Goldilocks and the House Fire

It’s the first week of December and I sit on our couch while my family staggers through the front door with an 8-foot noble fir that will be this year’s Christmas tree.

My head aches. My throat nurtures a lump. I’m mad at myself for not being happier.

Just be happy, Julie.

But the last time a Christmas tree stood in our family room, the space still reeked of smoke and the dim light of spring filtered through filthy sliding glass doors. It was March and our tree was a corpse.

Shriveled and dusty, its naked branches hung at a steep angle of defeat, robbed of our collection of personalized ornaments.

Baby’s First Christmas, 1997. The Gardners: Bill, Julie, Jack and Karly.

Some had been sent to a restoration facility provided by Public Adjuster in the hopes they could be saved by an ozone treatment. Others, too fragile to survive, had been stuffed by strangers into blue biohazard bags and tossed out with the casualties of January’s house fire.

We’d had to walk away from everything we owned, surrendering our things to the will of salvage experts.

The tree was last to go. I still don’t know why.

It had taken a week for the towing company to haul away the ruins of my car. When it exploded in the driveway – the heat from the flames in the garage igniting its engine – there were still groceries in the back I hadn’t yet unloaded.

For days, people driving past the burned-out shell of my Toyota Sequoia knew I’d bought bagels that day. And grapes. Red Gatorade.

fire 4

By then we were living in a hotel, traveling through our days like tourists visiting our own lives.

Each morning, we had plenty of clean towels and enough free shampoo to lather, rinse and repeat. Bill and I sipped cheap wine in the lobby most nights at six o’ clock while Jack and Karly perused the complimentary salad bar.

They ate iceberg lettuce coated in Thousand Island dressing. They really liked the endless bowl of croutons.

But we had to suspend our carpool because the Residence Inn was too far from our neighborhood; and since my teenaged kids were sharing a bed, Jack often slept on the floor without a blanket.

We missed our dogs. We missed normalcy. We missed home.

So our insurance adjuster arranged a six-month lease on a rental house and I prepared to solve all my family’s problems. Maybe I hadn’t been able to stop the flames from swallowing our garage, but surely I could make this house into a home.

I held my breath as a company delivered loaner furniture and housewares – forks, sheets, toothbrush-holders, pillows – everything a family of four (plus their two dogs) might need.  And just like that, I would make everything better.

I puttered around unfamiliar corners rearranging empty picture frames on borrowed dressers. I stowed a half-dozen fake silk plants in an empty linen cabinet to gather dust.

We didn’t have extra linens anymore.

Once everything was in its place, I stood in the living room alone, fidgeting nervously.

When the kids come home from school, will they feel it, too?

The rooms were furnished but they still seemed vacant to me, a solitary trespasser in an oversized dollhouse with nothing familiar to anchor her. I cooked dinner in a stranger’s kitchen. Jack and Karly sat down to eat at someone else’s table.

Gobble it up, quickly, I thought. Before the real people come back!

I was Goldilocks, except none of the porridge or chairs or beds felt just right.

Tears stung my eyes and my insides roiled.

We are lucky. We are together. What’s the problem?

I’d been quick to tell people (or they told me in an awkward rush) that what we’d lost in the fire was ‘just stuff’ that could be replaced. But I couldn’t replace Jack and Karly’s certainty that my love would always be enough to protect them.

fire 15

I didn’t know I had to pull the pin from the fire-extinguisher to make it work. And as for the trickle of water that had been too weak to stop the fire? Well.

I couldn’t panic and unkink a hose at the same time.

So I got the kids out of the house and went back for the dogs. I chose not to go in a third time for my computer or car keys. No, not even for the guinea pig.

I told Jack to call 911 and I tried to slow the flames. But I failed.

If Daddy had been home, he would have saved the day.

The thought teased my brain. It teases me still, a year later, as my family wheels a fresh Christmas tree inside our home. What was burned has been rebuilt. Repainted. Restored.

But everything is different.

I now have concrete proof (along with drywall-proof and roof and garage-door and car-proof) that I’m a mother but I won’t always save the day. I can’t.

No matter how hard I may try.

My kids know this now, too.

For months, Karly slept on the floor beside our bed because she couldn’t escape the fear that some other terrible thing might happen. I couldn’t tell her otherwise with any confidence.

After eight years of training, Jack quit going to karate preferring to be with us in the evenings instead of at the studio. Just in case.

We have a couch and a family room again. But what we no longer have – what can never be returned to us – is the sense of total safety we used to feel here. I’ve learned now that I can’t put out even the figurative fires that haunt us. At least not always.

Jack and Karly have learned that lesson, too.

But I’m their mother. So I’ll still try. And fail. Then try again.

I will help my children hang ornaments on this year’s tree.

Decorating the tree


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37 thoughts on “Goldilocks and the House Fire

  1. Kir

    Oh Julie, this is so beautiful, so honest and so incredibly real.
    We all, as mothers (caregivers, boo boo kissers, make it right’ers’) have doubts as deep as the ocean every day.

    (I think of this fire and my heart constricts with pain for you. Even now.)

    I used to wonder, that with all the work I’d done to conceive them if I actually deserved my sons. Certain that a long awaited (and successful) pregnancy didn’t mean anything in the face of my abilities to actual mother these children.

    nothing prepares you for the unexpected and in those moments are where you find the soul of yourself. You are allowed to fail and be loved anyway, you are allowed to question and doubt, but you are never abandoned.

    I wish I could have been in the audience so that you could see my heart blooming with your words, my eyes filling with tears and saying to you , above the heads of other people, “you are everything to them and to me (to us. This village of people who love one another beyond our bad days. I am always here to listen to your story.)

    thank you for sharing this.

    • julie

      Wow, Kir! I woke up feeling loved already but your comment puts it over the top.
      Thank you, friend. You are a gift.

  2. Di

    Wow…no matter how many times I read your story I still get weepy. You have persevered and come out on top and your family and friends love you today and always!

  3. sad and touching

  4. I’ve had that feeling myself, that you never know what’s coming up around the corner, that you’re never really safe, for years now. I hate that feeling. And I hate the feeling of knowing that my kids worry, and not being able to do anything about it. Sigh. I can’t wait to see the video of you reading at LTYM. I bet you were a rock star.

  5. Your love shines through these words, vulnerability and pain … still living but a heartbeat from yours. Rebuild, renew, afresh – we know this to be be true, but the quiet hush of our soul still beckons to what we fear is lost. Love always dear friend, how I wish I had heard you speak these words, but I feel them deep within.
    Heart friends, love always.

  6. Oh Julie – I bawling here. Love you so much. xo

  7. Nanny K

    I love that last pic! J & K are SO blessed to have you and Bill for parents! YOU are what makes a house your HOME!! <3

  8. Your writing is beautiful, like you.

  9. Christy

    You made me cry. Really beautiful.

  10. It is so hard to recreate that sense of security even in your own home. The damage is done. We had a flood last summer and uprooted to a stranger’s home. It felt weird – like we were playing house in somebody else’s home. But the love you have for your family is so deep, beautiful and strong. This piece was so beautiful, yet so vulnerable. Blessings to you and your family.

  11. Thanks for sharing it with those of us who couldn’t attend, Julie.
    You lived through every Mom’s fear. And you all survived. God bless you all.

  12. Thank you, Julie C., for sharing your reading here, for those of us who are salivating for the videos… I wish I could have been there to hear you, to hug you and tell you how beautiful and moving and tender your writing is.

  13. Oh, I can’t wait to see you read this, in your own voice. Maybe something *was* lost in that fire, but something is always found in those moments, too. Your family is together, and they know you are human and can’t fix everything but will always be there to smooth out the unfixable and love them while waiting for the beauty to be found again. xoxo

  14. I wish I could write a meaningful comment here to tell you what this piece has done to my heart and gosh, do I have something in my eye?

    Except I don’t think any words justify how much I loved every word. xoxo

  15. No longer trying to shelter our children, trying to do it all, be it all, save it all, is impossible. Trying to do all these things can be debilitating. But not trying? It’s not even an option. That is the essence of motherhood. And THAT’S what I think your children’s takeaway will be, for as long as they think of your home and all that they have.

  16. What a powerful and honest post! Wish I could have been there to hear you read.

  17. JoAnn

    This just makes me feel sad Julie. The shared feeling of loss and displacement really comes through in this, the raw emotions…I guess I am just still bummed out that this happened to you. I’m still sad about it.

  18. julie

    We are so good now, JoAnn. Really.
    It was hard but in the end, we are TRULY lucky.


  19. I am so teary over this…when this happened to your family, I just couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t, maybe didn’t want to? And as always, you handled it with grace and humor, but I knew — as only moms know — tha inside there was mist likely a different story.

    Your raw unedited way of telling this story breaks my heart. I am so very proud of you for telling it, and how I wish I could have been in that audience. xoxo

  20. I am sitting here, so full of awe and tears, at your beautiful, powerful, heartbreakingly raw story. How I wish I could have been there to hear it.

    My father always used to say, “Don’t say ‘if only’ because the if only’s in life will drive you crazy. Your life is mapped out long before you walked its path and all the if only’s in the world will never change that.”

    He must have known how short his life would be, how we would find him on my parents’s roof unconscious, with a heart that had beat its last time. He must have known we would need those words in the days to come, all of us second guessing whether we could have saved him if we’d only checked on him, seconds or minutes earlier than we did until someone in those dark early days of grief, remembered his mantra and reminded us all.

    As trite and small as the phrase is, everything really does happen for a reason. And when the bad happens, you cry, your heart breaks, you change in big and little ways and you keep putting one foot in front of the other.

    You are so brave and beautiful and as always, your words take my breath away. I am so grateful your family is safe, (that was your job by the way and you did exactly that) and that one of these days I will be lucky enough to watch the video. You are loved so much, my girl. XO

  21. “”””Rebuilt. Repainted. Restored.””””

    Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Hopeful.

    I Love How You Rise UP with your words, your insights, and your life, Julie.

    Is there a site I can listen to these videos?

  22. I can’t imagine what you’ve been through. A home is much more than just stuff, and it must be so hard to lose that feeling, and that feeling of comfort and safety. I wish I could have seen you read this live. xoxo

  23. amazing, I felt every word

    Congratulations on getting to “perform” it.

  24. Julie, I am so glad you shared your LTYM piece here. I’m also so inspired by your honesty and that you chose this topic for the show. Those platitudes of “it’s just stuff” misses the central point, which you nail right here: “But what we no longer have – what can never be returned to us – is the sense of total safety we used to feel here.” You are always there for your family–you save the day in that way every minute. You’re there for them now, too, even though you also probably have recurring worries and images from that day.

    Such an honest, well-told, thought-provoking piece.

  25. june montuori

    Wow. XOXO

  26. My heart is hurting, Julie.

    I’m glad you didn’t go back for anything else, although I am sorry about the guinea pig. But you really did get the most important things out.

    But that doesn’t soothe the loss of security. I wish I could have been there to hear you read. I wish even more I could have been there to spend time with you as you rebuilt everything.

  27. Julie,
    As always your words are so poignant, so beautiful. I feel so blessed to have been sitting in the audience at LTYM to hear you read this. But oh how I wish, you’d never had to write it.


  28. This is so moving. I understand feeling powerless, and it is magnified when our kids suffer, even though it isn’t our fault. You did what you had to, and that is enough. I know it can’t be easy to realize it, especially in the aftermath of a tragedy like this, but it is. xo

  29. As I scrolled down to comment, I realized I had been holding my breath through the whole post. It’s so beautiful and tragic. But that is motherhood, yes? Beautiful and tragic.

    I’m so sorry that this happened to your family.

  30. Thank you for sharing this, Julie. ((hugs))

  31. How heart-breaking, yet beautifully written. I’m so glad you are all ok but I can absolutely imagine how that “stuff” doesn’t feel like just stuff. Your family’s history, your memories are wrapped up in that stuff. I hope with time that your feelings of safety and sense of home return.

  32. I felt every word, sigh, heartbeat of this. I wish I could have heard you and stood to applaud you.
    This really resonated with me. We don’t know what will happen. We can’t always save the day, but we can always love. No one can take away our ability, our capacity to love. While you can’t promise your children a certain future, they know they are loved. You are home.
    Thank you for sharing a piece of your heart with us.

  33. Goosebumps. I’ve thought about fires and my family getting out safely and what you said it’s “just stuff” but I had never thought about the safety and normalcy that is robbed from you and as your children. I’m so glad you were able to put this into words to give us all a glimpse of what this was really like for you. I wish I could have been there to see you read it out loud.

  34. It might not ever be the same, but new memories and things will build a new future. Big giant hugs to you and yours. xoxoxoxo Dawn

  35. Wow I had no idea. Your current home looks like it already has so many loving memories….your writing touches my insides and gives them a squeeze. Thank you for sharing. On my way to get a fire extinguisher for the kitchen now…..

  36. I can totally feel your loss as I read your words. Both tangible and intangible things were lost in the fire.

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