It is wildfire season in California, that annual time of destruction and dread, now made more fearsome as people also worry about pandemic and politics.
In late August, one evening, we received an “alert” to be prepared to evacuate because of possible lightning strikes and the threat of new, rapidly moving wildfires.
At the time, several people had already died, more than 1,000 people and families had lost their homes, and 100,000+ people had been evacuated.
We dutifully gathered up some clothes, prescriptions, water bottles, assorted emergency gear, laptop computers, and had our phones and flashlights at the ready. That was the easy part.
What followed next wasn’t so 1-2-3 simple.
What else do you pile into a car when you have the luxury to plan for a “maybe” evacuation?
Family scrapbooks? Simple as a concept, but which ones? We, like many people, have many. Fifty-two, in fact. I couldn’t decide among them. So, I grabbed a random few and piled them into a box.
The family portraits are a “must take.” They are irreplaceable, some dating back to 1900. But they’re large. And fragile. I left them on the wall but kept a stack of bulky beach towels nearby, ready to wrap the pictures quickly if we needed to flee.
By 1 a.m., we hadn’t heard anything more. Exhausted, I went to bed. But, of course, I didn’t sleep. How would we know if there were a lightning strike and fast-moving fire near the hills close to our home? How much time would we have? As a child, I slept through an earthquake. What if I now slept through a life-saving warning?
And, since there was still room in the car, what else should I take? If the house did burn down, what objects would I truly — deeply — mourn the loss of?
Back in my office I went. Pulling open the closet door, I dragged out my cedar trunk filled with keepsakes. I removed the needlepoint Christmas stockings I made decades ago for my husband and children. I could have also taken some of my children’s baby clothes, my father’s kippah, my mother’s favorite handkerchiefs, but I stopped myself.
Standing up, I glanced at my bookcases and the walls around me and realized I was in the sentimental center of my universe. Literally my entire professional and personal life was on display.
My diplomas, awards, and certificates of achievements from working at the US State Department and in journalism were on the walls. Which to save? I grabbed two especially precious items.
On the bookshelves, I saw my favorite childhood doll, and near that, a set of Matrioshka nesting dolls from when I studied in Russia; on a lower shelf, the little wire sailboat my father had cherished. And a stack of interlocking plastic boxes my child had given me for my birthday, each filled with a sweet loving poem. And the copy of the Torah my mother had given my father on their 50th anniversary.
By mid-morning, the “alert” had been lifted. Weather patterns had shifted and my area in the SF Bay was out of danger.
Slowly, gratefully, I unpacked the suitcases and boxes I had so quickly assembled.
Yet, in thinking about it, I was a little ashamed of the possession obsession I had felt. I should know better. I’ve worked with refugees. I know of their pain in losing everything — and by “everything” I mean the intangibles more valuable than mere possessions. I mean the loss of loved ones, of homeland, the sense of belonging, identity, and safety.
And as I unpacked, I realized what I was really stressing over as I scrambled preparing for that evacuation “alert” was the loss of what those cherished objects represented and that was memories. Now, in the calm and safety of morning, I also realized that memories can never be taken from you — neither by fire nor by dictators.