Hello My Friends,
I was up at the house today. The ex-house. The future house. The house site. These distinctions drive me crazy when I try to talk to people. There is no “house” there, but I still think of it that way. The house. My house. I can’t quite get my mouth around “The Land” or “The Site.” When your house burns down and you’re going to rebuild it on the same spot, when does it stop, then start, being called “The House?” When the new foundation is poured? When the frame is up? When it’s all done? Help me with this, friends. What do I call my once and future home?
Anyway, I was up at the ex-house, which is now a pile of rubble and metal and ash and trash, but at least that rubble is getting sorted out. A local contractor, Pat Minniear, is supervising the clean up. Pat is my Hero of the Hour. He lost his own home in Sunshine Canyon, so he is a Fire Person, and he knows the Score.
Here’s how I found Pat. A few days after my house burned down, I was crazy and frantic and in shock and didn’t know where on earth to start with the million details of dealing with the aftermath of the fire. So I called one of the only construction guys I knew, a neighbor up on Sugarloaf named Roland. Roland excavated my driveway years ago, and he is our local Ferocious Old Swede. Roland is an off-the-grid kinda guy, and when his house burned down in the Black Tiger Fire, he and his wife camped up there in a tent while they rebuilt. He is one tough bird. Plus, he has heavy equipment, and you always want a guy like that in the neighborhood.
Roland has a deep, gravelly voice, and when I called him up and was frantic and crying, he listened to me and then said, calmly, kindly - “Don’t worry about it. The last thing you need right now is to worry about it. Just wait a few weeks, and we’ll get it all sorted out. I promise.” I said, “Okay, Roland, ” and dried my tears and felt a little better. When you have a Tough Old Swede on your side, you’re bound to be okay in the end.
Roland got in touch with Pat, who got in touch with me. Cleaning up hazardous waste from the side of a mountain in the middle of a six-thousand acre burn is a tricky business, and one that requires all kinds of equipment and expertise. But Pat and his team have unfortunately had lots of practice at this, and they’ve got it down.
So today I went up there to meet him for the first time in person, after weeks and weeks of phone calls and faxes and emails. I drove down my long, ashy, dusty driveway, and there, next to the piles of twisted metal and rubble and ash that used to be my house was Pat, standing by his truck, with a bunch of equipment and a team of guys, ready to go. I have to say, it was a lovely sight. Finally some clean up, some movement, one tangible thing we could move forward with. Finally.
Pat walked over to me and extended his hand, smiling, and I ignored it and gave him a hug. “We’re Fire People,” I said, “We are way past handshakes.”
We hugged, and then Pat looked at me and said, “I want you to know that after the fire Roland called me up, and said, in that very Roland way he has, ‘Pat, you take care of that girl. You take care of her.’ So, Andi O’Conor, I’m going to take care of you.” When he said that, I started to cry. I had been waiting to hear something like that for a long, long time.
You never know in what form help is going to come. Sometimes it shows up as a casserole on your doorstep, or as a check in the mail, from someone you’ve never met. Sometimes it’s a bag of sweaters from a friend you haven’t seen in years, or a little box of CDs that someone left for you, because they can’t imagine you having to go through even one day without music. Sometimes it’s a long-time friend who says, mid-conversation, “That’s it. I’m getting on a plane and coming out there.” And sometimes, it’s just a nice, decent guy with a lot of really, really, big machinery.
Pat and I walked the site and made the agonizing decisions about which trees to leave and which to cut down. He was so patient with me, as I looked at each one and tried to decide its fate. There were many that were charred black, completely lifeless and burned, and some that seemed like they might come back, and some that were in-between. I felt like an executioner, like Henry the Eighth. Who would get the chop, and who would be spared? My beloved trees; I wanted to keep them all.
But some were “hazard” trees, and had to come down so they wouldn’t fall on people rebuilding the house. And some were just goners from the fire. So we saved anything with needles and I gave him the order to take down the others. It was excruciating.
And then I saw a most amazing looking little tree, and stopped in my tracks. I tapped Pat on the arm, and we walked over to it. “Look at this!” I said. It was a small tree, about five feet high, and I had never noticed it before.
It was burned black, completely dead, but its shape was so lovely. The trunk was curvy and swayed like a dancer, and the branches flowed out like beautiful fingers, as if someone had lovingly pruned it to do that for years. It looked like a Bonsai tree, painted black, in a surreal landscape of ash. “We have to keep this one,” I told Pat, “As a monument to the fire.” He looked at me and smiled, and said, “Definitely. I’ll tell the guys to be sure to not cut it down.” He didn’t roll his eyes, or look at me like I was crazy. Like I said, He’s a Fire Guy, and he Gets It.
We talked about where to pile the rocks they were digging up, and how much of the old, ruined fencing to pull up, and what to do with the materials, and if there was anything I wanted to save and how long it would take to haul the ash and sort and recycle the metal and dig up the foundation and then grind it up and dispose of it and then re-level the site, and did I need the electric rewired, and what about the well and Oh My God are we tired yet? And the whole time some looky-loo in his plane kept buzzing over the house, and dirt bikers from town were roaring up and down the Dime Road, touring the burn area, and by the end of the afternoon I was exhausted.
I finally said goodbye to Pat and left, and as I drove off of the property and down the hill, I noticed a woman pulled over on the side of the road, climbing over the ruined fence on my neighbor’s property, taking pictures of the burned trees and ashy foundations. I pulled up and rolled down my window, and said, “Excuse me, but is that your property?” She smiled and said, “No, I’m just up here taking pictures.” I said, “I’m sorry, but this is not an art project, and it’s not a tourist attraction, and what you’re doing is not so nice, okay? Please don’t go on our land, and please let us just try to get on with our lives in peace.”
She was actually quite nice about it, and apologized, and drove away. As she left, I put my head down on the steering wheel. I’m so tired, I thought. I’m so tired of all this. I’m tired of trying to educate well-meaning, naturally curious people about how awful it is when they come up here and look around and take pictures of our destroyed lives. I’m so tired of being up here in the dust and the ashes and the smell. It’s only been a few months, and I am just bone-tired, and I want to go home.
So home I went, to my new little home, to Chautauqua, where I used up the entire tank of hot water in the shower, scrubbing off the layers and layers of black soot and ash and sadness about my house, ex-house, whatever you want to call it. And after that I felt better. I went up to the Office to check the mail, and Nellie got to visit with Bert, who gave her cookies and let her lick his face. He called her a “Good, Good Doggie” and gave her more cookies, while she wagged with pure joy.
Watching her made me laugh out loud, and Kathleen looked up from the desk and said, “It sounds like you’ve had a good day.” And I looked at her and smiled and said, “Yes, we started on the demolition today, so things are finally moving.” “Well good for you!” she said. Yes, I thought. Good for me.
Good for me.
Wishing You a Good Day, a Good Night, and Sweet Dreams of Moving Forward,