One Year Anniversary (99)

As I write this chapter, it is exactly one year since I got the call from my neighbor, while I was getting off the airplane, telling me there was a fire at my house and my son was on the way to the emergency room. My son Jacob and I had just been texting an hour or so earlier about my delayed flight. He planned to make a quick snack and then pick me up around 10:30 p.m. Instead, a small gas leak from the back of the stove triggered a fire when he turned on a burner. After trying to put out the rapidly-spreading fire and then yelling for the dogs (who were thankfully outside), Jacob ran to a neighbor to call the fire department. Four and a half minutes later, according to neighbor David, the fire engines arrived. A few minutes after that came the ambulances. In that short time, my kitchen was destroyed by fire and the rest of the house’s interior was destroyed by smoke. Shortly afterwards, the medics determined that Jacob needed to be taken to the emergency room. He was beginning to sound hoarse and incoherent from smoke inhalation. He protested, saying he needed to pick his mom up from the airport, but they were having none of it. The neighbors David and Marcia assured him that they’d contact me; David even followed Jacob to the hospital and waited for me to arrive.

Even now, a year later, I can get weepy just thinking about those first few days. For months before the fire, I had focused on house improvements in order to sell it. With two kids in college, I was ready to leave the big suburban house and find a smaller, empty-nester home closer to the city center. Everything was set to go. I left on a business trip, thinking that when I returned, I’d have just one day to clean up before the house went on sale. The best-laid plans and all . . . Seeing your unconscious son in an emergency room attached to all kinds of tubes changes your perspective pretty darn fast. We were lucky, though. Jacob had only minor physical injuries and the dogs were safe. The house eventually got rebuilt and sold quickly, albeit many months later than originally planned. I’m now two months into a new house in a new neighborhood. Over and out, right? Not so fast. No one who has gone through a catastrophe ever really forgets it. It’s never 100% over. The impact may lessen, at least I hope it does, but it changes you forever.

Jacob still suffers some post-traumatic stress. He gets panic attacks now and then and I get the late night phone calls. Once I even had to get him from his co-op and bring him home. Having the dogs play and sleep with him helped. He’s had a rough two years going through depression, then the fire, and now trying to readjust to student life. He’s making progress, but it’s slow-going. I’m sending him to Florida for a vacation to visit his sister and honorary aunt just to get away for a bit. Last year daughter Sarah had been away at college and missed the initial weeks of our post-fire life, so the experience did not impact her so much. She did suggest, however, that Jacob come visit her early, so he could see her campus and enjoy the end-of-year party. I suspect she knows that he needs some more fun in his life.

As for me, I can confidently confirm that the past year was the most stressful and difficult period of my life. Once we’ve reached our fifties, most of us have had some challenging times, and until the fire, I had thought that the autumn of 2000 couldn’t have been surpassed. Then, in the span of three months, I had dealt with a lying landlord who sold the condo (we had just moved into) out from under our feet, grieved the death of my father, discovered I was pregnant, bought my first house with the inheritance from my father, bade my Turkish husband farewell due to inhumane U.S. immigration laws (that required he return to his country of origin for two years despite being married to a U.S. citizen and having two stepchildren), and to top it off, had a miscarriage. Hard to beat that, right? I moved through life in a bit of a trance for months after that, but at least my children were fine and I didn’t have to worry about a roof over our heads.

The days immediately following a crisis are usually the hardest, and when you have to deal with insurance and contractors and hotels and rentals and reorganizing your life – more or less – those days become overwhelming. After the first few weeks of sympathy, friends and family go about their business, which is understandable, but the victim of a catastrophe lives with its challenges much, much longer. Just yesterday I sent in some final receipts to the insurance for some reimbursements, and today I ordered the last piece of furniture to replace one lost in the fire. It’s not that I procrastinated (well perhaps a little); it’s just that the time and effort and paperwork and bureaucracy that go into rebuilding your life are truly unbelievable.

Have I changed since the fire? Absolutely. When I go on a business trip, I find myself getting anxious about leaving home, especially leaving my son, who usually watches over it and the dogs. The sound of sirens and sight of fire trucks give me momentary fright even though I wasn’t at the fire when it happened. I pay very close attention to newscasts about local fires. I’ve had a few nightmares, too. And when I hear the sound of a text message or ring tone at night, my first impulse is to panic about my son’s well-being. But it’s not all bad. As hard as this year has been, it’s given me more perspective on life. Due to the wildfires in central Texas, many people lost their entire homes and all their possessions; some lost their beloved pets. One friend lost a son who suffered from depression to suicide. I consider myself fortunate. There have been silver linings and many small blessings over the past year. Colleagues and friends and family have been generous and kind, often in more ways than I expected. My son and I have grown closer. He knows without a doubt that I love him unconditionally and am there for him when he needs me to be. I’ve been more willing to change up my routines, interests, and preferences during the process of getting back to “normal.” At the beginning of 2011, I worried too much about money, my job, dating, my house, and more. Now . . . not so much. What a difference a year makes.

Enjoying the great tree at the new house

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Unpacking Memories (98)

Muchos libros. Carlos, the man installing my new windows, said this as he saw me trying to organize the piles and piles of unpacked books stacked haphazardly on shelves in my study. They’re not just books, I told him. They’re memories – they reflect my interests, my passions, my life. A few books are older than I am, but most span the decades of my adult life. I have almost no books from my childhood, mostly because my parents didn’t buy me many but also because they didn’t save them. I’ve gone to the other extreme and saved many favorite books from my children’s early years, hoping that someday I can share them with their children.

I lost most of my bookcases due to extreme smoke damage from my house fire, nearly one year ago. Luckily, I had already packed them up and stored them in the garage. New carpet was being installed upstairs where the kids’ rooms and my study were and I had to remove them from the bookcases; because of this, my books suffered only minimal smoke damage. I didn’t mourn the loss of most of my furniture or kitchen things too much. I was sorry to lose my wooden bookcases, but I knew those could be replaced. My books could not. Many are out of print now or from foreign countries. Somehow I didn’t think the insurance company would spring for plane tickets to Mexico, Europe, and Israel to search for replacements.

Looking over the shelves, one can see my passion for foreign language and literature. I still have some of the Spanish textbooks from my college years. I don’t read Spanish much anymore despite being a Spanish major for two years and ending up with a minor in the language, but I remember a few lines of poetry from a Garcia Lorca collection, a book I bought in Spain on my first trip abroad after high school, and the interesting, confusing, sometimes bizarre stories of Jorge Luis Borges and other South American writers. I spot 10 años con Mafalda, a once popular series of comics from Argentina, that I bought from a sidewalk vendor on my first trip to Mexico in 1980.

I spent one semester as a history major, which accounts for some thick volumes on Russian history and philosophy, and I ended up as a Russian major. I have the language textbook from my very first course in Russian. I remember the excitement I felt buying the new purple textbook with the metallic blue titles (it was the 70s). Some of the books are from my two trips to Russia, the first in 1977 and the last one in 1989 – very different times and experiences. When I open them up and sniff them (I always sniff books), the memories of my travels come rushing back. I use my Russian knowledge much less than I do Spanish these days, but each time I unpack my Russian novels (in translation), I swear I’m going to reread them. Anna Karenina would be a very different book to me now in my fifties than it was to my young college self.

German books take up four shelves, not surprisingly. It was my concentration while in graduate school and I lived in Germany six years. Lots of German language, literature, and culture – books I read and researched as a student and used as a teacher. I think back to my first year living in West Germany (still divided in 1981 when I moved there), struggling to learn the language and culture, and then survey all the books I now have in German, a language that has become second nature to me. My thesis and dissertation and a few published articles on poetry, translation, and other topics rest high up on a shelf. I discovered English and American literature and mystery novels while living in Germany (in my desperation to read in a language I understood) and that collection continues to grow. There are also books about Turkey and Turkish literature, a souvenir of my three trips to Turkey and of the Turk in my life, a former passion.

One entire bookcase houses my Jewish books. Jewish religion, history, and culture have been a passion since I first discovered Judaism at age 16. When I had kids, it gave me a good excuse to build a collection of Jewish children’s books, now tucked away due to a shortage of shelf space (but waiting patiently for future Jewish grandchildren to find them). My passion for soccer takes up nearly one entire shelf, an accomplishment in a country that isn’t as passionate for that sport as I am. Indeed, many of my soccer books were published in England, not America. My interests in comparative religion, philosophy, travel, art, music, dance, politics, house and garden, and more fill the shelves, not leaving much room for more though I know that won’t stop me from buying more. Many books, yes. But my books are so much more than pieces of paper with words on them; they are my life in so many ways.

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One Person’s Junk (97)

Unpacking one’s possessions is a process of discovery. Or rather, rediscovery. I’ve moved often enough in my life, packing and unpacking many of the same things, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Each time I pack, I weed out items and vow not to let the pile of my possessions grow so much again. And each time I unpack I think, I’m going to read this book (these books) before I move again. Then comes the next move and I wonder, once again, how I accumulated so much stuff again and why I still haven’t read some of those books.

In the past, moving and settling in generally took a month or two, at most. This time has been different. I had been downscaling my possessions for over a year in anticipation of moving to a smaller house. Most of my books in my study upstairs were packed away early so that the carpet installers could move the empty bookcases easily. Downstairs I had packed up much of my kitchen equipment and stored many of my nicer books and pottery in the garage in order to stage the house for potential buyers. The house looked bare and impersonal, just the way the house shows recommend when selling. The early packing turned out to be a blessing in disguise because two days before my house went on the market, we had a fire which destroyed the kitchen and damaged the rest of the house’s interior with the smoke and heat. Many of my personal possessions were salvaged, thankfully, since I had already stored them away in the garage. Now, nearly one year later, it is finally time to unpack them.

Most of us collect stuff over the years – mementos, souvenirs, tchotchkes, ‘dust collectors.’ They may look like junk to some people, but to the owner, each one holds a memory of a person, place, or time. We may not think about them very often, but the thought of losing them can be painful. Now that my shelving has arrived, I can finally tackle the unpacking of all those miscellaneous objects so carefully cleaned and wrapped by the restoration company after the fire. I set them all out on my dining room table – a feast for the eyes, at least my eyes. Seeing so many all at one time evokes a lot of memories.

The oldest item – probably the Russian babushka nesting dolls; I got those during my first trip to Russia in 1977, back when it was still the Soviet Union and I was a college sophomore learning Russian. No wait, an even older object is the small red vase from Japan, one my father brought back after serving there in 1954. It was a gift to his mother, and when she died, he gave it to me as a memento of my grandmother. Some of the objects are relatively new – Shabbat candlesticks and all the other Jewish ritual objects are only about a decade or two old, but the mezuzot (decorative cases holding biblical verses to put on one’s doorposts) range from thirty years old (from my stay on Kibbutz Ketura in 1985) to seven years, the ones I purchased in Austin after moving into a house with more rooms than my previous ones. Then there are the gifts from the international students I taught during my California years. The origami bird from, of course, a Japanese student, the miniature tea set from a Chinese student, some pottery from a Chilean student, and more. There are souvenirs from trips to Mexico and Turkey and Israel and from my life in Germany. For a short time in my twenties, I had dabbled in needlepoint when a German friend had given me a scene of Jerusalem and some supplies to get started. It wasn’t very good, but I had enjoyed the hours I spent on it back then. I unwrap a piece of art that my friend and her then partner bought for me as they traveled through the southwest on the way to visit me in California. I can still picture the visit in my mind as I can picture all the people and places the other objects represent. Mementos, souvenirs, tchotchkes – dust collectors, absolutely. Junk? Certainly not.

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Half empty or half full? (96)

I’m talking about my garage, of course, not a glass of water. I’m usually a ‘half full’ kind of person, but in my current situation, ‘half empty’ would be the more optimistic view. No matter how many boxes I unpack, my garage still appears to be half full. Perhaps the height of the boxy mountain is decreasing, but it’s still looking like Mt. Everest to me. I cleared a small path leading from the utility room door into the garage and down the middle, so I can squeeze into my car. Some days I don’t even bother to park in the garage. Surely no one is interested in bothering an old, small Toyota with all my bumper stickers littering, I mean decorating, the back of the car.

I don’t remember moving being such a pain the last time around though it was less than eight years ago and then we were driving halfway across the country. I had led the way in the same small car (only one bumper sticker back then) with my daughter and 3 crated cats on kitty valium. My son and his dad followed us in the moving van. It took us 2 ½ days with frequent stops to make our way from California to Texas. Compared to that move, I figured this time would be a breeze. The fire had eliminated much of my furniture and my many books had already been packed up by the restoration company. Also, I was only moving across town. How hard could it be? Turns out, hard enough. Perhaps it’s just more frustrating since I still have nowhere to put my books, pottery, and art, so there’s no sense in unpacking many of the boxes. Losing my tall wooden bookcases to smoke damage did cause me some heartache. The bookcases had served me well for many years and the wood had aged into a lovely golden color. For the new house, I decided to change it up a bit and ordered a darker stain for all the new shelving. I was buying from a local business I had used before and they build everything themselves – no outsourcing for them. So I am still waiting eagerly, though somewhat impatiently. I haven’t seen most of my books for over a year and I miss them almost as much as I would long-lost friends (fellow book nerds will understand this).

The other piece of furniture I was still waiting for was my buffet-hutch. I had bought it when I moved to Austin, having always wanted one but never having the money to indulge until then. It was modern in style and a warm golden color with wooden doors on the buffet and glass doors on the hutch to display my nicer stuff. My contractor Mark had returned the undamaged buffet months ago when I moved back to my restored house, but the hutch, with its ruined glass doors, was still at the furniture repair shop. The repair shop boss had procrastinated so long that I told Mark not to deliver it until I moved. Now I wanted it back. My new kitchen is small and I need it for storage. After several rounds of phone tag with the repair shop, Mark sent his men to the shop to demand some answers. “Where is it? We’re supposed to deliver it to the client today.”  “I’ve been waiting for your company to give me the go ahead to strip down the wood and restore it. I’ll need the buffet back, too, in order to match the wood finishes.” When word of this got back to Mark he was livid! “That guy couldn’t have told us that five months ago? Now I’ve got to call the client and explain why she isn’t going to get it any time soon?” He called Bruce the insurance guy to explain the problem. Restoring it would probably come close to what the pieces were worth. Bruce let him know that the insurance would replace it unless I had a sentimental attachment to it. Mark then called me, very apologetic, to fill me in. Luckily, the client does not have a sentimental attachment to it but does like Mark enough not to get livid herself. Now I’m on the hunt for a replacement. I had already unpacked some of my stuff in anticipation of getting the hutch, so I just stacked it all on the buffet.  At least I had cleared out a few more boxes in the garage. It’s beginning to look half empty now.

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Let’s Move! (95)

“Let’s Move!” is the slogan for Michelle Obama’s cause to get kids living healthier. Adults, too, but mostly she focuses on the nation’s youth. Now, I realize that the first lady was talking about exercise and fitness, not moving households, but after the first few days of moving my worldly possessions to new abode, I can vouch that they are one and the same. I haven’t felt that sore in a long time. I hurt all over.

You’d think that with this much pain that I hadn’t had much help, but you’d be wrong. My son and a friend of his – both skinny yet strong, young men – moved dozens of heavy boxes, that is, my books. Son Jacob even came the next day to help load up my friend Debby’s car and unload them at the new house. I took the “light” stuff. Clothing and linens were no problem, nor were my daughter’s many stuffed animals, stored away some time ago though not forgotten. But hauling around a lot of the kitchen stuff can really take a toll on your back, at least on my pitiful one.

On the last day of my four-day moving event, Tuesday, the pros showed up. I had decided the last time that I moved to no longer burden friends and family (grown kids being the exception) with the onerous task of moving my stuff. Besides, they were getting older and achy, too, just like me. I asked around for some recommendations and settled on a local company that my colleague Kate had used. Also, their name was M&M Movers and any company that sounds like candy can’t be bad. Originally, they were to take the furniture (not much left of that) and some of the items too big for my car, like the lawn mower. But by Tuesday I was exhausted and for a mere $1 a box, they’d pack up the rest. Go for it, I said. I didn’t have very much furniture anymore; it took all of 45 minutes to load up the truck and head across town.

Everything was unloaded quickly and my new garage now held all the boxes my old one had kept for so many months since the fire restoration company had returned them. I hadn’t even bothered to unpack most of them. Unfortunately, I had to head back to my former house to clean up. The pantry and refrigerator were the worst chores. Despite trying to eat down my groceries the last few weeks, I still had quite a bit of supplies to pack up or throw out. The refrigerator was staying with the house and needed cleaning. You know how little bits of food or a few drops of some unknown liquid fall behind the drawers just where you can’t reach them? Every blessed drawer had to come out of the fridge. By 6 I was done and done in. Determined to make only one last trip, I jammed all the bags of food and cleaning items into the car trunk. The vacuum cleaner went on the back seat, and last, but certainly not least, packed in my two dogs.

Buddy and Rosie hopped in the car, sharing their usual space with the noisy contraption they dislike, the one that sucks up the leaves they bring in and the hair they shed. The dogs knew something was going on and were nervously quiet on the ride to our new home. Thinking ahead, I had already put out food, water, toys, and their doggie beds at the house. I hadn’t washed the cushions as I figured the familiar smells would comfort them in the unfamiliar house. A short time later, both dogs had explored the backyard, eaten some dinner, and settled down in their cushions. I collapsted onto the couch, dinner on a TV tray nearby, and turned on the DVD player. Exhausted but content. We were finally moved.

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The Game of Life (94)

When I was a kid, there was an interesting commercial for the game called The Game of Life. It showed players having different jobs, waving money when hitting it rich in the stock market, and various other life events. It looked like a lot of fun though when I played it at a friend’s house, I don’t remember it being quite so exciting. During the last few weeks, I’ve often felt like my life was unreal, like a game in some ways, though nowhere nearly as exciting as a TV commercial for games would have us believe. It’s been a roller coaster of emotions, a bit like Chutes and Ladders with its highs and lows, often out of my control.

Three weeks ago I was scheduled to close on the house I was selling on a Thursday. The next morning I was scheduled to close on the house I was buying. The painters would come that afternoon as soon as I got the keys to begin prepping the house to paint. I had four days to close the door on my former home and finish moving into my new, empty-nester home, and we were trying to finish up the painting beforehand. I had my son and his friend coming on the weekend to help move the smaller stuff, my friend Debby coming on Sunday to do the same, and movers arriving on Tuesday to finish with the big stuff. Sounds like a plan, right? Then I got the news that we had some Trouble.

My buyers might not have all the necessary documents in order to close on time. Sorry, they said, but the mortgage lender had requested a new document last minute. No one on my side had had a Clue there was a problem until then. I could sympathize as I know my own mortgage lender had requested some documentation that seemed like a Trivial Pursuit. The entire process of buying and selling has become so complicated and cautious that it truly Boggles the mind. They’re taking no Risk these days. The delay, however, would have a Domino effect on everyone involved. If I didn’t sell my house on time, I couldn’t buy my house on Friday, which would then have to wait until Monday, and all the other plans would have to be rescheduled. I was not a happy player.

My realtors and friends tried to help me with my stress – it’ll all work out in the end, they said. Yes, I know, and you’d think that after the past year dealing with my son’s depression and my house fire that I’d be more philosophical about these bumps in the road. But I wasn’t. My quota of calm and patience, never a high number, had been used up this past year. Instead, I entered Candy Land and indulged myself as a way of calming my nerves. If only buying and selling was as easy as it was when playing Monopoly. In the end, it all worked out thanks to Bob the realtor being as pushy as possible with the buyers’ lenders. I sold my house on Thursday and bought my new house on Friday. The painters finished painting before my furniture arrived. I worked hard up until the last minute to move out of my old home and by dinnertime Tuesday, I was finally, finally in my new home.  Game over.

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Paper Attack (93)

I am under attack from all directions. In the north is all the paperwork for selling my house, in the east is the paperwork for buying my new house, and from the southwest is the never-ending paperwork coming and going to my insurance appraiser. Yes, I’m still dealing with insurance issues 9 ½ months after the fire. I am in the process of organizing many of my receipts so that I can get the full replacement cost reimbursed. There’s no way I’m going to win this battle 100%. I just don’t have time to organize, copy, and scan receipts for every little thing in my bathroom closet or pantry or fridge or whatever. Pick your battles, right? I decide to focus on the bigger items and not sweat the small stuff. No matter how good your insurance is (and mine has been pretty good), you’re still going to end up on the negative side of the balance sheet after a fire.

I have some experience on the northern and eastern fronts since I’m selling a house for the second time and buying one for the third time. But it’s gotten a lot more complicated in the real estate market since the foreclosure crisis. The paperwork seems to have tripled and the closing fees have certainly increased. Earnest money has doubled since I last made an offer on a house, so I borrowed some money from my stepmother (to the rescue again) until my tax refund or house profit comes in. Then we had to fill out a form stating our relationship and how much she gave me and where she got the money. Done, or so I thought, until the next request came from the broker. The lender needs a letter stating how long my stepmother has been my stepmother. Hmmm, since I was 6 or 7, but as I was just a kid, I don’t really have a specific date. Do I need to e-mail her again? Luckily, my response was good enough though why they need to know that bit of information I’ll never understand.

I realize that banks are suspicious of large deposits in an account; they need to know that a borrower can afford to pay the mortgage. They’ve been burned one time too many and are hesitant to commit (like many of us in our relationships). I do, however, have a decent job and quite a bit of equity in the house I’m selling. Nevertheless, I still have to account for a couple of mysterious deposits of $100-$200 last month. I couldn’t remember at first. Oh right. My ex and I split costs on the kids’ health insurance and tuition; he was reimbursing me. Fine and good, but I still needed copies of his cleared checks as proof. The mortgage industry has gone from one extreme to another. The paperwork alone may keep me in my next house forever.

“Keep your eyes on the prize” my friend told me. Right! I am starting to get excited about the new house. Mark the contractor has agreed to do some jobs on the new house even though it hasn’t been damaged by fire, flood, or tornado. He’s been extremely busy restoring other people’s homes, but we manage to arrange a time with my realtor to meet there one week before the closing to measure rooms. The goal is to get the painting and possibly the flooring done before I move the furniture in. It’s all becoming very real very quickly. More e-mails flood my inbox: another document to sign, several documents to review, requirements for the closing, bank information, and more. I try to take it all in stride. Just one more week and I will have conquered two out of three fronts. I’ll worry about the insurance front after the move.

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