By William T. Vandegrift, Jr.
It is said that the average American moves every five to ten years. In my lifetime, some fifty-plus years, I have dwelled in four homes. I’ve lived in my present house for the longest period, nearly three decades.
The longer a person remains in a home, the more things they are likely to have accumulated. When they move, they may face having to relinquish much of their possessions, especially if downsizing into a smaller home. This purging can be challenging, but surrendering things can also be liberating, a cleansing of sorts. I went through this process twice. And not by choice. I was forced to purge after being displaced by catastrophic events. Not only was I faced with rebuilding my home, but I also had to surrender things that I held dear.
In 2009, my house was devastated in a fire. My partner, Drew, and I were on our way home from a weekend down the shore. The pet-sitters had stopped by in the morning, and shortly after they left, lightning struck the house. Neighbors heard the thunderous bolt but at first, they didn’t realize our house was hit.
The fire started on the lower level. It simmered, burning slowly in the laundry room for hours. A dresser in which I kept acrylic paints for art and craft projects caught afire. The paints ignited and accelerated the fire to the point where it quickly spread upward to the ceiling and along the rafters. It became what the Fire Marshall called a rolling fire.
The whole structure did not burn down as one might imagine, but the smoke extensively damaged the house. Since it was late summer, the house was air-conditioned, and the windows were shut. The house became filled with smoke, and the smoke finally seeped outside through the windows. Neighbors at first marveled at the unusual mist forming along the creek before they realized it was smoke and that it was coming from our house. They panicked and many called 911. The fire trucks came swiftly, and when we arrived shortly thereafter, the firemen had already broken down the front door with a hatchet and were inside the house. I could see them through the doorway, dragging furniture around, searching the fire’s angry ascent throughout the insides of the walls. Fallen things were scattered everywhere, but the firemen’s work was not about our items of importance and value. Whatever was in the way was thrown aside. Saving the house was their priority.
In the ensuing months after the fire, we saw the house gutted to the studs. Everything was removed, even the toilets and bathtubs. All that was left was a shell of the house, and we rebuilt it from within. It was a long ongoing, project that lasted nearly two years.
Just over a decade later, in September 2021, during Hurricane Ida, our house was flooded by the tiny creek that runs along the back of the property. The creek became overwhelmed in a deluge of rainfall, and it came up to the back of the houses of our neighborhood. It was quick and sudden. Many neighbors, including us, were flooded out.
Earlier in the evening, before the flood, we had retreated downstairs due to tornado warnings. We watched the news on television, and when the warnings passed, we went back upstairs. The phone rang. It was a neighbor, asking if we had a wet-vac that they could borrow. This should have been the first sign for us, but it didn’t register until my partner went outside on the deck, and he heard the roar of the creek. We shone a flashlight to see how high the creek was. We couldn’t see much, only that the ground seemed to be moving. That’s the creek, I said to my partner, stunned with disbelief. We are being flooded.
We raced downstairs to the garage to move the cars. When we opened the garage door, the creek roared inside, and the entire downstairs became flooded. The cars started to float, and one of them got dinged up as we backed it out. We were able to get both cars up to the top of our driveway.
Shortly afterwards, the police showed up and ordered us to evacuate. We left with our two dogs and found out later that we were lucky, as a neighbor had to be rescued by boat and others had to jump out of their windows to escape the rising creek. Our cats were left behind, unable to be found, but hiding on the second floor, which wasn’t being flooded. Fortunately, they survived by remaining upstairs beneath perhaps the beds or a dresser.
Both events, the fire and the flood, were of biblical proportions. What’s next, but locusts as a friend pointed out. (Instead of locusts, in the subsequent months we were consumed with an invasion of stink bugs and centipedes.) Creatures ranging from raccoons, rats, and opossums roamed through and around our house. Deer stalked the perimeter as if to claim the house as their own. Nature claimed our lives.
However, as the fire was devastatingly slow; the flood was swift. After the fire, we stayed in a local hotel for nearly a week and then rented a condo for the duration of the rebuild that took nearly two years. After the flood, we spent most of the night at a firehouse where an emergency shelter was set up and we returned early the following morning despite the evacuation order still being in place.
In both instances, we were forced to go through and clean out what was left of our house and determine what could be saved and what was deemed to be destroyed. I had to evaluate everything that I possessed. I cherished the many items that I had collected over the years and those that had been passed down to me through generations. Every object represented something to me, whether it was a link to my childhood, a connection to a relative who was no longer with us, or a significant moment of my life. I grieved over the loss of the upright piano that was passed through my family, made by my great-great-grandfather’s piano manufactory company during the early decades of the last century. I mourned for the elaborate pair of three-foot-tall porcelain statues of French courtiers: a man and a woman dressed in eighteenth-century clothing and posing as if watching people dancing around a ballroom floor at Versailles. During my childhood, my grandmother had them poised on a round end table in her living room. We’d always said it was King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and from my grandmother, I learned all about the tragic history of the French Revolution.
I have an accumulation of dishes. My grandmother collected Lenox china. As a child, I was very inquisitive, and I shared my grandmother’s interest in fine china. To her chagrin, when we would go to dinner at someone’s house, I would lift a plate and look at the bottom while asking if the dishes were Lenox or Noritake. My relatives were delighted by my interest, so unusual for a little boy. My grandmother always told me afterwards not to do that. It was rude, she said. I have and hold on dear pieces of her fine china that survived both the fire and the flood.
An aunt gave me a favorite piece before she passed, a deviled eggs platter. I treasured it even though I rarely made deviled eggs. This dish survived the fire, but it did not survive the flood. It disappeared, perhaps washed off a shelf in the garage by the raging water and shattering against the cinder-block wall. This is most likely what happened as later I found a large fragment of the dish’s scalloped edge in the driveway, probably having been carried out there as the water receded. I was heartbroken, not because I liked the dish so much, but because it was a lasting connection to my Aunt Violet.
Fires have always frightened me. I’ve read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where workers, in an attempt to escape, leaped to their deaths. My grandmother told me a story that has haunted me to this day. When she was in her early teens, a house, allegedly of ill repute, exploded down the street from her home. This was during Prohibition. There was a distillery in the basement, and it had blown up.
Neighbors rushed outside and watched people running out of the house that had exploded, many in flames and screaming as they shed their fiery clothing. My grandmother said the smell of burning flesh was ungodly. People died right there on the spot.
Before my house fire, I once worked delivering newspapers. A house on my route had caught fire and was reduced to mere shell of charred remains. The neighboring houses on both sides were impacted as well, and they had melted siding. This was during the holidays, and I speculated that the fire was caused by Christmas tree lights. Ever since, I have always been wary about using them in my own home. And I always wondered what it would be like to lose your home in such a manner. What it would be like to watch your house in flames, knowing everything that meant something to you was inside.
Everyone from the Fire Marshall to the restoration crew said that our house fire was a strange one. It was deemed as suspicious at first because the inferno was centered in one specific place from where it accelerated centrally due to the poorly placed jars of paints by the furnace. Also, many objects survived, while others were destroyed. In some closets, metal melted, yet candles on another shelf remained intact. Everything in the house was covered with soot. It seeped into drawers and even inside the refrigerator and stove. Most things made of fabric, such as clothing, mattresses, pillows, and stuffed animals, absorbed the smell of the smoke and were ruined. The things that could be saved had to be cleaned professionally. We had to decide what was worth saving and faced having to pay to restore these items.
All four of our pets died in the fire. Two dogs and two cats. The carbon monoxide got to them, and they had no idea what hit them. At least that’s what the firemen said. They just went to sleep. I always wondered: Isn’t this what is always said? He never knew what hit him or It was so fast they didn’t realize what was happening. The dogs were found huddled together in the bathroom. A cat was found wedged beneath the sofa as if to secure the last few gasps of oxygen. There was the imprint on a smoke-covered duvet in the guest bedroom where the other cat eventually collapsed and died. I do not believe they didn’t suffer. To me, they did not appear to have simply fallen asleep, but and seemed have experienced some level of terror during the last moments of their lives. A neighbor told me a dog was still alive when the firemen arrived, but I did not press her for further details. I know I am unable to handle knowing if this is true.
When we were evacuated the second time, after the flood, I reexperienced the trauma I went through after the fire. I feared for the cats we left behind. I felt I couldn’t go through the loss again, but I came to realize that I had no control over the situation. I had to let go of my fears and remain strong.
In both events, I lost nearly all my books. My office survived the fire for the most part because I, by chance, left the door closed, and that prevented much of the smoke from entering the room. But the pages absorbed the smell of smoke. Due to the generosity of the faculty and my peers in graduate school, many donated titles to replenish my library. Over the years I collected even more books, but the office was then destroyed in the flood. My books on the lower shelves were soaked. The one on the higher shelves absorbed the dampness, and the pages became bloated, crinkled, and curled. It broke my heart to see my books once again being thrown by the restoration crew’s workmen into oversized garbage bags and then tossed inside an oversized dumpster at the base of our driveway.
It’s time to use a Kindle, Drew tells me. I prefer having the actual book in my hands, and not a gadget. But this way, Drew explained, I can have all my books in one place, no piles of books everywhere, and in the event of a tragedy such as a fire or a flood, I won’t lose them. Does this mean we are expecting another catastrophic event? I asked him. He simply shrugged. Having experienced two such events in a decade surpassed all the odds. You should be playing the lottery, friends have told me.
Now it is the same house that we bought thirty years earlier, yet it is different as we have made changes. We redesigned the layout after the fire. Then, after the flood, we kept the lower level as is, but redesigned how we would utilize the rooms. For example, in the drawings, I created reading space for myself in Drew’s man cave so I can sit there with him and read while he watches a sporting event or a movie. It is a simpler arrangement that involves a pair of recliners. No more oversized sectional sofas with a humongous ottoman in the center. This means that our aging German shepherd we got after the fire will no longer has a spot on a sofa to sleep, and she will have to adjust to sleeping on the floor. I promised Drew we can get her a dog-bed.
Because the fire destroyed the entire house, we lost a lot of things. The flood, however, only impacted the lower level. Fortunately, our main quarters are upstairs and weren’t flooded. Downstairs, anything porous had to be thrown away. I was filled with sorrow to find that nearly all my Christmas decorations were destroyed. I was able to salvage several small porcelain figurines of elves, pixies, cherubs, and Christmas carolers that belonged to various grandparents, along with the many mementos that were stored on shelves above the waterline.
Yes, I have a lot of stuff. Some friends tease that I am a hoarder, yet they marvel at my collections, from the DeGrazia artwork to religious icons, old books, antique family photographs, Native American jewelry, and the many bee-themed dishes and pieces of silverware that I have accumulated over the years.
I do not believe that I am a hoarder; I am a collector. I have heard horror stories about people who hoard and cannot move from room to room with ease, or who drop dead and are not found for days, buried beneath piles of newspapers or bags of old clothing. This is not me. My clutter is organized and provides me with a connection to the world. My past, present, and future are all represented within every significant object. Each beautiful piece means something and has a story behind it.
We treasure these items that we still have after the destruction of the fire and the flood. I treasure them even more than I did before. Beautiful things. I may have lost a lot in both events, and on some level, it was liberating, a purge of sorts, but I have come to realize it is no longer about what I have lost. Not anymore. It is about what I have now, what I still possess. These are the things that matter most to me. I hold on to these precious items as I never know if they will one day become lost possessions too. These pieces are lasting survivors as I am.
William Vandegrift is a freelance writer. He’s written author interviews and restaurant reviews. He’s also have published short stories. William graduated from Bennington College with an MFA in writing and literature. His work has appeared in various journals including Agni, Quarterly West, The Writer’s Chronicle, and US 1 newspaper.
Really enjoyed this sensitive and revealing exploration of memory and tragedy. Well done!