It was a warm evening, the kind of Indian Summer night that makes it absolutely divine to dine outside in in wine county. I stood on my parents‘ porch with a few of their friends and neighbors sipping wine and watching my dad throw slabs of steak on the BBQ. It was like any typical dinner party in Sonoma Valley: good food, good people, and, of course, good wine.
Only this night was different, immensely different from any other “normal” Sonoma night, at least in the three decades we’ve lived in this Valley. We were a week into the devastating fires that had engulfed Northern California, our County, and parts of our little hamlet of Glen Ellen. The fires were still only partially contained at this point, about 7 days in. My parents and I were sitting on our ash-laden porch for the first time in a week with friends who were able to get into our area past the National Guard checkpoints. National Guard. In Glen Ellen! Our guests of honor were Henry and Diane Mayo, our close neighbors who had just lost everything.
Only their fireplace was still standing.
Their home went up in flames and burned down in fifteen minutes that first night of the fire. We know this because their son, Jeff, who lived on his own property next door, helplessly watched it burn to the ground. His home, just a stone’s throw away, still stands. Fortunately, Henry and Diane were safely out of harm’s way on a vacation in Cuba when the fires began the night of October 8th. They had just arrived back into town to assess the damage.
So in true Sonoma Valley fashion, even in the midst of the most massive and devastating fire in California history, with National Guard stationed at the bottom of our road, and with the only power coming from a tiny generator, we managed to have: a dinner party.
Also in true Sonoma Valley fashion, the Mayo’s came bearing wine. Like my vintner parents, they like to drink their own wine. My Dad always says “life’s too short; I wanna drink my own wine” (or some such missive). We shared in their wonderful Cab Franc, a luscious, fruit-forward version of a grape my husband happens to love. They told me to make sure take the rest of the bottle home to share with him.
It was delicious.
There we were, sitting on the porch (since the house smelled like someone had been chain smoking in it for 1,000 years), talking about my wedding the summer before, their recent trip to Cuba, their wines, our wines, wine in general, their family, our dogs. And then we’d all be hit with the fact that their home had just burned down.
It was bizarrely matter-of-fact. They talked about rebuilding their cottage – the original structure on the property – by next summer. They still had the plans, they still knew the architect. The strength and amazing fortitude of this couple was absolutely mind-blowing. I can only hope to have half their courage if I ever face such a challenge in my life.
We sat there chatting on the porch of my childhood home, a home their son Jeff helped protect while we were evacuated. Jeff stayed in his powerless house all 13 days we were evacuated, putting out spot fires, checking the area for looters, and (with our coercing) raiding our pantry. He protected our neighborhood, our neighbors’ homes, and our home.
A home is that still standing, due to the mercy of the wind, a random, ferocious wind that caused so many other homes to catch fire and burn to the ground. We were spared namely because by the time the fire hit the base of our property on October 10th, the wind had died down and changed direction, and a fire truck was able to get to us just in time. The 60 mile-an-hour winds that lashed out the night of October 8th sent embers flying up to a mile, causing random patches of properties to melt. Seeing the burned areas doesn’t even seem to make sense in parts of our hometown. House after house on both sides of a road will be completely flattened, and then you’ll see it: one random structure still intact, while on an adjacent plot, just a brick fireplace remains. It makes no sense. The random nature of nature on display.
I won’t go into detail about what happened in the days and weeks after that first night. The bottom line is our family is safe and our friends are safe. The same can’t be said of their homes, their cars, their possessions. It’s easy to say the words: “you can replace things, but not people.” I’m pretty sure I repeated them over and over in the wake of the disaster. And there is some truth to that statement.
But I can’t even pretend to know what it is like to lose…everything. As much as it is “just stuff”, there is indeed emotional attachment to our objects. They carry our pasts within them. How many times have I “remembered” a Tea-Party Birthday and later wondered if I actually remembered the Birthday or if I just remembered a photo of the Tea-Party Birthday? The objects themselves can be the memory triggers, our memories manifested. Some “things” cannot be replaced. We need to let our friends grieve those losses, be they material or not.
In 2007, I had the distinct pleasure of being in a magical off-Broadway show called GONE MISSING, written by Steve Cosson/The Civilians with music by the recently-late Michael Friedman. The show investigates how things become lost, the meaning we attribute to objects that are lost, and the way we process and are impacted by these losses.
And so I think of the lyrics to the last song of the show, “STARS”, and raise a glass of Cab Franc to our neighbors, the Mayo Family of Mayo Family Winery, as an example of true grit and true #SONOMASTRONG strength. We are here for our friends and neighbors in any way we can be, knowing our friends and neighbors will be there for us when we need them. When the fires began, there was a saying coined which read: “The Love in the Air is Thicker Than the Smoke.” That is exactly what Sonoma Valley is about. No wind, no fire, no rain can tear this community of helpers apart. I hope you’ll raise a glass too, by buying local (and direct!) from Sonoma and Napa wineries, and come visit us all soon.
There are so many stories to tell and so many feelings to explore surrounding these tragic fires. I want to hear them all. It’s been over a month and I’ve had a hard time deciphering my own emotions on the matter, but I keep coming back to the night that we had a dinner party…in the middle of a wildfire.
And we shall keep having dinner parties.
“All we see is stars, falling from so far away, the things that we see, are just memories of the things that used to be.” -Michael Friedman, GONE MISSING.