There are times in life when portents and omens seem to accompany great changes in the ordinary way of routines to which we have grown accustomed and a mere passing of a few days brings not the comfort of the usual routine, but a rent in reality so traumatic it brings rushing forward the urgent event horizon of life and death and so it has been in our beloved north County of Sonoma. Lives have been lost in terrible conflagration, most of them elderly. 7,500 homes and business have been burned to the ground. Whole neighborhoods have been obliterated. Many are still missing and too often found in the acrid ash of their homes. Hundreds of animals have been lost and found. The devastation is enormous and all of us are in shock. The fire stopped short of our village by only a few miles.
Several days before the great fire swept all before it Andie and I went about our dawn routine of walking around the block to the Methodist Church and back. That morning had a thick dense fog making vague to see the usual fixtures of the neighborhood. I’m one of those former San Francisco dwellers, who happens to glory in fog. That sense of wet tingling on the face is so refreshing and the mystery of familiar forms clothed in mystery, comforting. In the City days the sound of fog horns comforted the embrace of a typical Northern California autumn.
While we were making our way toward the big empty lot next to the church Andie turned momentarily to sniff a discarded banana peel, I caught from the corner of my eye someone coming up the block in swirls of fog. We went forward to the lot and I turned to see more clearly a small figure, who seemed wrapped in white making her way to the gate of the church’s rose garden. She was carrying a large hunk of foam and an armful of blankets and pillows. The first thought I had was that she reminded me of that haggard figure of the Magdalene by Donatello.
By the time Andie had sniffed every cat, possum, skunk and coyote trail and captured a few acorns and her very favorite, a cigi butt, the spectral figure had settled on the rose garden bench and had proceeded to make a fluffy bed on its ample wooden boards.
As we reentered the street on our way back to the cottage I could see that she had left her bench and was approaching, probably for a handout. It was the first time in years that I carried any money on those walks and that morning $3.00 was my fortune and it would be hers. She stopped momentarily, probably cautious of Andie, who immediately wagged her tail like a metronome. She lifted her face and I was momentarily stunned.
Before me was an elderly woman with long white hair and a peach perfect, unlined face with sky blue eyes. She was beautiful and in a soft request with pitch perfect educated English asked if I might spare a quarter for some coffee. A cup of coffee hasn’t cost $25 cents in decades. Who was this? I gave her the $3.00 dollars and she graciously thanked me and turning, petted Andie and then returned to her dawn bed in the garden of roses. “Andie,” I said. “Do you think she is an angel?”
That night the phone rang about three in the morning. Andie and I rose to take our usual Andie time and I heard the recorded, ‘Emergency…….Emergency….’ When we entered the driveway the atmosphere was very warm, not the usual cold autumn night. Something was off. There was not the usual owl calls or lone dog barking, There was a soft wind stirring and the sky obliterated by what I thought was fog. There was something off, but I couldn’t quite catch it. I could smell burning wood and thought I neighbors had built a fire.
The next morning when Andie and I rounded the corner we saw a half dozen neighbors gathered in the street comparing notes and information on what has been called the greatest natural disaster in California since the 1908 earthquake.
The following week was a terror of anticipation as the neighborhood packed up and made ready to evacuate at any minute. Every waiting day was exhausting. Calls came in from New York and Vermont: ‘Were we OK?” The E-mail was buzzing with concern. Neighbors stopped by everyday to check on us. Several dear friends lived in or near the worse of it and had to leave in minutes, spending days lingering in extreme stress on cots in shelters. Not since the Loma Prieta earthquake have I experienced anything like this fearful episode.
The sheer heroism of thousands of firefighters and individuals brought us through. It is a comfort to know that in disaster and tragedy we came together and held strong. It’s been nearly a week now. The rains have come and cleared the skies of toxic micro particles. Today seems like a typical autumn day , but nothing will ever be just typical again as we rebuild over the terror that gripped us so forcefully for two horrible weeks.
Except for a terrible cold clearing my lungs of micro ash Andie and I are just fine. Work proceeds at a pace on the new book, ‘Pentimento,’ which I hope to bring you sometime in December. Meanwhile thank you for your thoughts, prayers, and heartfelt concerns. You brought us through.