My Family's House Burned Down... Twice. Then The Bank Took It Away || NARRATIVELY
After years of pouring everything they had into rebuilding our beloved house (then doing it all over again), my parents had nothing left. But by that time I’d realized home is more than four walls.
The week after I moved away to college, the house I grew up in caught fire. I don’t know exactly how the fire happened, only that it was an accident – something about a candle or faulty wiring, and a cruel twist of fate. The walls were black, with the back half of the house existing as a pile of ash sprinkled across the grass like confetti. There was a hole ripped straight through the roof. Nobody was hurt, but they couldn’t find the cat for hours. By the time he made an appearance – alive and well – they had already told me he was dead.
I’d told anyone who’d listen that I moved away to college to make a fresh start, but there was always a part of me that was planning to go back. I wanted to see the world and experience life, and I knew if I didn’t go away to school, I’d never leave. “People leave home to learn they wish they never left,” my father used to tell me. But I was young and just wanted to go. My first week of college in Vermont, I spent my days begging my mother to let me come home and my nights sobbing into my pillow. There was a bet going within my group of friends back home in California that I wouldn’t last more than a month. But after my first week of college, the option to return home vanished in the fire, along with all of my belongings.
I knew something was wrong when my mother didn’t answer her phone. I’d always been an anxious person, but I couldn’t shake the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, a feeling that said something is not quite right. I called my mother again; no answer. Then I called my father; no answer. I called my sisters and my brother; no answer. When I finally got ahold of my family, they were calm – too calm, too comfortable with the loss.
This was the second time my family lost everything to fire.
* * *
My father built that house in 1997 on the same plot of land where the first house had burned three years earlier, when I was three years old. It was my older sister’s thirteenth birthday. My mother forgot to turn off the stove after cooking dinner and a newspaper on the counter caught fire and spread. Nobody was hurt. The house hadn’t been totally destroyed, but the damage made it uninhabitable, so it was torn down. The only thing I remember of that first house was the pink and white wallpaper that decorated the room I shared with my twin sister and the way I was always asking to go home.
The new house was designed to look like a 1930s estate you’d find in Georgia or Tennessee. It was big and white with a wrap-around porch and large entry columns. The porch was brick with a swing, and in the summer we’d sit out there, drink lemonade and stare at the California redwoods. There were eight bedrooms and three stories.
While he was building the house, my father used to spend all day in the sun, hammering boards to beams and beams to boards. Nail after nail after nail. I’d sit on the wooden pieces that covered the property and every day I’d make him show me where my room was going to be, and every day he’d promise me a princess room for his favorite princess. I could never visualize what the house was going to look like, as it was still just plywood and boards, but I loved watching his eyes light up as he took me through every room.
Slowly, year after year, the house came further along. My father hid family treasures – articles, pictures, old clothes and toys – in the walls. That way someone can know we were here, he would tell me. It took him four years to build; there were no rental homes or apartments in the area that could fit our family of seven so the insurance company gave us four rooms at a nearby hotel.
I was seven years old when we moved in. The first night in the house, we had no furniture, so we grabbed sleeping bags and slept in the middle of the living room. In the morning we ate cereal from paper bowls and danced around to an old Merle Haggard album.
Once the house was built, people driving down our street would stop in admiration. It really was that beautiful. But my father stayed humble and appreciated every word of kindness. We even had people come to the door with a checkbook and offer to buy it right there, but “you can’t sell a memory,” my father would say. They’d drive away, and he’d go to bed that night extra proud of what he’d accomplished.
I watched my father bring the house to life, and together he and my mother made it a home. My mother used to walk around with home magazines and catalogues, always circling ideas and clipping coupons. She would spend hours at the store, trying to find the perfect pieces of furniture for each room. Our home became a place that symbolized love and sacrifice and hard work. It symbolized family and our family’s history. The house was their dream.
With chandeliers and deep oak floors, there was a country charm about the place – at first, anyway. The longer we stayed, the more its glory faded.
The house was often the only thing my parents agreed on. I remember waiting for them to get divorced, expecting my father to tell me how every duo ends sometime. But they never did. After the house was built, they’d spend most of their time working, trying to pay for it. When they were home, they didn’t talk much – not to each other, anyway. My mother would even sleep in a room on the third floor sometimes, and sneak back to the room she shared with my father in the morning, with the hopes that my siblings and I wouldn’t find out or ask questions. She didn’t think I knew, but those were days when I couldn’t sleep much, and I was more perceptive than they thought.
My parents’ marriage never made much sense to me. They were opposite in every way, but still, they stuck by each other and made it work. Then the second fire came, and in some ways I think the catastrophe saved their marriage, because they needed each other to get through it.
Like the last time, the fire didn’t totally destroy the house, but due to the water and smoke damage, the house as it stood was a threat to our health. Before the inside was gutted, I walked through what was left, a mask covering my nose and mouth. I ran my fingers over the grains of wood my father had carved, and I was stunned by how small I felt. I walked further and stopped on the landing at the top of the stairs, looking through shattered windows to the bare trees decorating the November skyline.
The only connection I had to my grandmother, a woman I no longer remember, burned in the fire that ravaged my childhood home. It was a glass heart-shaped dish that my grandmother gave to my mother and my mother gave to me. I told my mother that I would give it to my daughter someday and she would give it to hers. It would be a tradition, a legacy. It would be a reminder of where we came from, of the women that were strong and beautiful and brave.
I told myself that the house meant nothing without what was in it: the life, the memories, the pieces of my history that were now gone. I held my hands close to my chest, praying for my heart to stop aching.
While the house was being rebuilt, I spent my summers and my breaks home from college sleeping in the bottom bunk of a travel trailer in which my family would live for the next three years until our home – the rear exterior walls now mostly ash – was finished being rebuilt. The trailer sat in the driveway of what was left of our home, and every day I’d once again watch my father and his crew spend all day in the sun, hammering boards to beams and beams to boards. Nail after nail after nail.
Living in the trailer brought out a side of my parents I had never seen. I would visit home, sleeping in a bed just ten feet from them, and I saw, for the first time, the love that kept them together. There were kisses on cheeks and laughter, because sometimes when tragedy strikes, you make a choice: find the humor or live in the pain. My parents chose humor. And love.
* * *
After the fire, my parents poured everything they had into rebuilding. It was 2009, in the midst of the recession, and paying for it wasn’t easy. They drained their savings and took out every loan they could. They worked long hours – my father a carpenter and my mother an office manager – taking every job they could get. When the money ran out, they traded jobs and belongings for flooring and countertops.
In 2013, the house had only been finished a few months when it went into foreclosure. My father’s business slowly started to pick up again, but sometimes, no matter how well you rebuild, the cracks never get filled the way you hope they will. My parents tried to hide how much they were struggling. God will never give us more than we can handle, they would say, but they had to let go of their dream of the house, of things going back to the way they had been. By the time we lost the house, they had lost over half a million dollars and parts of their souls just trying to save it all.
I returned home and found the house where I’d watched my father nail boards to beams and beams to boards, where the smell of fresh wood was heaven, with notices taped to the doors and to the windows stating it was no longer ours. The same day the house went into foreclosure, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I couldn’t help but feel like I was losing a part of my family, a piece I would never get back. There would never be another family that could appreciate the magic, the beauty, the sacrifice that built those walls, but it was no longer my home.
If my parents taught me anything, it was strength. Because sometimes bravery is simply getting out of bed in the morning and refusing to quit, even when the terror on the news makes your mind numb with sadness and the bills in your mailbox haunt you, reminding you of the choices and the mistakes that you’ve made. When your face is raw and you find yourself mouthing I want to go home, I want to go home, I want to go home, only to feel emptier than before, you pick yourself up. This is how we heal.
It was almost three more years before my parents were able to move out of the trailer and into a house again – a little green cottage with creaky hardwood floors and doors that never seemed to close all the way. The backyard was large, with trees shading the entire property. It had a small porch with the front door in the back of the house, leading out to the backyard, and we would laugh at the way the little home had so much personality. Just like us, we would say.
After I graduated from college, I stayed in Vermont for a couple of years before moving back to California. When I told my father of my plans to leave Vermont he paused on the line and said, “You will always have a home – wherever we are, there will always be room for you.”
I’ve lived with my parents again for not quite a year. After rounds of chemo, my mother is healthy and my parents are happy. Sometimes in the morning, I wake up early and eat cereal with my father, while he plays another Merle Haggard album and it reminds me that home isn’t always a place.
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