Monday, November 25, 2013

If You Could Save One Thing...

DEBORAH CROMBIE: A few weeks ago, a house in our neighborhood burned. This was an historic home, on one of main streets leading into the town square. We knew the owners, although not well.  We were, in fact, frantic with worry for my husband's cousin, who lives across the street. (This was fairly late at night and the police and fire department had the entire area cordoned off, so we couldn't be sure what had happened. When we saw photos the next day, we were shocked.

We say "burned to the ground" rather lightly. The real thing is terrible. There was nothing left of this beautiful home but a pile of charred rubble, collapsed in on itself.  Absolutely nothing. Even after hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes, there are usually a few scraps of personal belongings or mementos that remain, but not here.

On the plus side, our firefighters did a terrific job of containment, and none of the other nearby homes were damaged. And the biggest plus of all--no one was hurt. The owners weren't home at the time of the fire.

But it started me thinking (the writer's curse.)  If I could save ONE thing, and only one, from my home, what would it be? (Of course it's a given that people and animals come first, so we're going to assume that family and pets are safely evacuated. We're also going to assume that we have our phones, and at least in the case of us writers, our laptops. And our wallets with credit/debit cards and driver's licenses.)

What, then, if I had to choose?  What would be irreplaceable? Old photos? (So many we've never managed to scan...) Books? Impossible to choose just one...  Art? Unless you happen to own an Old Master (and I don't), probably replaceable.  Although many of my London Transport posters are out of print...
Jewelry? Not in my case.

Journals, then?  A lifetime's worth of half-filled scribbled in, mismatched notebooks?  How to choose one?

I found I couldn't make a hypothetical choice.  Maybe, in a real situation, I could. Or I would grab something, without thought.

Reds, could we define our characters by what they would save?

And what would be the one thing you would rescue?

HALLIE EPHRON: ONE thing?? Boy is that a tough one. Thinking, thinking...

I choose an oil painting by my uncle Richard "Dickie" Wolkind, my mother's little brother. I'm guessing that he painted it when he was still an art student. When he died of cancer in 1955 at the age of 28, he was working for Disney studios. My mother, thirteen years older than he, was devastated. That painting about the only thing I got from my parents' estate, the only thing from her side of the family. It has pride of place over the fireplace in our living room.

RHYS BOWEN: This is something I've lain awake considering on nights I couldn't sleep. It would be really hard. I think I have all my writing and photos stored on a cloud so that wouldn't be too terrible. Most of our old photos are scanned. But we inherited a lot of John's parents' antiques, completely irreplaceable, like the sword an ancestor brought back from the crusades, the Chinese plates when John's grandfather was a governor of part of Malaysia or my favorite--the beautiful music box from the 19th century. I have a collection of dolls both foreign and antique and obviously I couldn't drag that cabinet out of the house.

Now I'm thinking clearly. My awards are on a shelf halfway down the stairs. I could easily grab a couple of Agatha teapots. But would I rather have them than the pot one of our kids made in second grade? Oh dear. More pondering to be done on sleepless nights, I guess. But the interesting thing is that I love being at our condo in the winter where we have no stuff, no clutter. It feels free and airy.

LUCY BURDETTE: What a tragedy Debs, although yes the people out of the house is most important. When we had Hurricane Irene bearing down on us in Connecticut a few years back, I faced a similar question. John had some surgery that very day and was overnight in the hospital. I
rushed home and began to carry photo albums and paintings to the attic. The paintings are not valuable per se, but they are all done by local artists and we treasure them. My grandmother, Lucille Burdette, was also an amateur painter and I would hate to lose her few works. (Photo: Lucille and Frank Burdette.
As it turned out, we had no damage inside the house. Though I did have to evacuate and stay with friends (very good friends!) for three days with the cat, the dog, and my surgery patient.

: I've honestly thought about this, and like you all, I discover it's impossible. It's horrible, and terrifying, and choosing one thing, interestingly, makes it diminish. I mean--every time you looked at the thing--would you think about IT, or would it remind you of everything you lost? AH. I can't even talk about this. "I am so sorry for your loss" --that phrase we hear so often--just reverberates. 

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: When our children were little, we practiced fire drills at home. The Smithie's second grade class did a unit on fire safety, complete with visit to the local station and a booklet on how to make a family fire plan. A typical first child (responsible, organized, bossy) the Smithie insisted we follow the directions. (She was appointed to be our fire safety officer.) 

Although we thankfully never needed it, I'm glad we did have a plan, and that we roll-played - what if you can't get to mommy and daddy? What if the stairs are blocked? She and the Boy practiced crawling under smoke, touch-and-go (making sure the doors aren't hot) and several different ways to get out of our old house with its many doors and windows. One thing we stressed time and again was take nothing. More people are injured stopping to rescue things or going back for that one irreplaceable treasure. The only thing that can't be replaced is a human life.

So no, I wouldn't stop for anything. Leave it all behind and get out. I'm a surprisingly unsentimental person. 

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL:  I'm also surprisingly unsentimental about "stuff." In fact, I know this is strange in our culture, but I really try to own as little as possible. Part of it is being a New Yorker and simply not having the room, and part is just wanting life to be as simple as possible.

My computer is the only thing I'd grab, especially if it had a work in progress on it! (Now realizing I should back things up more often.)

Oh, and my grandmother's wedding ring. (See, I'm not completely without heart...) 

DEBS: Hallie, I love your uncle's painting! And how could I
have not thought about things like my signed Edward Gorey print (his last one, and one of the few in color.) Or the painting my now-well known artist cousin painted in his teens?  Or my half-dozen framed Christmas cards hand drawn by Laura Maestro, who illustrates my books? Or Rick's grandmother's Majolica teapot?  The list goes on and on.  But, like Rhys in her condo, I find staying in hotels and rented flats very liberating. Are we burdened or enriched by "stuff?"  A little of both, I think.  

Readers, what about you?  What one thing would you save?


  1. How awful for your neighbors . . . fire is such a frightening thing. It’s hard to imagine being away and coming back to the horror of finding everything you had swallowed up in a pile of smoldering ash.

    I am tempted to agree with Julia on the “take nothing.” Sure, I’d be devastated to lose my “stuff,” but choosing one thing is practically impossible. And I find that I am extremely sentimental about many things which practicality tells me could be replaced, but for which the thought of losing them is so overwhelming that the idea of taking nothing is staggeringly upsetting.

    If I had to choose, I guess the one thing I’d take is the hand-carved Lord’s Prayer that has been in our family for generations. As a child, I remember it hanging over the sofa in my grandmother’s living room . . . and then it hung in my mother’s living room . . . and now it hangs in ours. It’s a connection to family and faith, to both my grandmother and my mother, both gone now . . . .

  2. I've been divorced too many times. The exs got all the good stuff, including my parents' handmade Persian rugs. The sentimental stuff, the fire can have. I'm always ready to start over. :)

    Hallie threw out a very interesting line. Love her to follow up one day: She said she got almost nothing from her parents' estate. How come?

  3. What an amazing question.

    As I first read, I thought phone, laptop, pocketbook, then they were excluded from consideration. Hrmph!

    Then I couldn't come up with a single thing. And if I have to stop and thing now about something, I guess I won't be taking the time to do that in an evacuation emergency.

    Nope, I can't think of what I'd take.

  4. I've thought about this a lot -- the answer's always my laptop. But assuming I had that already, I'd take my jewelry box. Some of my pieces carry big memories. The hematite necklace with interlocking moon beads from my first boyfriend; the diamond pendant my mother had set for me; the comma earrings I made; the leaf earring that my husband bought on a whim (once a pair, but I lost the other one); the leopard pin my dad negotiated over in Hong Kong, decided was too pricey, but ultimately bought because he knew I'd love it.

  5. I'd have to pick the foot locker with photo albums of my kids.(Is that cheating? A foot locker full of stuff?) I've scanned some photos, but not all and so those albums can't be replaced.

  6. Joan, that's a perfect choice. And Jack, see what those women did for you??

    Shizuka, your jewelry box sounds just right too--things that have powerful memories attached.

    And Kristi--you can have the trunk!

  7. Can I change my mind? I take Debs' signed Edward Gorey print.

  8. Yes, its a more complicated question than it initially seems, you know?

    I'm STILL thinking about it.

    Is being unable to choose one thing what "cognitive dissonance" means?

  9. My stuff is so disorganized that I wouldn't know where to find whatever I decided it was important to take! If I had a bit of time, I would probably make a snap decision and grab something.
    I don't have anything truly valuable in the sense of monetary or historical significance --
    As I am getting older, the "stuff" seems so much less important.

  10. Although I hope I never have to choose just one thing, it would be the three-page file of passwords, without which we would be screwed six ways to Sunday, especially financially. No way could I ever remember all those, especially since my husband keeps changing his, and quite whimsically, too.

    Now I'm thinking Rhys has the right idea, uploading photos and everything else into a cloud system. That is going to be my next project, by golly.

    The stuff? I'd miss it, but could live without it all. The truly important things in my life are my family, and as long as they are all safe and sound I'm good. The kids and I also used to practice fire safety, but I don't think my husband and I have ever had that conversation. Another project, so thank you for the prod, Reds.

  11. When fire threatened my aunt's house, many years ago, she rushed outside carrying her husband's bowling ball. And to the day she died, she insisted that she'd chosen his most prized possession.

  12. In a really weird coincidence, just after I finished writing this post yesterday, my husband smelled smoke and then we heard sirens. We rushed outside (in the sleet.) We had fire equipment from at least three fire stations, some of it in front of our house. The house burning was our neighbors', thee doors down to the north. After about half an hour we learned that the fire was in the garage, and that no one was home. Whew.
    But it really makes you think how easily something like this can happen.

    I wasn't suggesting that anyone compromise their safety by going back into a burning house for a "thing." It was a merely hypothetical rumination on how much, if at all, we are defined by our possessions.

    But our neighbor's fire and Lucy's hurricane evacuation story did make something more important occur to me--we have two cats and only one cat carrier. We always have good leashes handy for the dogs, but if we had to evacuate both cats in an emergency, we'd be in a pickle. Going to remedy that asap!

  13. Debs, that's fascinating. You'd never have thought of getting another cat carrier!

    (Um..will your cats actually go IN to the carrier? Mine NEVER would...)

  14. Hank, yeah, our cats will go in the carrier. We have one that opens from the top as well as the front, and that makes it MUCH easier.

  15. My backup drive with all my photos movies and writing on it and my purse. If I had time. I was staying in London once and the alarms went off at 3 am. I'm grabbing my purse and my suitcase and hubby is like - leave it. I said I am not leaving without my passport and money. Sorry.(as I grabbed his wallet and tossed it in my purse). And I'd like to have clothes. He convinced me to leave the luggage and didn't allow me to get dressed, but I clung to the purse. We were outside in our nighties for an hour just because some jerk decided to smoke in his bathroom with the door closed. At least it made for a humorous anecdote when we returned home. :)

  16. I'm with Julia. I had a good friend who was a fireman, and he always said, "Leave it all. If you can grab purse or wallet on the way without slowing down, okay. Otherwise, don't take anything. Lives are what matter."

    As a hypothetical, it would be a hard choice--the valuable Japanese painting, decades of journals, the 3-foot Peruvian handmade terra cotta church, the china cabinet fully of family heirlooms, my Orenburg lace shawl handknitted by the last great masterknitter, Olga Fedorova, the painting my dear friend painted to be used in the cover of my poetry book, Heart's Migration, on and on.

  17. What a tough question. Does one go with practical or sentimental? For a practical choice, I'd go with my documents and important papers binder. I have a large binder with plastic slip-in pages that holds documents, such as marriage license, house deed, insurance papers, diplomas, and so forth. I keep it in bedroom where it is easily accessible, so I could grab it and make life after a catastrophe easier in respect to the everyday functions of life. One item I need to add to the binder is a copy of all my computer passwords. I have such a list (long list), but I don't have one in the binder. Will rectify that.

    Sentimentally speaking, the choice is much more difficult. There are so many items that come to mind, a I am a sentimental person. One of the easiest items, well somewhat, is in the front foyer and deserves some consideration. It is an antique drop-leaf table that belonged to my mother. When my mother was a young woman and lived with her mother, they had a fire that destroyed everything but that table. It was the only thing that they were able to save, as it was on their porch. It might be nice to continue that tradition, sad as it might be.

  18. OK, I just realized that the documents I referenced would be safer in a safe deposit box at the bank, but I think I have them at home because we needed some of them when my husband was in the service. Maybe I should put originals in safe deposit box and copies in the binder. Gee, this question made me really start thinking.

  19. The only thing of value in my home is my new refrigerator - I'd just leave it behind:-)

    As much as I would hate to lose "things", I'd rather get out alive. I'd be grateful to have the opportunity to start over, instead of ending up as a victim of the fire.

  20. A science fiction writer, who was a victim of a fire and was badly burned because he stopped to put on his jeans, said that you have no idea how fast a fire can spread.

    We face other dangers here in the midwest-- tornadoes come through, and a couple of years back, there was a terrible rain which resulted in a flood all around our block (we are on a hill).

    So I took the advice of all those articles and packed a "vamoose bag," one with a dog leash and dish, and dog food and a couple of bottles of water and a flashlight and a radio and extra batteries (I really should change those out).

    When I had a cat, I would have had to catch him and stuff him into a cat carrier. By then, we'd both have been casualties. (The dog will come when I call him.) I guess I'd grab the dog and the bird cage and hope for the best. A lot of stuff in the house is precious to me, but in the end, I guess life and living things are more so.

    There was a story in the New Yorker about thirty five years ago, about "The Great Berkeley Fire." I don't remember who wrote it, but it was about such a loss. But during a more recent Berkeley fire, my sister told me about one of her friends whose college-age daughter was unexpectedly home alone in their new house, and didn't know how to get out of the neighborhood, and didn't survive.

    In the end, life means more than stuff.

  21. Practical considerations around safe deposit boxes:

    They are sealed upon the owner's death, so not a good place for wills, life insurance, and other documents needed at that time. Also, if you have one, you will need the KEY to access it, so don't forget to add the key to your pile of "things to grab".

    One good thing to have in a safe deposit box, although you could also deposit this in the cloud, is a digital file of images of your belongings, in situ, for insurance purposes. It's one thing to tell the adjuster that you had high-end furniture, but without proof you will only get replacement value for regular department store-level stuff. Proof of your extensive library of books might come in handy!

    This topic has been on my mind for some time, ever since a friend blogged about putting together "go" kits for her family. Their house came thisclose to getting inundated by the floods in Nashville a couple of years ago, and since then she has stayed prepared to take her family to safety, if need be. You hope it never happens, but it's like taking an umbrella--if you don't have one it is sure to rain.

  22. Omigod, Ellen, what a horrifying story. So terribly sad.

  23. We have "go bags" and I don't know where mine is... It got tidied away at some point. We had this discussion at our house this morning. If you can't get to them, or can't get to the cat carriers, they don't do any good.

    Our "go bags" were designed more for evacuating during tornadoes or power outages. In a fire, you just get out of the house!

    We have a lot of stuff backed up in the Cloud, and are hoping to go more paperless in the next year. But those things for which you need physical copies, a fire-proof safe is an alternative we're considering. Safe deposit boxes are a nuisance--I know, as I'm dealing with my parents on my mother's death. No idea what happened to key and will have to get the lock drilled out...

  24. In 1990 during the Oakland firestorm, I had a chance to do this very thing when we were begin evacuated. At that time it was photos and computers. I put them in the car along with four-year-old son, dogs and cats and headed for a friend's house.

    Here's the kicker. The next day I discovered that I had left my car unlocked! Everything could have been stolen. After that I realized that I could pretty much do without everything.

  25. Weirdly enough, we had to evacuate our house this evening because of a suspected gas leak.

    Everything was fine, but I did grab a bagful of checkbooks, passwords, financial records, etc.

    Forgot the safe deposit box key, though.

  26. After almost 30 years of living in wild fire country....during fire season we kept our legal records, family albums and computer back ups in crates in the coat closet by the front door. After the kids were grown, we split all the family pictures between us and the three kids so someone would always ha e pictures....
    Later we went through additional crisis and decided we didn't want to chance storage of our heirlooms to chance of fire and mold, so went ahead and gifted artwork and other heirlooms to the kids. Now we enjoy these items whenever we visit the kids in their homes. We found it is not only fire that can rob you of all you worked for and toward....but we found a way to make the best of it and our children and grandchildren are feeling the deep roots of their family heritage in many is the items that they took into their homes.

  27. I found the story. It was by Hildegarde Flanner.

    Here's more info: