On my daily walks, I follow slightly different paths, depending on how many steps I have set for my goal. In every walk, however, I pass this one house that has unfortunately for the owner, burned in a fire. When my estranged wife was away in January, the house ignited. I remember talking with her on the phone when I noticed the flashing red and blue lights over the fence in the backyard. I stepped out onto the patio and was hit with the smell of burning wood wafting in on the night breeze as I saw in the distance the fire trucks battling the blaze. I don’t remember seeing the orange glow of a raging fire over the trees (the fire was a block away), but I did see the lights of several emergency vehicles clustered up and down the block.
Now it is June 22nd and the house that burned is still standing unoccupied, emergency tape draped across its scorched and blackened face, the front door, garage and several windows standing open as well as most of the roof gone, exposing the house and its contents to the flooding rains we have experienced the past several weeks. It is sad, really. Someone lived in that house. Some family is displaced, perhaps in a hotel, maybe renting an apartment, maybe staying with friends or relatives while their home and possessions stand in ruins. I know many people will say that it is only material things that can be replaced and that (assuming the residents made it out of the house ok) survival is more important. Fine. True enough. No argument there.
But the house is still standing there raising a couple of questions.
When I was a kid, a burned out house would have been a siren’s song to me. I couldn’t have resisted the urge to explore these ruins. I would have rifled through whatever remained not necessarily to pilfer anything, but just to explore my curiosity. I’m sure there are many kids, especially now that school’s out, that have probably done so here. This would be trespassing, sure and that is bad enough. I would feel so violated if someone were to go through my belongings even if they were fire damaged. But more significantly is the issue of safety. This building was engulfed in flames. The roof was burned off, but many of the joists and rafters remain in place, damaged beyond repair. These structural elements could collapse upon anyone inside the building. I’d hate for some kid to be hurt or killed by a collapsing burned out wall.
I can imagine the reason the house is untouched for all this time is the insurance companies have been deluged by all the flood damage claims since April, but this is getting ridiculous. The owners are probably waiting on the claim before they can move on with getting the house demolished and rebuilt. I doubt they can salvage any of the existing structure.
The second question is more introspective. As I walk past this sad statement of personal loss, I reflect on the temporary nature of life. “This, too, shall pass,” is a phrase I use in bad times to remind myself that pain is fleeting. But so, too, is happiness. Happiness comes and goes like a zephyr on a hot summer day, offering only a brief respite from the oppressive heat of life. I didn’t know the owners of that house. I hope their family is safe and ready to rebuild. I have no way of knowing though, aside from my daily observations as I stride along the sidewalk that passes the ruined hulk of what once was a family home, filled with memories of a life lived there. Perhaps they are already in a new home, opting to buy a new house elsewhere rather than rebuild on the same site.
Many people find starting over relatively easy. They eschew attachments to the past, preferring to always focus on the future. That which has already happened is history and is irrelevant to their life. They use phrases like “going forward” a lot. I often find that many of these people fail to learn from the lessons of the past, so focused are they on what is coming up next. I’m not wired that way. The things we acquire as we go through this life help build the lasting memories that prove (if only to ourselves) that we lived in this world. Because of my wife’s leaving, I have been going through a lot of boxes lately as I separate mine from hers and everything I encounter reminds me about the life we’ve lived, and in many cases, my life before her. I have found paycheck stubs from my graduate assistantship at UALR, my job at the Leader in Jacksonville (how did I survive on that paltry salary is beyond me) and a lot of student papers from the classes I taught. I discovered many pictures I had taken back in the day before digital cameras. My late sister’s gag gift for my 40th birthday was in still a box, as was some N-scale railroad cars and track from an old train set I had.
I imagine that this burned out house has many of the same type of mementos charred and broken laying in pieces on the scorched concrete floor of the damaged house and it fills me with sadness. Is someone waiting to sift through those memories and try to find a way to reconnect with their past, or will they let their history be swept away with the trash? Do they even care? These questions vex me and I am glad I do not have to try to answer them myself. I have enough of my own memories to sift through as it is. At least as I rediscover memories of my life before marriage, it helps me remember that I did have a single life once and that I can have a life as a single man again.
A lot of people refuse to let go of clutter, dragging the past behind them onto every path they take like a collection of steamer trunks and old luggage. This luggage holds the cherished memories of a life lived, to be sure, but also the garbage that a life collects as well. The trick is knowing what to jettison and what to keep; figuring out what is holding you back versus what can help you in the future. I doubt I will ever be a guy who gets rid of everything. I like to reminisce on the good times occasionally. I also like to be reminded of things I forget. There is nothing sadder than a fun time, a happy occasion, a cherished memory that dies by being forgotten—except maybe one that dies by being forgotten after the memento gets burned in a fire.