James Williams

When I’m tempted to complain about rainy days in summer or snow in winter, I remind myself of how important it is to enjoy the moisture because otherwise we are in danger of great forest fires. My family learned this lesson in 2007 when my sister Martha lost her house in California.

Something you need to know about California brushfires is how fast they move and how high they reach.

Whenever I smell smoke, whether from Colorado or drifting here from farther west, I’m reminded of what happened to my sister.

She and her husband were vigilant on that warm October Tuesday when the wind suddenly picked up. They kept smelling smoke and looking outside, then – wham! – there it was, billowing smoke scaling their mountaintop just northeast of San Diego in a town called Poway.

It was time to pack cars. They didn’t take as much as they would have liked, but the electricity was out and threat of suffocation loomed so they drove away from the brick, Mission-style home where they raised three kids and our family had many happy celebrations.

Once they unloaded their stuff at their daughter’s house and rested, they decided to return. By then their neighborhood had been blocked off and the sky was dark. A law enforcement officer wearing a gas mask stopped them. “High Valley is on fire,” he said. “We won’t let you in.”

On Friday the mayor called and gave them the news: Their house had burned. 

The sight was horrifying. The house had burned to the ground. A shell of the southern wall remained, but beyond that, everything was piles of ashes and clumps of bricks. 

Their land was destroyed, 40 acres of oaks, palms and eucalyptus stripped and singed. It was like being on the moon.

She was overcome by all they had lost. The love letters her husband and she had written when they first imagined a future together. The sword and cap he wore when he graduated from the Naval Academy. The white silk dress from the captain’s ball, her first attempt with a new Singer sewing machine.

Tokens from every milestone of family life followed: baby books, grade-school report cards, homemade Mother’s Day cards, First Communion dresses, college diplomas and wedding pictures. Christmas ornaments and the ornate Nativity set she had displayed each December. Our paternal grandmother had given her a copy of “A Christmas Carol” that was autographed by Charles Dickens himself. The china doll from our mother’s childhood, the envy of all my sisters. The ivory tablecloth our maternal grandma crocheted.

In the midst of this sucker punch came mind-numbing insurance forms. They were asked to list every belonging they had lost. Halfway through, she said she could not continue. She felt sick to her stomach.

But there was one thing the fire spared: their Marian shrine.

In the canyon just below their house, they’d placed a 2-foot statue of the Blessed Mother inside a stone grotto.

The year before she had asked me to come and pray a blessing over the shrine and sprinkle holy water on the grotto. When I do a blessing I’m good at sprinkling holy water everywhere nearby. Everywhere holy water had landed was untouched by the fire. Not even a smudge of smoke.

She said she looked at Mary’s serene face and upturned palms, and peace filled her heart. It was as though Mary was saying, “Here I am, and everything is going to be OK.”

The blessings began pouring in, a hundred little kindnesses. Her husband and she had never realized the depth of the human heart until the fire stripped them bare.

There are absolutes in life – eternal truths, divine gifts – that no flames can sear. In the fire’s wake, these lifted into sharp relief. They held fast to their faith in God, his saints and the Church. Their love for Mary deepened.

To this day when I go to visit them we walk the path from their house down their canyon to the little grotto. We pray the rosary and think about the wonderful way God has blessed us and protected us. The rosary is a perfect prayer, and its mysteries form a cradle of comfort.

Jesus and his mother have never failed our family.

We often pray to renew our troubled culture with the healing truths of our faith. We pray that Christians may stand together and bring our most deeply held values back to the forefront, to create a culture where life wins and hope reigns.

Every fire refines, and the one that claimed their house was no exception.

The Rev. James Williams is pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Salida.

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