Fire on our Mountain

I’ve been traveling for work and pleasure, and finally returned to our family home on Lake Cuyamaca. It’s an early fire season, and it seems earlier each year. When I taught biology, I joked that California has four seasons—winter, spring, summer, and fire. So, it’s mid-July with four uncontrolled burns in Southern California. When we bought this house, a rebuild after the Cedar Fire, we knew what we were getting into. We knowingly, willingly risked life on wilderness edge at whim of Mother Nature. Our house is surrounded by Cuyamaca State Park and Cleveland National Forest—and prime forest ready for a burn. Native Americans used fire to care for their lands. They understood. Our government is learning.

In fall 2003 when the Cedar Fire roared through San Diego County, we lived in the Monterey-Salinas area (another fire-prone area), and our oldest daughter enrolled as a freshman at San Diego State. We were new to this—sending kids off to college—and secretly delighted that Meghan visited her extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins on weekends. That November, a raging fire changed everything for thousands of San Diegans. Initially, SDSU cautioned students to stay inside as the fire hopped, skipped, and jumped canyons towards Lakeside and Santee, close enough to campus you could taste it. Ash swirled in the air coating cars and sidewalks, landing on lips and tongues of beachgoers miles away. Meghan’s grandparents picked her up, so she could escape the smoke. By the third day of burning, fingertips of flames licked nearby hills and Interstates 15 and 805. SDSU cancelled classes for the rest of the week.

A flare set by a lost hiker created the conflagration that took everything in its path. In the beginning, the Santa Ana winds pushed the inferno towards the Pacific Ocean, racing through dry scrub, sage, and Manzanita, scaling the tops of Eucalyptus trees. Then winds shifted, and the shore breeze blew hot embers in the opposite direction. That’s when our area of Cuyamaca went up in flames. It was a perfect firestorm of events—where nature and people converged in not a good way.  Under scant resources, fire agencies protected the town of Julian, home of 2600+ people; meanwhile, Mount Cuyamaca, Middle Peak, and our mountain, North Peak burned.  In the aftermath, amid the ashes of homes, once stately Sugar Pines, and wildlife, people pointed fingers of accusation. Over a decade later, people in the backcountry still point fingers.

On our unpaved fire road, Lower North Peak Way, just four of twenty houses survived the fire. If I hike further up the mountain, more empty plots with brick chimneys, china remnants, broken bits of glass, twisted metal exist than do rebuilds. Our house is in fact a rebuild. The people before us completed the house within five years of the fire, but walked away at the peak of the “real estate bubble”—another tragedy of circumstances.

During fall and winter, when black oaks are dormant, it’s difficult to tell a viable oak from a scarred skeleton of an oak. Some oaks wear a skirt of charred bark, yet leaf out in spring. This year, black oaks and pines that sprouted after the Cedar Fire stretch as tall as the dead trees. The forest is returning, and with it, wildlife. I’ve seen mountain lion scat and tracks, as well as raccoon, deer, coyote, bobcat. Scrub jays fight over the Supreme bird feed I buy from the BirdWatcher Store in town.  And, this spring, a resident bald eagle from neighboring Lake Cuyamaca perched on a utility pole on our property. I saw a glistening from our deck, grabbed binoculars, and sure enough, there he or she roosted. With each turn of its head, light beamed off its head–a signal that all is well.

 

Assorted Stuff and a Hot Punch Bowl

I may never know the “rest of the story,” but I know that bowl holds memories. I carefully packed each piece, then marked FRAGILE on all sides of the box. The moving company would handle this. It was worth the extra money.

While Dale camped in our new home, I triaged through 35 years of stuff.  If I felt no connection to an item or I couldn’t remember where I got it or the story behind it, the item went to Goodwill, which thankfully took my piles and piles of junk. Good junk, though including White, Pfaff, and Viking sewing machines. Years earlier, I rescued the machines from defunct Home Ec classes, one per each daughter, but the machines sat silent in the garage, waiting for a young girl to create a masterpiece worthy of Project Runway, which of course never happened.

Goodwill attendants, God bless them, smiled as I handed them:

  • Boxes of empty mason jars—wide lids, small lids, half pints, pints, quarts, some Ball, some “real” Mason—during Christmas filled with Olallieberry jam, mixed berry jam, apricot or other apricot iterations, given to family and friends, then returned to be refilled with more deliciousness from our garden.
  • Boxes of 1970s college texts—both mine and Dales—and while many of our classes were the same, the texts and editions differed.
  • Pool toys and noodles and inflatables
  • Flower pots and vases
  • 4H memories of our kids’ animals—pairs of pig boots (each of our three girls raised pigs, each needed a pair of boots), pig feeder, a lamb box, lamb halter, lamb covers, sheers
  • Plastique—Tupperware I rarely used. The random lids and/or mismatched bottoms I tossed into the recycle bin, as well as my class notes from UCSD and UCLA, spirals upon spirals, folders upon folders of lesson plans I’d never use. Why did we hang on to this stuff for so long?

Then, there was the “Hot Punch Bowl”—

In 1990, our first year in Indian Springs, a sweet Romanian family lived across from us. Georgiana, the mother, and I became friends over recipes, her goulash for my Mexican torte or my carrot cake for her chocolate brownies. We commiserated over working parenting woes; she ran her own catering business and I taught high school. I learned a smattering of Romanian and she improved her nearly fluent English. We shared traditions; we celebrated Christmas, New Years, and other family parties together.  Their high school daughter became our go-to babysitter, and we encouraged Rosanna to speak Romanian to our small children.

Suddenly one Friday, we arrived home from work to find a large rental truck loading everything from their two-story home. Georgiana, the mother, said they needed to return quickly to Romania for family and personal reasons.  She seemed distraught and I told her I was sorry to see them go. Her parting gifts to me—a delicately embroidered tablecloth from her native country, and a punch bowl, and I gave her something, too, but I have no idea what it was. The house emptied quickly; by weekend’s end, Georgiana and her family gone. We exchanged a few Christmas cards and letters, eventually nothing.

For weeks, realtors poured in and out and hosted Open Houses; two months later, we had new neighbors. This newlywed couple eventually became our good friends, too, although we missed Claudius, Georgiana, Sergei, Florie, and Rosanna. Through the years, I thought of Georgiana and her family at each party, especially at Christmas or New Years, or whenever I pulled out the magnificent crystal punch bowl she gave me. A heavy, crystal mount, cut in the same intricate design, accompanied the fancy bowl, as well as dainty crystal cups and a ladle. Guests at our parties ooh’d and aah’d at the treasure. Somehow, it made the champagne punch on New Years or Sangria at summer parties taste much better.

It was nearly five years later, when Mike, our “new” neighbor, casually updated us on the people before them. I don’t recall how the conversation took such a turn, but I clearly remember the indictment he made of the previous owner, our friends, our “extended family.”

Mike—You heard about the people who owned this house, right?

Me—No, they haven’t written in a few years. I don’t know what happened to them. I only know they returned to Romania.

Mike smiled, which grew into a sort of chuckle, as he leaned over to prune their climbing roses. We often talked while gardening in the front yard—our house or theirs.

Mike—They’re on the lamb, they’re wanted.

Me—No, wait? What? No, seriously?

Mike—It was in the paper. Father’s wanted for embezzling, Mother’s wanted for stealing from her wealthy clients.

Me—

Actually, I don’t think I replied. Too stunned I suppose. Not these wonderful people, who escaped the regime in Romania for asylum in the United States. I reflected on their business, catering in a wealthy part of town, and the bowl bestowed on me. I may never know the “rest of the story,” but I know that bowl holds memories. I carefully packed each piece, then marked FRAGILE on all sides of the box. The moving company would handle this. It was worth the extra money.

Escrow Times Two

Once we decided to move, we packed with a mission—daily Goodwill donations of books we read or never will, “beloved junk” including vases from flowers long gone and Mason jars of assorted sizes delivered to neighbors, texts sold back to CSU Monterey Bay for much less than we paid. My arbitrary goal—packing four boxes/day quickly added to twenty boxes stacked high in the garage—making our house seem spacious and the garage like a hoarder’s.

We worked with two government agencies, Fannie Mae since the house we were buying was a foreclosure, and the Veteran’s Administration for Dale’s V.A . Loan and both followed strict time lines and rules. Of course, the timelines and rules applied only to us, the buyers, since we’d submit immediately then wait days for any response. Buying a foreclosure and pursuing a veterans’ loan are not for the faint of heart.  Piles of documents multiplied over our dining room table; weekly extensions meant the notary became like our extended family.

In the meantime, we listed our Indian Springs home with Kevin and Linda who scheduled a showing day for realtors. The professional photographer made our house look so good. Shoot, why were we moving? After one day on the Multiple Listing Service, a steady parade of “lookee-loos” or “wanna-buys” drove past our home. Exactly what we would have done had we been in Julian, but we were 600 miles away. Open Houses seem passé these days, since serious buyers shop the internet. Five days later, we received a full-price offer and spare back-up offers. A huge relief for us, two retired teachers–not  independently wealthy–but that’s being redundant. No sooner had escrow opened on our Indian Springs home, when a thief took advantage of the listing and stole our new swing from the front yard. We bought that swing three months earlier, with plans for a “little library” and the hope that neighbors would feel welcome to sit and read. I felt sad and the theft left a bitter taste for the broader community, not our neighbors, but for the outsiders who knew we were moving—such a sad, sad way to leave.

Escrow closed on our mountain home mid-November, and twelve hours later, Dale drove ten hours in a truck with tools, his bike, random pieces of furniture, the dog, and towing his car. We were doing this! I remained in Indian Springs to finish packing, while he painted our new/used house. First task was picking the color, which we did simultaneously at two different Ace Hardware Stores, he in Alpine, me in Salinas. “Open Arms”—the easy favorite for the interior walls and he scaled the three stories, wearing climbing gear to reach the vaulted ceiling.

Dale “glamped” at our five star mountain home on an inflatable mattress, with a lamp, a radio, no TV, no computer.  His nightly activity—watching stars or burning of Middle Peak.  The prescribed burn on Middle Peak gave Dale a taste, literally, of what the Cedar Fire must have been like, as our house faced the scorched facade of the mountain. Fire trucks from different agencies—Rancho Cuyamaca State Park, Julian Fire, and Cal Fire monitored what most of California needs, fire. Scrub vegetation thrives on a good burn every few years. The Native Americans knew this, and managed their lands, with burns to clean out underbrush and expose soils. As I told my biology students, California has four seasons: winter, spring, summer, fire.

 

Memories of What’s Left Behind

How I wished we’d had money to pay for pool resurfacing and tile or better heater and pool pump, but life is choices and seeing Sam graduate with little college debt was the right decision for us. True to life’s irony, the pool contractor arrived for the pool redo on the official start of escrow on the mountain home.

Before launching into our “new/used” home, I want to remember what we left behind. The house on Indian Springs Road was supposed to be our forever home, the home where our children, grandchildren, and future great-grandchildren came for visits. Like in The Father of the Bride, our daughters’ wedding reception could be held in the backyard. In our retirement, we’d have raucous pool parties or quiet dinners enjoying the sunset on the surrounding hills. Our children, who learned to swim in the pool, could teach their children and they theirs. The fruit trees, the pomegranate, peach, and almond trees, we planted these past few years might yield bountiful harvests, and I’d make fancy jams. The play set in the far corner of the yard, the one Dale built on Christmas twenty-five years ago, would delight our grandchildren. These were my dreams, but life has a funny way with dreams and plans. Sometimes dreams come true, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes life presents a better scenario than ever imagined.

Our adult children flew our feathered nest, settling in San Diego, circling home once/year. They landed near their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. At visits to my parents’ home, my girls slept in my old bedroom. So as our daughters embraced San Diego, it looked less likely they’d return to Salinas. My dreams, after all, were my dreams not theirs. Dale and I decided that a move south made sense, whether or not we closed on the mountain house, we were at peace. Sad at leaving our home, our friends, Indian Springs neighborhood, family at St. Joseph’s, but at peace.

Now, we turned to prep our Indian Springs house—this house needed to look as good as our loving feelings for it—but in reality we had neglected so much.  We ignored floors, foundation repair, exterior painting, and pool repair—all “big ticket” items, paying college tuition instead. How I wished we’d had money to pay for pool resurfacing and tile or better heater and pool pump, but life is choices and seeing Sam graduate with little college debt was the right decision for us. True to life’s irony, the pool contractor arrived for the pool redo on the official start of escrow on the mountain home.

When our kids were little, they swam in that little pool with no care about blue lips and toes, uncontrollable shivers, and green water, when chlorine levels dipped and algae bloomed. Our kids and their friends learned to swim in the tiny pool, not much bigger than a truck. Everything being relative, this was a “bare bones” pool installed by the previous owner. When we first moved there, the pool deck was a random collection of pavers connected by weeds.  A patchwork deck was an eyesore, a cosmetic problem, while the lack of a pool fence was a safety issue. The Monterey Fence Company heard my frantic cry, “I have two small children, and we’re moving in a week.”  Two days later, the workers completed the fence, but—blame it on my years of lifeguarding—we needed more–an alarm, the floating kind, the gate kind, the impenetrable kind, the kind with a direct link to the fire department. We settled on a gate alarm, plus an additional one for the back door. Ear piercing and louder than a bank’s burglar alarm, a screech warned everyone within a five-mile radius that the gate was open. It cost us over $500, a stretch for us, but it was the best $500 ever spent.

One Sunday afternoon five months after we moved in, and not fully unpacked, we threw a pool party. Parents partied inside, kids played outside. A few minutes into the party, the gate alarm sounded. One of the older kids managed to open the pool gate, but couldn’t shut off the alarm. Within seconds, parents tore out the backdoor to the bewilderment of the ten children, five under the age of five and non-swimmers. In that moment, the alarm paid for itself. Birthdays, graduations, retirements—twenty-five years of pool parties—and, thankfully, celebrations without accidents.

Habitat for Humanity and the Bedroom Set

Okay, this now involved work. Dale called local truck rentals, and the next day we loaded everything home to Salinas. Even with the $300 cost of the truck rental, this bedroom set was worth ten times that.

Funny thing is we moved everything, all five pieces, back to San Diego three months later.

Our last remodel was the kitchen of our Monterey-Salinas home. We chose the contractor, marked off the five-six week stretch when we’d live on fast food (hard for me since I love to cook), and thanks to friend, Cindy who’d survived the same experience, got tips on expediting the entire process. Her first suggestion was to pick out appliances, sink, flooring, etc. ahead of time and store them in the garage, so the contractor wouldn’t need to wait on materials. We picked tile, flooring, countertops; we kept our refrigerator and dishwasher to reduce costs. Cindy’s second suggestion of shopping at Habitat for Humanity helped us stay under cost and on time!

Habitat for Humanity is a win for everyone, especially the environment. The “restore” carries appliances, furniture, building materials, e.g. lighting fixtures, plumbing parts, you name it. Contractors drop off useable materials, and other contractors pick them up. Homeowners shop as well.  Some pieces are “gently used” or “pre-owned,” while other pieces are brand new, extras donated by builders. Little lands in the landfill, meanwhile proceeds benefit the homeless, who under supervision of Habitat for Humanity workers build their own houses. I picked a double convection oven for $250 and brand new, deluxe microwave for $25. We also purchased heavy oak double front doors for $400 total. Such steals.

On one of many trips to San Diego, we visited the local Habitat for Humanity restore store. This time we searched for furniture for our daughter’s small condo, and scored a mahogany bookcase with beautiful trim and an even more beautiful price of $50. As we perused the warehouse, a new arrival wrapped in plastic rested against a wall.  A Mission style, stunning, solid oak five piece bedroom set. The set included king-sized bed frame, large armoire with mirror, and two smaller side pieces in a light oak that coordinated perfectly with our Mission style house in Salinas. The price? Crazy amazing of $700 for all the five pieces. Total. I whipped out my checkbook, since I know about shopping at Habitat. Things come and go pretty quickly.

Clerk—“Today all furniture is half off. Lucky you.”

Me—“I get all this for $350?” I’m all about a bargain, but not at short-changing a non-profit. I couldn’t believe my fortune.

Clerk—“But you have to get this stuff outta here by tomorrow, since we have more shipments coming in.”

Okay, this now involved work. Dale called local truck rentals, and the next day we loaded everything home to Salinas. Even with the $300 cost of the truck rental, this bedroom set was worth ten times that.

Funny thing is we moved everything, all five pieces, back to San Diego three months later.

Inheritance Part II–Chandelier Changes

For two months, we enjoyed the light fixtures in their new locations. Then, we called the electrician again—this time to remove and repack the lamps; we were moving to Julian. No way was I leaving these pieces behind.

Kristy helped me from the garage floor, and we stared at the box and the chandelier. Since the box had been tucked in a far corner of the garage, I guessed Dale placed it there to protect it. Thing is he forgot about it and I didn’t know about it. The chandelier sat for two decades, wrapped in bathroom rugs from my grandmother’s house. Now, despite a film of dust and spider webs, it cast dancing prisms everywhere we looked. I laughed and cried at the irony. Even if twenty years ago I’d known, we couldn’t have afforded to hang the chandelier.

I spent the rest of that day searching the internet for chandelier repair. Since the chandelier was over 50 years, it qualified as an antique, not your standard hanging lamp. I had few options. Next morning as soon as the store opened, I brought it to Lloyd’s of Monterey. The lighting technician checked over the chandelier, no longer wrapped in carpet, but in the same cardboard box. He hesitated. I imagined he didn’t want another project, especially this one.

“It’s going to cost you over $500, maybe more, to fix the broken arm, rewire and replace the plug, and for ‘dressing.'”

He paused and smiled, “You can buy another chandelier for the cost of repairing this one. Have you looked at Home Depot?” He was missing the point. I hoped he was joking, since Lloyd’s sells crystal chandeliers.

“This belonged to my grandmother. I don’t care about the cost. I want it fixed, so I can hang it in my house.”

He reached in to touch some of the crystals. “Okay, well, I’m not sure we’ll be able to fix that broken arm. What color wire do you want? You have choices.”

And the discussion continued. I learned about dressing or how the strands hang, grounds and wires, arms. “Well, when it’s finished it’ll be worth as much as some of our more expensive models in the store. It’s going to take a while. I can’t start on this right away, so if you find a replacement arm on the internet that should save us some time.”

I went to work on my assignment, delivering the replacement arm the following week. A month passed then two, then two and half. I was anxious to see the finished product. No matter that I had waited twenty years already. In the meantime, I mentioned nothing to Dale. I wanted this to be a surprise.

Finally, the day arrived. I had a vision. I would move the existing Italian-style chandelier above our dining table to the master bedroom above our bed. Nana’s crystal chandelier would hang in the dining room, as it should have, long ago. And I hoped the electrician, obviously not me, could finish before Dale returned from work.

For two months, we enjoyed the light fixtures in their new locations. Then, we called the electrician again—this time to remove and repack the lamps; we were moving to Julian. No way was I leaving these pieces behind.

 

 

Inheritance–Part I

The sun shown in the garage and scattered the prisms everywhere—floor, ceiling, walls. I sat down and cried. I had no idea. For 20 years, I assumed this cherished heirloom went to my aunt or cousins.

For my Grandmother Alice’s 40th wedding anniversary, my grandfather gifted her with a dazzling crystal chandelier. It hung above their small kitchen table, beside their galley kitchen in their tiny apartment–an exquisite touch of elegance in their modest home. Six strands of crystal necklaces linked six crystal sconces. From each sconce, dripped crystal tear drops, with a large crystal pendant in the center. When sun shone through their apartment windows, masses of crystals scattered prisms, rainbows of varying sizes on the ceiling, walls, and floor. Meals at my grandparents seemed like dining in a fancy restaurant beneath a chandelier and with her amazing recipes. Her legendary chef skills, such as curried chicken with apples, raisins and chutney, kept her family alive during the Great Depression, and every holiday after, family relished her specialties of apple pie, mince-pie, and pumpkin pie.

Years later, I was a harried mom of three young kids and working full-time, when my grandmother died. Her funeral was a family reunion of sorts, with my aunt and cousins flying in from Seattle, and we celebrated my Grandmother’s life over pasta and fine wine at her favorite restaurant. Everyone had a favorite Nana story and recipe to share, like comfort food for the whole family. The thing I missed most was our Sunday afternoon phone calls. Those weekly phone calls usually happened while I stirred a pot of stew or spaghetti and Nana dispelled cooking advice, among other things. That Christmas, a few weeks after her death, we received boxes of her belongings—a golden tea-pot (a gift from her wealthy friend), paintings of birds, bird statues, jackets, dresses, and pieces of costume jewelry. The massive cardboard boxes that held my inheritance provided hours of entertainment for our kids, who found an empty wardrobe box could be used in many ways. So much for Christmas gifts. Why did we spend so much, when empty boxes worked?

Fast forward, twenty years later. My parents passed and I received more inheritance boxes. This time, our adult children were gone, but our garage could hold only so much stuff. Time to purge—my first retirement task. I poured through boxes upon boxes stacked high in the garage. Most were toys and dolls, athletic trophies from swimming, volleyball, gymnastics, and their recent college texts. “Hey, Mom, I don’t need this right now, but might use it later. Can you hold on to it for a while?” So, we had boxes marked with Meghan, Sam, and Allie. I made four piles earmarked for trash, Goodwill, eBay, or for Kristy who wanted discards for her art classes.

After a solid week of purging, Kristy and I reached the far corner of the garage. A heavy unmarked box, tucked at an angle, rested precariously atop smaller boxes. Spider webs, by either black widow or brown recluse spiders (no doubt—did I mention I used to teach biology?) encased the entire box, so we stepped back as it crashed to the floor. Kristy watched as I carefully peeled back the top—ready to stomp on any arachnid. This job was not for the weak. Inside was a rolled carpet that I didn’t recognize, but beneath that was the chandelier. The sun shown in the garage and scattered the prisms everywhere—floor, ceiling, walls. I sat down and cried. I had no idea. For 20 years, I assumed this cherished heirloom went to my aunt or cousins.