Humboldt Beacon (http://www.humboldtbeacon.com)

North Bay fire victims search for what’s lost, have gratitude for what was found

Families have deep gratitude for what was found

By Julia Sulek, Bay Area News Group

Monday, November 27, 2017

SANTA ROSA >> Millie Pletkin had been a widow less than a year when October’s epic fire destroyed her Fountaingrove neighborhood.

In the ruins of her home in the Sunset Vista subdivision, she asked her son to search for just one thing: the brass urn filled with the cremated remains of her husband, Alex.

All she had grabbed that terrifying night was the briefcase filled with important papers her husband always kept near the front door in case of emergency. She could barely forgive herself. She had to go back and look.

“That’s it. That’s all I wanted,” said Millie, 79. “I figured he would be mad at me if I left him, you know, didn’t take him with me. So I thought, I better get him. We were together 60 years.”

But really, how could anyone possibly find ashes in the ashes?

From Mendocino to Santa Rosa to Napa, there is profound heartbreak over what was lost in the deadliest wildfires in California history: 42 lives, 8,400 homes and buildings and countless pets, papers and treasures. But now, in the ashy footprints, there is deep gratitude for what was found.

Brigades of trained volunteer “sifters” in hazmat suits and gloves are helping to find grandma’s wedding ring, grandpa’s war medals or a child’s handprint from a school craft project. Now, crews from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are beginning to clear the charred home sites — bulldozing, scooping, dumping — so there’s a sense of urgency to try one last time to find that special thing in the ruins before even the ruins are gone.

“They’re wondering if anything is left. That wondering can keep them up at night,” said Caroline Upton, a volunteer firefighter from Calistoga who also worked as a sifter for the nonprofit Team Rubicon. “Often times, finding things acts as closure so they can move forward with the trauma of what they’ve gone through. They can move beyond it and healing can begin.”

Some fire survivors cling to memories, some to faith. But for many, holding something tangible — a trinket, a relic — can be just enough.

In Calistoga, sifters helped Will and Carol Ashford, both artists, unearth broken bits of colorful ceramics and Venetian beads from the rubble of their hillside home. They had brought the plates and cups and bowls, sometimes just one or two at a time, by backpack from their European travels during their 40 years of marriage. Now, they’ve collected all the jagged shards and fused glass in plastic buckets to make mosaics and decorate a pathway. Instead of detritus, Carol said, “I see some art in the making.”

In Napa, the home that Kiky Lee designed for herself and her husband, Michael Parmenter, is nothing but a crumbling skeleton. But behind it, the couple found intact the wine cave for their VinRoc Winery, storing barrels of the Cabernet Sauvignon.

“We’re reborn,” said Kiky, who also retrieved a “Happy Buddha” statue from the wreckage. “It’s a beautiful day to dream bigger.”

Michelle Hickman found her grandmother’s charred Singer sewing machine, the heads of her doll collection, and the silver goblets from her wedding “that are as strong as our marriage.” But it’s the friendship with Caroline Upton, who “adopted” her young family and invited them over for home-cooked meals and movie nights, that is helping her most. “Without her,” Michelle said choking up, “we wouldn’t have made it.”

And on Atlas Peak Road overlooking the Napa Valley, 30-year-old Sam Valencia — with a history of drug charges and jail time — found dignity. A retired San Francisco lawyer had taken a chance on him, inviting him to be the caretaker in a cottage on his hillside estate. When the fire ripped through, Valencia not only pounded on the retired lawyer’s door to wake him up but, on his way down the hill, he woke up several more neighbors, rescued a couple stuck in a ditch and a barefoot caregiver who feared her charges were dead.

His bravery, caught on videotape, was written up in the Napa Valley Register. At Bistro Don Giovanni where he works as a server, the manager printed in bold letters at the top of the menus, “Thank you to our Napa hero, Sam.” Patrons, including former 49ers president and CEO Carmen Policy, thanked him profusely.

“This hill has taken me in and accepted me, especially after my past,” Valencia, 30, said. “It’s one way to tell my community and the people I have failed in the past that I’ve changed and that person is no longer here. That person is in the past.”

Letting go of the past is what’s been so difficult for so many others, like Millie Pletkin.

She had kept the urn of her late husband Alex’s ashes on a table in the family room at the back of the house, next to his recliner where he would watch the 49ers on TV. Perched beside it was her favorite photo of him wearing a Giants’ cap, covering the bright white hair through which she loved to run her fingers. At age 81, after a bout with pneumonia, Alex died suddenly in his sleep in January. Even though Millie was in the house by herself these past 10 months, she never felt alone.

Every day, she found herself talking to him.

“I would come in and say, ‘I had lunch with so-and-so,’ “ she said. “Or, ‘What do you want to watch tonight? Shall we watch the Warriors or a movie?’ “

At bedtime, she would rub the urn and “kiss him goodnight.”

The Pletkins were “two peas in a pod,” said Steve Pletkin, the youngest of the couple’s four children, who named his own son after his father. “They did everything together.”

The couple met at a Christmas dance in San Francisco when she was a senior in high school. He was three years older, in college studying to become an accountant.

“He had a smile and the biggest blue eyes you ever saw,” Millie said. “We were good together. It was always sunshine and laughing and making each other feel good. We never liked to be away from each other.”

She paused, then said, “I knew I had to find him.”

When residents were allowed back into the neighborhood nearly two weeks after the fire, Millie asked her son, a partner in his father’s accounting practice, to help. Steve had expected to find a half-burned couch here, singed photos there. Instead, almost everything was ash. Not even the porcelain toilet had survived the heat and flames.

“There’s nothing,” he thought. Still, shovel in hand, he trudged through the deep ash into the corner of what had once been the family room. Scoop after scoop, he gently turned over the ash, but found nothing. The remains of a stucco wall, riddled with sharp nails, covered a section of the family room.

If the urn had survived, he figured it was probably trapped under there. He tried to lift the wall, but it was too heavy. Neighbors who knew the couple’s deep bond offered to bring crowbars, hoping that together they could lift it and find the urn. But first, Steve again envisioned the family room layout — the tan recliner, the corner table — and explored another section just a few feet away. Sliding in the shovel, he spotted it: a piece of rounded green metal not much larger than the size of his hand, some cloth and a heaping mound of ash.

“You could tell they were his,” Steve said of his father’s ashes. “It was a different color ash than all the other. Everything around it was grayish and murky. The ash in the urn was white.”

That’s all Millie needed.

“OK,” she told her son. “Let’s go. We’re done.”

For months, Millie had thought about spreading Alex’s ashes at Bodega Bay, but “I couldn’t let go just yet.” Finding them after the fire, she briefly considered whether it was time now. But after expressing her doubt to a friend, she changed her mind.

“He’s the one who makes you happy. He’s the one who makes you whole,” Millie says her friend told her. “There doesn’t have to be closure.”

Millie realized she had found closure anyway — not in letting go of his ashes, but in finding them.

Last week, she walked into the Lafferty & Smith funeral home in Santa Rosa to buy a new urn. “It has to be smaller,” she told the staff.

She chose a marble one in blue, the color of Alex’s eyes. The funeral home gave it to her as a gift.

Millie will put it in the new house she is moving into while rebuilding the old one. The blue urn will sit on a table next to a chair she just bought. The fabric on the cushions is fur-like, and as soft and white as Alex’s hair.

“That’s where I will sit every day,” she said, “and we will have our daily visits right there. I’ll just have him with me.”