It’s 3:50 am and my cell phone, which has been going off with alerts for evacuations in nearby towns about every half hour all night, has just gone off again but this time it is my own town that is being evacuated. Because power was turned off last night, we are finding our cats and getting them into carriers by the light of our flashlights. We already have the cars packed and we are scurrying around as quickly as possible getting dressed and getting the last bits of what we will take with us. We had an afternoon and evening to start to prepare after we got the alert that we may be evacuated in the coming hours once the winds picked up and could drive the fire in our direction. So yesterday I had the chance to look around my house, where we have lived for 30 years, and think about what I would take if I needed to leave. We raised our kids in this house, we had three dogs and two cats that are buried in the yard, and we spent several years rebuilding it to be the perfect fit for us. It is where I’ve said jokingly (but not) that I hope to live until they carry me out in a box. It is my home.
But now I am looking around and wondering what things are small enough and sentimental and important enough to take with me in case I will never see my home again. It’s a hard task, to say the least. I find myself walking from room to room, looking at all that we have accumulated and thinking about all the memories and meaning in so much of what is here. Tables that we found and loved at antique stores when we were newly married. Paintings that were purchased from local artists, many of whom are close friends, that could never be replaced. Toys from when the kids were so small, full of happy memories. Serving pieces that we got for our wedding gifts and use every year for holidays together. Gorgeous quilts lovingly made by friends and family. Books that hold special places in our hearts because they were given by people who are no longer with us. And, not to mention, photos of our family and our lives like our wedding album and the albums documenting our children’s growing up. Plus, all of the other less sentimental but equally important things like insurance papers, passports, tax information, check book, safe deposit box key, medications, clothes, snacks, and flashlights. It’s overwhelming and I am frustrated by my own inability to be as efficient and decisive as I need to be in the short time that I have to do this. As I wander from room to room, looking at all of our things, I feel like it is all so important to me and I can’t separate out what is most important to take.
My choices need to be small because we have only a little room in the car once the pets and the necessities are packed. No furniture, nothing too fragile because they could become more of a liability if we end up without a place to be for a while. We are taking our little camper, so worst case scenario, we have a place to sleep, but we will be sharing it with our dog and two cats, so space is very minimal. So, I start collecting things and I find that what means most to me are the handmade, irreplaceable items that have made me feel loved. Those things that someone I care about spent their time and energy to make specifically for me or for us felt most precious. I took the beautiful swirl quilt that my dear friend made for our table. I packed the quilt that my mom made for my son when he was born. I packed the pillow that my sister cross stitched for me when our daughter left home and we became empty nesters. I took the beautiful scarf that my daughter-in-love wove for me one Christmas. I grabbed the journal in which I hand wrote all of the adorable things the kids said when they were very young. I also took some things that were not handmade, but were so packed with love and memories that they warranted coming with us. I packed the tiny stuffed bear that my son always carried around when he was young and the Polly Pocket doll that my daughter kept with her at all times when she was very little. I gathered the tiny wooden box that my son made for me in a middle school shop class which now holds a lock of hair of my little Maltese, Bella, who died a few years ago. Into the car went a charcoal drawing that my daughter created of a man’s face when she was in middle school and which I credit with starting her on her artistic path. I took paintings that friends had painted and another quilt that has hung on our kitchen wall for many years that my mom and I made together. I packed a banjo that my husband was just finishing hand building when we met, and his favorite guitar (which my dad actually helped me pick out when I was a teenager). I collected my Dad’s old camera that he always had in hand and that I inherited when he died. I took my engagement ring that I don’t often wear anymore but that I still love. In the end, I knew that there were many other things that could have been gathered, but these were plenty, more than enough. If all was lost, I would still have many things that meant a lot to me.
Though I felt grateful to have the time to round up all these things, I also felt completely clear that having my family safe and together was, by far, the very most important thing to me. In the Sonoma County fires of 2017, people left their homes with just minutes to grab what was precious to them. Many left with just their keys and wallets and some not even that. And so tragically, some were not able to leave at all and perished in the fires. Having my husband, my daughter and our pets safely leaving with me was all I really needed. The rest is just stuff.
In the end, after five days of being evacuated, the winds died down and the brave firefighters were able to get a handle on the fire and we were allowed to return to our home. In the week that we’ve been back, there isn’t a day, or really even an hour, that I haven’t felt grateful that it went the way it did for us. My heart breaks for the 133 families who lost their homes in this fire and the many, many more who lost homes in the 2017 fires. I don’t know if this will be the last time that we have to leave because of fire coming too close, but I am confident that if we go through this again, I will know what matters most.