18 July 2017

The Fire

Once you open the door to housesitting in a new place, you get tons of requests. I watched my coworker’s big dumb Goldens for a couple weeks and then her wealthy friend enlisted me to watch an independent Bernese, some chicks (she described their care with bemusement—her kids were in charge of the poultry), and a semi-feral cat.

The house was nice-not nice, a model I’ve seen so many times when housesitting. Shockingly expensive touches (immaculate gas range, flagstone flooring) compete with chintzy touches (all of the doorknobs barely functioned). I have stayed in modest, thoughtful houses and I have stayed in garish houses where the thoughtful touches happen to exist because they were the premium option.

I am hopelessly nosey. When I stay at a house, I poke around, observe, judge. My biggest takeaway is often a suffocating claustrophobia—how can these people own so much STUFF? I have moved almost twenty times in my adult life and the thought of filling every drawer, closet, rafter, and bureau in your four thousand square foot house makes me choke on anxiety. I was in the midst of moving the last time I stayed at this particular house, and I stashed all my earthly possessions in a single bay of their three-car garage.

Four days after they returned from their most recent trip, I was lazily checking Facebook in bed and started seeing posts about a fire.

The house had burned to the ground. Every matched pair of toy firetrucks (twin boys), every elaborate wall hanging, the countless drawers of stainless steel specialized-use kitchen implements (pizza scissors?), the three sets of flatware ordered by occasion, the pantry full of organic kid’s energy bars, the four-post king-sized bed with decorative throws, the shower with multiple heads and a sauna setting, the four bikes, three stand-up paddleboards, and two lawnmowers…all gone.

By some divine grace, a neighbor saw flames coming from the house at 2 a.m. and was able to wake the family. It sickens me to consider the alternative. The gregarious Bernese also survived.

I went to the property, shifting roles from family acquaintance to journalist. I took photos of the blackened shell, smelled the aftermath of the burn, registered the empty space where the big wooden chicken coop had been.

The outpouring of support online was immediate, because people are good. Well-wishers were offering food and clothing donations. The family’s friend took me aside and asked how the newspaper could help head off this generosity—she didn’t go quite so far as to say, “They don’t want other people’s used clothing,” but it was implied.

Their cell phones and three (four?) cars burned. Their friends quickly provided them with new phones and a new car. Someone in their network set up a GoFundMe page and it’s currently sitting at an incredible $24,000.

Looking at that number, more than I make in a year, and thinking about the size of the insurance check that I know they’ll get, makes me sick and confused. The tragedy of losing everything, birth certificates and wedding photos and special art, is a terrible blow, but these people are positioned to weather it with minimal suffering. I couldn’t help thinking what $24,000 could mean to nonprofits, other families, people less blessed with opportunity, affluence, or a support system.

It made me squeamish to question this family’s right to benefit from the generosity of others, but I also kept imagining the McMansion they’ll be able to build with their insurance pay-out--bigger, better laid out, more storage space for newly-acquired possessions.  

Then I ran into her at the grocery store. It was the first time I'd ever seen her without make-up. I was scared to engage but she didn’t mind talking to me about the fire. She said they were looking for a long-term rental while they rebuilt. “Housing here is hard,” she said with tired amusement. I choked out an agreement. Housing here is hard, and it’s harder if you have a limited budget and if insurance isn’t footing the bill.

I used my mournful tone (I’m so awkward with condolences) and tried to express how glad I was that she and her husband and their two boys had made it out alive.

There is no right answer.

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