That’s me, far left, clearly still coming to terms with the choice of white tights.
Just before my fifth birthday, my childhood home was burned to the ground.
I don’t remember much, except the half-baked memory of a scrawled note pinned to our Merimbula holiday caravan door, which apparently said to call ‘home’, and then the hurried pack-up and sweat of the poo-brown vinyl seats as we five kids sat in Mum and Dad’s worried silence and hurtled back down the coastal highway to Melbourne.
Memories have a way of making themselves hold after the fact.
I think I remember pulling up in the old lime green Ford Torino on our street, the sharp and dirty smell of freshly finished burning, the dark bones of the house that held our life collapsed, the neighbours coming out and standing back, the muffled weeping of my parents, the unquiet still.
I think we all stayed in the car as they stood sort of holding each other up, trying to take in what was not left.
I hope we behaved.
There are no photos. There is nothing. Then or now.
Just a photo in my mind of a kind of house carcass, of blackened beams and swollen things, of strange flatness and the odd startling, untouched toy.
A chair. A glass. A semblance of something. Familiar. And not.
We drove across town in the darkness and stayed at my grandparents in Essendon that night (and for many weeks afterwards).
And I had my fifth birthday with a homemade orange cake and long-forgotten present around a too-small table.
I’m told that that our old neighbours got together many times to pick through the grey ash for Mum’s jewellery and our kindergarten art and Dad’s burnished golf trophies and all the silly, ordinary things that must have been suddenly, achingly, wanted once they were gone.
I’m told that on the Monday after the fire, my father put on a borrowed suit and a brave face and kissed us all goodbye and returned to work, dispensing remedies and words and solutions to others, when his own deep salve could not be found. (At least as a self-employed pharmacist, he had a job and livelihood to resume).
What I do know is the community I grew up in enveloped us.
There were clothes drops and phone calls and play dates and casseroles and endless cups of tea and cold cordial in the weeks and months that followed.
People loaned us money. School clothes. Books.
We eventually found a rental.
Regrouped. Recalibrated. Rebuilt.
But I think it took a very long time for ‘normal’ to resume.
My Mum says in the raw days after the fire she would pack us five kids in the car and drive the long, uncertain way across town to take us to kinder and school and all the things that made our lives continue their ordinary cadence.
And in between pickups and awkward small talk and hurried roadside breastfeeds, she would often find a quiet place to park somewhere and howl.
Just let it all out. The loss. The loneliness. The taking. The gone-ness. The uncertainty. The still hungry, screeching baby in the back.
The random bloody, fucking unfairness of it all.
I think it took a long while til she felt ‘housed’ again.
She and Dad. Both.
And maybe just when they did, turns out life had a fair few other curved balls, ready or not, to throw my parent’s way. As it does. (Alas, another long-slung story for another long-sun day).
But my Mum still says – hand on heart – that the house fire was the most traumatic, horrific event of her life.
I think she still carries the scars, is still a bit bereft, displaced, holds tight, lets go, keeps things – trinkets, papers, ribbon – just in case – you just never know, you know – because I think her safety and security and memories and the sanctity of her home and family blew up in a few fiery, awful, blazing minutes in the absolute prime and golden promise of her life.
When I think of it, and of them, and us all, and look at what’s playing out now across Australia in the wake of this horrific bushfire crisis when so many have lost so much, I know we were actually the lucky ones.
It wasn’t our lives, our livelihood, our animals, our stock, our lineage, our goods to sell, that went up that day.
As my Dad said then and after:
“It was just stuff. We’ve still got each other.”
(He was never one for things).
But I do know the fire scorched us all in some way.
Mainly Mum and Dad.
Because we all, I think, torched our certainty of circumstance for something far less stable on that dangerous, ordinary, forever etched day.
When I walked outside in Melbourne this week, and saw the too-red sun, and my nose filled with the sickening, remembered smell of too much smoke, my old memory threw up that day back in 1977.
The day my family crossed the threshold of ourselves to face the new day with nothing but the clothes on our backs and the dawning realisation that in the wake of our fresh loss, a new and very different normal was rising up from nothing.
Unhoused, strangely displaced, we eventually rebuilt on the same piece of land, the scrubbed and salvaged bricks from the old house forming the new walls of our brand new family home.
Looking back, it makes me think we are all ordinary Phoenix’s of sorts.
Living through the cycles of destruction.
Flying in the face of circumstance and fates and fires we know we cannot fight.
It means that we – and those who have in recent days watched their lives and livelihoods turn to sudden ash – need to face the present with acceptance of the certain uncertainty that will be part of Australia’s shared psyche in the years to come.
Already besieged by one of the worst wildfire seasons in Australian history, our country and communities are braced today for conditions to grow even more dire.
We have lost terrible numbers (at the latest estimate half a billion) of our native fauna, farmed animals and beloved pets. And loss of human lives and homes is mounting daily.
Our country is deeply, undeniably, affected by climate change, resulting in widespread drought and unprecedented, utterly catastrophic bush fires through large swaths of our country.
The Great Barrier Reef and our world-heritage kelp forests, which extend across the bottom of Australia, continue to die off because of ocean warming and continuing acidification.
And we still have a long, hot, relentless Summer to endure.
Australia was recently ranked last out of 57 countries on climate change policy by the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index (just behind the United States), which singled out our Prime Minister Scott Morrison as a “regressive force.”
And what is certain is that there will be more fires. More loss. More lives.
For different reasons, and in different times, for more families like mine.
Let us hope we Australians can collectively all rise to face the challenge of a new dawn under red skies, and know that whatever happens, if we’ve got each other, we will be ok.