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.
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.|
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.