.
The kids were reading. Jon pulled me aside:
“I have to talk to you.” He’d just gotten off the phone with one of our neighbors who had called about our house. By this time, it was eleven a.m. Saturday, November 3, 2012. Smoke was billowing from every orifice of my beloved, raised split-level house, four fire trucks out front. Our cul de sac, which normally rings with children’s shouts and laughter, was packed with onlookers from the block, all of whom had been ordered to vacate their houses—just in case there was an underground cause that might put the neighboring homes at risk.
Still in our friend’s rural outpost, Jon and I told the children—we had to. Zoe reacted with loud cries of why? and no! and copious tears. Theo asked a few pointed questions and then asked to use the Kindle for a game. He had what he liked best, he later explained: his dad, his mom, his sister and best buddies, his favorite stuffed cat, his tennis racket.
Jon drove home to investigate, leaving me and the kids in the country where we’d be safe and warm, where we’d be free to hold onto our images of the house as it once was: whole, comfortable, and well-inhabited by us. Full—too full—of our stuff. The unknown: how bad was it? What—if anything?—was left?—was better certainly than what Jon would face when he arrived.
Back in Montclair, Jon spoke to the fire inspector, who called the cause of the blaze undetermined. Before we left, we’d blown out all the candles, checked the house twice for stray ones. We’d had nothing in the fire place for several days. Besides, it appeared that the blaze had begun in the basement, where nothing had been lit at all. Then Jon stood with the neighbors and friends and family who had come to meet him, all watching the smoke, still settling, the glass falling all around.
By the time Jon got back upstate, the kids were asleep. We sat at the table and Jon described what he’d seen: a surreal image of our life. While the outside of the house looked the same (except for the broken windows), the inside was scorched black throughout. The dining room had collapsed into the basement. The kitchen—whose cabinets had been adorned with my children’s artwork—was a charcoal sculpture garden; the living room, much the same. He could only guess at which belongings might be salvageable.
Questions cropped up as Jon and I talked: where would we stay when we went back? (We had to go back; I was determined that the kids should start school as soon as it reopened to maintain some form of normalcy.) Where would we live while our house was being repaired? How long did we think that would take? The answers to these questions would come in time, as would a quiet resolve on both of our parts to get through this together and keep our kids from feeling the disruption too harshly.
It’s a full week later—that’s how long it’s taken me to post about this. (Also how long I’ve been totally absent from the blogosphere.)
Here’s our status: Coping well under the circumstances. Our house may take over a year to be rebuilt. Thanks to some good advice, our contractor is an expert in fire damage. That is of utmost importance, we learned. If our house were simply repaired and rebuilt, it would forever smell of smoke and mildew from the water that put out the blaze.
Friends are contacting everyone they know to help us find a home to lease in the area while renovations are underway. In the mean time, we are staying in the home of wonderful, loving friends in our town, who have generously converted the third floor of their house into a suite for our family. To give you an idea of how this family feels about guests, when we arrived here there were already four other families—whose homes had no heat or electricity—staying with them. The three year old of the house inaugurates newcomers by having each guest read him a bedtime book. His favorite is my daughter. The other children in the home, a boy near my daughter’s age and a girl near my son’s age, are so eager to share their space and things, it is beyond heartwarming to hear the four of them chatting, playing and laughing together. As for their parents, their mother especially, words cannot describe how much they’ve done for us. While we’re working out details with the insurance company and contractors, while we’re also looking for a rental house, we have a base where we feel very much at home and are beginning to find a routine. We are so grateful.
On Wednesday, my kids went off to school carrying new backpacks, filled with school supplies gathered by the school principal and PTA . Everyone in the town is reaching out, asking how they can help, gathering clothes and shoes for my family. And I know, many of them are still without heat or power in their homes! All their kindness has cushioned the blow of this loss. It’s as if the whole town of Montclair has us enveloped in a big, warm hug. (THANK YOU ALL!) We are so fortunate to live in this amazing community.
Granted, my heart breaks a little each time I allow myself to imagine the fire itself, especially our three sweet gerbils, Koko, Remy and funny Gemini, the mad sleeve-climber, who died peacefully in their sleep from carbon monoxide inhalation. We will remember those rascals fondly. But our things were just things and not what makes a home a home. The best news is that Jon and the kids and I are all fine, safe and together. We are very fortunate.
There are many harder hit than my family—so many homes, property, lives lost in the aftermath of this terrible storm. Some people have lost their whole communities, living in shelters, no idea of where or when it will end. The damage, as well the need for aid, is extensive not only in the American Northeast but also in Haiti and other Caribbean countries, where Sandy hit earlier. Here is a list of organizations offering aid to victims of this disaster.
For all who are suffering, I wish the kind of support we have.