The Day Our House Burned Down: Jan. 9, 1988

Today’s post has nothing to do with body image, weight, fitness, or anything … I am just feeling nostalgic and wanted to put my family’s fire story into words. I don’t have a photo on hand to share from that day, and I didn’t want to use anyone else’s random photos … but sometimes a post doesn’t need it to resonate. I hope this is one of those.

Female intuition is a very powerful thing, and not something I take lightly.

A Saturday morning 22 years ago, while preparing to head out for the day on a family outing, I innocently asked my dad, “Daddy, what would happen if our house caught fire at night?”

He seemed a little surprised by my question (as it was completely out of the blue), but told me what we’d do — find each other, get out safely, and go to our neighbors’ house to call for help.

As planned, we ran some errands, and pretty much forgot about our conversation. But when we came home later that day … our lives were changed in an instant … and that “what if” conversation we had that morning haunts me to this day.

My dad opened the front door and (I’ll never forget this) screamed the one word that will forever echo in my mind: “FIRE”!

Smoke started coming out the front door. My mom, brother, sister and I were still at the top of the driveway getting our stuff from the car, and he yelled at us to run to the neighbors’ house to dial 9-1-1.

We were just 8, 6, and 4 at the time, so the shock of those words was enormous. We ran across the street to the comfort of our wonderful neighbors who called 9-1-1.

The rest is a giant blur of memories, memories so vivid that sometimes they feel like they just happened yesterday.

I remember my eyes welling with heavy, uncontrollable tears … staring from our neighbors’ window as fire trucks pulled into the cul-de-sac and hearing the screech of the sirens … watching the men with huge hoses entering the house …

Realizing everything as we knew it was but a distant memory.

I remember hours later, after assessing all the damage, my parents coming into our neighbors’ house, the stench of smoke making us gag … my mom’s long blush-colored coat stained with gray ash … thick soot etched deep into their faces … their blue eyes shining with tears …

A lifetime of memories built in their first home, gone, just like that.

And I remember the overwhelming sadness of being just 8 years old and realizing your brand-new bedroom furniture, all your toys — including your new Hanukkah toys — were gone.

January 9, 1988, we lost nearly everything we owned, including our sense of security. With the exception of some salvageable photo albums (that still have that tangy house-fire odor today; I can “smell” it now, 22 yrs and 1,000 miles away), a couple home movies, and the blue stuffed octopus my dad gave me the day I was born that he was able to rescue … it was all gone: furniture, toys, clothes, books, electronics … you name it, all that “stuff” — it was gone.

But even through the shock of our tragedy and our great loss, I also remember the utter relief that we weren’t home when it happened; that no one was hurt; that we were all together.

Perhaps that was the biggest blessing of all: we were together and safe. Temporarily “homeless,” but safe, and **together**.

I’m sharing this story now, on the cusp of our “fire anniversary” to remind all of us that what we think is so important — those possessions and gadgets and things we treasure — are really worth nothing when it comes down to it.

What matters is the loving family and friends you surround yourself with; the support you give one another in good times and in bad. And that’s a treasure to savor and hold tightly to.

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19 thoughts on “The Day Our House Burned Down: Jan. 9, 1988

  1. Our fire was September or 1994 and I know THAT smell that you talk of all too well! And the realization that it isn’t THINGS that matter was a valuable one (though my therapist recently asked me about what I keep in my safe and laughed when I told him – nothing of “value” but there is letters and pictures and a book I treasure and the necklace my mom gave me when I was 25 and a copy of her eulogy – I guess some stuff is important)

    1. Oh Joy…I am so sorry you went through that, too. Yes, that smell stays with you forever. And the photos and letters and necklace — those are indeed priceless — so glad you were able to get them.

  2. Wow. How toucing and tragic. Ths will remind me to never ignore my intuition and that material things are just that: materials. Family is really all you have in the end.

    1. So glad to hear it, Kate. Sometimes we all need a little perspective. Coming off the holiday season, this story is both ironic and appropriate (and the timing wasn’t lost on my family at the time!)

  3. What an amazing story and reflection…

    I grew up in Southern California and was evacuated from home about, oh, a half-dozen times. Every time, we packed up our “most valuable possessions” (for me, this was pets, laptop, photos) and got in the car. My dad usually stayed behind, standing on top of the roof with a hose, like a superhero (or so I thought as a child). We were always spared, but neighbors and friends lost their homes. It’s such a humbling experience to lose everything. One of my friends lived in Malibu during the fires there a few years ago and lost everything. She said it taught her what’s really important, gave her this fresh feeling of starting over (this was after all the mourning, of course). Now, she sees things as things. Relationships matter more than any material possession, that’s for sure. It’s sad that you had to go through this at such a young age. It obviously left such an impression. However, I’m sure there were great lessons to come from it…

    1. Thanks for sharing, Kim. Relationships really are all that matters, and living where you do, it’s nice that you understand/can relate (glad you’ve always been spared!) Our family was always close, but this made us even closer. There’s something about losing everything that makes you realize just how lucky you are — and how much you have.

  4. Thank you for sharing this painful memory. I am SO thankful no one in your family was home, but I cannot imagine the utter fear you must have felt. Thank you for finding a message in a seemingly senseless tragedy.

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