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What Does It Mean to Rebuild After a House Fire?

BusinessWhat Does It Mean to Rebuild After a House Fire?

It was a day like any other — the day my home was engulfed by fire. No one on earth or above asked me if I was ready for the shoulder shake. The morning started with a buzzy, two-minute car ride to my daughter’s school. It ended with us — me, my husband, our then 4-year old and 1-year-old — sharing a queen-size bed at my in-law’s house. I spent the night gasping for air while on my husband’s phone with my friends and family. My phone had been lost to the blaze.

We know the fire began in our sunroom and quickly spread while my son, grandmother, husband and I were inside. My virtual yoga instructor watched it all via FaceTime, frozen in horror as she watched the fire’s light and thick black smoke fill my living room. She saw us leave out of a door, but wasn’t sure where we’d gone. A fire department investigation deemed the cause inconclusive. So we’ll never know what exactly caused the biggest change of our lives.

In the United States, a home fire was reported every 88 seconds in 2022, according to the National Fire Protection Association. The financial outcome of the fire is contingent on if you were a homeowner or a renter (we were the latter). Your insurance payment also depends on the amount of coverage you had, the cost of the personal items lost, and the deductible. Unfortunately, the process isn’t always so straightforward or timely, insurance companies are slow to pay or a mortgage lender buries homeowners in red tape. Since we were uninsured renters, a former co-worker started a GoFundMe for us, a common go-to for people and families who have recently experienced disasters.

The only items I retained from the fire were a crew-neck shirt, sweatpants and the underwear I was wearing. I never liked the shirt much. It’s teal and I’d bought it during my second pregnancy. I’m not a maternity wear person (too matronly! See: ugly), but I would buy clothes a bit bigger than my size. Now it feels like a spoil of war, or a wedding dress from a first marriage gone sour.

They’re just things. Of course they are. Then I really began missing all of those just things. They were more than that. A year later, we will live an hour away from the empty lot that once cradled our house. It took a few months for the new house to become ours. I squirmed until my mind adjusted to my new bedrooms, backyard and bathrooms. But through the slow acquisition of new things, this house feels like a warm embrace.

There was overlap between closing on our new home, moving in and my son’s birthday. Between scheduled deliveries of bed frames, mattresses, the living room set and major appliances, I was trying to plan a scaled-back birthday party.

For at least a week, I told myself that I was going to bake the cake. I’ve been baking sweets from scratch for a few years and looked forward to my time in my new kitchen.

But when the big day finally came, I squatted and peered into a few cabinets where you’d expect baking utensils to be. I had tricked myself into thinking we had round baking pans. I ordered a cake from the place that’s now my favorite bakery and called it a day.

In the year since we moved in, I’ve filled those cabinets with cupcake pans, mixing bowls, measuring spoons, a Bundt pan and regular round pans, the works — what I need to celebrate a family milestone.

My immediate family has been collecting Black Christmas memorabilia since before I was born. I was ecstatic to continue the tradition with my own growing family, spending a few years making a former bachelor pad feel comforting for the holidays. I was devastated by the loss of the tree and trinkets, especially since some of them were gifts from family and friends.

In the months ahead of the fire, I had also suggested that we get a storage unit for holiday décor, but we never got around to it. I often think back to those conversations and regret not following through. I’m not sure what would hurt more: having nothing or only having Christmas items.

In our new space, we started collecting Christmas decorations and presents for the children last July. For the sake of money, we settled on a real tree that was about $100. The bulk of the ornaments came from my best friend and her mother with additional contributions from my grandmother and aunt.

Christmas Day wasn’t what I imagined. My son had a high fever, my daughter was high energy and I was six months pregnant. Brunch was slightly overcooked. My son’s eczema flare-up and ear infection kept him and I home from the big traditional dinner with family. My grandmother calls any sudden, child-related shift in plans one of “the joys of children.” The warmth of our home kept our spirits level.

I was born and raised in Shreveport, La. It’s about 3.5 hours north of New Iberia, the city where Louisiana Hot Sauce is made. The sauce is vinegary and not-too spicy, the perfect complement to a bowl of red beans, rice and golden yellow cornbread. It reminds me of eating at my aunt’s house after short bus rides home. I could smell the food as I was cracking her rickety screen door. My ponytails swiveled in the spicy steam of fried chicken and lima beans.

My husband is a Texas native, so he prefers Cholula. We’re both fans of Tabasco, too (made in Louisiana). But I just don’t feel right unless I have Louisiana in the cupboard.

We have a 12-ounce bottle that’s empty. I opened its replacement this week, but I haven’t allowed myself to toss the old one. I’m trying not to hoard or give sentiment to the mundane. I don’t think I’m doing it right.

The listing for our home said it was “perfect for a growing family,” so I think this pregnancy came with the house. Since the extra bedroom in our previous home became our son’s bedroom, we were excited to have an office space and a guest bedroom. I used to have to take calls standing up in my bedroom or in the living room. Though I wrote some of my best stories in my old bed, it was nice to have a designated work area. My husband’s aunt sold us a bed for $100. We got a little shelf and an inexpensive TV to help the room feel more comfortable. My mother came and stayed with us for a month as we settled in. There was an after-fire groove for us, and we were nestling into it. Then I got pregnant with my third child, a girl.

On Black Friday, a children’s furniture site had a sale on nursery fixtures. We got a crib, mattress, mattress pad, sheets, dresser, and gliding rocking chair for just under $800. I’d wanted a rocking chair for months and they were on the more costly side, so it was a win-win. When I need to collect myself in a room that is transforming as I am, I go to the chair. It’s a symbol of the rhythm of life and the new experiences that await.

My family has movie nights on Friday or Saturday nights. We grab several throws, let out the indigo sofa/bed in the children’s area and munch on popcorn and pizza. Sometimes I think my daughter enjoys it most — she constantly asks if we’re going to watch a movie and eat popcorn, even though I’ve clarified we don’t do that on school nights. I don’t know if it’s possible that it could bring her more joy than it gives me.

The sofa came from IKEA. It’s stained from hair gel because my son smeared it into the interior one busy morning. It also has toys, felt, and hair pins in every crevice. We fluff and braid hair and soothe tears. It’s part jungle-gym and part bed. The day after a movie night, it’s covered in popcorn kernels and tiny buttery bits that my 3-year-old tries to eat.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

My grandmother was living with us at the time of the fire. She had some of her things in storage near her previous home in Shreveport, including her mother’s china, as well as some of her own. She’s a meticulous collector of things and memories. She prides herself on keeping the same clothing for decades. More than once, she talked about giving some china to me, as well as the cabinet the pieces perch in. I didn’t take the trip to get it. I’m glad that didn’t pan out, because it wasn’t lost in the fire.

I’ve since inherited a few pieces of the gold-trimmed dinnerware. The plates rest on our dinner table, waiting to tell me about all they’ve seen. I don’t see myself eating off them, but I desperately want to know the stories they hold. What memories do they have of me? I lived with my grandparents on and off throughout high school and in some of my adult years. I know they saw me typing my first play, a school assignment, until the sun inched into the sky on the play’s due date. Maybe they were paying attention when I proudly carried my first baby girl to the living room. They’re certainly watching me now as I dig my heels into life and bring the love of family, living and dead, with me.

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