Ashes. In the 203 posts I have made since the Charlotte/Mink Creek fire consumed our home on June 28, 2012 I have written a lot about ashes. It is the way I will remember my home that burned. I will remember their darkness and the lessons they bring. I will not hold them as treasures but will hold as treasures the lessons they brought.
As time passes I will not remember the heart-stilling moment of seeing the total destruction of our home. I will not remember the anguish of looking into my family’s eyes trying to tell them that our life has been burned. I will not remember looking around my neighborhood wondering how it could disappear in an hour. I will remember standing in ashes that were that nearly reached my knees.
Their acrid bitterness fashions the feeling that they instil in you. No amount of water or hot tea or cold milk will take the taste out of your mouth. Nothing will scrub your hands clean. No clothing can protect your skin from their invasion. You can never feel clean of the ashes. They remain with you as long as your memories remain with you.
It would have been easy to let the ashes of my house make ashes of my life. I understand in many ways lying down in the ashes of the things that gave you a place to sleep, a way to cook your food, a place of safety for you and your family is the most natural thing in the world. When I stood in my house that had become ashes I was tired. I wanted to sleep in my house. My house was ashes. Ashes were my home.
I joined with the ashes of my home but I did not lie down in them. Those early weeks I wept tears blackened by the ash on my my skin as they coursed their way down my face. I scoured the ashes for the shards of our lives and then, standing calf deep in the ashes, was immobilized by the not knowing what next to do. When I returned to the hotel each day from searching for our lives in the ashes I scrubbed to remove them from my clothes, from my hands, from my hair, from my mouth. With effort the clothes, and my hair, my hands and my mouth were clean but the ashes were still there.
The ashes remind me of sadness but they are not immobilizing anymore. In the corner of the garage here in this temporary house we have one small cooler, one shopping bag and three small boxes that contain all we salvaged from the ashes of the fire. Sometimes I walk by them and notice them, not just walk by. When I do I am surprised again at how dirty they are. It is as if I had pulled them from the bottom of a bag of barbeque charcoal. When I touch things in the boxes my hands are covered in ash.
Sometimes I look in those boxes and wonder why I thought the things in them were salvageable, why they were worth dragging out of that 32 feet by 40 feet pile of ashes that was the foundation of my home. I cannot say for sure but I think it is because there was so much destruction around me that even the smallest visage of survival was salvation. We wrapped those things as tenderly as if they were precious treasures and placed them in the boxes. Now most of them have fallen prey to the heat cracks that riddled them and they are in pieces even thought they were carefully wrapped to prevent them from being damaged.
I have not decided what to do with those things. I know they will move into the new house with me. I need to return home with some things that left home with me, with things that lived in that house with me even if they are damaged beyond repair. I imagine after we have returned my need for them will dissipate.
Perhaps we can have a burial for them in the back yard. In that grave will go the pieces of the brown ware pitcher my father poured elephant and giraffe and hippopotamus pancakes for us. I think I might add a fork or two. Maybe one that belonged to my grandmother and one that belonged to my spouse’s grandmother. We can add the cheap Christmas mug we bought when our whole family to visited. There will be a creamer with a flower pattern of pink, yellow and blue turned gray by the fire. We can add a nearly whole mottled black plate that had hand painted flowers and a gold border around it. When I was little it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. When I was an adult and my grandmother gave it to me it was gaudy. It was important since she gave it to me but I never knew what to do with it.
You see, that is the lesson of the fire today. It teaches you that sometimes you don’t have to figure out what to do with things that you never knew what to do with. Standing in the ashes holding the white elephants of your life can only bring mirth. They can only bring forth a chuckle that grows to a belly laugh when you understand that you are free from the things that you could not figure out what to do with. You learn you don’t have to figure things out all the time. That welcomed relief stands alone, full of its own warmth and merit and is not sullied by the ashes of sadness for what you have lost. It stands as what you have gained.