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First Person

What you do after your house burns down

Navigating scrap metal thieves, shady restoration companies, and the kindness of strangers

By Jessica Palombo Gustafson

I was standing in the front yard with my mom, watching two strangers with rubber gloves plunk down what remained of our possessions on folding tables.

Our house had burned down the night before, and workers were going through the things pulled from our bedrooms. And I mean all the things — items we had tucked carefully in drawers and under mattresses, now being fingered in broad daylight. The guys tried to quickly shuffle some of the more sensitive items out of view, but not before my mom noticed and asked what they were.

“Let’s just say your daughter has a healthy sex life,” the one with dreadlocks responded.

This was not how I had expected to start the new year. It was January 2009, and I was living at home after finishing college. That night, I was out at a rehearsal for a play. Because my sister had pneumonia, my mom had made the six-hour round trip to drop her off at her university, possibly saving both of their lives. Sometime around 10 p.m., according to the fire marshal’s report, something electrical had shorted inside our sunroom’s ceiling. Thick smoke and flames likely swirled through the whole house within minutes. It was doubtful anyone could have escaped. Our three cats didn’t.

I’d like to say Marie Kondo was onto something. But when all of your possessions are suddenly sorted into an irreversible good-bye pile, it’s hard to find the joy.

When we walked up the driveway the morning after, the brick façade showed no sign of the previous night’s struggle. Oh, OK, the house didn’t burn DOWN, I thought. But the exterior had no innards. Sunlight streamed in where the roof used to be.

We were exposed, completely — to curious neighbors, to opportunistic recovery workers and bureaucrats charged with categorizing and quantifying all we’d lost. And now, under their watch, we had to rebuild. It wasn’t the first time.

Twelve years earlier, this house had been our new start. Cancer took my dad when I was 10 and my sister was 6. When my mom relocated, she did her best to fill our new home with warmth and joy. She painted a colorful mural on the kitchen wall while the Spice Girls blasted from the boom box. She said yes to a menagerie of pets, including a bearded dragon named Lenny Kravitz. She played happy piano music for what seemed like hours at a time.

Now, covering our mouths with shirt sleeves, we trudged through the yellow insulation that once lined the attic but now sloshed around the floor, mixed with hose water and ashes.

The fake, 6-foot Christmas tree, still decorated in the living room, was gone. So were all the gifts we’d just unwrapped. Anything that had survived the blaze was just black. Soon, the clothes we were wearing — the only ones we had left — reeked with a cloying smoke, like we’d spent hours downwind from a backyard bonfire.

I’d like to say it was all just stuff, that Marie Kondo is onto something. But when all of your possessions are suddenly sorted into an irreversible good-bye pile, it’s hard to find the joy.

Almost as soon as the fire was extinguished, restoration companies popped up, promising to clean up what we wanted to save and cart away the rest to a landfill. We’d never had to think about choosing which service provider would be best at keeping track of our things or removing the fire smell (really, you can’t; I still have a belt that smells like it a decade later). Without doing research, we’d picked the company that seemed most eager to start. They lost multiple trash bags of clothes that arrived at their warehouse, later claiming they’d been lost in the fire. Who could prove otherwise?

Even more brazen thieves popped up, too, to strip our pipes for a quick buck at a scrapyard.

Then we had to deal with insurance. If you don’t have photographic records of all your belongings in a fireproof safe (you don’t?!), a home insurance company will accept an estimate of your losses in the form of a detailed, itemized list.

So I went through my closet by memory and wrote down items in a notebook: Knee-length brown jacket with faux-fur collar. Size Small. Brand unknown. Stuffed toy squirrel wearing an aviator’s cap in one pocket. The list took up several pages. In the end, they called the house a total loss and awarded my mom her full policy, or about half what the house and our possessions were actually worth.

But staggering kindnesses from loved ones and strangers poured in.

Later that week, after learning why I was buying so many clothes, a cashier at Target insisted a pair of knee-high boots rang up for $2.50. My dentist made me a new bite guard for free, lucky considering how much I was now stress-clenching in my sleep. Friends sent suitcases full of clothes and household items they’d collected from co-workers. One day, we opened a letter from someone we’d never met with a $500 check folded inside.

My only income then was from a part-time gig pouring wine samples at a Publix supermarket, so I wasn’t moving into my own place any time soon. With nothing to schlep, I took up a bedroom in the house my mom rented nearby. We slept on donated beds and ate off a dish set our friends bought for us. I still use those dishes today and feel occasional twinges of gratitude when I’m scooping pasta into a bowl.

About a year later, we had a lemonade-themed housewarming party in our new home, built on the same site as the old one. My mom’s “lemonade-out-of-lemons” moment was opening a home photography studio, something she’d dreamed of for years. 

Still, the prospect of starting from scratch could feel unendurable, and did for a long time after. But we all go through it at some point. Maybe it’s not a fire, but an illness or a death or a breakup or a new job. As a family, we’d done it before, and came out of it together. I was pretty confident we could do it again.

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Jessica Palombo Gustafson is news director for WJCT, the NPR station in Jacksonville, Florida.


Illustration by Gary Neill

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