The email attachment downloaded slowly and the first photo finally opened up in full screen. My eyes were immediately drawn front and center to the remains of what had once been my beautiful, red leather sofa. That sofa had been my first solo purchase after leaving my beige husband of 20 years and had symbolized freedom to me. It wasn’t the wine red or dull maroon of the overstuffed sofas you most frequently saw in furniture stores. It was a glistening cherry red reminiscent of bright, sugary, cherry pie and small in stature as if tailor made to fit my 5’3” frame perfectly.
Bits of red, no longer bright, were still visible amidst the soot and smoke surrounded by water saturated split open boxes, the contents spilling out everywhere. Here lay my personal history strewn randomly across the prairie: melted photo albums; half a painting bought in a small shop in Aspen; a shattered tea set I picked up in London; what appeared to be a piece of the hand-made lamp I’d purchased in Connecticut. Smoke and smoldering fire were apparent in the background and on the very edge of the photo stood a firefighter in full gear water gushing out of the hose he held pouring over the piles of burning goods and grassy Wyoming prairie. Next to him the remains of what had been a shiny, new 18-wheeler now partially melted like a cheap plastic toy that was left too long in the August sun.
I sat at my desk in my new office and stared out the window at the park and the river beyond. I wasn’t certain I wanted to see the rest of the attached photos. It was my boss’ idea to have our business lawyer contact the only Attorney’s office in the small town in Wyoming outside of which the moving van carrying all my belongings had caught on fire eventually destroying four families possessions and 500 acres of prairie land. The moving van had been on its way to meet me in New York City where I had begun my new job as CFO for an international not-for-profit a week earlier working out of the God Box, the tongue in cheek nickname for The Interchurch Center building located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The attorney already knew about the fire. In a town with a population of 9,500, most of whom were dispersed far outside the 2.95 square miles that comprised the town limits, this was the biggest thing to happen for some time. He immediately sent someone out to photograph the wreckage and clean-up and multiple photos of the site were now awaiting my review.
It was difficult to even believe that it was only a few hours ago I’d received my very first phone call at my new job. The administrative assistant came in to my office to let me know I had a call. “Someone asked for me by name?” I’d asked her. “Who even knows I work here yet?”
I picked up the phone to hear, “This is (a name I don’t remember) from (a Van Line I will not name). The moving van carrying your items has caught on fire. Nothing is salvageable.”
Since I had just gone through the process of pairing down everything I owned from a three bedroom house allowing myself to only keep enough to fill two rooms; what was left in that van were only items that were completely necessary or that truly brought me joy. To think that none of my precious belongings could be saved was hard for me to believe so I forged ahead and looked at multiple pictures of the decimation of my material goods. I had come to New York with my dog, Petunia the Pitt Bull, and one carry-on suitcase of casual clothes. I had mailed myself a blow up bed, sheets and towels that were delivered the day I arrived. From the looks of these pictures I’d be sleeping on a blow-up bed for some time to come.
This was my thirtieth move, including several cross-country and one international, so I knew quite a bit about moving in general. I could pack up a three bedroom house into sealed stackable boxes in 24 hours flat. I was an expert at when to use bubble wrap, saran wrap and packaging tape; when to use a box, when to use a bag and when to throw the item away and buy a new one when you arrive. Within all my experience there was nothing to tell me how to handle this type of loss.
It was my boss, again, who came up with the idea that helped me move forward. She said, “Think of it as an opportunity. You were going to make items you’d purchased for a three bedroom home fit somehow into your new apartment. Now you have a fresh slate. Hire a designer and make your new apartment a showcase with items purchased specifically for it.”
A designer? Me? Seriously?
I had been born into poverty. Through hard work and education I worked my way up to a solid, resolute working class existence. The idea of something as extravagant as paying someone else for their opinion on how my home should look was a hard one for me to digest but what I knew for sure was that I was in no emotional state to be making decisions alone. It was completely possible that if left to my own I might purchase the first items I saw with no regard for anything but filling my empty space. I could wake up from my emotional daze in a few months broke and living in the apartment version of a government office; functional, dark and unattractive.
Luckily, I had been insured both through the van line and through my home owner’s policy. What I learned about property insurance, loss, damage and the depreciated value of goods could fill another book but in a few weeks I would be receiving a check. So I called up a designer recommended by one of my new office mates. Upon hearing I had a budget of $30,000 to furnish a two room apartment, an amount that I thought was extremely generous, my designer commented, “Oye, we’ll have to shop retail!”
And then, almost before I knew what happened we were off and shopping. First stop the largest Crate and Barrel store I’d ever been in; a two- story extravaganza on Madison Avenue. I don’t know how most designers work but this particular one worked from the ground up. The first thing she wanted me to choose were my rugs. From this she got an idea of the colors I liked and the rest fell into place from there.
For the living room I chose a striped wool rug with deep fall tones of red, orange, gold, green, and brown and out of that simple choice grew a room with a red accent wall, a soft green sofa and chair, with bright red and orange pillows and unique one of a kind lamps.
The bedroom became a softer space with a place for sleep and a place for work and study. The room came alive with a pale green rug on the floor and a matching accent wall, a Caribbean-style bed and armoire with wicker insets, a gold wicker chair at the desk and a mock sea chest as my bedside table.
The three feet of counter space that served as my kitchen needed some bar stools and, you guessed it, cherry red leather seemed the perfect choice! We then spent weeks in small shops throughout New York City purchasing the perfect accessories.
The planning and shopping with my designer were interesting and enjoyable and a beautiful apartment home was realized. My designer’s knowledge of the city and her emotional support during this process were invaluable. I learned from her that large items like sofas, chairs and expensive bed covers should be neutral in palette. Your color comes from painted walls, pillows and other smaller accessories that can be more easily and inexpensively replaced to create a completely new look when you’re ready for a change.
I will never have the same emotional attachment to these new belongs that I had to my old. My New York apartment was put together in matter of weeks out of necessity. The items I had lost were gathered over the course of thirty years of living. They had memories attached to them that evoked different people, different parts of the world, and valued life experiences. Still they were only things and things can be replaced. Along with everything else I lost in the fire I also seem to have lost my emotional attachment to things. There will never be another red sofa in my life…literally or figuratively.