A man and woman standing in a field of mostly dead grass. He is making bunny ears behind her head and she is looking up at him. They are standing in front of a sign for a cemetary near a colorfully decorated area.

When the Fires Came, No One Could Save Us Like Mom Could

A man and woman standing in a field of mostly dead grass. He is making bunny ears behind her head and she is looking up at him. They are standing in front of a sign for a cemetary near a colorfully decorated area.

My mom and stepdad, Dave, at the family cemetery. (Courtesy of Samantha Kennedy)

Commentary, Samantha Kennedy

Every summer, there’s a fire. The last school pictures Mom could afford of us, closer to the beginning of our academic career than the end, collect dust where the heat settles. Our only baby photos hide somewhere, along with a decade’s worth of school awards for three kids. Mom has to make a decision. What will she allow the fire to swallow?

Growing up, the valley by Yosemite she now calls home was a vacation for her. Upkeep of the family cemetery and going to a festival or fair kept her close to her family. These traditions she’s passed down to us are followed by stories she never wants us to forget.

On most nights, she isn’t able to sleep. She’ll throw in a load of laundry and aimlessly wander through the house. She’s thinking of dinner ideas. If I’m not visiting her, I’m over 100 miles away waiting for sunrise to call her. I can’t wait any longer to talk to her.

By the time I’m 16, I have a good idea of what summers with Mom are like.

Nights in the summer are not so laidback. She checks each room, hoping to find us peacefully sleeping, but can hear us tossing before she opens the door. We wake up in drenched beds, the power out. Luckily, Mom cleaned everything when she had a feeling the power would go out.

By afternoon, smoke engulfs the valley. We know evacuation is mandatory. Mom left hours ago to help her employers evacuate. Getting back home means driving into roads that have partially been overtaken by the fire. Still, she drives to us.

My mom has always been this way. When we can figure things out, she still wants to be there for us. Her presence is a relief to everyone.

When we pack clothes and toiletries, she has a bag filled with food, formula, my overdue library book and photo albums. She’s thought of everything except herself. There’s no time for anything else before we have to leave. She has one last goodbye before the fire comes.

 

The flowers we put on the graves at the start of summer still flutter in the wind as we pass them. My mom wants to fix the Giants hat that has fallen off my grandpa’s grave but only has time to tell everyone she loves them.

After seeing the cemetery for what we think will be the last time in 2017, Mom reminds us how important family and forgiveness are. Just 10 years after Grandpa’s death, Mom finally forgives him when she can do nothing else. Arguing with herself there would only get her burned.

She gets us out safely. But immediately after, she has to say goodbye to us because she doesn’t want us living out of a tent or motel indefinitely. She and my stepdad live outside of a middle school in the summer heat just outside of Merced while my siblings and I worry if it will be too windy in San Francisco.

They stay at the shelter until it’s safe to go home. The only favor she asks is for us to give her a call.

My brother and sister get tired of my cooking after a month, wishing it was Mom’s instead. The two get to head home to her after the evacuation order is lifted, and I start waiting for my next summer visit with Mom.

Nobody else would be able to save us the way Mom does. There is never a real threat when she is with me because she will help me find a way through it.

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