Wildfires Threaten The Memory Of A Loved One

A firefighter surveys the flames. i i

hide captionA Los Angeles City firefighter stands ready with a firehose to protect homes in the Porter Ranch area north of Los Angeles, Calif., on Monday night. The fire burned nearly 10,000 acres and destroyed numerous homes.

AP Photo/Gus Ruelas
A firefighter surveys the flames.

A Los Angeles City firefighter stands ready with a firehose to protect homes in the Porter Ranch area north of Los Angeles, Calif., on Monday night. The fire burned nearly 10,000 acres and destroyed numerous homes.

AP Photo/Gus Ruelas
A plane drops fire retardant. i i

hide captionA plane drops fire retardant in the hills in and around Porter Ranch on Monday.

Katherine Opitz
A plane drops fire retardant.

A plane drops fire retardant in the hills in and around Porter Ranch on Monday.

Katherine Opitz

The wildfires that blazed in Southern California over the weekend — killing one man, destroying several homes and forcing thousands of residents to flee — has been contained. But for NPR staff member Ashley Grashaw, the story hit close to home — pressing her and her family to confront an earlier loss.

I felt helpless. The news that a wildfire was raging in the hills behind my family's house in my hometown of Porter Ranch, Calif., reached me 3,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. My heart sank when I realized what this fire meant to my mom, brother and me: Flames threatened to destroy the only tangible reminders we have of my dad.

We haven't moved any of my dad's personal things since his death a year and a half ago. His clothes are still hanging in his closet. His stethoscope sits on the bathroom counter. His books on quantum physics and philosophy lie on his desk with a pen in the middle, marking where he left off.

When my brother called to say, "I'm loading up the car. Hurry, what do you want me to save?" I said, "Save as much of Dad's stuff as you can. That's the only thing that matters." The threat of losing your home and all your possessions in a fire is bad enough, but for us, it would be like losing Dad all over again.

We made rushed mental calculations. We didn't save computers, clothes or china. For us, it was my dad's wedding ring. The random scraps of paper with his handwriting on them: an old Home Depot receipt with a list of words he scribbled on the back that inspired him (family, faith, wisdom, humor, perseverance). A napkin with notes scrawled in odd patterns about turning suffering into triumph.

For me, it was a figurine with a picture of Prague on it that turned out to be the last gift he gave me — or intended to give me. It was waiting for me on my bed when I flew home for his funeral. He wanted me to see the world.

Then there were two paintings. In a move of reconnaissance genius, my aunt and uncle staged a covert operation on foot, sneaking past police barricades through a blanket of hot smoke, to retrieve them from our house.

These aren't paintings you would sell at an art show. They're rookie, almost humorous renditions of Disney characters that my dad painted for my brother and me during his easel phase. But those are the things we chose to save in the fire, because, to us, they're him.

We have yet to put up his headstone. And my mom wouldn't leave until flames approached the backyard. To her, leaving meant abandoning my dad. This fire has forced us to deal with the loss of my dad in a way we haven't been willing to until now. In selecting these personal mementos, we've moved one step in the grieving process.

My mom, my brother and I made a pact: If our house makes it, we will finally sort through all his stuff — and relocate it to flame-retardant, weather-proof storage.

Ashley Grashaw is an editorial assistant for NPR's Talk of the Nation.

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