According to Mr. Webster, a noun is a person, a place or a thing. I posit that a home can be all three. Inside the bricks and mortars of our youth, midlife and later and greater years, it holds the people we love and sometimes don’t. It is the place we make our memories in, good and bad. A home holds the things and dreams we create our lives with.
What happens when that home is threatened? In late 2017, fires devastated my city. Not quite a new occurrence for Southern California, but usually they occur in the hills and canyons and crevices where the populace is a bit less dense, or at least less dense by Los Angeles standards. The first week of December saw a raging fire close to Bel Air and the Skirball Center. When an early Monday morning greets the already beleaguered LA commuters with the closure of the 405 Freeway from the Santa Monica Freeway to the 101, it is as surreally serious as a brush fire can get. Couple that with the raging fires in Ventura a day ahead and another in the Sylmar region and we have our very own version of Dante’s Inferno without the pithy repartee.
Some 100,000 people had to flee their homes at a moment’s notice. Some had to remain quietly at their doorstep for hours on end in suspense wondering whether they too would have to flee the flames. It got me thinking, what in that house should go with you and what should stay at a time like this? What becomes important in those first few minutes? The documents that will keep the bureaucracies at bay of course like the passport, the birth cert, the bank account and a marriage license or two as needed. Photographs would seem to be the next most grabbable item, I suspect. Memories really are what you are grabbing. But what happens if, as my friends did, you sit there for hours on end waiting to see if the evacuation ever comes? Do the priorities change? You have the time to keep looking around and grab just one more item like the souvenir of a vacation long gone or a painting that you fell in love with. When the car is full, then what? Do you keep trying to fill it or do you at some point say enough? Over the course of those hours of wondering how much of your home you can possibly save, does the importance of the trappings, the furnishings, and the chachkies become irrelevant? Does a painting mean no more or no less than a lamp? Does it become clear that you cannot save an entire lifetime in one small trunk of a car? And is it in that moment when a house is no longer the entity you thought it was? Does it become clear in that moment that the spirit, the love, the hate, the dinners, the tears, the Christmas mornings and Halloween nights are what made that place a home and not the carpet, the couch, the wallpaper or the fireplace? Are you then comfortable in knowing that no matter what happens to that edifice you can and you will create a home again, albeit inside four brand new walls.
The threat to the home in this case is a very real tangible and possibly imminent fire. What is it like when a home is altered not by environmental threat but rather torn asunder by the very people who built it in the first place? What is it like for each member of the house when the two principals must part in acrimony and lack of love? My house undergoes such transformation now as the divorce finalized by summer sees the winter’s move of my former husband.
There are often pockets in a house that belong just to one of the inhabitants. For some men a garage, for others a den. Women seem to gravitate to the kitchen for obvious reasons or perhaps an office. In our case his domain was his garage. A place so filled with remnants of his tinkering and building and carpentry and love of tools that a car has never seen the inside of that structure. For days we watch with fascination as every single item accumulated for 25 years is looked at, wondered about, examined and then either deemed worthy of the trip up north to his new home or relegated to the mounting scrap heap. The thought goes through this mind of why this or that was not thrown out years ago. This thought so clearly speaks to the fundamental differences that could not be reconciled for 27 years until the stagnation of that failure could not be endured any longer. On the one side of the marital bed, she who could not stand an item of clutter and often had to buy the same thing discarded at a yard sale the very next day. On the other side, he who could not part with one scrap of wood or nail discarded on the floor. What a chasm they caused all those years. But that garage was part of the home built for all those years. No matter the reason, to see the dismantling of it is to feel the sadness of the loss of that quiet corner where he sought refuge for so many years. What about his sons? What do they feel to see the place so long identified with their father disappear tool by tool, plank by plank, jar by jar? No other room inside this house will see a change quite like this garage will. What will be left? What will this permanent change do to this home? Will there be a sigh of relief that the suffering of two people woefully wrong for each other is finally over? Will something take its place that will mend some of the broken hearts left over? Or will that room be irrevocably changed forever? Will nothing in there ever feel right again? Will that part of the house never be a home again to the inhabitants that remain? Will it take a brand new set of inhabitants to make it a home again? There are no answers. For now it will have to suffice to be brave enough to ask the questions.
At our advanced marital ages, the dissolution of a lifetime is not something easily done. It takes a type of courage or weakness that not many will subject themselves to. There are those that look around that house of pain they have created for themselves and never see a way to leave it. They look around their home as my friends and many others had to do in the days of the fire and ask what would they take if they left this place? The answer for most is “I don’t know.” They could not possibly decide what to take and so they never leave no matter what. They live their days without joy, without love, without happiness because the decision of what to take could bring them to their knees and it’s a risk they are not willing to take. I took the risk. I must now wait to see if it was worth it. I must now see if it is possible to build a home again or if we are simply left with the shell that is a house.
Maddalena Beltrami is a former wife, Federal manager, PTA President, Pop Warner Football and Cheer guru, current mother, music impresario and fledgling writer. She started her Internet writing site, “Midnight Missives and Musings” to talk about all of these things and more. She also owns a video transfer business and for the past year has come out of retirement to become a COVID Contact Tracer. Maddalena has had her work published in online magazine sites- Inside Wink and Harness Magazine as well as a recent reading of her work on The Monologue Podcasts. She was born in Italy, raised in New York and calls Los Angeles home along with her two sons.