Tales of the Brass Monkey

By Julia Hayden


Or - why having home insurance and careful - even pictorial documentation of the stuff inside your personal space is an excellent idea. The stuff in your house, the pictures on the wall, the clothes and kitchen things are just background; most of the time you only really notice them when they are missing.

But when everything goes missing - lock, stock and barrel - all at once in a massive disaster, as happened to my parents in the 2003 Paradise Fire, in northern San Diego County - replacing it all is a bigger chore than most people would think. It took my parents months and months, making lists of what they had in the house, and calculating what they would cost to replace with something approximate. Those few things which were spared or survived the fire become even more precious. The fire had been burning for days, by the time it roared up the hill below my parents' house - the house they had designed and built almost entirely by themselves in the 1980s.

My parents had always lived in the back-country; they had a plan in place, in case of a brush fire like this one turned out to be. Sometimes, even just accepting the possibility of an event like this is halfway to having a viable plan. As it turned out, they had about twenty minutes warning - long enough for my father to snap some pictures of the fire as it approached, and to take more pictures of the inside of the house. My mother had time enough to load her car with a few bits of china, the strongbox with all their necessary documentation, her jewelry box and their pets.

She and my father also filled up the bathtub with water, and put some more china into it. Unfortunately, they didn't realize that when the roof beams burned, and the concrete tiles covering it came crashing down - much of what was in the bathtub would be damaged. The fire reduced the balloon-frame garage to not much more than a small pile of ashes and cinders: the outside house walls were of conblock, and remained standing after the fire raged through

They came back as soon as residents were allowed back into the area: they came with a borrowed RV camper, and set to work rebuilding. A work party of their friends from church very carefully began sifting the ashes for things that had survived. One of the first things they found was a tiny brass monkey that my father had bought, years ago. Some brass and concrete garden ornaments, which stood in various places on the verandah or in the garden plantings close by also survived unscathed. There was a collection of demitasse cups and saucers which had been wrapped in paper towels and stored in a dresser drawer; the fire had darkened the colors of some of the glazed they were decorated with.

Other items did not escape so easily: my mothers' collection of Irish lead crystal had melted and run down over the stacks of china plates, cementing them all together. Three tempered glass measuring cups, sitting on a kitchen shelf softened enough to melt into each other. A shelf of pewter tankards also melted together, forming a puddle of metal embedded with shards of tile and charcoal. Dad hung it from one of the rebuilt house walls, as a kind of free-form sculpture. But the antique Edwardian ornamental tea tin was relatively undamaged, and many of the items retrieved from the bathtub were repairable, also.

Still, Mom and Dad were glad to have had insurance. It didn't replace what they lost, exactly - but it meant they could replace it with something close enough.