14: Making a Home from Scratch

14: Making a Home from Scratch

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

Making a Home from Scratch

My home is not a place, it is people.
~Lois McMaster Bujold

Survivor, victim, refugee, evacuee—it doesn’t really matter what they call you. Yesterday you had a place to live and today you have a pile of sticks and rubble, or a moonscape of ashes. Maybe you have credit cards and a healthy balance in your checkbook, or maybe you are living in poverty. The haves and have nots aren’t too different anymore, not right now. Not when the place you call home is gone.

Can you picture yourself right now: one of the needy, one of the newly homeless? You are looking at what used to be your home, your neighborhood, your world, and maybe all you have left are the clothes on your back. No toothbrush, no bed, no socks or shoes. It’s easy for me to picture that scene. It happened to me in October 1991. My home was one of three thousand destroyed by a fire that swept through the hills in Oakland, California.

Blocks and blocks of homes looked just like ours: barren lots, charred trees, foundations without houses to hold up, and chimneys standing sentry over many a scorched and lonely hearth.

Our insurance company required us to list everything we had lost in the fire, down to pots and pans and underwear, for a household of five: me, my husband, and our three kids, ages thirteen, ten and five. Making a list of replaceable things was easier than thinking about the precious items with more emotional value than monetary: the baby sweaters I had knitted for my daughter, secretly tucked away to be handed down one day; a growth chart, measuring the inches from toddler to teen; and old love letters, saved in a box for lonely afternoons. There were the everyday things that you reach for without thinking: a needle and thread; a bowl or a wooden spoon. And the special things: a black velvet dress, the good china, a gold watch from a beloved grandfather, a child’s handprint in clay.

We moved to a rental house immediately after the fire, and quickly filled it with rented furniture. How would we make this place feel like home? Every home has its own look, feel, and smell. How would we create that again, when we did it without thinking before? For the sake of our children, we had to figure this out. Still reeling ourselves from the shock of having lost the home we had worked so hard to provide for our kids, we had to act and act fast. Our kids wanted to keep the mealtime and bedtime routines going, and we did too.

We began with the basics: beds, a place to gather for meals, books for bedtime reading, and music. A thoughtful friend gave us a gift certificate to a local bookstore. When my husband took the three kids to replace our copies of Madeline, Winnie-the-Pooh, and our favorite Shel Silverstein, he broke down in tears. He also went out right after the fire to replace his favorite music. “I miss my friends,” he told the guy behind the counter. Once again, he could hear his beloved jazz, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll.

After a couple of washings with our familiar detergent, our new bedding and towels felt like our own. With new basic kitchen equipment, we began cooking when there was time, and the spaghetti sauce had the same aroma it always did. Every day we discovered things we didn’t have that we needed immediately: pot holders, laundry baskets, a vacuum cleaner, scissors, tape, and a hundred other things. Nothing could be made from scratch without a shopping list: flour, sugar, eggs, vanilla, measuring spoons, bowls, and baking sheets. With a mixture of the new and the familiar, we began to create a small, safe cocoon in our temporary place.

My younger son, then only five, had taken his treasured blanket along when we evacuated our neighborhood. He could go to sleep peacefully in a new bed with new “Where’s Waldo?” sheets because he had the familiar yellow quilt to hold next to his face. But my older son mourned the loss of his special “cat blanket,” so we searched all over in an attempt to find the same fabrics: the pastel green flannel, the brown plaid, the midnight blue satin with tiny white stars. Two gifted friends collaborated and managed to recreate the beloved quilt for him—a family portrait of cats, curled up together in front of a window full of stars.

We decided to rebuild our home in the same space as the one we lost, although many of our neighbors didn’t. The block was empty and barren for months. Slowly, we began planning a home that would remind us of the old one, but would have some new things too—our two boys wanted a “secret passage” between their rooms, and (shhhhh) we were able to make one for them. It was exciting to watch the progress as the house took shape, but also bittersweet as we looked ahead to starting over with new neighbors. Construction noise and dust were the order of the day as we watched the old foundations make way for new houses.

In just over a year, we moved “back home.” We took care during the rebuilding to visit often and walk around, becoming comfortable with the place we would live, even though it wasn’t home yet. We acquired more of the things that would make our rebuilt house feel like home: pictures on the mantel, baking equipment for special treats, and more of our favorite books and movies.

Putting our new home together, book by book and picture by picture, taught us a valuable lesson. Our things did not define us. Losing our house and our neighborhood did not defeat us. Others lost their lives in the fire; we lost things that, for the most part, could be replaced. Even the kids knew the difference between being a victim and being a survivor: they were survivors all the way. We did the best we could to keep life normal for them, and it wasn’t always easy. They saw us cry, but they also saw us make decisions and act. Our most important task was to make them feel that they were home, no matter where we were.

If anything, losing our home made us stronger as a family and allowed us to find untapped strengths in each other. For us, even in the aftermath of the fire, home was all of us together, curled up like the cats, in front of a window full of stars.

~Risa Nye

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