by Chris Harms
California is on fire.
If you live here, specifically in Northern California, where it has been poor air quality for the last month, a glance outside and you will see the seemingly apocalyptic state we are living in. Last week, the sun was a bright red orb hanging in the crimson sky.
These fires spark up memories of the devastation two years ago.
On November 8, 2018, my grandparents lost their beloved home to the Camp Fire. The entire town of Paradise was engulfed in flames, burned to the ground within hours. My grandfather tells an incredible tale of his harrowing escape – better than I ever could, so I won’t get into that too much here. What I can tell you, though, is what that place meant to me.
I’ll never forget that day, getting the call from my dad, telling me the house was gone. I was out working in Hawaii at the time, so I was a bit detached from all that was going on in the mainland. It didn’t feel real. Almost like when you get the news that a loved one had died unexpectedly. So many cherished memories in that home, from the holiday celebrations to just stopping in for a meal and a chat. Was in utter disbelief that it was gone, along with the chance to make more memories there.
The house on 7125 Clark Road was always a safe haven for me, a place of comfort and most importantly, love.
Almost a two-hour drive from Sacramento, I didn’t mind the trek at all. A sense of excitement would build as soon as we made the ascent up the hill, passing Butte College on the left and the canyon on the right. Tall pines would soon line the road as we passed by the “Welcome to Paradise” sign. I would always roll down my window a bit, regardless of the weather, to take in the fresh, crisp mountain air. Eventually, after passing the town’s only movie theater and the little Methodist church, we’d make it to our much anticipated destination.
Without fail, my heart would seemingly take over my body and I’d be filled with joy as soon as we pulled in the driveway. Dad would back into his usual spot, and it seemed like nothing in the world could go wrong from that moment on. We would get out, have a stretch and walk up the long driveway, passing the garden, the doghouse, stepping over my aunt Dawn’s handprint in the cement, up the wooden steps to the deck around the back of the house, and to the back door (one which was rarely locked; that’s just the kind of town Paradise was). Grandpa, expecting us, would usually beat us before we could get to the door and greet us with open arms. He always seemed so happy to see us! I knew all was well in the world at this point. The smell of the entryway would fill our nostrils with whatever tasty meal grandma had been preparing for us. That smell. I hope one day I can smell it again.
She would be in the kitchen, hands on a project, humming along as we’d come in. Unlike Grandpa, she would act surprised to see us, as if she had either not expected us. Or, more likely, she already gave up on us showing since we were probably late.
There were always things I would be sure to fit in each visit. Checking out Grandpa’s Art Studio to see what new ceramic pieces he had created was a staple. He is such an amazing artist (the official logo of the Farm was sketched by him) and had been making clay pieces for nearly 40 years! The studio was jampacked with masterpieces, from tidepool pots to clown masks, it was always neat to see what he was working on next (some of the ceramic pieces survived the fire and have been salvaged, thankfully, but much was lost).
I would always find myself scouring the magnificent corkboard full of photographs and other keepsakes in the kitchen. I’d look for any new additions while also going back in time, reliving magical moments forever immortalized by this wall of fame (so many photographs and even albums gone). And speaking of Grandpa’s clay, a little-known secret of the family was a small chunk of clay stuck to the high-vaulted ceiling of the living room, some 30 feet in the air. Dad threw it up there when he was a kid and it had been up there ever since, more than 50 years later! It blended in with all the knots and the color was so dark, it is not like you would notice if you weren’t searching hard for it. But I would always search the ceiling until I found it.
Visiting the garden was always special. You could tell it meant so much to my grandpa, and he was always so proud of the pretty flowers he grew (all that survived were fragments of the chicken wire fence used to keep the deer out).
And finally, I would go on up to the roof of the carport, which was such a peaceful place. Looking up at the towering redwood and pine trees you couldn’t help but marvel over how something could possibly grow that high (the fire moved through the town at such a high rate of speed that it never had a chance to rise in the trees. But most are now permanently blackened at the trunk, an eerie reminder of what happened down at ground level).
While the house, as well as the town of Paradise, will never be the same, the memories I will cherish forever.
Go make a memory today, it may be the only thing you have left.
Chris, What a moving piece you’ve written💖👍.
Your grandpa hired me as a fifth grade teacher in 1972 and during my 36 years of teaching at Paradise Elementary School I had the privilege of having your dad as a student teacher one semester. Many times I visited your grandparents’ home (and shared plants with your grandpa). Currently your grandpa and I remain friends and correspond via snail mail at least twice a week. We also keep in touch via messaging and email (which is how I received your written memories). Your dad has always sent me photo Christmas cards so I’ve watched you grow up. Hold your memories close to your heart❣️
We raised our children in Paradise and moved to Chico 6 years ago so we didn’t experience the horrors of the Camp Fire, but did lose the homes we lived in and school where I taught. We housed a surviving widow in ouR home for six months following the fire as well as provided a hook up for a couple with their motor home. In addition as a quilter I made seven quilts for survivors and gave some of my personal quilts to my quilt group friends who had lost their homes. We will be observing the memorial moments of silence on Sunday🙏
Chris writes so well!! One thing I regret most losing in the fire was a little composition he wrote as a junior in High School telling about visiting my studio !!!
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