Letting go of Items Found in the Ashes After the Marshall Fire

When we saw the pictures of our house after the Marshall Fire, we thought for sure there would be nothing left. We wanted to see for ourselves whether anything survived, though, so once we had donned our protective gear, we got to work sifting through the ash and rubble. Almost immediately, I found the ceramic tile from a Munich souvenir magnet that was part of my extensive collection.

I was hoping to find some of my jewelry, which I had gathered mostly as meaningful gifts from other people. When I found the magnet, I knew I had to be close to my jewelry, so I started digging again. After an hour or so, I unearthed my jewelry tree.

It was crusted over with bits of drywall and ash, but it still held a couple of pieces in the tray at the bottom. A bracelet I rarely wore, assorted earring backs and beads, and the barrette I mentioned in my previous post, now warped and empty.

I dug around some more and found three rings and two heavily damaged pendants. I placed all of them in a small bucket for safekeeping while I continued to sift.

On a small scale, I could understand where things were. Once I found my books and a magnet, I figured my jewelry was close. But it wasn’t always so intuitive. Things fell and were blown around so violently that at times, nothing seemed to belong in the areas in which I was looking.

The doll arm was a disturbing surprise. The small, ceramic arm that I pulled out from under a bleached, flaking book used to belong to a decorative doll with a purple dress and curly, brown hair. I had placed her up on the top shelf of my closet years ago and quite frankly, I forgot she was there. I found two arms and a leg.

Later, I tried to clean the disembodied limbs with vinegar and baking soda, but they’re too far gone. I suppose it might be creepy to hold onto them, but the gallows humor of it was too good to pass up without trying.

That first day at the house was exhausting. The shock of seeing it in person and of walking over the shattered glass and buckled drywall covering the blueprint of our house was beyond difficult.

It’s odd the way things blend into the rubble. I walked by the spiky metal pole at the back of the house 5 or 6 times before I realized that it was our Christmas tree. It took me another second to recognize that the amorphous glass shape adhered to the middle was a conglomeration of melted ornaments and lights.

Several large pieces of twisted metal in what was my room turned out to be Stella’s crate, the shelving from my closet, and my box spring. I was crouched, wearing a Tyvek suit, an N95 respirator, and goggles, digging with my gloved hands through two feet of wet ash and drywall. It hit me occasionally that I had been sleeping mere feet away from that exact spot only two weeks ago. Blissfully unaware of the impending disaster.

It was exciting to find some things on our first day. We weren’t expecting to, so the rush of success kept us sifting and digging far longer than we intended to. It was hard to stop once we had started. That momentum made it easier to focus only on the section in front of me and the items I thought were nearby. I could tune out the rest of the house, only taking it in when I stood to move to a new area.

A windowpane

The second time we went to the house was more emotionally challenging. Having seen it once already, it was less shocking but more deeply disturbing. It had sunk in since our last effort to sift. Still, we had found some things the first time, so we suited up and got back to work. Very quickly, my sliver of optimism turned into a sad, frustrated, mildly foul mood.

I was finding crispy, rusted rectangles that once were magnets from my collection. Was this one from Denmark? Was it from Sicily? I found a ceramic turtle, broken in several pieces, and I found mound upon mound of worthless rubble.

Grand Canyon National Park, Michigan, Cologne, Washington DC, no idea, Paris, Florence, Venice, Glacier National Park, no idea.
And these are the good ones of the nearly 100 that existed before the fire. I’ll get rid of most of them, but I wanted to take a photo.

Most of the things I found that were recognizable were too damaged to keep, so every time I found something, I reacted with sad dismissal. More ruined magnets, more shards of ceramic something or other, more melted glass, more ash and twisted metal and gritty debris. Everywhere I turned, there was more of the same.

Sometimes, I’d find something bizarre and warped, puzzle over it for a few moments, then discard it when it dawned on me that it was a carabiner that was in Stella’s hiking pack or the extra charging cables I kept by my bookcase. It was hard to know whether I was holding something precious or not because it all looked largely the same; everything is crusted over with foul-smelling concretions that have strange forms and colors. That, or the object itself is melted into something else and is completely distorted.

Melted beads

For the majority of the time we spent there on the second visit, it was absorbing and easy to get carried away with. But, I eventually reached a point where nothing I found seemed worth keeping and my presence there felt pointless.

A book with legible writing – rare. Most lumps of formerly books are completely blank.

On the face of it, I feel very fortunate. I have my family, my dog, and means to survive. The future-thinking part of me just wants to see the next steps. I don’t need much to function, so my focus is just to get the essentials. I try not to let myself think too much about what’s gone, but being in the house, or rather, being on it, makes it hard to ignore.

While painful, I think that the process of digging through my burned home helped me accept it. It made it easier to let go of the things I couldn’t find, and even the ones I did find. I knew cognitively that nearly everything was gone, but it was a different matter to feel it.

I’ll save a few things, like the jewelry I found, but the broken flower pots and the melted knick knacks can go with the rest of the house.

Scratched and pitted, but intact and all the more special for what it survived.

Documenting the aftermath

Every time I go back to the house, it’s harder to be there. I walk around, taking pictures from angles that I know will line up with photos I have from before the fire.

It’s dark, but I find myself wanting to honor my home that way. To me, there seems to be an extra injustice in the fire’s removal of what makes my home recognizable. The photos I take of it now only show the destruction, not the warm, familiar place I knew. Comparing the before and after feels like one way to document the home’s identity.

I think it’s natural to become numb to the sight of burned-out houses when you see them on the news and drive by them in your town, or – when it’s not your community – to not be able to grasp the devastation that each household is facing. But none of the homes that burned down were generic, faceless piles of charred rubble. The Marshall Fire stripped my house of almost all of the things that made it ours, but it’s still the place we called home, and I think it deserves to be seen as it is and as it was.

Acceptance after the Marshall fire

For the sake of my physical and mental health, I think I’m done digging through the ashes. I had wanted to get into it and see for myself whether anything survived. All the waiting – for the fire to be contained, for the snow to come and tamp it out, for the neighborhood to be deemed safe enough for entry – it gave me lots of time to wonder what could be lost under layers of debris, waiting to be discovered.

While depressing, it was something of a relief to be able to reassure myself that there was very little left to be found. And now that I have, I see no reason to continue exposing myself to the dangers of the property and the acute heartache of standing within it. I have a few things, and the rest is gone.

I feel ever so slightly more prepared to move forward, now. I want this experience to inform my perspective on material items, on being prepared for anything, and on the value of helping hands in times of darkness.

Not the disembodied doll hands, but the real ones that are attached to real people.