Photo Takes Me Back to Pacifica, CA

Sue in PacificaOn Fourth of July, when current life got to be too much, I tackled a box of photos and memorabilia saved from my father’s house. I couldn’t face it before, my father’s death too fresh, but now I marveled at the treasures inside: a Roi Tan cigar box full of pictures of me and my family in all our previous lives. Newspaper clippings. Letters. A man’s wedding ring I’m wearing on my index finger as I type this. Photo albums more than a hundred years old from my father’s mother, Clara Fagalde, who died when I was two. The tiny black and white photos show her teenage years, the boyfriend who preceded Grandpa, soldiers in WWI, people wearing masks during the 1919 influenza epidemic, old cars that were truly “horseless carriages,” Clara’s days as a young teacher in rural Oregon, and the clearest photos I have seen of her parents, Edward and Paulina Riffe. So much. So many people who have died, but somehow these pictures helped me to feel less alone, as if my family were still all around me.

I learned some things. Grandma Clara did speak German, as evidenced by her captions with the photos. I always wondered. If she had lived, would I know some German, too? Her mother, who was cute and round, must have been in her 40s when she died in a car accident. My great-grandpa Joe Fagalde was my age, 68, when he shot himself in 1939. His widow, my great-grandma Louise had to go to court to fight to stay in the house they shared, laws being what they were back then. That box held so many stories that I’m itching to explore.

I was fascinated by the pictures of myself. Be honest, you stare at photos of yourself, too. There I was, the adorable toddler, the earnest Girl Scout, the hippie wannabe, the dressed-up professional, the older lady . . . wait, how did that happen?

The photo above from 1981 sparked the poem that follows. My first husband and I had split. I was just moving into my apartment in Pacifica, California, where I had a new job as a reporter at the Pacifica Tribune. I had a different last name then, Barnard, and I can’t believe how skinny I was. I lived a block from the beach and used to go running there after work. I drove a yellow VW Rabbit that was in the shop more than it was on the road. I was just beginning to explore the life I might have had sooner if I hadn’t gotten married two weeks after I graduated from San Jose State. Back then, I was writing poetry and playing music, same as now. I look much different, but I’m the same on the inside.

Anyway, on with the poem.

PACIFICA 1981

She’s 28 going on 17,
sitting cross-legged on the floor
of her apartment, the furniture
still at her parents’ house.

Against the wall, a sleeping bag.
Marriage failed, she can’t wait
to claim her space, to lock the door,
to plug in her brand new Princess phone.

Green shag carpet reeks of cats
as she leans against the counter,
long hair and thick brown specs,
skinny jeans, T-shirt tucked.

On the counter, a box of Quaker Oats,
an avocado green tea kettle,
a vodka box of Campbell’s soups,
Log Cabin syrup and pancake mix.

Beside her, a Blue Chip stamp guitar,
La Valenciana, fingertip dents
on the first three frets. Nearby,
a battery tape deck, fresh cassettes.

Her life still fits in a pickup truck—
clothes, sewing machine, books,
typewriter in a baby blue case,
paper with that wood-pulp smell.

She stares out the window at the fog
shredding to reveal hints of blue,
scrabbles in her purse for a pen,
writes the date on a clean white page.

Now we know the smoke alarm works

Pellet Stove 12518BIt happened Saturday night. I was lolling on the love seat watching a video (McLeod’s Daughters, an Australian series on Amazon Prime that I can’t stop watching). I smelled smoke, but the pellet stove was offering nice orange warmth beside me, so that’s not so weird. Suddenly sparks flew past me like shooting stars. My eyes are a little freaky, with lots of floaters, so maybe it was nothing. I glanced at the stove. Yikes!

Flames were coming out where there shouldn’t have been flames, out the air holes at the top of the stove. Smoke gushed upward as the kitchen smoke alarm started wailing. My show had just reached a critical moment, but forget that. What should I do? Fire extinguisher? Ancient, and it would ruin the stove if it worked. Water? Probably not the right thing. I turned the stove off, unplugged it, and threw open the sliding door. The fire subsided. Whew.

Annie had been sleeping in front of the pellet stove. A spark fell on her leg. I screamed and brushed it off. She ran outside. If the fire hadn’t gone out on its own, if it had caught the carpet on fire, I guess I would have been running, too, standing outside barefoot in my grubby clothes holding the nearest guitar, my purse, and my trembling dog. Where was my cell phone? Probably plugged in with a nearly dead battery.

(Now don’t anybody tell my father about any of this, okay? He’s phobic about fire, and would lose his mind.)

Okay. So the fire was out. Time to assess the damage. I burned my thumb and index finger grabbing the hot rod that’s supposed to help clean out the ash, but was otherwise uninjured. Annie was fine. There were numerous black marks on the ratty mauve carpet where burning pellets had landed. The whole house reeked of smoke. But we were all right. I couldn’t sleep, so I cleaned out the pellet stove, making sure all remaining pellets were in the hopper where they were supposed to be. I didn’t turn it on though. What if it caught fire again while I was asleep?

I had to be gone most of Sunday. In the morning, I turned the stove on low, figuring I could watch it while I was getting ready. It seemed fine. But all day, I wondered if my house would still be there when I returned.

Our Willamette Writers meeting yesterday afternoon was at the Newport Library, where a display about emergency preparedness sits near the stairs. “Are you prepared?” the sign asks. Well, sort of. If I die, all the paperwork is in place for my brother to take care of my “estate.” If the tsunami comes, I’m above the danger level. I usually have some canned food hanging around, and my uber-prepared neighbors have assured me Annie and I can hang out at their house while Lincoln County sorts out its electricity, water, etc. But what if the reality is much worse than what I describe in my Up Beaver Creek novel? What if everything is just gone?

I do not have an emergency bag ready to go. I giggle remembering the E-kits we girls were required to have in our lockers at Blackford High School. I don’t remember what all it contained now beyond deodorant, sanitary napkins and pins. Maybe a needle and thread for clothing emergencies. This is different.

Last fall, I listened in horror to the news reports from California about Paradise and other communities where wildfires consumed thousands of homes. Most people had a little warning, but some had no time to pack, and some didn’t make it out alive.  With all the fires, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes that have happened in the last year, it’s obvious we all need to think about what we would do.

If my fire had spread beyond the pellet stove, I would have had virtually no time. My classical guitar, my favorite, was close, as was my purse. I’d want my laptop, which was at the other end of the house. What about my unpaid bills and my financial records? I couldn’t carry a whole file cabinet. What about the photos stored in albums and on the hard drive of my desktop computer? What about clothes? Jewelry? Shoot, I don’t go away for a weekend without taking half my possessions with me.

While I was at church yesterday, I wondered if I would have to wear my St. Patrick’s Day green sweater for weeks if all my other clothes burned.

What about my pills? I’d be in trouble without them.

If I was home, I’d need to get the car out immediately. If the garage door opener didn’t work, I’d have to figure out how to disconnect it. I’ve done it before, but I don’t remember. I think I needed a ladder.

What if everything was suddenly gone? No backsies. Look, Marie Kondo, guru of cleaning out clutter, I’ve gotten rid of everything. For so many people, this is not funny because it has really happened. I was not prepared. I was lucky.

This time.

This Napoleon pellet stove insert is a lemon on the order of the bright yellow 1974 VW Rabbit I drove while I was living in Pacifica in the ‘80s. It was in the shop more than on the road, and I sold it before I paid off the loan. The poor fool who bought it took it to San Francisco for a test drive. He called to say he’d parked and turned it off, and now it wouldn’t start. I’d warned him the starter was bad. He still bought it! Yeah, it’s that kind of pellet stove. If it weren’t two months past its warranty, I’d demand a refund and/or a different source of heat. But if I keep the pellets where they belong, it should be safe enough.

Meanwhile, I think I need to start packing my emergency kit. Nobody knows what will happen or when. I have been ignoring that library display for too long.

The Red Cross offers a list of supplies to have on hand and a quiz to see how well you’re prepared at https://www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/survival-kit-supplies.html.

Here’s another resource: https://www.ready.gov/build-a-kit

If you don’t want to do it yourself, you can buy an emergency preparedness kit at amazon.com. They really do have everything.

Are you prepared? Want to join me in getting our act together? Let’s do it.

Annie says, hey don’t forget my Milk-Bones.