17. January 2006 · Comments Off on Relics · Categories: Domestic, General, Memoir, Pajama Game

One of the first things my youngest brother Sander said to me after Mom and Dad’s house burned in the Paradise Mountain fire, two years and three months ago in Northern San Diego County was “”Well, that solves any dispute between us over who gets what!” Because there is now pitifully little of the “family things”, the accumulation of this, and that, bits of china and knick-knacks, furniture and linens— all those tangible records of our ancestors’ taste and purchasing ability, all those familiar things that were just always there, in Granny Jessie’s or Granny Dodie’s house, or in Mom and Dad’s. When Blondie was still my parents’ only grandchild, and looked in a fair way to inherit the entire accumulation for good or ill, Mom remarked once, “Well, I hope she likes dusting!” Their house had lately become full of things that Pip, JP and I had been used to seeing at our grandparents, in addition to all sorts of things that had always been there— the red Naugahyde upholstered club arm-chair, the India-brass coffee table with the blue iris bowl on it and a fan of magazines and books arrayed around it, the spiky and uncomfortable teak Danish Modern dining room table and chairs, Mom’s wedding-present silver place settings— all those things that had moved from Rattlesnake Cottage, to the White Cottage, to the Redwood House and Hilltop House and their eventual resting place in the house Mom and Dad built together, the house that burned to the ground, all those things reduced to a pile of rubble and ashes, scraped up from the concrete pad by a bulldozer blade and carried away to be dumped… but not before the ashes had been combed and sifted by various volunteers, family members and neighbors.

The house is mostly rebuilt, now— Mom and Dad moved in several months ago, happily abandoning the RV which they bought to replace the one loaned to them by friends. The veranda, and solarium were still incomplete, the area around the garage was still piled with gravel, roof tiles, and squares of terra-cotta saltillo tiles, but the main house was completed, and all the stored furniture (nearly every scrap of it second-hand and gently worn) moved out of where it had been stashed for the last eighteen months… all the linens and clothes, bric-a-brac, bedding and kitchen things put away, and Blondie and I went around for a day, armed with a hammer and picture hangers, and deployed pictures in pleasing and eye-catching formations on certain of the walls. This iteration of Mom and Dad’s house is much more comfortably arranged for visitors, and for entertaining, with a lovely and generous kitchen arranged around a wood-topped central island and stocked with all the cleverest recent developments in storage— a pull-out cabinet with two trash cans, a drawer with a sliding cover for crackers and bread, a shallow drawer especially for cookie sheets and racks, and a spice shelf with an array of smaller hinged shelves tucked inside of it. Clever and ingenious as it all is, we were constantly going to the wrong cupboard for the commonly used things— mugs and silverware, glasses and plates. Invariably, we would first go to where they had used to be, in the house before. What used to be Mom’s studio is now a sort of entryway and secondary living room, which can be closed off with sliding wooden doors to make a second guest bedroom, and the guest bathroom is much larger, with a tall wooden linen closet built in, and a dressing area.

Besides hanging pictures and clearing the last of their things out of the RV, Blondie and I took on another dispiriting chore that I think Mom and Dad just didn’t want to deal with; the last of the remains salvaged from the ashes; six or seven heavy boxes consigned to the shed, filthy with ash and grit from the fire, and disgusting from having been nested in by mice.
Neighbors, friends and family had gone over the site with hope and enthusiasm; some of the things— mostly china, metal and glass— were wrapped in newspaper. Plain white kitchen plates, fairly undamaged, a rectangular enamel casserole which used to be turquoise blue, now it was greenish, and the enamel bubbled and crazed… a set of eight fragile demitasse cups and saucers, the pastel colors of flowers and leaves mutated by fire, but otherwise whole and un-chipped… a little china bulldog chasing it’s tail, also un-chipped but slightly blackened with a deposit of soot and crud from the tarpaper. A silver cigarette case, and a pocket-watch, a little tin box full of cut and unset gem agates, another of coins… about half the pieces from the blue iris bowl, not enough to reconstruct….two handfuls of corroded silver-plate spoons, knives and forks, a kitchen-knife with the wooden handle all burned away. Two irregular conglomerations of smashed wedding china stuck together with melted glass… one of them with the remains of a serving fork imbedded in it. A couple of heavy cut-crystal decanter stoppers, slightly deformed. The antique teapot with the curious lid, an ornamental platter painted with birds on a cactus plant, and a green and blue ewer with a silver-plate lid, not much damaged, as Mom had put them in a bathtub full of water, not realizing that the roof tiles would smash down on top of it all— but at least all the pieces were in one place, and only a little of the soot and tar crud on them. Those three can be repaired, Pip and I will see to it. It was fascinating, in a faintly gruesome way, sorting out what things actually were, and wondering in some cases, how they had survived in a recognizable form.

But all the rest reminded me of nothing so much as the cases of relics dug up from Pompeii, all laid out carefully under glass, with little labels pinned to the fabric on which they lay: the fragile glass and the corroded spoons, fire-blasted pots, with blobs of melted sand stuck to them, the humble and prosaic, the occasional small luxury, all gritty with soot and a dusting of ashes, but more imperishable than memory.

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