I’m driving down Mission Road with my windows down when a smell that I’ve known since fifth grade hits me. I’m immediately taken back to when I first smelled the mixture of soot, ashes and burnt wood.
Oct. 24, 2010. My brother, sister, mom and I woke up in St. Louis that morning to dozens of phone calls from family and friends. We weren’t planning on leaving for a couple hours, but after my mom called her sister back, we packed up immediately, in shock of the news we just received.
My childhood home on Wenonga Lane had burned to the ground around 4 a.m. On the drive home I came to realize that anything and everything that we didn’t have with us was in ashes, including my dog, my cat and my tortoise.
For weeks I was numb. Going through the motions of daily life, sometimes in shock, sometimes seeming like my subconscious was trying to block what happened out of my mind and make me forget.
The first two weeks after, we lived at a neighbor’s house trying to cope with losing our home and the memories and pictures that burned away with it. Neighbors brought over things we hadn’t even begun to think about replacing, like lunch boxes, board games and coats.
The East community stepped up and some of my sister’s friends hosted a walk on the school track to help raise money to replace things. We were perpetually working to replace the things we used to take for granted: clothes, Chinese take-out menus and movies.
After those two weeks, we moved into a rental home just down the street from the only home I had ever known. The neighborhood helped us move in and we lived there for a couple months, but because of troubles with the landlord, we moved to another rental home just a mile or two away in the spring. Months after the fire I was struggling with finding a home to call my own and replace things I once loved like children’s’ books and artwork while not having a permanent place to put anything.
We went on with daily life, trying not to think about what could’ve been. Would I have died in my sleep like my pets if we hadn’t been in St. Louis? What caused the fire? Could we have prevented it? I had only known one home in my life and now it felt like I had nothing.
Finishing fifth grade, I still had to see the debris daily since we had lived right next to it. On Fire Safety Day, just weeks after moving into our first rental house, we all went outside to look at the fire truck. It was conveniently parked right in front of the lot. For half an hour I stood there not paying attention to the firemen’s presentation, just waiting for it to be over and I did the same thing for my next year and a half of elementary school.
After seven months of enduring situations like that we moved to a permanent home in Prairie Village. Once we were able to really claim a home and not just a house, we started to move on. We painted and decorated the rooms how we wanted, got two dogs and slowly started a new normal.
But the empty lot we were forced to pass by still followed us around as we thought of our past.
Even though we knew that it was out of our control, we apologized to a neighbor about the empty yard because we, too, wanted it occupied by a new family. Their only response was “Yeah, it’s been really tough on us. Now we have to tell people we’re the ninth house in instead of the tenth.”
Now I’m a sophomore, and it’s been five years since the fire that turned my entire world upside down. I’ve been putting it behind me more and more everyday, thinking of it less and less as I make new memories in a new home.
A couple weeks ago I was driving from a friends’ house to my dad’s. Forced to drive on 103rd Street, I decided I would pass by the old cleared-out lot that we sold a couple months after the fire. We all avoid it for the most part, only going by when we’re visiting old neighbors.
Normally it was just a dormant brown patch of dirt sitting beside Brookwood Elementary. But something was different this time. An immense hole had appeared in the ground: the start of construction for a house.
Now that a new house is starting over on the lot, with a new house and a new family, I think that all of us will finally be able to move forward. I’m happy to be leaving the fire chapter in the smoke behind us, knowing that a new family will be making use of my childhood neighborhood.