Monday, February 24, 2014

The Fire

My mother's almost 4000 square foot home basically burned down last August. It was on all the major TV news broadcasts that day, but for some strange reason, I never turned on the TV that morning, instead finding out many hours later.

Since that time, there are many people who have asked me how the fire started or what happened? I answer the question to the best of my ability, given that the official investigation finding was that no exact cause could be identified. The common sense answer - the one that the fire department initially worked with - was that a very large in-wall heating unit had a "hot wire," even though it was a 90-some degree day and the heater wasn't on. A look at the charred remains of the house indicated pretty clearly that's where the fire started.

After the "How did the fire start?" question, a few people have ventured to ask if anyone was home at the time of the fire? Answer: no. My mother's husband had moved out about a month before. And by the grace of God, a woman who rented the downstairs mother-in-law apartment had just lost her job and moved out. Her apartment was located directly underneath where the fire started.

But after these two questions, all I've heard is crickets.

It hurts.

The fire and the destruction it wrought was like being told my mother - and my father - had died all over again. This, only three and a half months after my mother actually did die. I was hardly in a spot where I was healing and dealing with life, especially considering we were in the midst of a crazy lawsuit and my husband just having retired.

See, I waited until my mother's husband moved out to go through my mother's (and father's) belongings. To remove my own belongings. And before I had the chance to do that - the fire.

Ninety percent of our family's photos and videotapes burned in the fire. All of my childhood memorabilia (and my brother's) burned in the fire. All that was left of my father's life, memory, and childhood burned in the fire. Ditto for my Mom. Ditto for antiques and mementos from even older generations.

The number one item that I cared about, that my heart was tied into, the ONE thing that symbolized my mother - her antique baby grand piano - was destroyed by the over 100,000 gallons of water that was poured into the home. Did you know that in the case of many fires, most of the damage comes from the water the fire department uses to put out the fire?

The rest of the damage is from smoke. And the mold that immediately begins growing after the fire, once they board up what's left of the building. I didn't know any of this about fires, but I found out and quick.

When I finally had to go into the burned out house, which the insurance company required me to do, it was about the most grizzly and horrific scene a person could imagine. Remember those photos of burned-out Beirut? Or bombed-out cities in Europe during WWII? I'm not kidding, that's what it looked like, felt like, and smelled like.

Some rooms were completely destroyed, given that the fire burned for about two hours undetected. A slate pool table had been reduced to rubble and metal appliances were no where to be seen, having been melted to the ground. That's how hot the fire was.

In parts of the home that technically didn't burn, everything was as black as charcoal. Not just on the outside, but on the inside of things: If you opened up a closed cabinet or a closed drawer, everything inside was just as black. You could take a knife and carve your name into anything and everything, it was all so completely coated with jet black soot.

And the mold - oh my - the mold! The water from the fire department combined with the open holes in the roof (which the fire burned through, allowing rain to come into the house) combined with late summer heat meant that black, green, white, and red mold covered everything. The basement was untouched by the fire, but when I went down there, there were literal stalagmites of mold growing down from the ceilings. It was surreal.

My brother hired a fire restoration company to come in and try to save and restore some items. Unfortunately, I wasn't there when they did that, as we packed up and took a trip to Atlanta because I literally thought I was having a nervous breakdown. So not everything I would have liked to have been saved was removed. Let's just say that what the fire restoration company thought was a good idea to restore wasn't my idea. Over a month later, nearly gagging and choking from the mold, I went back in - crawling up condemned and burned apart staircases - to try and get certain items out of the house in the hope that they could be saved. Some stuff could, some stuff, no.

And then there was the unenviable job of creating an inventory of the entire home - down to how many bottles of Mr. Clean and how many toothbrushes - entirely from memory. This was required by the insurance company. But don't forget! I was supposed to know the brand name and purchase date of each and every item. Weirdly enough, my Mom and I were such good friends that we picked out many things together and shopped together, so I knew quite a bit. But let me tell you, it is beyond psychologically painful to have to recall each and every item in a home, including those that you treasured and were priceless, and now it's getting "rubbed in," if you will, that those things no longer exist.

But wait! There's more! Next I had to go to a huge warehouse and go through about 100 boxes of soot and mold-covered items, deciding which pieces would be cleaned and restored and which would not. Let me tell you, it wasn't fun looking at your parents' life through the lens of destruction. It was tedious work, as well: the restoration company removed oodles of items that I could have cared less about - stuff that would have ended up in an estate sale. So there I sat with mostly a lot of stuff I didn't want and the stuff that mattered burned or unable to be saved.

This is not to say some things I wanted weren't recovered. Here's a few that I got back and that my heart leaps for joy over:

This candelabra sat on my mother's piano since the mid-1970's. Now it sits on my "new" exact replica baby grand piano.

These busts also sat on my mother's piano since before I was born. They don't look as good as before the fire, but I'm not complaining.

My mother and I got this in Paris together. The restoration company removed NONE of my mother's lovely artwork. I had to go back into the burned-out house and recover many items, hoping against hope that they were salvageable, and I was right. It took some doing, but this and a few others were cleaned and I had them reframed.

The restoration company refused to go up a condemned and partially burned staircase to recover these dolls and the cradle, as well as a few other items. I supposedly risked my life by going up there anyway. There was NO WAY I was leaving behind my grandmother's dolls that she played with in the early 1900's. A few of them could not be saved, but these two large ones they sent out to an expert, and they came back looking even better than they ever did. Their antique clothes, however, were not able to be saved (smoked fabric cannot be cleaned). Sadly, the antique photos showing my grandmother playing with these exact same dolls were destroyed, which makes me really, really sad. At least I can still see the photos in my mind.

Along the way, since the fire, one or two people have quipped that I was kind of hung up on "things" that were in my parents' house. Like I was being materialistic or something. Here's my response: When someone dies, we use and treasure their belongings in an effort to mourn and remember them. Over time, of course, some of those things will not be as important or important at all. But initially, yes, they are very important. I was denied the ability to naturally and organically obtain those things I would have used to mourn my mother. The fact that I waited to get her things, and then those things were essentially destroyed by the fire, is an extenuating circumstance that naturally plays into my desperation to have anything of her at all. It has taken everything in me to not absolutely freak out about the priceless photos, scrapbooks, movies, and mementos that were burned to nothing.

Interestingly enough, about three weeks before the fire, my husband and I were in my mother's house, surveying what kind of cleaning and staging would be required to sell the home. On that day, I grabbed FIVE items from the house. One of them was her old Latin mass missal. Can't explain why I took it.

When I said in a previous blog entry that my Mom's spirit infuses our new home, it's because each room now has one or two items that belonged to her (my parents) and I recognize what an absolute gift those things are. That they exist at all is a small miracle - especially knowing that many, many people don't have anything to remember their parents or grandparents by. I probably have quite a bit compared to some folks.

Back to the "standard" questions that people have asked: Was your mother's house insured? Yes, of course. And it had just been paid off by her life insurance money. So my brother and I obviously received the benefits of said insurance. That's been kind of nice. For example, I've been able to replace my mother's baby grand piano, among other things. Even so, the fire was so destructive, so devastating, so total, so consuming, that there's really no thinking in terms of trade-offs. People generically tell me how blessed we are, and we agree, but those comments are akin to the cliches one hears at a funeral. Believe me, with all that's happened to us in the last nine or so months, we're full up on cliches.

Then again, we really are blessed. We know it. We get it. God's ways are not ours, and no one could have planned this all out to have happened the way it did.

My mother's home is now gone, demolished and leaving an empty lot that my brother and I have to sell. I haven't yet driven by to see the empty spot that once used to be a family home. Someday I will, but I'm not ready yet.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Sleepover Controversy

I noticed this morning that one of the recent, most-read entries over at the National Catholic Register is this piece by Matthew Archbold:

Saying No to Sleepovers

I read it and was sort of on the fence thinking he was mostly right, but also being a tad too uptight about the whole subject. But then I read all of the comments. And I have to say I'm almost at 100% agreement with him after all.

The profusion of comments regarding sexual exploration, Ouija boards, inappropriate movies, overly-intimate sharing, and also just downright mean nasty behavior (group sleepovers) jogged my memory. Let's see: check, check, check, check, and check. Other than not being molested by someone's older brother or father, every horror story recounted in those comments happened to me in the context of a pre-teen or teenage sleepover.

With many, many unwanted life-long lasting effects. Truly.

This is hard for me to admit because I want to believe that sleepovers are harmless. I want to be like the minority voices in that commbox who felt that these people who don't allow sleepovers are nutjobs trying to live in the bubble. I want to hold onto some fantasy of late-night giggling, bowls of popcorn, and a few Duran Duran videos. (Today I suppose that would be One Direction videos.)

The thing is, it was rarely if ever like that for me. Oh sure, there were a few times when it was all fun and innocent. But looking back, the best case scenario involved me being overly-tired the following day and my parents probably wanting to shoot themselves in the head over my next-day behavior, recognizing that I was functionally useless. In fact, I know of many families who limit the number of sleepovers their kids are allowed just for this one factor alone - the predictable rotten behavior that follows from not getting enough sleep and eating nothing but junk for hours.

I was trying to think if there was a modern cultural vignette of the sleepover to use as something to esteem to? But the only two that came to mind confirm what the commbox stories were saying: There's the sleepover scene in Grease where there's smoking, mean girl behavior, and immoral talk. Ditto for Valley Girl, where a short sleepover scene (if I remember correctly) involves the girls trying on the mother's sexy lingerie while she's out of the house. Note the "out of the house" part.

All of that seems charmingly innocent and true-blue American in some way. But we must remember that's Hollywood.

What's not innocent is how I was exposed to Blue Lagoon, Porkies, and God knows what other inappropriate movies starting at around age 12. The late night Ouija board sessions I held at multiple sleepovers are still near legendary status when certain friends reminisce. I easily recall the hurt feelings when late night sharing amongst girls would get out of control, as someone would finally just say what they really thought and felt about something, and then crying/fighting would ensue, sometimes ending with "I'm going home!" at 1:30 in the morning. I can't imagine what it's like now with smartphones in each hand. (I'm aware that numerous articles have now been written about the damage smartphones have wrought at sleepovers; some parents are banning phones when kids spend the night.)

But worse is the sexual abuse and pornography I was exposed to at sleepovers. I don't feel like saying too much more about it, but I will say this: My parents had no idea. They trusted the parent(s) of the homes I stayed in dozen upon dozens of times. They thought they knew the families. In my case, it wasn't that the family(ies) were rotten, it was actually that my friend(s) were rotten and corrupted. But it just as easily could have worked the other way around, with the friend being fine, but family members doing horrendous things under cover.

Many of the comments over at the Register talked about how sleepovers are permissible if you really, really, really know the family inside and out and know that they share your religious and social values. I agree with such a view, as I believe saying no sleepovers EVER is kind of extreme. In our case, Alan has had a handful of sleepovers with one particular child - staying at that child's house and that child staying at ours. Our two families are totally joined at the hip, including on the Catholic front, and besides, Alan is only six years old, so we don't really think there's an issue there.

Still, so many of the people discussing this subject at the Register made a point that I can't deny: What good is accomplished at night that can't be accomplished by daylight? A kid can stay at someone's house until 11:00 pm, come home and ACTUALLY SLEEP, and if you want to get up early and have breakfast together, great, let's get together at Denny's the next morning. There's no reason to be awake late into the night. There's no reason not to sleep. There's no reason not to sleep in your own bed, where peaceful sleep is actually possible.

And then there's just the question of the unknown - the things that go on within someone's home that you didn't anticipate or expect. If you read through the comments over there, it becomes evident that some of the families didn't expect what came from their own family!

Granted, I am naturally suspicious that the overload of comments which are decidedly anti-sleepover are skewed. I mean, let's face it, if there was an anti-pants entry over there, the anti-pants crowd comes running and fills the commbox and one walks away thinking they're going to hell for wearing jeans. It may be the same phenomenon about the sleepover topic. However, I didn't see unreasonableness in the stories and examples shared. It came off to me that is was mostly normal people who understood, as a few people quipped, that "My grandmother always said nothing good happens after midnight."

I'm relieved that I have a son, which means (I hope) that as he gets older, sleepovers will be way less of an issue than with girls. Unfortunately, my son already thinks that a sleepover is the best thing since sliced bread, but I rack that up to childish enthusiasm and the prospect of uninterrupted play, which is very important to an only child. But man oh man, if I had a daughter, I just don't know what I'd do. I say this as a girl who knows what girls do and how girls act. As far as I'm concerned, it's a landmine out there without sleepovers to complicate things.

What are your thoughts?

Monday, February 17, 2014

Warning - I Gotta Be Me

This little tiny post is meant as a warning.

That I have to be me.

You know - sarcastic, sometimes scathing, sometimes bordering on mean in order to make a point. And to ask legitimate questions.

You've been warned that despite all that's happened, parts of me still operate as before.

That's all.

Just Trying to Live Life Again

I really, really hope this blog post doesn't end up being just an "update," thereby rendering this blog pointless and virtually dead. Believe me, I have many subjects I'd like to write about. But the thing is, our family is just trying to live life again.

What do I mean by that? If you're out of the loop, you could check out the blog post that was written before this one. Looking back, though, that blog post was written in a much too light-and-breezy fashion. It should have read that we've been through hell and have lived to tell about it.

-We have survived the death of two parents, with one death akin to being hit by a Mack truck.
-We have survived my mother's 4000 square foot home burning down after she died. (That is a blog post of its own and was such a life-changing event I sometimes wonder if I'll ever get over it.)
-We have survived my son's school closing and we are now (gag) homeschooling. (As I write, my son is copying out numbers 101, 102, and 103 of the catechism because he acted like a little sh*t at mass this weekend, although he doesn't know that's why he's doing it. He just thinks it's his daily copy work. Ha!)
-We have survived my husband retiring from a 25-year career and looking for another job, which he has found.
-We have survived moving into what is a small version of my dream home. We did that one month before Christmas, which caused much stress, and which continues to stress us out (in a very good way) as we continue to get settled, redecorate, and at the current time, live with our whole kitchen ripped out due to a kitchen remodel that was necessitated by a few mice.
-We have survived a few other things which shall not be discussed, and that I'd llllluuuuuuuuvvvvv to blog about, but won't.

Our life has moved at such a fast pace, crisis-to-crisis, that I often reflect upon the fact that I (and we) haven't had the proper time to mourn any and all of the above. We've just had to keep moving. I am wise enough to see that being in constant motion has its pluses, yet knowing that at some point there will be a pause, and wondering if that's when I get to stop and breathe, and when I do, will I fall apart?

In the meantime, I am occupied with constantly trying new approaches in order to make homeschooling work. Or driving around Milwaukee looking at so many ugly/boring griege-colored floor and tile samples that I want to puke, whilst also repeatedly telling sales people that really - no really - I HATE and DESPISE granite so please stop trying to talk me into it. Or searching for a new, closer parish that doesn't sing "Happy Birthday" during mass (happened this weekend), or the entire congregation clapping after the priest's homily (happened last weekend and we can tell they do it every week), or refusing to pass the basket around, instead opting for everyone just walking up to the altar to put their contributions in that way (happened at what would be our new local neighborhood church that we won't be attending.)

I blame all of this on Mary. Yes, you heard me right. If you go back a few blog posts, you'll recall that I have an amazing, supernatural story to tell. I just don't know how to tell it in a way that has the intended affect. And also knowing there are some unwelcome naysayers who read this blog who will just laugh. But we know the truth. We know that everything that has happened to us, and I mean everything, has been a fantastic blessing - even if we didn't see it at the time it was happening.

As I sit here at this computer, I look out windows where most of what I see is trees and nature and copious birds eating at our birdfeeders. When spring comes, our yard and the immediate environment will be a paradise.

As I sit here at this computer, I look into a beautiful living room where an exact replica of my mother's baby grand piano now sits (hers, of course, was destroyed in the fire). The walls behind it are painted a soothing gray/blue (Sherwin Williams "Comfort Gray") and they are covered in beautiful art work, some of which was recovered from the fire and restored. My mother's spirit is all around me.

As I sit here at this computer, my son is here with me - driving me nuts, which means life is actually normal on some level. My husband is also here, blessed with a flexible schedule, which means we can look out these windows together, sharing our morning cup of tea with one another in front of a fire, looking through bird guides, deciphering who our feathered visitors are.

As I sit here at this computer, I see the many blessings that have come as a result of the flames. We are blessed and grateful. Praise be to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

And never underestimate Mary.