After the Fire, the Judgment

Watching the NYC devastation, we tremble at what people lost. At least 20 lost their lives. Some must have lost pets. Many lost homes, perhaps as many as 100.

And then there’s the books.

Like the controversy over the marathon–to run or not to run, to devote resources or divert them–priorities get freely judged after a disaster. What you want, and why you want it, is up for grabs and questioning by everyone around you. You want to run a marathon? Are you nuts, or just selfish?

But for the people who got their families (skin and fur) out safely, it’s heartbreaking to think about what they’re thinking about, even if they won’t say so out loud for fear of judgment. From working here at the bookstore, as well as past work with the Red Cross, I’d say they’re thinking about the place on the stairs where they hung the mistletoe. They’re thinking about their baseball card collection. And they’re thinking about their books.

One of the first things people tend to replace after a house fire–once they’re safe and have a roof and food–is a beloved childhood book. We’ve given to fire victims over the years  copies of The Tao of Pooh, Danny and the Dinosaur, Heidi, a couple of Louis L’Amours and countless coloring books. (We have a policy that each such person gets one free book. Then about two years ago someone donated 200 coloring books, each with one or two pages used, so we started handing them out by the armload to parents of fire families; there’s not much for kids to do in motel rooms and the Red Cross couldn’t take them because they were used.)

Fairly often people get embarrassed when they start talking about their material losses. They sigh over signed baseballs, the high school portrait of their mom, a crystal punch bowl; everyone’s got a trigger. Then they give a strangled laugh and say, “It’s just stuff. It doesn’t matter.”

In the grand scheme, everyone knows that. But the objects of our affection are surprisingly deeply embedded–and usually carry more weight than just their size. You remember a book as much for how it made you feel, where you sat when you first read it, what was happening to you at that time, as for what it said. You can replace the words, you can recreate the memories, but you can’t reinvent that your grandmother’s hands held that Fanny Farmer cookbook, and this one is a copy.

Which sucks.

Evaluating layers of loss, seeking to restore, a need for normalcy and legacy–isn’t that all part of being human? As is trying to outrun our need to have them in the first place.

But had it gone on, would those marathoners have been able to outrun themselves?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “After the Fire, the Judgment

  1. Janice Brooks-Headrick

    Yes. Last April, the whole top of the mountainhere burned. Last September, my hometown was flooded. Two worst things in the world for books and papers. The papers, some are going to be preserved in the vault at the local library, some in my hometown library. The books, well, I’m sorting out what can go and what has to stay. Its not always easy, like the ragged nursery rhyme book Mrs. Ross gave me, saying, “There is no one in my family that wants this, and my mother read it to me, and I, to my girls, and their children.” Then, there are the family books, and treasured gifts, and books that taught me life lessons, and….. but I have so many that could be treasures to others. When the dust settles, I’ll pack a lot of them, send them to the beach, wherever it is now.

  2. Tamra Igo

    Well said, Wendy. Well said.

  3. Mario R.

    Books … oh, oh, the books … and, yes, how well I understand. And yet … priorities.

    When my grandmother and her three daughters — the oldest would grow up to become my mother — were sent into the internment camps by the Japanese during WW II, they were allowed to bring only what they could carry with them. My grandmother was very wise: she packed clothing; she packed cloth and sewing supplies (especially handy later, bartering new dresses for food); and she packed the one thing that could not be replaced in any way, shape, or form: she packed the family photographs.

    Close to the front door of my house today is a large wooden trunk. Inside, all the family photographs in large cloth bags with sturdy handles. If anything happens … those will be first out the door to safety.

    To the right of the door is a low book case; behind it, hidden, are fold-out cardboard file boxes. In the case are the Special books. Once the photographs are safe, the books go into those boxes to join the photographs.

    And *then* I grab the “survival kit” …

  4. How true. After my moving truck burned in 2001, a wreckage of flames by the side of the road halfway between Tennessee and San Francisco, full of everything of mine worth carrying 2,300 miles, the first thing I replaced was a set of fairy tale books. The originals had belonged to my mother and her siblings, a beautifully illustrated pair of texts published in 1946, one volume for the Grimms, the other for Andersen. I was overwhelmed to find them in the Green Apple, my favorite used bookstore in San Francisco. Examining every page after I brought them home, I was amazed to discover that they had been printed in Kingsport, the very town where they first found their way into my hands. It was a special kind of serendipity. They hold a place of honor on my shelf.

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