September 21st, 2010
Two Weeks After the Fire
I took Nellie on a walk around my cottage at Chautauqua this evening, as the sky was darkening and the air finally cooling off. It was as if I was waking up from a bad dream and seeing what was around me for the first time. The rustling leaves, the lovely gardens, the expansive meadow that stretches all the way up to the Flatirons. I have run through fire and landed in this small Paradise.
We walked over to the dining hall, which was strung with little white lights, and the porch was full of people having dinner, talking and laughing. They looked so normal. What was that like, normal? I remember it somehow, off in a dream, in my former life. It feels like a long walk back to that place.
On Friday we went up to the house, with our shovels and rakes and gloves and masks and boots, and a parrot (stuffed; no I’m not kidding) and not one, but two pirate flags. As we pulled in down the long dirt driveway, I saw a coal-black meadow on either side of the car. Burnt, skeleton trees all around. And then closer to the house, some trees that looked charred, but like they might survive. And tiny patches of unburnt grass, that somehow escaped the inferno. And then I saw the house.
The ex-house I should say. It looks like it exploded, and it might have. There is nothing but a foundation buried in a couple of feet of pure white ash and rubble. There were piles of melted glass and twisted metal — the garage door frame was twisted like a pipe cleaner into odd shapes. Debris from the walls was thrown six feet past the foundation, so either the wind carried it or the house really did explode.
Before I went up, people told me I’d be amazed at the things I’d find. Christmas ornaments under piles of rubble, photo albums, charred but still there, they said. What did we find? Nothing, really. Everything in the house was incinerated. My friend Terri saw one of my journals, and when she tried to pick it up, it literally turned to dust. Only the blackened wire binding remained, twisted with heat, like everything else.
Our Pirate Band made a valiant effort, though. My only goal for this expedition was to see if we could find the contents of my jewelry box, which held three generations of family heirlooms – the wedding and engagement rings, as well as antique jewelry. We dubbed this, “The Booty.” We picked a spot in what used to be my bedroom, and the heroic gals spent three hours excavating a three by three foot square, sifting with a screen through layers and layers of ash, melted glass, sharp objects and toxic dust.
Even my insurance adjuster got into the act. He had been walking the property making notes, and when he saw all my women friends digging in the blazing hot sun, he put on his white hazmat suit and got down on his knees in the rubble, in search of the Pirate Gold. He’s a white-haired gentleman in his sixties, and he was down there getting dirty with us. This is the inspirational power of women with shovels.
My friends picked through the rubble and sifted through debris with rubber gloves and exquisite patience. At the end of the long, dusty, ashy, depressing, hot day, we found exactly this:
- One hinge from my jewelry box (this is the clue that Cathy Steiner found that led us ultimately to The Booty— “X” marks the spot…)
- The emerald ring my dad gave my mom for their 25th wedding anniversary, burnt and ruined, but intact.
- My high school graduation present – a Hopi bracelet signed and stamped by Paul Saufkie in the 1930’s. This is badly burned, but might be recoverable. It’s amazing it didn’t melt.
- A few fragments of jewelry, broken, with the stones missing.
- Some puddles of melted silver, and small, scattered puddles of melted gold, mixed with ashes.
That’s it. Everything else was shattered, melted, incinerated, or simply blown apart. The force of the fire was truly staggering.
At the end of the day we packed up, then formed a circle and tied a small prayer flag to one of the trees. Then we did our Pirate Call; yelling “AAARRRRGHHHH!” at the top of our lungs. Then we drove back down the mountain, to this quiet and green and peaceful haven that is Chautauqua.
And there, on the porch of my cottage, was a lovely dinner that someone had made me. Tuna, asparagus, and rice pilaf. Fruit for dessert. With napkins, and a lovely tall drink, on a plastic tray. I picked up the tray and said to Sandy, “Look! I have a tray!” When you have nothing, even a plastic tray is a treasure.
So I will continue to hunt for treasure, and relish the gifts that are left at my door. Every day brings me a little closer to home, one step farther in my journey back to Normal. Last night I thought about making a piece of toast before bed. When I realized that it would mean finding the bread, opening the bread, putting it in the toaster, getting out a knife and a plate, I felt so exhausted I just went to bed. But at least I thought about it, which is good.
Someday I will make toast again without even thinking. Someday I’ll even feel that cooking is not an impossible task. Someday I will go to the grocery store and not burst into tears and leave, because there is so much there and I can’t imagine what I might want to buy.
Someday I will wake from the Bad Dream, and be in the Good Dream, the one where you wake up smiling. And in the meantime, you will be there with me, every step of the way.
I think in our darkest moments, each of us wonders if we are truly loved by anyone. If we weren’t here, what difference would it make? Would people even notice if we were gone? I will no longer wonder about this. I now know that I am truly loved — by friends, by neighbors, even by strangers. The world is a wide and beneficent place, and I am the recipient of All Good Things. What a privilege it is to be so loved.
May we all Dream Well, of green mountains, wide rivers, and cooling oceans, of pirate treasure buried deep, and loving friends to catch us when we fall.
Good Night and Take Care,
Andi and Nellie