Last week I spoke to a Doha mom who lost all her material possessions in a house fire about two years ago.
Tears welled up in her eyes and mine at the thought of losing those few belongings so precious to an expat that they've been packed and re-packed and carted halfway across the world, sometimes dozens of times.
As one might correctly assume, the loss of photos was the worst. Thankful as she might be that no one was harmed in the fire, she couldn't help but be devastated at those lost wedding photos, the first baby picture, the framed image of a long-gone grandparent, the stills of world travel that covered the walls, the videos of her kids' first words, first steps.
She knew she could have lost so much more. She counted herself lucky that she and her family were far from the house when the flames took possession of all their worldly goods. She knew it could have been so much worse, she knew. But that didn't erase the void left behind by those mementos that had been preciously collected over the years.
She was so grateful to family and friends who had joined together to amass a scattered collection of images for her. Armed with her memories and this hodge-podge of photos, she was able to start rebuilding her family's private gallery in an effort to make her new house feel like a home.
But her pervading sense of loss was still palpable when she spoke to me that day. A house fire is devastating to anyone, it is a cruel and merciless reminder of how quickly we can lose what we have earned, of how lucky we are to not have lost more, and of how powerless we are in the big scheme of things.
For an expat, it brings an added dimension: that of being robbed of however slight a physical connection you may have to your past, to your home country, to your loved ones, to reality. I'm not insinuating that it is harder for an expat than for anyone else; I'm simply recognizing that no matter how un-materialistic we may consider ourselves, many of us expats are intrinsically tied to our roots through those few belongings that we felt worthy to take along on our trek across the globe.
Sometimes it's nothing more than images on a computer. It might be an old sweater. Maybe some Christmas decorations, or baby's first shoes. A locket of hair. A wedding band. Your child's first stick-man drawing. Your diary. An old rocking chair.
Those few things that make your house your home, that make it unique, can be gone in the flash of an instant.
When we moved to Doha a few years ago, we brought very few material possessions with us. Pictures, Christmas decorations, favorite teddy bears. A few years ago, we shipped over the few remaining things that had any value to us (a single crate of furniture that was costing more in storage in Canada over the years than the shipment fees).
After speaking to this lady, I had a long thought about what things we have that actually make up our home. The piano? Nope. The bar? Nope*. The l-shaped sofa set? Nope.
The only piece of furniture in our home that I would be devastated to lose would be the hutch handcrafted by my father that now sits in our kitchen. Initially constructed as a change table for Kiddo, we have long since lost the "table" piece, and the cabinet drawers that used to hold onesies now store cutlery. LeCreuset pots and tins of Tim Horton's coffee (now refilled with some Arabic cardamom brew) today sit on the shelves formerly stocked with diapers, zinc ointment, baby powder and receiving blankets. The latter are now only memories, but very vivid, poignant memories made sharper by the simple daily reminder that is that rather crude yet perfect piece of furniture.
I can't look at that basic piece of furniture without thinking of my dad working lovingly on it in his garage, cutting, sanding, staining. I can't help but imagine him working tirelessly throughout the day at something he loved so, at something that would feed his brain before his brain started feeding off him. I can't help but see the strong steady hands that would not stop until the day was done. I picture his best friend dropping by to check on him, make sure he was ok, and admire his handiwork. I picture them having a beer in that garage and talking about the rain coming down in sheets; a welcome relief from the scorching heat of that summer. I feel his pride and his sense of fulfillment at the end of each day, as he went to bed knowing that he was building something beautiful, knowing that he was creating a memory, knowing that he had accomplished what he had set out to do for the day.
Every time I look at that basic piece of furniture, I am whisked back to a time when he still so loved his hobby, to a time before Alzheimer's took it away. I remember that summer when Kiddo was born, and how he drove 16 hours to deliver his handiwork to us himself. I remember when he first held Kiddo, how he said she was the only baby he'd ever seen who was prettier than I was as a baby. I remember how it was love at first sight for the two of them. I remember how she fell solidly asleep in his big strong arms.
I know it's material, but I'm quite certain I'd be devastated by the loss of that hutch. The hutch, our photos, our Christmas decorations, Kiddo's first handwritten card to me. I'd be devastated.
But, like the Doha mom, as long as the flames took nothing more than things, we would dust ourselves off, regroup and rebuild. We would nourish ourselves with our memories and gradually find other odds and ends to make our house our home. Every once in a while, we'd look back longingly, but we'd be ok.
So many things that make a home, but only one that really matters:
P.S. On a lighter note, I've included a few pics of silly and not-so-silly mementos that make our house feel like home.
P.P.S. After inserting all these pics, I realized that we spend way too much time at the bar*!