Note: Several readers with good memories have requested a repeat of this story. The following is an updated version.
If you have lost everything in a disaster, you never forget it. Not ever! While watching the recent news of fires raging in California, I feel the old familiar pain and nausea. When I watch the cameras pan on the faces of people staring at the ruins of what had been their home, I want to go and hold them in my arms and tell them its okay to cry.
I once lived in the hills of Los Angeles with my physician husband, our toddler Rocki, three dogs and a Siamese cat. Little did I know on that hot, windy morning in November of 1961 that my life — and that of hundreds of other people — was about to change horribly.
At 8 a.m., I put my daughter and a new puppy into my Renault and left the house, following my husband in his car. I dropped off the pup at the vet for neutering and headed to our office to begin a busy day of seeing patients. Rocki literally grew up on a blanket next to my desk. At 10:30, a patient came in and said, “Wow, that’s quite a fire going on in Bel Air.” My heart nearly stopped beating.
We immediately hit the freeway, breaking speed limits to get to our home. We could see balls of fire flying over the San Diego freeway, blown by the fierce Santa Ana winds from the east.
At the bottom of our hill were firemen who were not allowing anyone into the area. They said it was too dangerous, that the fire was out of control. I stood by my car, clutching my daughter, feeling scared and helpless. When my ex-marine husband saw my tears, he yelled at me, “No crying!”
Two days later we were allowed to go up the hill, and I was desperately praying the animals had somehow survived, perhaps rescued by neighbors fleeing the flames. Not one house was left on Chalon Road, and LIFE Magazine later did a two-page spread of our street.
I can still hear my little girl saying, “Where my house go, Mama?”
We soon knew the dogs had died, but I left a description of the cat at every animal shelter in L.A. Three weeks later, a shelter in Santa Monica said they had picked up a Siamese that had obviously been in a fire. It’s funny about children. They often don’t see what we see. Rocki walked right up to the cat in the cage and said, “Where you been, Ching-a-Ling?” She didn’t notice how his fur was singed off and his whiskers gone. It took months to nurse Ching back to health.
Here are some lessons learned when you lose everything you own in a disaster. You learn furniture can be replaced, but you mourn the things that are irreplaceable, like bronzed baby shoes, photos and your beloved pets. You learn that strong relationships grow even stronger, but shaky ones eventually fall apart, as mine did later no matter how hard I tried to hold it together. Did I ever cry? Yes, but not for years.
I eventually met and fell in love with Burt Lippman. Truthfully, Rocki loved him first and told me to marry him because I “wasn’t getting any younger.”
We settled down to a very happy life, and one day I met Judy Carlsberg, who lived in Bel Air, my old neighborhood. Judy and her family bought (the actor) Burt Lancaster’s house. The Lancasters had been my neighbors — their home also destroyed in that fire, but they rebuilt an even bigger place. However, like me, their marriage also fell apart.
Judy, her husband and four sons had their own racquetball court, and I was a regular player with Judy. One day, after a game, as I drove away from her home, my car turned right instead of left, and I found myself parked in front of where I used to live. Of course, nothing looked the same, but suddenly the memories of the fire that wiped out 500 homes came flooding back. It took 16 years to release the tears, and I sat in my car sobbing until there were no tears left. It was incredibly cathartic.
I drove home, sat down at my Smith-Corona typewriter and put the long-buried grief into words. Then I stuffed the story into an envelope and sent it to the Los Angeles Times. To my surprise, an editor called, said they were “buying my manuscript” and I would be receiving a check, which turned out to be an amazing amount of money. To me, being paid for spilling my guts was not only a validation, but a message that finally becoming a professional writer was such a gift there was no way not to share every penny with those less fortunate — a practice I have continued to this day.
There are bound to be more fires and more heartbroken families losing their homes. The least any of us can do is say a prayer for these people. I have been in contact with California friends, young and old, who had to evacuate during the recent fires. I don’t have to wait for Thanksgiving to say grateful prayers that people I know and love did not lose their lives or homes in the recent fires.
Bobbie Lippman is a professional writer who lives in Seal Rock with her cat, Purrfect. She is the author of “Good Grief: A Collection of Stories As One Woman Journeys From Heartbreak To Healing Through Honesty and Humor.” The book, with all proceeds going to Rotary International Foundation, is available on Amazon, at JC Market in Newport and directly from Bobbie, who can be contacted at [email protected]