The Final Farewell

mortuaryonfireOn January 12, 2019, a fire broke out at Chapel by the Sea, the mortuary that’s been our next-door neighbor for 27 years. It was a terrible, surreal thing to witness. Wisps of light gray smoke from the open upstairs doorway quickly grew into roaring flames that exploded windows and engulfed the structure. Our property was never in peril, but that didn’t keep the fire from reaching across the alley to shake the core of my well-being.

Over the following weeks, I became obsessed with fire prevention. Our house is older than the mortuary. If an electrical fire happened there, it could happen here. I bought fire extinguishers for nearly every room of the house. I called Fort Bragg Electric to schedule an evaluation of our electrical system. A few months later, after all the outlets and light switches were replaced, I was able to sleep through the night without waking and sniffing like a dog for suspected signs of smoke. (We have smoke detectors, but my three o’clock in the morning irrational mind wasn’t about to trust them.)

Mortuarysemifinal1I woke each morning to the ruins of what was once a stately building. In addition to a mortuary, it housed an upstairs apartment. The Blair and then the Reynolds families resided there during our early years in Fort Bragg, and allowed us to create friendships that endure to this day. We share a common grief over the loss of this beloved place.

Spring ushered in an unusually warm summer. Open upstairs windows cooled our house, but also allowed the smell of charred wood to drift along the breeze and taunt me with the possibility that our house might be on fire. Once again, in the middle of many nights, I turned into a smoke-detecting watchdog.

MortuaryDay1AM3I looked forward to the day—September 17—when the process of tearing down the building would begin. That morning, I headed over there with my camera phone. I vaguely felt like I had when the fire broke out—too terrible to watch, yet demanded to be witnessed. I was relieved it would soon be gone, yet mourned the finality. Over the course of four days, a piece of equipment that looked like a Tyrannosaurus Rex crunched walls, chewed them into pieces, and loaded the debris into massive dumpsters to be carted off.

And just like that, over 100 years of history was erased.MortuaryAngelFinal

I’m grateful the mortuary no longer stands as a reminder of all that was lost. I do not know what will take its place, but hope it will grace our street with the same majesty as the old building.

***

MortuaryDay1PM

MortuaryDay1PM2

MortuaryDay2Lucy

MortuaryTruck

MortuaryDay3

 

 

 

Advertisements

Death of a Mortuary

mortuaryintroWe moved to Fort Bragg 26 years ago when our children were very young. Our house is across the alley from Chapel by the Sea, the town’s only mortuary. It was the summer between kindergarten and first grade for our older child Harrison. He had no friends and a limited capacity to interact with his three-year old sister (and his parents). At the time, Larry Blair was a partner in the mortuary and lived in the upstairs apartment with his wife Shirley and teenage daughter Charla. Older daughter Charise was married to Nathan who worked for Larry. They lived in the alley apartment.

That summer, Nathan and another employee were often involved in outside work activities. While taking walks with the kids, we eventually got to know everyone on the other side of the alley. Convinced these were trustworthy people, my husband Gary and I consented to let Harrison hang out with the guys when they were outside. As the summer wore on, this happened a few hours each day. It also became a bargaining chip whenever Harrison misbehaved. “That’s it, buddy. You’re grounded.”

Imagine the deep sadness of a cherub-faced six-year old as he stood at our alley gate howling like a wounded hound dog, “Nathan, I can’t come over to the mortuary today. I’m grounded.”

At times, Charla graciously consented to tossing a baseball around with Harrison, honing throwing and catching skills that carried with him into Little League.

When Harrison discovered the casket room, he chose one for each member of our family. Older sister Jennifer recalls him describing hers as having pink satin lining and a white pillow. She felt honored. When his dad and I told him our plan was to be cremated, he scoffed and said, “Nobody wants to be buried anymore.”

From first through third grade, he aspired to become a mortician. However, he was conflicted. He also enjoyed ocean fishing and was enamored by our commercial fisherman friend Jared Williams. Whenever anyone asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” he’d reply, “A fishing mortician.” The inquirer flinched like someone splashed cold water in their face.

Over the years, our families socialized, celebrating birthdays and other events. But mostly, we visited across the alley, getting to know one another in a casual small town kind of way.

Eventually Larry and Shirley moved into their own home and later out of the area, but to this day Shirley calls me “Neighbor” whenever we meet. I have a deep and abiding affection for this lovely, kind woman.

Charise and Nathan divorced. She later married John Reynolds and they moved away. They had two children and returned to live in the mortuary alley apartment when Katelyn was nearly five and Jacob one and a half. This planted the seed of a deep, lifelong friendship where we shared many joys, including the birth of son Nick, and one major sorrow—John’s sudden death in 2010 when the children were 13, 10 and 7. Over the years, they moved to various places, but we remained close. Throughout it all, the looming red mortuary stood as a monument to these relationships.

And then, on Saturday afternoon January 12, 2019 there was a fire.

***

I wasn’t paying attention to the time, but later learned it was about ten minutes to two o’clock. I walked by my kitchen window and glanced, as I often do, at the mortuary. A work crew had spent the morning installing new windows in the upstairs apartment. This was part of a lengthy renovation project to a space that hadn’t been updated since the eighties.

I saw a large puff of what I thought was mist coming from the open door. Within seconds, the mist turned dark grey. I hollered at Gary, “The mortuary’s on fire!” I grabbed the phone and rushed outside while dialing 911. It had already been reported.

mortuaryonfireA flurry of law enforcement arrived to cordon off the street. Neighbors gathered, some inside my fence, all of us sharing looks of horror and tears. We watched the smoke grow in volume and black intensity. I cried for it to stop. This stately building stood for over 100 years, the past 26 years as our neighbor. This couldn’t be happening—STOP!

The fire had other ideas.

Within minutes, huge flames erupted from the door. Seconds after that, the newly installed windows exploded with fireballs. Our amazing volunteer fire department arrived and set to work, spraying the building with thousands of gallons of water. I held hope they could contain it at the upper level.

The fire had other ideas.

The violence of a structure fire is terrifying to witness. Despite the copious amount of water sprayed with extreme velocity, the fire spread to the lower level, eventually forcing those windows to explode.

Within a few hours, our beautiful mortuary was in ruins. The freshly completed apartment renovations had gone up in smoke. Julie, the manager who had moved in two weeks previously, and her dog Pillie had been out of town for the day. She had anticipated returning to new, draft-free windows only to find she had lost virtually everything—most devastating were her two young cats, two canaries, and a fish. When she arrived, she stood next to her friend Amy, tears rolling down her cheeks.

mortuaryfirefightersAbout 4:30pm, the fire department had contained the blaze and began wrapping up. I am in awe at how, despite the chaos of the fire, they maintained their professionalism and focus. Heavy hoses had been dragged about the property, yet they did not damage one plant of the major landscaping project that was completed this past fall.

mortuarysemifinalAfter a fitful night of little sleep, I rose the following morning worried about Julie. I didn’t want to, but couldn’t help, looking out our east windows to a sight I’ve always revered. It was horrible—a burnt out shell of a once stately building. My sadness runs deeper than I could ever have imagined. I can’t fathom how I’ll face this mutilated scar in the coming days and weeks.

mortuarysemifinal1For now, I try to find consolation in the fact that even though the monument is gone, the love it symbolized remains. Charise, Charla, Katelyn, Jacob, Nick, the Blairs and my family share a common grief, but we also share a special bond that will carry us through.

mortuaryfinal

A Go Fund Me account has been set up for Julie who lost nearly everything in the fire:   https://www.gofundme.com/julie-and-pillie-start-again-fort-bragg-ca

To read about the most common causes of house fires and how to prevent them, go to:  https://www.realinsurance.com.au/home-insurance/home-safety/the-most-common-causes-of-house-fires

Yelp!

For twenty-two years, we’ve lived next door to the Mendocino Coast’s only mortuary. We’re often asked, “Doesn’t it bother you?” No, it does not. (Read my guest blog post “Neighbors.”)

In addition to the mortuary business, there are two apartments on the property—the one directly above the main building is rented to a full-time tenant; the other, above the alley garage, is unoccupied.

In recent years, the owners allow friends to occasionally stay in the vacant apartment. If they rented it for money, it could get listed on Yelp and subject to reviews, which might pose a problem.

My husband Gary is in the habit of waking early. I know the term “early” is open to interpretation. To some people, 6:00 a.m. is early, to others eight. I think we can all agree that three or four o’clock in the morning is damned early. By the time I get going—usually five-thirty or six, Gary is in mid-morning mode and delighted to have company.

I enter the kitchen to, “Good morning! How are ya?”

I groan, stumble to the coffeemaker, pour a cup and search out the nearest dark space.

Our dog Lucy is a slow riser, but usually ready to go outside by six-thirty. Today, she announces to the world that she does not like the vehicle parked in the normally empty space across the alley. Gary yells at her to stop barking while he carries a container to the alley and dumps cans and glass into the large recycle bin.

I pour a second cup of coffee and sigh.

Overall, the apartment above the mortuary garage is a great place to stay. It’s within walking distance to downtown and a short drive to the beach. It’s quiet on the east side, but not so much on the west.

If it was subject to Yelp reviews, I imagine they would read like this:

yelpThis is a wonderful place except for the cat that clawed at the front door in an apparent effort to seek asylum. We believe he’s demonic. We will never stay here again. Laine R., Oakland CA

1601274_10152360261811844_1457279366_n

yelpWe were awakened at daybreak by what we thought was a homeless meth addict flinging things while hollering in the alley. Trembling with fear, we peeked around the curtains to find the man next door dumping cans and glass into the recycle bin and yelling at someone named Lucy. We will never stay here again. Kasi H., San Francisco CA

yelpWe found the apartment well-appointed and roomy. But as we moved our luggage from the car, an albino animal with a brown patch over one eye barked incessantly from the house across the alley. Efforts to ignore it only made the howling louder. As we approached the gate to get a better look, it let out a puddle of pee and rolled in it. Each time we went to or left our car, the creature yowled. We will never stay here again. Jenn H., Kirkland, WAcloseup

yelpWhen we arrived at nine o’clock at night, all was quiet and peaceful. Little did we know this was because the inhabitants across the alley were asleep. At the crack of dawn, we were startled awake by the baying of a Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog and a man yelling, “Leave Little Mister alone!” What kind of freaks are these people? We will never stay here again. H. Riley, San Francisco CA

yelp

Kris S. (who refused to disclose the identity of his city)