Culture

Things We Lost In A Fire

My grandfather was 103 years old when he died this past spring. Like probably a lot of America’s elderly, he spent the final year of his life essentially on house arrest inside of his apartment within his retirement community. In the time that elapsed between the last two times I’d seen him, he went from a relatively coherent version of the man I’d always known to a sinking shell, like an air mattress you push all the air out of just before you roll it up to put away. Extended social isolation was the one storm he couldn’t weather.

Even just a week before he died his personality seemed relatively intact. I didn’t know if he recognized my wife, who he’d met only once before, but when she lowered her mask he reached out his hand and delivered one of his stock phrases, “Just as beautiful as the day I met you,” — coherent enough to at least pretend that he remembered her.

When she asked, “Morris, how are you feeling?” he answered, “Oh, mildewin'” — his usual response to “how you doin’,” proving that he was a little off his game, but still had the presence of mind to try to play. When I gripped his frail but still substantial and scratchy hand for a handshake, he asked weakly “am I hurtin’ ya, honey?” the same way he had at virtually every handshake for the last 50 years. He even hit us with a few Armenian phrases on the way out. I have friends I haven’t seen in 20 years who still know the correct response to “eench bes es?”

When we returned five or six days later he’d taken a turn for the worse. He wasn’t conscious that second visit, his arms occasionally reaching out involuntarily as his organs failed, like he was trying to hug someone who wasn’t there. It was a disappointing end, as probably all ends of life are, though I couldn’t help but wonder how many more days, weeks, months he might’ve had if a year of near-solitary confinement hadn’t sapped his will to live. If there was one thing that perked up my grandfather it was seeing people. Still, not many people are lucky enough to get 103 years. Everything has a price.

He’d lived long enough to know that I’d finally gotten married, though he couldn’t attend the wedding. He lasted long enough to see my wife pregnant with our first child, but not enough to meet the great-grandson, which would’ve been his fifth.

Morris Samuelian had been born in December 1917, the year before the Spanish Flu killed millions, and, like some kind of human pandemic Halley’s Comet, left the world at the tail end of the COVID crisis.

Samuelian

As far as I could tell, the vast majority of those 103 years were pretty good. I’m not sure any human in recorded history had as many good years as my grandfather. His life spanned two world wars, the salad days of small-town America, and the pinnacle of a prosperous middle class.

Born to Armenian immigrants, he spent almost his entire life in the prototypical mid-size 20th-century city of Fresno — one of those places synonymous with “Anytown, USA,” almost always referred to, when acknowledged by pop culture at all, as part of a list alongside other sleepy salt-of-the-Earth bergs. As in, “the young soldiers were a cross-section of Americana. They came from places like Racine, Toledo, Fresno…”

He worked at his father’s (my great-grandfather’s) shoe repair store beginning at the age of 10, when he used to roller skate from his house to the store, from which he and his two younger brothers made deliveries all over downtown. The two stories he liked to tell the most from this time were about the brothel, over which he and his brothers would fight to make deliveries (until his father found out and banned it from their route), and the time they fixed shoes for future Pulitzer Prize winner William Saroyan. My grandfather always said they never would’ve charged him, but he didn’t even offer to pay.

My grandfather himself was more mechanical than artistic, obsessed with flight and with model airplanes from a young age. He moved south during the war and met my grandmother while he was building the tail sections of B-24s at Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank. She worked there as a courier, a feisty blonde of Norwegian ancestry from Glendale by way of Saskatchewan. They married at the Burbank Methodist Church in 1943.

Samuelian

Essentially the model of middle class rectitude, he worked hard, retired at 65, and then thrived in retirement, which lasted almost 40 years. In his seventies, he scored two holes in one and bowled a perfect game. He bowled until he was almost 100, and, in 2008, on the day when the Fresno Bee sent a reporter to profile his induction into the Central California Bowling Hall Of Fame, he rolled a 233 (I’ve never even sniffed a 200). The passage that hit me the hardest was,

Bowling also provided some stability for Samuelian during difficult times. When his wife, Ione, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he continued to take her with him to the bowling alley for as long as she was able.

“She’d sit on the bench and hold my sweater or jacket,” Samuelian says. “But as the disease progressed, it got harder for her to come.

He loved bridge and backgammon, and towards the end of his life used to drive up to Table Mountain (he drove until he was almost 100) to play penny slots (not much of a gambler, but he loved to socialize). He was the kind of guy who would enter a room and trade a few well-worn jokes with everyone in it, a real let-me-introduce-you-to-the-waitress-here kind of guy. I used to think my grandfather knew everyone in Fresno. Once, when I was sitting in the backseat of his boxy eighties Buick, another car cut him off in traffic. “What a jerk!” I remember him saying (I only ever heard him swear while bowling). “And to think, I used to buy tires from that guy.”

He and my grandmother were married for 63 years before she died in 2006. She stayed in a care facility at the very end, once her symptoms had progressed too far for one old man to manage, but he continued visiting the facility for years afterwards. He knew people there now, so he’d pop by from time to time. He was retired for the entirety of my life, and that was, essentially, my dominant memory of him: going from place to place to socialize with different groups of people, who all seemed to know him by name.

Samuelian

For me, his death feels like more than the death of a person. It’s the end of an era, the death of an entire way of life — all those corny clichés that he always had a knack for making true. My grandfather was essentially the blueprint for How To Make It In America. He did all the things immigrants and children of immigrants were supposed to do, from expanding the family business to marrying a blonde. He lived in the same house, the one my mother and uncle grew up in, for more than 70 years. Even after my parents divorced while I was in college my grandfather remained the definition of stability. Stability built on “values,” sure, but values that were themselves built on the foundation of post-war prosperity, an exceptional lack of industrial competition, and a booming middle class. Is that a useful ideal, or a historical anomaly?

When my great-grandfather, Mugerdich Samuelian, came to central California from Van, then part of the Ottoman Empire, in 1910, he did what he knew. He fixed shoes. He adopted the name “Sam,” supposedly learned perfect English, and opened his own storefront, Sam’s Re-Nu-All, in 1917 (later Sam’s Luggage). You could track the suburban sprawl of Fresno, and by extension of the Middle American city in general, through Sam’s locations — starting in downtown, later opening up a location in the then-new Fulton Mall, closing downtown, going uptown to Blackstone, and eventually shuttering altogether when the Blackstone store closed in 2003.

Even the neighborhood where my grandparents lived feels like a time capsule — a grid of modest, ranch-style homes with low ceilings, with square lawns now beginning to overgrow or with cars parked on them. The original owners have mostly died or moved away, to newer neighborhoods with grander footprints and more open floor plans.

It feels like my grandfather cashed out at just the right time. He never went to college but did well enough to stay retired for more than 40 years and never run out of money. He survived the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and inherited the New Deal. I was born during Reaganomics and inherited the financial crisis.

Bryce Samuelian

My grandfather had two children, a two-car garage, a bowling team, a golf group, a bridge group, and a vacation home. As far as symbols of working-class success go, it’d be hard to beat that cabin by the lake. My great-grandfather built it in 1915, with a big deck and a lakefront view just up the trail from Huntington Lake in the Sierra National Forest. The lake itself was created only a few years before the cabin, filled by adjoining dams and part of the massive hydroelectric project that provides water and power for the naturally arid fields of Central California and the population centers of Southern California. My grandfather and the place he was born grew up in tandem.

Huntington Lake is sort of a poor man’s Lake Tahoe, a great place to ski, sail, and swim, as long as you can tolerate the 60-some degree water, fed entirely by melted snow. I never went in without a full wetsuit, but my grandmother swam around in nothing but a floral one-piece and a blue-bathing cap, sighing leisurely like she was at a hot springs resort. “Norwegian blood,” she’d say, as if she didn’t graduate high school in Glendale.

“Grandpa Sam” loved to fish for rainbow trout off the dock. Grandpa Morris was much more lukewarm on the idea of spending his summer days up in the woods, away from his bowling and his golf. But my grandmother loved it, so my grandfather tolerated it. The family cabin was passed down to my grandfather and his two brothers, and to their children in turn. It was the hub around which the generations rotated.

The cabin lasted, like my grandfather, more than a hundred years before it flamed out. The Creek Fire of 2020 burned for more than three months before it was finally contained in December — the fourth-largest wildfire in California history (five out of the top six were from 2020; the sixth was from 2018).

I’d stayed at the cabin just a week before it was evacuated, my first time back in 20 years, having moved away at 18 and not quite appreciating it enough to make the trip home from San Francisco or LA or New York City or San Diego. Having moved closer to home, and with a wife and a stepson and a couple of dogs, and with travel limited, it suddenly made much more sense as a vacation spot. For a long weekend we fished and threw sticks for the dogs and watched my stepson and his cousin jump off the dock, perusing the old picture books and the kinds of keepsakes and trinketry that tend to accumulate in 100 years of one family owning a rustic Summer cabin. Sitting on a sun-drenched deck overlooking a shimmering lake, my wife asked, “Why didn’t you tell me about this place before?”

We had such a good time that we made plans to return the following weekend. The morning we were set to leave, my mom, who was staying for the week with my stepfather, called to tell me not to come. They’d been evacuated. The roads were closed soon after. We waited with fingers crossed for the next week or two, hoping the fire would miss us like so many had before. Wildfires, generally speaking, are pretty normal in California, when the brush dries in the hot sun and the winds of late summer and fall fan the flames.

Vince Mancini

Once the area had stopped smoldering and the roads were open again I drove up one afternoon to see it. It was a little hard to find the way, since even in the age of the iPhone you mostly had to navigate by landmarks. “When you hit the meadow turn left,” and so forth. Those old landmarks, half-remembered from childhood, were now not only distorted by memory, but actually warped by fire or obliterated completely. The meadow was still there, luckily, so I knew where to turn.

The sign on the driveway identifying it as the Samuelian cabin remained, looking oddly brand new, the paint not even discolored. Everything else was a mess. A few pieces of what used to be the metal roof dangled limply from the stone chimney stack, swaying gently in the breeze. Almost everything else was gone. Even the walls of what used to be the shower had distorted in the heat and folded in on themselves. The stone chimney still stood, but the fire had weakened the grout and even other parts of the stone pathways and retaining walls had crumbled.

It was sad to look at, but also beautiful in a way, the view to the lake now more expansive and unobstructed than ever. The area hadn’t been charred into ugliness. Many of the trees remained and even on some burnt ones the higher branches were still lively and green. The big logs lining the switch back trail my great grandfather had made who knows how many decades before, Grandpa Sam’s trail we always called it, even though he died before I was born, were all powdery ashes. You’d never know it had existed at all if you hadn’t been there.

Vince Mancini

It was sad, of course, but consciously I didn’t know how much it was fair to mourn. Certainly not in the middle of a pandemic, when so many people seemed to have so many bigger problems, real problems — losing their jobs, losing their friends, losing members of their own families, etc.

Cabins can be rebuilt. Memories remain, even when mementos burn. Losing the cabin foreshadowed losing my grandpa and, I worried, perhaps a lot more. Was it fair to mourn? How much of a fuss should you make over losing something you were lucky to have for all those years in the first place? After all the years of hoping the fires would miss, should we be sad that they finally didn’t? Or grateful for all the years that they had?

For a time it was a gorgeous place in the sun. I suppose you had to be there.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.

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