Eulogy for a House That Was a Home, and the Rich History Within

By Guest Contributor December 15, 2015 22:22

by-the-car-FN00148-editedBy Richard Anderson

If conventional wisdom says a house is not a home, what is a home?

After fire destroyed our home of 35 years, why is there a hole in my heart? Why am I filled with a tired grief? Why do I return to sleepless dreams when I wake at night? And why am I filled with depression and dread when I return to the ruins?

It must be more than wood, nails, copper, galvanized tin, porcelain, tile, plastic pipe – all the bits and pieces that found their way into its construction.

It must be more than the labor that I gave for half of my life on the weekends, on vacations, or during the times I faded away to work – times when I should have been with my kids or wife on the excursions that make up a normal family life. Feeling guilty, I told myself it would be worth it once we all came to live in the home.

It must be more than the satisfaction I felt as it rose from bare land in front of my exhausted senses. It must be more than the congratulations I received from my friends, many of whom had helped me raise it without being asked.

It must be more than the deconstruction of four historical sites that gave us salvageable lumber, square nails and redeemable items from the labor and care of generations behind us.

I thought often of the men and women who put together the homesteads and buildings we disassembled and wondered if they would be disappointed or joyful that their homes and businesses were being recycled:

Lorenzo Pendola’s remarkable third-generation estate in 1980 stood at the foot of Coyote Creek as it entered the Stanislaus River, soon to be inundated by New Melones Dam. Granted salvage rights, we found Italian newspapers from San Francisco stuffed beneath the old home’s floors as insulation. One told of the Hindenburg disaster.

Pencil jottings on the clapboard by Pendola descendant Virgil Ghiglieri noted that a single tree behind the home in one particularly good year yielded 15-dozen grapefruit.

Also memorialized date-by-date in graphite were the high daily temperatures throughout the 1960s and ’70s. And the wavy window glass panes we saved transformed the outside world viewed through them into French impressionist paintings.

Straight-grained 1-by-6 virgin redwood interior walls from that marvelous home had seven penned notations that the tongue-and-groove planks had been delivered to the Milton railhead for Pendola, who homesteaded the land in the mid-19th century.

Stewart’s Ford, the multi-generational dealership that stood at the corner of Main and Church Hill in San Andreas until the late 1970s, gave us blue posts and beams and a sliding glass door that separated the parts department from the showroom floor. That door became our front bay window – all 8-by-12 feet of it.

The electricians’ shop at Calaveras Cement on Poole Station Road, which we bought at auction, gave us posts and beams for a boathouse.

The tiny Applewood Market in Arnold, originally a fruit storage barn, gave us 1-by-12 cedar siding for our exterior walls (sawdust had been the insulation behind those planks).


The Andersons’  home before the blaze

I think about these generations-old construction materials often. You can’t find milled lumber like this, or glass like this, or leaded Ford-blue paint like this anymore. You can’t find the carpenters and craftsmen who built these common yet beautiful homes and businesses anymore.

And you can’t find the home that rose from these deconstructions anymore, because it was consumed by the Butte Fire – the seventh-worst blaze in California’s history.

Our most painful loss is the carefully displayed photos of our parents, grandparents and of our children and their friends. Then there were the posters, musical instruments, Civil War and Lincoln book collections, and the art and original pottery collected or created. This is what made our own history so rich; this was the soul of our home. Only its memory remains, and that is such thin gruel to pass along to our grandchildren.

So a home is the culmination of personal history, a documentation of life lived fully and almost completely, and a record to coming generations that common people lived in it, laughed in it and revered past generations as their own.

A home is a sanctuary, a refuge, a place longed for after a return from journeys. It is a familiar feeling – like easing into old favored slippers after work. And the absence of these leaves in my heart what a war-weary Abraham Lincoln called a “tired spot” – one that not even a momentous victory in that great conflict could lift from his heart.

So to all the homes lost in the Butte Fire, here is a poor, sorrowful eulogy to one and all – to the labors that went up in smoke, to the histories of families living lives of common valor and richness in the Calaveras foothills. Hope to God that your memories will not fade too quickly, and that your lives will be resurrected in a future not without meaning, but filled with the joy that came from your homes, however humble, forever vanished.

Hope, too, that your friends will gather their own remembrances of your home, and share their recollections of a time now gone by. May they help fill that void in your heart with the kindness of shared times in your home. Make them promise not to forget those times, and to bring them back to life whenever you need to quiet the sadness, grief and tears that now have replaced your home.

Hope to God that they and you will bring your home back to life, and that you might once more return to dreams of the past and future unmarred with foreboding and unease, and that the piece of your heart that is irrevocably charred will be healed with time and gentle remembrance.

Retired school administrator Richard Anderson, 71, wrote this essay five days after the Butte Fire.

Copyright © 2015 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Guest Contributor December 15, 2015 22:22
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