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Finding strength after the fire

I lost many things. But I gained from the experience of losing them.

By Alexandra Kovach / November 1, 2007



Washington

In most parts of the country, there is nothing like a beautiful autumn day – particularly one with warm breezes and above-average temperatures. But in California, these autumn treats can be signs of impending danger. No matter where I am on such days, I think of October 1991, when my childhood home burned down in a California wildfire.

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Ours was one of 3,000 homes destroyed in the Oakland Hills fire. It was helpful to think we were not alone in our loss but painful to know that so many others were suffering through their own family tragedies.

It's difficult today, in a world that is filled with violence and devastation and that has experienced countless natural disasters, to put the event in proper perspective. You start by saying that it was just a house and that its contents were just things, and of course you are thankful when there is no loss of life.

But then the definition of home emerges. It isn't just a house. It's not the contents, or the walls, but the true feeling of that home – and all that it represents. Our homes are our foundations, retaining in their walls our memories and all the experiences that happen within them.

I still visualize our house on Vicente Road. I have dreams that take place there. I can still feel the lace on my mother's wedding veil, which my sisters and I would sneak out of its box when we were little girls with big ideas. And that giant box where my mother would proudly store the artistic treasures we brought home from school. I would love to see now, or to show my children one day, how I drew the sun when I was 5.

I remember learning of the fire that day and finally reaching my parents. They had retreated to the home of friends, who had planned to have a party that afternoon but ended up providing shelter for my parents, who after 25 years in their home were suddenly refugees. They had escaped with two photo albums and a painted portrait of my great-uncle in Ireland. My mother said to me: "I have two photo albums. But I'm not sure you're in them. And I'm just not sure I have the heart to look."

Being the youngest of five, I had fallen victim to a common syndrome affecting youngest children – the dwindling of parental devotion to baby books and photographs as parents' days became filled with carpools and soccer practices.

We couldn't bear to look for two weeks. But I was in the album. We all were. Miraculously, my mother had picked up the album that my sister Kate and I had made one rainy Saturday from all the photographic "rejects" we could find. We had given each person in our family a chapter, documenting each person's life to date, complete with the school pictures highlighting bad haircuts and '70s plaids. Overnight, these snapshot disasters became our greatest treasures. Today's digital photos can be modified or erased within seconds of being taken, wiping away all signs of human imperfection. These albums had held the outtakes of our lives so far, but in their flaws, they were true testimony to the children we were and the adults we became.

That day, it was my father who said what I remember most clearly. When my mother handed him the phone, he told me: "Everything we invested most in – the five of you – your education, your music, your travel ... it all still exists. This fire can't take that away."

And he was right. As much as I want my stuffed Snoopy, the gumball machine my brother made for me for Christmas when I was 8, or even to wear my mother's wedding dress someday, I know that all those things – including the experience of losing them – are essential threads in my fabric, the canvas that is my life.

That canvas, like the one my mother saved from the fire that October day, is a survivor of that tragedy. The experience is an important part of my life. It was a temporary loss of identity and home that forced me to understand the strength of family and the power of memory. And of working together to rebuild an even stronger identity.