No place like home
The night of the fire, our son Larkin woke us up to say he smelled smoke and his friends in Santa Rosa were evacuating. He was with us the next morning when we found out our home was gone, and through the days and weeks that followed, living as refugees. We were well taken care of by friends, but still homeless. Larkin was with us when we sifted through the remains of our home, wearing masks to protect ourselves from the ashes. We were together when Jill and I moved into a fifth-wheel trailer and he moved into a vintage RV next door. That’s where he lived as he finished up high school, before going off to college in Los Angeles.
By the middle of this March, two-and-a-half years since the fire, our rebuild was almost complete. Jill and I were excited and impatient to be moving in soon. I was planning to drive to L.A. on a Friday to bring Larkin home for spring break. But on Monday afternoon, it was clear that the pandemic was gathering speed. Long before Friday, we’d be under quarantine. By the end of the week, travel might become almost impossible. Larkin could get stuck in L.A., or I could get stuck with him. It was not where either of us wanted to be for the duration.
Heading out of Glen Ellen late that Monday afternoon, I spotted a friend and pulled over. Behind him, the sun was low and I could see tiny drops of spittle momentarily glowing like tiny fireflies in the air around his silhouette as he talked. I wondered about wind direction and had a hard time shaking that image as I continued on my way. Reaching Larkin’s apartment at midnight, I slept a few hours and was on the road again early the next morning. By late afternoon, we were back in Glen Ellen. Larkin moved into his old digs in the cab-over RV. His school soon extended spring break and then moved classes online.
Given all that we’d been through together, it was fitting that Larkin moved into the rebuild with us. Having him there at the end of such a long and complicated journey made our homecoming that much sweeter. The move itself was easy – we’d acquired more than we thought over our years in the trailer, but compared to past moves, it was a piece of cake. Stuff we needed to buy, like a couch, a desk, a bed and household items, were delivered straight to the new house. We got so familiar with our UPS driver that he gave us a bottle of wine as a homecoming gift.
Even though we‘d been living just a quarter-mile down the road, I realized how much I’d missed the place. So much was familiar – the angle of morning sun streaming over the hills, Sonoma Mountain silhouetted behind the trees, the sounds of Warm Springs Road...
In designing the rebuild we tried to keep the elements of the old house that we loved and improve those we didn’t. The first time I walked into our new bedroom after it was sheet rocked and painted, a weight fell from my shoulders. With its three high windows, a window seat and view of the backyard, it was almost an exact replica of the one we lost. I was home again.
Some who moved into their rebuilds before we did warned that layers of grief might arise even in the midst of return. I experienced that, too. Our first night back in that familiar bedroom, I thought, “The last time I lay down in this room was the night of the fire.” It was an interesting thought, not too traumatic and thankfully one that doesn’t come back very frequently.
Mostly the new place is full of pleasant surprises. With the two lots to the west still vacant, we’re living in a much larger and more open space than the one we left. We found ourselves welcomed home by flocks of zipping swallows, honking geese, a herd of six deer, and a hawk who takes mice from the tall grass. For a while, a chorus of frogs serenaded us each dusk from just beyond the front door. Taking the place of our human neighbors, the frogs had moved into a newly-formed wetland among the ruins of the former house. Returning to our broken world, we were amazed to discover how well it was healing behind the scars.
Inside our own walls, we’re making the space into a home – organizing, decorating, nesting… something Jill is especially good at. There’s a feeling of things returning to their rightful places – the antique clock tick-tocking on the wall, instruments gifted by friends next to the piano, the Nepali rug in our bedroom. At the door to the back deck is a mat that reads, “HYGGE.” It’s a Danish word meaning “coziness and comfortable conviviality that creates a sense of contentment.” It’s a good motto for us right now, happily sheltering in place. Larkin too. The pandemic disrupted his college career, but he’s taking it in stride, enjoying what he’s got. After all, nothing is ever certain.
Someday, when the worst of the pandemic is over, we hope to gather friends and family to share hygge in person again. Until then, to everyone whose hands and hearts helped bring us so far – a huge and humble thank you. Your generosity and caring are with us always. We can feel it.
It’s true – there’s no place like home.