I was on speakerphone, listening to my parents evacuate their home of nearly 50 years in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Monday, as the voracious Caldor Fire devoured the Sierra Nevada forest they’ve hiked for decades.
It was painful to hear them debate the value of all the stuff cramming their humble home, and what to leave, what to take. Her angora sweaters. His fishing gear. Her modest jewelry. The Czech crystal. The delicate tea set, the corn husk dolls, the tchotchkes from the Old Country.
“Take the things you can’t replace, Mom,” I told her, agreeing (for once) with my dad.
The sky was dark, the horizon blazed orange and embers were falling in their yard. But this hellscape wasn’t new to most Westerners.
We were in Tahoe last week for her 75th birthday and I used a tissue to wipe away the ash that managed to get through the window screen and settled on the bathroom sink like a light layer of snow every morning. California mountain people are used to this.
I remember camping and my dad U-turning the travel-trailer rig when we ran into a towering inferno in Lassen County. Oh well, we’ll go to Honey Lake instead of Eagle Lake. It’s just fire season.
So the evacuation this week was a gut punch, something they never imagined they would have to do.
Unlike the folks in New Orleans, who took shelter from Hurricane Ida like old pros this week. It was something they taught us when my husband and I lived in the Big Easy and experienced our first evacuation during Hurricane Georges in 1998.
We put all our important papers and photos in plastic tubs, loaded them in the car and got plywood for the windows of our double shotgun home. We had just a few hours to decide what to take before we headed out to report on the storm.
It wasn’t that much stuff. Evacuation is an art of efficiency and pragmatism, when it’s practiced by the folks who do it so often.
And we learned to join the party, finally understanding that all the cooking New Orleanians did before a hurricane wasn’t just laissez les bons temps rouler. They cook up a storm to use up the perishable food, knowing the power could be out for days.
As Ida roared toward New Orleans this week, non-New Orleanians may have found it odd to see my former colleague Stephanie Grace, who is a New Orleans political columnist and evacuation pro, spread the word on social media that the local Creole Creamery had $1 ice cream scoops. It was a smart and sweet way to cash out their inventory before the hurricane wiped out their freezers.
Grace and her home survived Ida, but she’s one of at least a million people in Louisiana and Mississippi without power now.
The smoke had engulfed South Lake Tahoe by the time my parents got out.
“The bikes. The canoe. The teak furniture, I love my teak furniture,” my mom said, ticking off all the things that they left behind, the household they filled over 50 years, piece by piece. They watched the neighbor across the street load furniture into a U-Haul. My brother and I got on the phone and discussed doing this for them, but my parents waved off the idea.
They made it out just as sheriff's deputies were clearing the street. As they drove, there was a man who stepped out of his car as it sat still in traffic and played the violin.
They saw lines of people alongside the road, the carless waiting for a lift from the evacuation bus, holding only what they could carry. And a pet or two. All they wanted was to seek refuge from the devastation coming.
Disasters often become clarifying moments of life’s meaning, of what’s most important to us as humans. I heard it hundreds of times in interviews I did with tear-streaked, devastated people.
“As long as we’re safe,” they say. “That’s what’s most important.”
“You know what?” I heard my dad say to my mom, as I speakerphoned my way alongside them as they fled Tahoe. “That’s all we had when we came here, too.”
They came on a trip in 1968, but stayed when their country’s Prague Spring — a loosening of the iron grip that communist rule had on what was then Czechoslovakia — was quashed by tanks and bloodshed. The hard-line Soviets reestablished power.
My parents made it out before the tanks came. “We were lucky,” my mom always told us. And they started in a new world with a suitcase full of simple, state-store clothes. No wedding gifts or family heirlooms, no photos or furniture or books.
“Tahoe and Kabul. That’s all that’s in the news,” my mom said.
And we talked about the news photos of those Afghan refugees, their meager belongings, the children in vibrant, traditional clothes coming in to American airports and how that reminded my mom of their own, frightening new start.
“We started with nothing and look at us now, Lidush,” my dad said. “Worrying about bikes. And my tools. We’ll be fine.”
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