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.


  1. I would like to mention here that my writing this blog entry is a way I'm trying to deal with what happened and move on with life. Thanks in advance for the indulgence.

  2. *hugs* I've been praying for you, Char. If you were local, I'd offer to take you out to coffee so that you could talk, but since I can't, I'll just say, "I'm reading."

  3. You've been on my mind very much and many prayers have gone up. Radio silence can be misinterpreted as not wanting people to intrude and also to not be seen as intruding. I think you know that but it doesn't stop the hurt. Getting it all out on "paper" is good. The enormity of the loss, of the multitude of losses so closely piled upon each other, needs to be acknowledged. You can't have your life poured into a blender set on high and ever come out the same.

  4. Amethyst Pimlico2/24/14, 2:34 PM

    So sorry. I'd hate to think of that happening to my mother's house. What you did save is all beautiful and, hopefully, a comfort to you. Sorry also if this all sounds cliched!

  5. Heart wrenching! I really feel for you, Char. Imagining what that would feel like, I understand how MANY "things" are touchstones to loved ones....legacies. I am glad to hear that you have some items and that they infuse your home with your mother. Today so many of our photos can be stored online, I grieve with you that you have lost those archives.

  6. As someone who has been through grief, I find that people don't want to ask too many questions, or bring these tragedies up because they think it might make you sad, or even cry. They don't know that you are carrying this around with you in your heart, mind, and soul all the time, and that they aren't "reminding" you of anything. And it is good to cry, even though it makes others uncomfortable. The friends I appreciated most in my time of deepest sorrow were those who risked my tears, and brought up my son's name often, and brought up memories and shared them with me. Hugs and love to you, I hope you have someone close to you that can share your tears, and who will listen to your stories as many times as you need to share them.

  7. Sorry that people told you that you were too hung up on " things." I see that as almost a form of bullying. People do not have to tell you how to feel. Sometimes we do need reality checks but that should only come from true love (and 99% of the time, it isn't coming from love) or from someone who is truly detached and objective like a therapist.

  8. I'm so amazed at how you could salvage anything from your mother's house, given how bad a fire it was. That candelabra! I wish you the best...and as always, look forward to your musings and thoughts on your blog.

  9. Wow I'm speechless. Praying for you every day. A few reminders here and there of your mother must be such consolation. I watched the video that you put together and she was so beautiful - so chic and that smile!

  10. Oh my goodness, how sad. I don't think it's materialistic to want those precious items. I remember going through my father's apartment...I only took about a duffle bag of things but they are all so precious to me. Maybe I will take pictures of them in case anything should happen to them (especially the pictures). Glad to see you are back blogging, I've always enjoyed your blog. Catlady

  11. This post moved me beyond words. You've been through hell, to say the least. I'm so glad you were able to retrieve some of your mom's items, and the fact that you literally risked your safety to do so makes them all the more precious.

  12. Judging from the pics you included, I think your knack for finding beautiful things must have been inherited. I always enjoy your Cecilia's stash items.
    I am so sorry for the clueless comments from people. What is there to say, other than some people truly are clueless! My mom is from Wisconsin, and I think the Midwestern 'way' is pretty brutal sometimes.

    Happy to hear you are homeschooling. We need a photo to make sure you aren't wearing a denim dress. (It's a joke,people)

  13. Oh, wow. Sending hugs. No, it's not materialistic to want things from one's roots. We lost some of those things in my nomadic childhood (my mother used to quip that three moves are as good as a fire, but I know she had things destroyed or stolen that had belonged to her parents, and it was never pleasant). Still not as devastating as losing your family home and so many of the things that tie you to long-gone ancestors.

    When my girls were little, I bought them a doll at an antique store that was a doll I had owned as a child (circa 1975, maybe, so not really an "antique"). I don't think my original doll survived in one piece, what with the moves and four sisters. :) But I still wanted them to have it. All I can say is, if in your antique store browsings you come upon something that is just like something you lost, and you want it, go ahead and pick it up (assuming we're not talking something so $$$ that it's impossible, of course). I found that it didn't matter much to me that the doll I bought wasn't my exact doll I had played with (which probably wasn't in nearly as good shape as the one I found) as it was that my girls got to enjoy one of my favorite toys from that era--and you may find yourself feeling much the same way about the occasional replacement item, which, again, is NOT materialism.

  14. My aunts fought for years over their sister's possessions when she passed away, and it wasn't for sentimental reasons. I'm going to guess those who are calling you materialistic for being upset over the things you've lost haven't seen their own parents' possessions incinerated within months of their deaths. I think most people harbor the delusion that they wouldn't care so much about *things* when put into a similar situation, but you'd hope that they'd at least have the good sense to shut their mouths about it when someone else is actually dealing with it.

    What an intense year you've had. Keep writing! I'm mostly just so glad for you sake that you got to move to a new city.

  15. First of all, a big hurray for you and how you are lovingly displaying these cherished items! That is a big step towards healing; a step I haven't been able to make yet- united in prayer! Thanks for sharing and inspiring. -Faith