Category Archives: Memoir

One Year Later

One year ago today, writer Dana Rodney lost her American Dream in the Tubbs Fire. This is her story.

 A Middle-Income First-time Homebuyer’s Suburban  California American Dream

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Dana Rodney’s home in Coffey Park, Santa Rosa 10/8/2017      Photo Dana Rodney

I used to live in a sprawling suburban subdivision called Coffey Park in Santa Rosa, California, named after its original owner, Henry Coffey.  Its streets were dubbed the likes of:  Mocha Place and Espresso Court.  It was a lower-to-middle income, first-time homebuyer’s, suburban, California American Dream.  But in the course of a few hours the night of October 8, 2017, over fifteen hundred homes in Coffey Park burned to the ground as a result of a monstrous wind-driven wildfire.

UnknownI wasn’t living in the house the night it burned down, and I seem to lose many people’s compassion when I say that.  I lived in it for 6 years, then rented it out to a single mother who was newly divorced.  I identified with her, since I had been a single mom, which was one of the reasons I had been so proud to buy the house on my own.

With my own daughter gone, I had moved to a smaller, less expensive place, as a money-saving plan.  Still, that house represented my life’s savings from a business I started 20 years earlier on a wing and a prayer in the Great Napa Valley—the famed wine-producing, exclusive, tourist-attracting, high-income land of the beautiful people who could afford it.  Ironically, even though I had a successful business in the Napa Valley, I couldn’t afford to buy there. My house was in the next county over. Still, that house was my pride and joy. It was my retirement plan.

But I wasn’t living there the night the house burned down.

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abcnews.go.com

 

I texted my tenant as I followed the news that night.  “It’s time to get out,” I told her.  “I have already left,” she replied.

I went to visit the site a week or so after the fire with my insurance adjuster, an obese, nicotine-drenched fellow they shipped in from Texas, who showed me my insurance summary in progress on a laptop from the tailgate of his truck.  My life savings was in the hands of a bloated, over-worked man in a pick-up truck. We had to drive through a line of National Guard soldiers who handed us face masks and shovels and leather gloves before allowing us to proceed to the property.

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Pressdemocrat.com

It was a pile of ash.  Where was the refrigerator?…let alone the second floor…the foundation… the chimney? It was just a flattened  pile of ash. Unrecognizable. Texas Guy said, “I have seen all I need to see.”  We drove away.

A few weeks later I went back on my own.  The National Guard was gone; it was old news.  I walked around the lot, just taking it in. One of the only things that survived was a cement statue of Quan Yin I had placed in a corner of the garden. The Goddess of Compassion. How fitting—or not. I decided it was the one thing I would take with me from the burned lot.

As I struggled to lift it into my car, a man parked a car nearby and began walking toward me.  “Are you one of my neighbors?” I asked, guessing.

“No,” he said. “I am from an organization in the Bay Area that wants to help fire victims. Was this your home?” He asked. “Could you use some financial assistance?”

“Sure,” I said, honestly. I was expecting to sign some forms or be asked further questions. Instead, he pulled out a wallet and started peeling off twenty dollar bills and handing them to me. It was shocking.  He didn’t know me.

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dreamstime.com

For the first time since the fire happened, I cried.

Dana Rodney started writing seriously after retiring from being a small business owner in St. Helena, CA in 2016. She is currently working on an historical novel titled “The Butterfly Wing” about a female Chinese immigrant to San Francisco in the 1850s, as well as a collection of humorous pieces about growing older as a single woman, titled “Turning into a Pumpkin: The Menopause Monologues.” Dana lives with her dog Jasper in St. Helena, CA.

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ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT

Memoirist Lynne Hakes joins us today with her story of turning away from her family culture of prejudice and elitism. This is a story for today, as our world becomes more and more divided. When did you realize hate isn’t the answer?

   abagond.com

I grew up in a family of bigots. I was led to believe we WASPS were superior to other races, other beliefs, other anything. No one needed to act out to prove it because it was just true. The grown-ups sometimes used derogatory terms for the “others,” but not in public and not in anger. It was like saying,   “Of course white bread is the best.” We were taught to be kind to everyone, and rudeness was never tolerated.

My dad didn’t talk about race or social classes. He grew up on a small farm in Illinois where everyone was the same. His father, grandfather and other ancestors were Masons who, historically, had no use for Catholics or Blacks, but as a teenager he left the farm to escape asthma and moved to Southern California. There he blended in with the local culture.

Mother grew up in New Mexico and Southern California where there were Latinos but few Blacks. Her parents were nice people who treated everyone well, and I never heard any talk of other races in their home. But there was Aunt Inez, Grandad’s sister, who was an elitist and lived in a mansion in Beverly Hills. As little girls, Mother and her sister spent a lot of time with their aunt and learned bigotry first-hand.


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Aunt Inez grew up modestly in Kansas. But when her husband struck oil in Oklahoma in the 1920s and became a millionaire, they joined the “upper crust” in Southern California. Aunt Inez took on airs and lived up to the Hollywood stereotype of “rich people.” A self-absorbed woman with no children, she was close to my mother, her niece.

Superiority was one of Aunt Inez’s less endearing qualities. One should be kind to everyone, but one should know her superior place in the world. Mother and her sister were groomed to be bigots.

A critical review of the novel The Help

When I was a teenager, a black woman named Annie cleaned house for us. She was treated well in our home, but of course we knew she was “different.” I went to a small high school, where there were a few Latinos, but no blacks. We were a small, close-knit class in our sheltered little community. Racial bias never came up.

Until I was a freshman in college, the cleaning lady was the only black person I knew. There were a few on campus, but I didn’t have any contact with them until my philosophy teacher, Miss Rose, decided to give us alphabetically assigned seats in the large classroom. I was an “H” and right next to me was another “H” and she was black. We introduced ourselves and shared a common fear of taking a hard class like philosophy.

As the teacher took her place in front and we settled down, an imaginary bolt of lightning struck.

Next to me, chatting with me was a black girl. And it didn’t feel any different from being next to the white girl sitting on the other side. What was the big deal? We were two frightened freshmen, wondering how we would get through this class. How could I be better than she? I was puzzled. I admit to having some biases, but the one against race left me that day. It didn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense. Do any prejudices make sense? My life is richer for having friends and acquaintances of other races and cultures.

Thank you, my black classmate, wherever you are. I’m glad you were an “H.” And thank you, Miss Rose for giving us assigned seats and forcing me to face up to my training in bigotry.

         Global Educator Institute

Sorry, Mother, it didn’t work. I adjusted my attitude. No, I guess “H” adjusted it for me.

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True Crime

Guest blogger, Jan M. Flynn is the author of Corpse Pose: And Other Tales. Her stories appear in literary magazines and anthologies; two have won awards in national writing contests. Her debut novel The Moon Ran After Her has been excerpted by Noyo River Review. Jan lives and writes in St. Helena, CA.

Jan’s memoir, True Crime, reminds us sometimes we need to forgive ourselves.

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True Crime

In sixth grade, I took up shoplifting. The new set of friends I aspired to were a year older than me and already in junior high, so their rung on the social ladder was several steps above mine.  It was going to take more than go-go boots and a smart mouth to infiltrate their tribe.

 

 

This was made clear one Saturday afternoon when Betsy, Valery and Cindy — three of my new compatriots — and I walked the three miles to the mall for a slow cruise through J.J. Newberry’s discount store. We had nothing to spend but time, having blown our allowances on pizza and Dippity-Do for our slumber party the night before, but Newberry’s was always worth a look. It carried everything from paisley-printed tent dresses to live chicks at Easter, and for us it served as a pop-culture training ground.

Unknown-1.jpegMoreover there was the slight prospect of encountering Sam Blakeman and his friends there. Blakeman was in eighth grade, had long surfer-style hair that fell into his eyes in just the right way, and liked to be seen with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips.  Of course we didn’t expect to actually speak to him. The hope was to simply observe from a safe distance and discuss our findings afterwards.

imagesWe made languid progress through the aisles, thumbing through the .45 records, scanning the teen magazines and lingering over the discount jewelry.  I trailed my companions, doing my best to emulate their tough-girl saunter.

Blakeman and his crew were nowhere to be seen. Time stretched. My attention wandered. I drifted into the pet section and was chatting up the parakeets when Betsy appeared at my side, gripping my arm with sudden urgency.

Here you are. C’mon!” she muttered, already towing me toward the exit.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Christ on a crutch, shut up,” she ordered in a fierce whisper, “Let’s go!”

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Impressed with her blaspheming, I kept silent as she propelled me through the crowded store, past the exit, and down the walkway in front. We didn’t stop until we reached the entrance to Macy’s, a half-block away. There we rejoined Valery and Cindy, who leaned against a low wall, Cindy smoking a Marlborough with elaborate nonchalance.

“So what’d you get?” Betsy asked Valery.

Valery, with a renegade smirk worthy of James Dean, stuck out her tongue to reveal a small unicorn pendant on a silver chain.

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Realization dawned. “You stole that?” I gasped.

Valery spit the trophy into her palm. “Five finger discount,” she explained. “Everybody does it.”

images-14By “everybody”, she meant anybody she would want to hang out with. A flutter developed somewhere below my ribs. I had always been a good girl, obeying my parents, getting good grades, going to church. But I saw now that something more was demanded of me.

It took me a couple of weeks to work up the nerve to steal something myself. As it was, my career was short.  I got away with one successful heist — a lipstick fished out of a clearance bin at Woolworth’s — and the combination of suspense, danger, and guilt made me giddy. Valery and the others granted me their cool approval.

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Not long after, I was with one of my neighborhood friends, Sally Peterson, a playmate since preschool. She and I were in the same grade, relegating her to my social B-list. We walked down Harbor Street and along 6thAvenue toward downtown, a drab two-block commercial strip. I was practicing my swagger, wearing the pants I had wheedled Mom into pegging tight all the way down to my still-pudgy ankles. As we neared the drugstore, I let Sally in on the secret of my new thievery skills. She was satisfactorily shocked.

“It’s no big deal,” I said. “Watch this.”

I sauntered into the store, Sally in tow, and browsed its dusty aisles. Behind the back counter stood the pharmacist, who was also the owner. A balding man in horn rim glasses and a white lab coat, he noted our presence with an unsmiling gaze. My heart began to hammer, but after my boasting I could hardly back out now; Sally was regarding me with expectation. I scouted feverishly for something suitable. Face powder? No, too big. Nylons? Too hard to slip the package off its display spindle. At last I settled on a 5-cent candy bar from one of the open bins near the front of the store. A mere beginner’s trophy, but it would do to impress Sally Peterson.

Unknown-3Stomach churning, I palmed the Hershey bar, shoved it into my pants pocket, and yanked my sweater down over my hips. Stifling nervous giggles, I eyeballed Sally and jerked my head toward the exit. We hustled out of the store without buying anything, which on reflection was a mistake. As we left, I felt the pharmacist’s eyes on us.

Once we were outside and half a block up 6thAvenue, I exhaled, grinning at Sally. Lifting my sweater, I showed her my prize. She looked at it doubtfully, and then her eyes widened. I was just about to conclude that Sally was too square to bother with, when a large hand gripped my shoulder.

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I was spun around to face the apoplectic pharmacist. He grabbed the candy bar out of my hand. “You thought you were smart, didn’t you?” he shouted, his eyes blazing. “You thought you’d gotten away with it, didn’t you? But you had to show her” — he nodded toward Sally, who stood mute with horror — “ and I was watching you. You’da gotten away with it if I hadn’t seen you do that, but you thought you were smart, didn’t you?” he repeated, his eyes bulging behind his horn rims.

“I have to go home,” announced Sally, and fled.

images-16The pharmacist couldn’t stop her without releasing his grip on me. “You’re the one who stole from me, “ he bellowed into my ear, “You’re coming with me!” This seemed an unnecessary remark, since as he yelled he was frog-marching me down the sidewalk toward his store. Once we got there, he hauled me up to a chair behind the back counter and plunked me down. “You sit there,” he shouted, “while I call the police!”

It didn’t even occur to me to run or to plead for mercy. I was so clearly guilty, and besides, I couldn’t speak. I was blubbering and choking with sobs and unable to believe what was happening to me. As we waited for the police to arrive, my captor kept up his tirade: “I see you kids in here, thinking you can just steal from me. If it weren’t for kids like you, I could take my family on a nice vacation!”

It was one thing to flirt with being bad; it was quite another to have an adult place me squarely in the class of bad kids. I was a good kid, just conducting an experiment, and it had never occurred to me that there could be a connection between a 5-cent candy bar and depriving a family of their vacation.

Unknown-2At length the squad car pulled up, and a weary-looking policeman took me into custody and down to City Hall. He didn’t handcuff me, and in fact he was rather gentle, but he did his job. He walked me down the cement steps to the station, right past the City Hall park where kids played. Some of them were boys I went to school with. They stopped and stood slack-jawed as I performed my perp walk, my face wet and burning.

I had to sit on the wooden bench and wait while my parents were called. Mercifully, my father wasn’t home, so it was my mother who came down to get me and to talk to the captain.  He spoke to her in low, serious tones. I didn’t have a previous history, so I would be let off without probation and if I stayed clean, this wouldn’t appear on my permanent record.

All I could think of was that life as I knew it was over, and that I wasn’t going to get to go to the Beatles concert at the Cow Palace, which was only two weeks away. My friend Jeanine, an only child with an indulgent father, had tickets for herself and a friend, and she had chosen me. images-2My mother had bought me a new dress for the occasion, a plaid wool sheath with a lace collar, just like what I imagined girls wore on Carnaby Street in London.

 

But now I was certain to be a pariah, too morally contaminated for anyone to want to take anywhere. Besides, my dad would be killing me soon.

My mother’s face was set in an odd, constricted smile as we drove away from the police station and up the hill to our house. She said very little. When we got home, I didn’t need to be told to go to my room. I flopped face down on my bed and gave myself over to despair. I clung to my chenille bedspread and gazed through swollen eyes at the white organza curtains, watching the shadows gather on the window shades. Time passed.

Eventually the wheels of my father’s Chrysler ground into the driveway. In the kitchen, my mother’s voice and his mingled in a long, muffled conversation. I had been suspended in a vortex of dread for hours, but my heart lurched anew when the conversation stopped and ponderous footsteps came down the hall.

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At length my bedroom door opened — in a normal manner, which surprised me. I had expected it to fly off its hinges. In came my father.

He stood, all six feet, four inches of him, at the side of my bed. He surveyed my wilted form. I met his eyes for a breath and then began sniveling again. My father’s silence was eerie. He didn’t look enraged. In fact, he didn’t even look angry. He looked puzzled. The silence continued, and I began to realize that he didn’t have any more idea of what to say than I did.

“I’m — I’m sorry!” I finally managed to gasp, and I meant it with all my heart. This unleashed another shuddering fit of tears.

Dad observed soberly. At length, when I had settled down slightly, he shook his head and started out of the room.

“Well, I guess you won’t do that again,” he said. “Supper’s ready.”

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Editor’s note: I’m hoping Jan made it to the concert. In 1964 my mother gave me permission to go to the concert, but not to take a bus from Marin County to the Cow Palace to buy a ticket. I have practiced forgiving my rule-making mother for 54 years. Some things might be impossible to forgive.
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thanks Amazon

 

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Part 3 It’s a Miracle

Mary Jane Stevens concludes Miracle at Soda Canyon, her harrowing tale of uncertainty and terror during the Atlas Firestorm.

…continued from March 27th—

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After hours waiting with a huge knot in my stomach, I heard from Bob.  Away from the fire, off the hill and heading towards town he was relieved to be a survivor, not a victim.  He said he was exhausted, coming down after a night fueled by adrenaline.  Never have I been happier or more relieved to hear his voice. I felt as if I’d been holding my breath for hours.  Finally I could breathe.

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I told him to drive over to Carolyn’s house where, assuming a positive outcome, she had waited up for him.  He could stay as long as he needed.  He headed west, dodging burning debris and skirting around roadblocks. As he drove he told me what he had just lived through.   I wished I could be there to hug him and tell him how glad I was that he was alive, unhurt.

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After talking to Bob, Casey was the first person I called, happy to tell him his dad was okay.  He was ecstatic to hear the news.  He was not so thrilled, to hear that it was almost a certainty that our house would not make it through the fire.  My next call was to Carolyn to let her know Bob was safe and on his way.  I left a message for Kelly.

When Kelly turned on her phone Monday morning, she was bombarded with voicemails and texts containing grisly details about the fire and concern for her family, including some from me.  Horrified and in tears, she called me immediately.  She hadn’t listened to the message I left with the good news about the man she calls “Her cute little Daddy.”  When I told her Bob had escaped, unscathed from the fire and was okay she cried tears of joy.  After a moment she said “Oh no, does this mean your house is going to burn again?  I can’t believe it.  I’m so sorry for you guys.”

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Later when I spoke to Casey I asked if he envisioned Bob’s body burned in the vineyard as I had.  Just as I thought, he told me that was exactly what he had imagined. As a firefighter Casey’s seen the horror of being trapped by fire.  Although he hasn’t spoken to me about how those things have affected him, I know he has hardened his heart so he can live with what he sees on the job.  When he thought his dad might die in the fire his heart was anything but hard.  I know neither of us has ever been afraid for a loved one as we were for Bob the night of the fire.  We both teared up, relieved that Bob had been saved as the fire raged on.

Once the L.A. Fires were contained a strike force was formed to help with the Napa fire.  Casey volunteered to be part of it but was not allowed to join. He was terribly disappointed.  Determined to help us, he was able to contact a Captain friend, part of the strike force, on his way to Napa.  He gave him our address and asked him to try to be assigned to fight the fire still burning there.  Ultimately, he and his contingency from L.A. worked for several days, never taking a break, defending our home and our neighbors’.

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climatechangenews.com

I heard from a neighbor that one day, fourteen fire engines, one for every still intact home, several bulldozers and helicopters were trying to control the stubborn blaze.  Boeing seven-forty-sevens were dumping water and retardant on the fire. Hot shots were digging fire lines as was a corps of bulldozers.  I heard that Battalion Chief Garrett said, “They were going to put the nail in the coffin of the fire in Soda Canyon that day.” I prayed they would.

We got little specific information applying to Soda Canyon. I tried to manage my expectations by telling myself our home must have burned, surviving the inferno seemed impossible, but not knowing was driving me crazy.  When I couldn’t stand it anymore began calling people who might have news.  I phoned a neighbor who was in Reno.  She picked up saying “Your home is still standing Mary Jane! My son didn’t evacuate and is staying at our house. He got word to me earlier today and our homes are okay.”

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You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard that.  I burst into tears, delighted.  The following day I received a photo of our unscathed home sent by a firefighter who’d been camping nightly in our driveway putting out stray embers.  Seeing with my own eyes my home safe and sound was unmistakable proof.

***

We later heard that, initially, the command center wasn’t planning to send resources up Soda Canyon until Casey’s friend asked to be assigned to that specific location.  It seems they were stretched so thin they only wanted to send firefighters to areas they were sure could be saved and ours was not on that list. Under those circumstances, why they allowed those men to work the fire by our home remains a mystery.

For many days the Atlas fire and others spawned by that blaze wreaked havoc across Napa, Solano, and Sonoma counties.  Thousands of homes have been destroyed, people died and many lives are shattered.

Not one of the homes in Foss Valley at the top of Soda Canyon Road, including ours, was lost, thanks to the heroic efforts of firefighters, hotshots from around the country, fire-retardant and water dropping  seven-forty-sevens and helicopters.  I will be forever grateful to everyone who had a part in saving my husband and my home. I owe them so much. I’m blessed for such a positive outcome when so many are still suffering from terrible losses.

Many people assumed our home burned, and when I tell them it’s still standing they are as incredulous as I am.  How did we ever get so lucky?

One explanation: it’s a miracle.

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Rameses B- Bandcamp

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Charcoal

Nathaniel “Bob” Winters continues his impression of the October firestorm in the Napa Valley and Santa Rosa. ~A.M.

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Charcoal           By Nathaniel R. Winters  

10/25/17      My wife Colleen and I came back home from my Parkinson’s disease doctor appointment at the S.F. VA Hospital by going north to Santa Rosa, trying to avoid the worst of rush hour traffic. From Santa Rosa we drove over the ridge to the Napa Valley. Our GPS assured us the road was open after the fire. What we did not know there was a 6pm curfew to keep looters away and to save any local victims from dangers after dark. We arrived at 6:15 and begged the National Guardsmen to save us an extra two hour trip. They relented and we scooted over the pass, driving through neighborhoods of total destruction. What we saw was something out of a war zone, just charcoal and fireplaces. We had seen pictures in the paper and video on TV, but encountering these gates of hell in person was overwhelming. So many left homeless, and so much lost.

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We were the only car on the curvy mountain-pass road borerding the hit and miss decimation. One ridge was burned while the trees of another stood with leaves or needles of green; a house here, charcoal there.

 

As we swichbacked down to the little damaged upper Napa Valley, I gave another silent thank you to the firefighters.

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 SFGate: Carlos Avila Gonzalez (The Chronicle)

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Nathaniel Robert  Winters

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Thicker Than Smoke

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westernfarmpress.com

Thicker than Smoke

by Nathaniel Robert Winters

This morning as Rue and I walked the mile-long trail through vineyards from the library to the bone dry Napa River, I realized just how lucky we were. Smokey haze had been replaced with clean air for the first time since the Sunday night our fiery ordeal started. Overnight, light, moist ocean breezes blew the evil air out of the valley.  Puffy cumulus clouds dotted the blue, sunshiny sky. Up north over Mount St. Helena, darker stratus clouds promised rain. Our little town of St. Helena appears to have been spared.

 

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visitcalifornia.com

In the midst of all the devastation, I want to share two happy stories. Last Tuesday my wife Colleen, our friend Mary, Rue and I evacuated to San Francisco. We stopped for lunch on Clement Street, still weighing our options as to which family or friends to impose ourselves upon. After eating, while Colleen and Mary still conversed, I took Rue outside and came upon a couple smooching.

images-7I asked, “Excuse me, do you two know each other?”

The lady laughingly said, “Yeah… I think so.”

That started a conversation where I explained that we had come down from the fire. They left wishing me luck. A few minutes later the woman came back and gave me her number and invited us to stay at their unoccupied apartment in Berkeley. While I told her we had other options, I was taken aback by their generosity. “Thank you so much,” was all I could say.

Last night we went out for dinner at Market in downtown St. Helena. In the back a large group of tables was filled with a group of firefighters from San Diego the restaurant had been feeding all week. This was their last night after ten days of twelve-hour shifts. As they stood to leave, after taking pictures, the patrons and staff gave the first responders a standing ovation. They and the other firefighters had saved our town.

On our way out, I noticed a sign on the window that said,  “The love is thicker than the smoke.”

Indeed.

 

10/22/17     Nathaniel Robert Winters

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EARTH, WIND AND FIRE

EARTH, WIND AND FIRE, 2017

by Dina Corcoran

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napavalleyregister.com

The anxious Earth, dry and wrinkled, yearns for November rain to slake its terrible October thirst. Toasted brown grasses lay flat in surrender to months of hot summer sun.  I cannot see a single creature scurrying among them.  How can they live here?

At least the fire did not ravage our Calistoga land as it did in the Hanly fire of 1964.  It spared us this time, but how were we to know?

 

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astrobob.areavoices.com

The night before it started, we slept poorly as the wind threw a nightlong tantrum, throwing furniture around on the deck and carrying off a barbeque cover with the umbrella.  The shadowy arms of trees threatened the house as the angry wind bossed them around.  At four A.M. a phone call from my daughter Kimberly in Santa Rosa, roused us.

Her dog, Tucker, had forced her awake, and as she checked her cell phone she learned of the Tubb’s Fire.  Cell towers near her home had burned, so she couldn’t call out.  Desperate to reach us, she drove across town to the parking lot at Costco’s where she was able to complete the call.

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“Get out of there now, Mom.  There’s a fire near Tubb’s Lane, just below your place!”

She knew our house sat in the middle of fire fuel: twenty-two acres of dried grass-covered hills—with only one way out.

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abcnews.com

We had no idea we were in danger; we couldn’t see or smell anything.   Reluctantly we tossed a few possessions and our little dog into the car and drove into the night, leaving home behind.  As we neared the main road, we saw fires devouring the land—in many different directions.

We had made the right decision.

The plan to join Kimberly in Santa Rosa had to be scrapped when we learned from the police station that both roads to Santa Rosa were impassable because they were burning.  We simply headed south.  Perhaps we’d take shelter in a motel near Vallejo.

As we traveled down valley, the eastern sky glowed ominously from another fire, the Atlas fire.  And to the west a third fire painted the night sky.  It seemed like fire wanted the whole Earth.

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wired.com

Reaching Vallejo, we were put off by the traffic and congestion and decided to move on.  After crossing the Richmond Bridge we cut over to Novato and stopped at a Starbucks for coffee and a muffin. We joined the overflow of quiet customers sitting at the outside tables.  A blanket of smoke hung over the area.  Eavesdropping conversations at tables nearby, we soon realized we were among fellow evacuees, and many of us began to trade stories about how we’d come to be there, sitting in the smoke at dawn.   Many of us had no real destination, and the mood was one of hushed disbelief at our situation.

“Let’s head to the coast and look for a place in Bodega Bay,” I suggested to Alan.  A brilliant idea, I thought.  We’d be closer to home and the ocean air would be nice to breathe.  So we headed toward the coast and then backtracked, to the north again.  The innkeepers at the coast laughed at us.

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“All the places here are reserved; people have called ahead.  We have nothing for you.”

A feeling of homelessness came over us –- until we realized we could reach Santa Rosa from the coast.  We could get to Kimberly’s.

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By a stroke of good fortune, my daughter’s Santa Rosa home had had a mold infestation, and two days before the fire, her rental agency had put her up in an Air B&B while they made repairs.  She and her sixteen-year-old twin sons had moved into a place larger than their home.  There was an extra bedroom for us and a backyard for all the dogs, including our hero, Tucker, who had awakened Kimberly at 4:00 A.M.

We reached this sanctuary after six hours of roaming.  Not only was it a place to lay our heads and make a cup of tea, but an opportunity to huddle with family during the days-long fire attack.

The house, a charming, hundred-year-old thing, sat downtown far from the burned out neighborhoods. It had power, and the air was not as smoky as it was in the rest of Santa Rosa.  We would be there for twelve days.

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But the city had shut down.  The only places open for business were a coffee/bagel shop and Target.  We breakfasted with Kim and the boys at the bagel shop and traded stories with other displaced people.  Kimberly shared a tale of her friend’s husband who turned out to be a hero as they fled their rural home; he’d thought to carry a chainsaw in the car.  And sure enough, a fallen tree blocked the narrow road leading out of their little neighborhood; he was able to remove the tree so they could all get out.

After our community breakfast, we found Target to be a treasure house of useful things. We bought groceries, dog food, and a toilet brush for the B and B.

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Orville, our next-door neighbor, made several enormous pots of Italian wedding soup to give to displaced people.  He brought some over for us, and it was the best soup I’d ever tasted.   My grandsons helped to serve food at a local church to those who had no way to get a meal.  Small acts of kindness were happening all across the city.  “Love in the Air is Thicker Than the Smoke” became the slogan proclaimed by handwritten signs around town.

Our computer kept us informed of the changing fire scene. Kim’s old neighborhood of Rincon Valley was under mandatory evacuation.  Lucky we weren’t there.  A friend called from Calistoga to report that she could only see smoke when she looked towards our house.  We felt sure it was burning.  And, when the whole town of Calistoga was evacuated, we sensed doom.  There were moments we believed we had no home to return to and others where we hoped we’d be spared.

Tired of the fear and uncertainty, we began to accept the prospect of starting over fresh.  It might be nice, we thought, to find a place in town and furnish it with all new things.  Once we accepted the possibility of this outcome, Alan and I relaxed and were ready to face whatever might happen.

The five of us settled into a familial routine: Kim and I cooking and doing dishes together while the boys took turns vacuuming.  Each of us worked on the jigsaw puzzle of a dog park scene set up on the end of the dining table where we ate dinner together every night. We took walks to town and read books to get away from the constant stream of grim news on the T.V.

After twelve days of refugee status, we learned that our house was saved.  One road to Calistoga opened to traffic, and we returned home.  In the back seat of the car sat two teenage boys, each with a cat carrier on his lap, while our dog perched between them.  We would hang out together while their mother flew to Santa Monica to attend a long-planned high school reunion.

images-18.jpegOne side of the road had no fire damage, and the other was either burned or a fluorescent green from fire-retardant.  Fire fighters had kept the fire from crossing the road.  All four of us fell silent, hypnotized, as we traveled along this eerie route.

We knew for sure that our home had survived as we drove through the gate with the big red outline of a heart still decorating it.  Love was in the air.

The whims of the wind provided a happy ending for us, if not for Santa Rosa.  It blew fiercely from the northeast and stayed steady. Called a Diablo wind, it carried the fire that brought devilish destruction to so many people’s homes.  If the wind had ever gone back to its normal habit of blowing from the west, where the fire started, we would have burned.

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cbs.com

Wide swaths of bulldozed earth the size of country roads now mark up the land around my home. Cal-Fire had made firebreaks that are now a reminder of all the drama.   The rains in November will cover them with new green grass, and the Earth will sigh with relief.

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Filed under Fire Season, Memoir, Students

Blessings in Ashes

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“Fire Season” takes on new meaning in Sonoma and Napa Counties, California. Now a month after the night fires raged through our mountains and valleys, cities and vinyards, homesteads and housing complexes, people are telling their stories. 

Memoirist Lynn Hakes’ Napa neighborhood wasn’t evacuated or burned. They were some of the lucky ones, but the disaster didn’t leave anyone untouched. Here is her story. 

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Photograph Cathy Carsell October 9, 2017 Napa Valley

Blessings in Ashes

Lynne Hakes

Waking up to a red glow in the bedroom, I wondered what was happening. Was it the end of the world? Then I smelled it – smoke. Out of bed in a flash, I peeked outside and saw nothing. The radio! Maybe there’s something on the radio. The dreaded words shot through me like a bullet: “…fire in the Napa Valley.”

“Quick, grab your bathrobe.” I muttered to myself out loud. Flying down the stairs, tripping on the last step, turning on the TV, there it was. Crackling fire; embers flying everywhere. Announcer in a blue jacket standing in front of blazing pine trees. This was a big deal.

My husband followed, and we settled down to watch, he in his recliner and I on the couch. We were rapt, struggling to understand what we were seeing and hearing. No thoughts of coffee; no thoughts of breakfast, we sat there wide-eyed for the rest of the morning. Will it come to Napa? Should we be prepared to run?

Well, we should probably get ready. Grab the birth certificates and the passports. A few family pictures off the wall; the albums are too heavy. Address book, purse, phones, medications. Clothes? What do you wear to an evacuation? Is there gas in the vehicles?

Phone calls came from family and friends out of state. “We’re OK. We’ll call you if that changes.”

I don’t remember getting dressed or eating that morning. Longing to help in some way, we tore ourselves away from the TV and made the rounds of the shelters, offering to volunteer or bring food or water. We were too late; there were already enough people with offers of help. They turned us away.

Back at home we sat glued to the TV the rest of the day and into the evening. Again, the next day. And the next. We were safe. A few miles east, a few miles west, people lost everything. Why were we spared?

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As the days went by, gratitude replaced fear and anxiety. Gratitude for our safety; gratitude for the firefighters, the medics, the brave souls who worked together to warn, to help evacuate, to organize the shelters, to feed people. And compassion for those who lost homes, businesses and loved ones. Struggling to imagine their losses and their feelings, I knew I couldn’t come close.

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Hearing more and more stories of loss, my feelings of guilt crept in. Survivors’ guilt, they call it. What do I do with that? Are there lessons to be learned?  Be a little more tuned into people, their stories, their fears, their feelings from now on? Could more caring and compassion replace guilt?

Is it possible to find blessings in the ashes?

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In Memory, With Love

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People do not die for us immediately but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad.  Marcel Proust

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I’m waiting for Mike, but he’s not coming back. He left us last month as the dreary rains dried up and the Napa Valley rioted into leaf and bloom. I was sure he would emerge from his Beemer in the swirl of white petals billowing from the trees shading the Upper Valley Campus parking lot. The prodigal student returning, his hat jaunty over his crisp pink button-down and white duck trousers a manuscript tucked into his portfolio and a twinkle in his eye.

You might say Michael was this teacher’s pet. But in the four years Michael Weaver Layne and I shared stories and literary criticism, we became more than teacher and pet. We became friends.

Mike trusted me with his words and I saw in his writing the potential for acclaim. His mind was wildly creative and he wrote with abandon and humor. It was a joy to read his stories and a joy to know him. Jonathan Franzen says on death: “The fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.”  Mike Layne loved life, embraced it, and brought lightness to my world.

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“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so as long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.”    Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

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Mike Layne’s legacy remains with us in his beautiful architecture, infinity pools, irreverent short stories and an unpublished novel, Mammoth, written in the style of a Clive Cussler thriller. It was Mike’s dearest wish to co-publish Mammoth with Clive. At his death, Mike was negotiating with Clive’s editor for a leg up. He was going to make it.

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Mike was also compiling a book of short stories to be titled Blah Blat and Blather. The following is one of the stories slated for the collection and one of the last pieces we worked on in class.

In an email to our group:

Dear incredible writers,
  After class, at home perched on my porch with another full glass of Pinot, I ruminated over the class critique. The original ending, something I fashioned from memories of Bambi came out as planned  (I admit to being a Disney fan, Frozen giving me warm toasty moments).images-1
    But Daphne’s observation jarred me into re-crafting the ending, cleansing it of much Walt’s fantasy.  So—–with meekness, I’ll stand it on.
Mike

 

 

Lord is my Shepherd

by

Michael Weaver Layne

No moment’s timing could have been better than when Lord entered my life. Vicky had left me, slamming the door in my face, ending what I thought was a near perfect relationship.

“What could be wrong with wanting sex three times a day?” She screamed as she stomped down the steps to the gravel drive.

“I suppose nothing, except the demand it imposes on durability,” I shouted. I felt durable enough, after all, I run marathons. But even runners need occasional breaks.

I watched as she throttled her Subaru down my long drive to the Silverado Trail.

Okay, it’s over. I sighed.

I poured a Pinot into my glass, filling it to the rim and settled into the teak chair on my porch and began dissecting my thoughts. No more evenings with Vicky on the porch, watching the cars go by. No more evenings in bed with Vicky feeling my manhood sucked away ––– sitting solo on the porch –––– not nearly as bad as I had feared. I missed Vicky the nympho but welcomed the respite from her lusty demands.

I filled my glass once more and gazed across my vineyard and down the vacant drive to the Silverado Trail. A pickup swerved into my drive, sliding to a stop, its driver kicking something out of the truck’s rear bed.

“Oh no! Good lord not again.” I cursed. From my porch, I could see a little gray ball of fur yelping desperately at the truck as it sped away.

“Damn,” I growled, “Another abandoned orphan.”

It occurred all too often. An unwanted pet dropped into the midst of paradise to fend for itself, or if lucky, find adoption.

I set my glass on the table and loped down the drive. “Hey boy, come on it’s okay,” I shouted.

Rather than dart off into traffic to be run over, as these outcasts often did, the little fur bundle, yipping happily, dashed in my direction zigging down the drive. I knelt to my knees and it sailed into my arms, swabbing my face with its tongue.

“Good lord stop that,” I shouted with a laugh, holding the pup at arm’s length and just beyond the reach of its tongue. Lordy Lordy, you’re an affectionate little dog.

We bonded instantly.

“Lord.” I announced, let’s name you Lord.”

From that instant, Lord became his name and we became inseparable, best buddies, constant companions, and like the nights with Vicky, Lord and I shared the bed –– the difference, cuddling and sleep our only goal.

He loved television, particularly the Simpsons. He would lay motionless for episodes, his chin on crossed paws, one ear up and one down, his one blue eye and one brown, following Marge’s blue hairdo as if it were another candidate in need of herding.

Lords intelligence amazed me. I figured out ways for us to entertain each other. I taught his tongue to read braille. I made up plastic cards with raised dots for the words, roll over, sit, or shake. Lord would lick them, then for a treat, perform the command.

Other things too. The fire hydrant I brought home from a flea market and placed in the yard. Lord understood immediately and from that day on, it stood as his private urinal.

Lord grew into a fine sheep dog, eager to chase a Frisbee. He loved my pool and the mallard that would drop in on misty mornings. In fact, Lord loved everything. His insatiable fondness for life, his tragic flaw.

His first affair was with the skunk who lived along the Napa River, his amorous advance meeting with a blast of spray. Repeated baths of tomato soup did little to clean Lord or mask the skunk’s odor.

Next, he sought romance with a porcupine. Our vet spent half a day plucking quills from Lord’s muzzle.

In spite of these miss-adventures, he loved every animal on the ranch. The raccoons that he treed at night with gleeful barks, the squirrels whose walnuts he would dig up and chew like a bone.

Lord become a canine gigolo, lavishing love on all the ranch’s creatures.

Born to herd, he constantly dashed along the river or between the vines, organizing the progress of any creature he could spot. Quail scattered at his approach, gophers ducked back into their burrows, butterflies drifted higher as he bounded into the air to move them this way or that.

Herding was Lords passion and the bigger the thing, the better the challenge.

One morning as the lingering fog lifted, a UPS truck sped down the drive, a challenge that Lord could not ignore. Barking with delight and nipping at the tires he tried to swerve the truck to the side of the driveway.

Lord dashed in too close tripping under the truck’s front bumper. The driver unable to avoid hitting Lord rolled over him with a sickening thump.

Twisted and broken, Lord lay on the drive his tongue still lapping the air, his eyes bewildered, his hind leg twitching, then turning still.

I scooped him up and hugged him to my chest wishing desperately for one more swish of his tongue, one more wag of his butt.

I felt his last shudder. It was over.

He slumped, limp in my arms, his legs dangling in weird directions from his crushed pelvis.

“I’ll miss you, Lord,” I whispered in his ear, tears rolling down my cheeks and dripping from my chin.

I buried Lord under an ancient oak tree and within sight of my perch on the porch. I filled my glass with pinot to the rim, with eyes still pooling tears I stared at the mound of freshly piled soil.

A blue Jay scolded from an over-hanging branch, a haunting requiem bidding Lord farewell.

I looked at the two dog biscuits, Lord’s favorites that I placed next to his Frisbee on top of the mound. Two squirrels scurried down from the tree and scooped the soft dirt, reverently burying the biscuits.

Their heads popped up at a sound from the river. I followed their gaze. From beneath the trunk of a fallen tree, hidden in shadows, I spotted the outline of the skunk. The squirrels twitched their tails, alerted by scraping from the gravel drive. The porcupine shuffled past casting the burial mound a passing glance then disappeared into the mustard growing beneath the vines in the vineyard.

I looked back at the still squawking jay and caught a glimpse of the raccoon peering from behind a branch.

I re-filled my glass and walked over to the grave. I could feel eyes watching me. Lord’s friends mourning from afar, hidden yet present. I stood over the Lord’s grave alone.

A butterfly floated by.

My fingers twitched as I took Lord’s epithet scribbled on the back of a box of his favorite kibble and nailed it to the tree.

Lord my best buddy, I’ll miss you, dear friend

When we first met, I never thought it would end.

Now you are gone, and impossible to replace

Life without you, I’m not sure I can face

Your blunt little butt and eyes mismatched

All that is left, this note I have scratched

Lord you were my Shepherd

A friend so true

Never a day— that I won’t miss you.

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Mike, if I may steal your words— you were a friend and “never a day—that I won’t miss you.”

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He was a man, take him for all in all.
I shall not look upon his like again.

Shakespeare         Hamlet

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Filed under Memoir, Obituaries, Students

Tell It Like It Was

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@memoirmusic

Why write it? Why illuminate your innermost self and risk potential pain of ridicule or criticism? You ask yourself this, over and over, even as you name your secret places, confess your transgressions, light up your dark desires.

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Thanks Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens

Perhaps you reveal your wild and strange garden because of that gnawing, burrowing inner gopher. You know the one—nibbling the tendrils of your memories and digging through your synapses in his blind foraging. You know the dark feeding will stop in the light of your pen.

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ramweb.org

 At first you write to expose the bully, the crazy parent, the mean sister, the pain-giver. That may be your catalyst, but will revealing trespasses against you trap the hungry rodents like a hunting cat, pouncing on those unseeing beasts, dragging them from the dark and laying them at your feet?

In the end the revelation is you.

images-5        Writing your memoirs? Creating a family legacy?

                      Looking to publish your story?

Join the Rianda House memoir writers:A forum for craft, critique and positive encouragement.

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This group welcomes beginning memoir writers as well as more experienced writers who wish to explore their lives through the written word, both creative non-fiction (memoir, personal narrative, essay, autobiography) and poetry. Writing craft is discussed in the group and writing topics are suggested. All participants are encouraged to share their work in class.

Mondays 3:00-5:00 at Rianda House 1475 Main St. St. Helena Free

#70755 (Pre-registration at Rianda House) Feb 6-May 22 (no class 4/10)

 

Resources:

http://namw.org

http://www.judithbarrington.com

http://shewritespress.com/

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Filed under Autobiographical Writing, Classes, Memoir, revision