A House is Not a Home

December 28, 2015  •  18 Comments

Ahhh... I remember it well.  Our first "home"... an apartment in an old Victorian house at the top of a hill in Stockton, New Jersey.  We were newly married with dreams and aspirations of raising a family and of facing the future together.  With each new purchase to "feather the nest" our identity was forming.  And then, a baby was born and we named her Molly.


As life went on we moved to a rent house in the country.  I was a small town girl... grew up in Flemington, New Jersey, and grew up in the same house for my entire life.  My family home spoke of permanence and I liked a small town atmosphere as I knew so many people there.  It all had intimacy and meaning.  But this little  rent house in the country spoke to me, as I could walk through the woods to a little trout stream and I could marvel as the leaves changed colors.  There was little traffic on the road and I was at peace each time I would drive down the lane to home.


When my mother suddenly died in her sleep, my essence of home changed.  That house, my childhood home, would no longer be a safe haven.  I was looking for permanence and we chose to  buy a home in the country just outside of Frenchtown, New Jersey in Kingwood township.  This was still in my beloved Hunterdon County, so I was still "home", so to speak.  I wanted a place to raise our family, and then another daughter, Missy, was born.


Life growing up in the country was idyllic.  The girls could play in the brook that babbled through our few acres and we even had a small pond with frogs, minnows, tadpoles and occasional wildlife that would visit.  It was quiet and peaceful and the night sky was inky black with stars in abundance.  This was to be our forever home.  We had dogs and cats and throughout the years I continued to work as a critical care nurse to sustain our lifestyle and to grow in my career.  I watched the seasons change and over time, we all changed.


The year was 1988 when my husband was offered a job in marketing for the Garrett metal detecting company.  He had always been in retail sales and I had hoped this would be a major accomplishment for him to take the job that was offered because of his passion for his hobby of metal detecting.  It was Christmas time... the lights were still glowing on the Christmas tree, I could smell the wood smoke from the fireplace and he packed his bags and left for the great state of Texas and we were to follow a couple months later. 


Molly was in college at Penn State and Missy was a junior in high school.  It would be a move from the only home they had known.  I was left with the daunting task of packing up a house of collectibles and paring down to make the big move thousands of miles across country.  I was not excited but rather, in tears, as I did not in any way want to leave this place that had become home to our family.  It was here that we had memories of our lives as a family.  It was here that I felt safe and insulated from the outside world.  This is where our lives had played out.


You see... home is more than just a place to hang your hat.  A home is a place where you make love, and yes, sometimes war... a place that feels safe and secure.. a place to welcome friends and family.  A place where you can be where nothing else matters.  It speaks to routine on a daily basis.  It's where you come after a long and hard day at work.  It is where you laugh, you cry, and you are at peace with the world.  I was losing all of this to travel to a "strange new land" called Texas that I had never even wanted to visit, let alone, move to, but I was not going to be the one to hold him back from what was hoped to be a bright future.


We moved to a brand new home that was extravagant compared to where we had lived in New Jersey.  Housing is much cheaper in Texas.  We proceeded to set down roots and form a new life here in the land of guns and cowboys, BBQ and jalapenos, and people who really did talk differently.  If I heard the term "fixin' to" one more time, I thought I would scream, but I did pick up on the phrase "y'all" as opposed to "you guys"!


Several years later my husband lost his job and was back in retail, this time at a bookstore.  Texas had become our new home and the thoughts of once again packing up and moving was more than I could bear.  I had settled into my job as a critical care nurse in my new hospital close to home, Molly graduated from college and went on to get her CPA and Missy would be going to the University of North Texas to pursue an education in music.


For 13 years I gave the ICU Christmas party and would have about 40 guests.  Some years it came complete with a Santa (thank you Wayne) as well as an Elf (thank you Sheila).  We entertained new found friends and memories once again developed.  Our girls married and had lives of their own.  I continued to have a passion for cooking and my photography became more than just documenting family happenings, it became a burning passion that continues to carry me into my life today.  Our home had once again become a place of memories but it has always distressed me to live in suburbia with traffic and strip malls rather than nature outside of my window.


For the past couple years since retiring from 45 years of critical care nursing,  I had not put up a Christmas tree.  It seemed like too much work as we would only pass it on our way to our computers.  We no longer entertained and life was indeed changing in so many ways as we entered our 7th decade of life.  We have three amazing grandchildren and enjoy watching our daughters and their families as they begin their own family traditions in their homes.  This time in our lives was about following our passions and simplifying our lives to our own expectations and no one elses!


The sky was getting dark and I flipped on the weather to see what was happening.  After all... this is Texas and storms can be a big deal.  A threat of a tornado south of Dallas in Ellis county.  I continued to watch the path of the storm and initially it looked like it would go west of us but as it drew closer to Dallas we were indeed in the path of the storm.  What we were seeing outside was grey skies and thunder, lightning and some rain, but it was unsually warm for Texas, the day after Christmas... about 80 degrees and there was a cold front butting up to this causing rotation which can spawn tornados.  Suddenly, the sirens went off signaling to take cover in a "safe place".  No... we do not have basements and few have tornado shelters so we did what we always do with one of these alerts, we retreated to the bedroom closet with both dogs on their leashes, flashlights, phones, radio and TV blaring so we could hear the updates. 


Suddenly our phone rang and it was a friend from long ago.  Bill was the head of the southwestern weather service out of Fort Worth and was calling to say we were in the direct path of the storm and to take cover.  There was no time for chit chat and moments later it hit!  Suddenly we heard wood splitting, glass shattering, walls caving and rain and wind and noises like we had never heard before as treasures collected over a lifetime went crashing to the floor and the roof caved in.  Thankfully, the closet proved to be the safest place in the house. 


And then suddenly it went totally silent!  I asked my husband if he thought it would be safe to open the door and then ever so cautiously I opened it a crack.  It was pitch black as we had lost power.  I shined my flashlight out into the bedroom to see broken glass everywhere, beams and roofing all over the bedroom floor along with fractured memories.  The bedding had been stripped off the mattress and there was what at first looked like sawdust flying in the air but it had a strange smell.  I later determined that it was insulation from the attic that had been treated with boric acid to keep the rats from building a home in our house in lieu of an outside home.  Yes, we are ALL looking for a safe place to call home and though I love all animals, I battled them tooth-and-nail to keep them from calling our home, their home. 


We could hear screams in the neighborhood and soon heard some voices outside.  We called out and waved our flashlight and two fellas stepped... yes, literally stepped into our now wide open house as there were no walls to hinder them and little left of the roof except for over our heads in the closet and assisted us in navigating the debris to leave our home.  My little black pug, Mollie Sue was so frightened and was unable to walk over the rubble and broken glass so one of the fellas gently lifted her into his arms and carried her as he held onto my hand to steady me as we walked through broken memories.  I was in total disbelief as the flashlight only showed more and more devastation as we picked our way to the door.  But the front door was jammed and we were afraid that if we dislodged it, the small amount of roof remaining might come crashing down on our heads.  Two of the walls in the living room were entirely gone but there was too much debris to climb over to get out.  But... there in the rocking chair sat my "special friend" Lucy.  The tornado had blown her wig off but she was intact but definitely speechless. 


We proceeded to the dining room where I saw my mother-in-law's silverplated sugar spoon on the floor amidst rubble.  The hutch had toppled over with all it's glassware and was blocking our path to get out.  The one fella lifted it out of the way and we proceeded to the kitchen and out the back door.  No need to open the door as the glass was gone.  The fence was gone from our tiny backyard and our cars were still intact (miraculously) in the driveway.  I jokingly said that it looked like all my bumperstickers were in place and Mr. Bones sat quietly inside.  (My husband later expressed shock that I would put a humorous spin to it all, but humor has served me well through the years.)


The smell of gas was oppressive and I could hear it hissing from the gas line.  Fire trucks with flashing lights were out front and they were rescuing injured neighbors.  Our neighbor, Diane approached with blood on her shirt from helping the injured and traumatized.  We stood in awe to see what was once "the neighborhood".  The house across the street had no walls standing... just rubble on the ground.  Thankfully only one person at home and he got out safely.  Other homes severely damaged as was ours.  That majestic live oak that towered over our house that I had personally planted and watched grow through the years was now nothing more than a broken stump.  I stood there looking in disbelief.  The smell of gas was strong, there were wires down and our son-in-law, Anthony had arrived in response to our call saying the house was destroyed.  We evacuated the area in fear that there might be a gas explosion and were given safe haven at their home, also in Rowlett.


On the way out of the house, my old digital camera had been sitting on the table with a 50mm lens attached and I grabbed it.  Seemed like a crazy thing to do but I couldn't help myself.  I lifted the camera to my eye but between low light and shaking from the trauma of the event, every quick photo was nothing but a blur... but then again, how appropriate... as that is exactly how my life felt at that moment... all the while looking through a lens that is supposed to depict life as the human eye sees it, however horrible that might be.


We returned the next day in a cold downpour of rain to retrieve a couple personal items and wallets that we had left behind.  It was mind numbing what we saw.   The wall by the fireplace was completely gone but the large green glass jug that I loved so much had toppled over but was still intact.  Two walls of the living room gone and from outside the rubble, the coffee table still sat there with all the decorative items as if nothing had taken place, though the couch was flipped over.  And our glass dining room table with both glass top and glass supports with only little brass brackets that held the glass supports together... that was also intact with no breakage on initial quick inspection.  But out to the side of the house I found my friend Lucy.  Broken at the torso, with an arm missing as she lay in the mud with rain in her face.  There must have been another gust of wind that propelled her there after the initial tornado.  Nature works in strange ways.


In the kitchen, the wind had forced open kitchen drawers and the kitchen table had been picked up and moved and the glass top was now only shards of glass scattered all over.  Our little back privacy fence was totally gone and looking up at the house from behind... the upstairs area where we spent so many happy hours on our computers was obliterated and precariously hanging together but destroyed and unable to get to the area safely to see what might be retrieved, if anything.


And now... the daunting task of where to begin and what happens next?  We emerged from this tragedy with our lives intact and with our pets at our side.  This was definitely not how I planned to downsize in my old age.  It was not until this morning that the reality has struck and the tears have started to flow.  My most precious loss is of my photos that I may well never retrieve except for in my mind.  I had just begun to digitize old slides and negatives and now they are gone... destroyed by wind and rain, never to be seen again. 


I have a friend who would never think of posting a photo of hers on the internet... too public, someone might steal the photo or, worse yet, make money from it.  And granted, that is very wrong and not ethical, but if I had not posted my myriad of photos and memories on the internet, they would be totally gone forever except for in my mind.  I proudly say that I do have a presence in cyberspace and if you google my name, various photo sites will come up.  And now, I can only wish I had posted more and wish I had put photos in the cloud as I have no idea if I will find my hard drives and old DVD's in what is left of life as I knew it.


So today I will revisit the disaster area with camera in hand to take a few photos of what was once my life... a lifetime of collecting, a lifetime of memories.  People say... it is only "stuff" but to some (like me), that stuff held incredible memories.  I was a decorator's nightmare as I loved my "stuff" displayed all over the house.  There was little bare wall space and lots of things to look at.  My stuff was comforting to have around me.  Each item recalled a story or a memory.  This sentimentality began when my mother died without my having a chance to say good-bye or "I love you".  The things she touched in her every day life became treasures to hold onto. 


So over the next weeks I will sift through the rubble, salvaging what I can and parting with some of my remaining treasures.  It is a painful process but it must be done before the bulldozer takes the remains of our house to a landfill.  I am so thankful for all the friends and family who have given their support over these harrowing days and who have offered to help in the process.  You are indeed helping me to "hold it together" and even new found photo friends that I have made on the internet have given support.  You have only made me more passionate for the hobby... if that is even possible.


I will have to be selective as to the photos I take, for I have no computer to post them to and one photo card available at this point.  Sort of reminiscent of film days, don't you think? 


My life at the moment will go on, but my house is gone.  My home is gone.  But... the memories linger.   Where life will take me from here, I do not know.  We do not write the script but live each day as it is given to us.  One day at a time... I learned that from a friend who has battled cancer now for the fourth time in his life... a pillar of strength and positive thinking, and I personally need to muster up as much of that as I possibly can.  For now I will try to remain calm as worrying won't help matters,  and I must be content that I am still here and hopefully things can only get better.    


Karen Bettner Wood(non-registered)
Fay, your story was heartwrenching, beautifully written with clarity that caused us to be there with you during those traumatic hours during and afterward. I am so sorry that you have lost so many treasures that encourage past memories. Homes can be rebuilt; furniture can be replaced; but the most important thing you still possess is that you and your husband survived! I know you know this, but I wanted you both to know that others are grateful that you escaped harm. I shall always recall your bright and welcoming smile and keep you and your family in my prayers. Be well.....

Regards, Karen Bettner
Sheila Schindler(non-registered)
Oh Fay....You should write books as well as photograph. Your words are very moving and brought back many memories of when my Mother and Dad's house flooded with 4 ft of water inside. How hard we worked to salvage what we could, drying out photos, furniture, clothes, keepsakes and more. We gutted their house and ran a 4 ft foundation underneath and my mother still lives there today. But it is hard and I feel for you and your family.

I hope writing about the ordeal gives you peace and helps you hang onto your sense of humor and laugh. It's hard to say which heals the most, crying or laughing and it will take both to make decisions and move forward. You know life is an adventure and you could have lived without this particular adventure but I hope you continue to write about it and share it with those of us that care and want to help. I also hope it will help you to have the outlet for your feelings and emotions.

If there is anything I can do for you and Dick-- I'm your girl--please let me know. When and if you need a break you know I have a room all ready for you.

I thank God you and Dick are safe and have Molly and Anthony so close by.
Fay, I am sitting here crying myself after reading your blog. You always have the right words to say that describes what is going on. I'm glad you and your husband and the babies were safe and we're able to leave with no physical injuries. As I was reading, I got so excited when I saw that Lucy was ok and some of your other cherished items. But then as I kept reading, my heart sunk when I read Lucy was damaged. Oh the fun Lucy has brought to many people, including myself. I will never forget the day we spent together with her and all the laughter we shared. And how I sat in the back seat with "Bones" cause Lucy sat shotgun LOL. I had to laugh myself when I saw that Bones and all of the stickers made it. I'm glad you have that ability to find something to smile /laugh about, that is one of the things that is so special about you. I'm glad you were able to grab a camera on the way out. People who do not take picture taking serious and the love of the photos that come from that can NOT understand how important they are to someone. My brother and I were talking about this last night about how items can be replaced and I said other than our lives, my camera and photos are my cherished items and sure the camera can be replaced, but the pictures are gone and that would be heart breaking. I wished I knew what to say or how to help you, but I don't. But just know that you are in my thoughts daily and if there is ANYTHING I can do for you, PLEASE let me know. Keep up the positive attitude you have and finding something to smile about that is special about you. But I'm glad you were finally able to cry cause that as you know is important to do also.
I'm just so glad that I still have my "CRAZY WOMAN" friend.
Take care of yourself
Love Kinnie
Jim Griggs(non-registered)
I am devastated for you and your husband. Hard to imagine this. We dodged Tornados in Ohio and Indiana before moving to Kansas. We had them dance all around us here in Kansas but I know we have been lucky. Let me know if there is anything any of us can do.
Linda Dyer Kennedy(non-registered)
Dear Fay,

You have inspired so many of us through your photography, your beautiful writing, your warm heart and your humor.

I feel certain this horrible turn of events will only eventually enhance your understanding of life. I hope you continue to write about this (because you should be a writer) and continue to take photos, so that we may continue to learn from you.

I have admired your photography from the moment I saw your work on Capture Dallas and will always remember the way you encouraged me. It is obvious that you have also had a positive effect on so many others for the same reason.

I feel certain (don't ask me why) that although this must be unbelievably unbearable, you will come out of this even more enlightened. Remember, you are not alone. Your friends and family will help you get through this (please accept our help). I know we will ALL do whatever it takes to get you and your husband back to living the next wonderful stage in your life.

You are so loved, even by people whose lives you didn't even know you touched (mine included). We are all here for you.

I want to help you go through your shattered home. I will take special care in saving things, especially your photos, that even you think aren't salvageable. Please let me know (I mean it) when I can go there and help. I'll be there tomorrow if I'm allowed in.

No comments posted.


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