The thing you need to know about California brushfires is how fast they can move and how high they can reach.
Whenever we smell smoke here in the southwest corner of the country, we're on high alert.
So my husband, Dick, and I were vigilant on that warm October Tuesday back in 2007 when the wind suddenly picked up. We kept smelling smoke and looking outside and then -- wham! -- there it was, billowing smoke scaling our mountaintop.
Time to pack the cars.
We unplugged the computer and pulled paintings off the wall. We gathered my jewelry and filled suitcases with clothes.
We didn't take as much as we would have liked -- we planned to come back for more -- but the electricity was out and the threat of suffocation loomed so we drove away from the brick, Mission-style home where we'd raised our three kids.
Once we unloaded our stuff at my daughter's house and rested a bit we decided to return for another batch of belongings. By then our neighborhood in Poway had been blocked off and the sky was dark. A law enforcement officer wearing a gas mask stopped us. "High Valley is on fire," he said. "We won't let you in."
It was Friday when the mayor called. We were hanging out at the pizza house, the only place still open in town, when he gave us the news: Our house had burned.
The sight was horrifying. The house had burned to the ground. A shell of the southern wall remained, but beyond that, everything had been reduced to piles of ashes and clumps of bricks. Our refrigerator stood six inches tall, a mangled hunk of black. The rest was unrecognizable. I couldn't tell whether I was in the living room or a bedroom. The fire had been relentless.
Our land was destroyed, 40 acres of oaks, palms and eucalyptus stripped and singed. It was almost like we were on the moon -- flat, ash, black. Eerie and alien.
Tallying Our Losses
I was overcome by all we had lost. The love letters Dick and I had written at 19 and 17, when we first imagined a future together.
The sword and cap he wore when he graduated from the Naval Academy. The white silk dress from the captain's ball, our first attempt with a new Singer sewing machine.
Tokens from every milestone of family life that followed: baby books with locks of hair, grade-school report cards, Cabbage Patch dolls, homemade Mother's Day cards, First Communion dresses, college diplomas, wedding pictures.
Christmas ornaments and the ornate Nativity set I had displayed each December. The china doll from my mother's childhood, the envy of all my sisters. The ivory tablecloth my grandma crocheted. Out-of-print copies of the management books Dick had written, published in Chinese and Korean and Vietnamese.
In the midst of this sucker punch came mind-numbing insurance forms. We were asked to list every belonging we had lost. Half way through, I could not continue. I felt sick to my stomach.
Even the formal proof of our identity was gone; we had to apply for new birth certificates and social security cards.
But there was one thing the fire spared: our Marian shrine.
Down in the canyon, we'd placed a two-foot statue of the Blessed Mother inside a stone grotto. The year before my brother James, who is a priest, had come to bless it, sprinkling holy water on the grotto and the oak beside it. Everywhere that holy water had landed was untouched. Not even a smudge of smoke.
I looked at Mary's serene face and upturned palms, and peace filled my lungs. It was as though she was saying, "Here I am, and everything is going to be OK."
She was right.
The blessings began pouring in, a hundred little kindnesses. Dick and I had never realized the depth of the human heart until the fire stripped us bare.
There are absolutes in life -- eternal truths, divine gifts -- that no flames can sear. In the fire's wake, these lifted into sharp relief. We held fast to the saints and the sacraments. My love for Mary deepened. She is my queen!
'Never Left Unaided'
Catholics dedicate the month of May to Mary, and every year at this time I re-consecrate myself to her, as St. Louis de Montfort taught. It is a Mother's Day gift to myself.
The rosary is a perfect prayer, and its mysteries form a cradle of comfort. What an enduring gift from Blessed John Paul II one decade ago: the Mysteries of Light that completed the story.
Mary has never failed me. When my rebellious middle child headed off to college, I knew whom to call on. "OK, Mary, she's out of my hands; I am turning her over to you now!" And sure enough, my daughter found herself at college.
"Never was it known," goes the Memorare prayer to Mary, "that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help or sought thine intercession was ever left unaided."
If you truly turn something over to the Blessed Mother, she will always take care of it. That's why Dick and I are entrusting her with the most important endeavor of our careers: the Catholic Renewal Campaign. We are calling on Catholics across the country -- young and old, active and lapsed -- to renew our troubled culture with the healing truths of our faith. It's time to stand together and bring our most deeply held values back to the forefront, to create a culture where life wins and hope reigns. Where you can take your kids to the movie theater and find features that won't require a stop at the confessional on the way home.
Every fire refines, and the one that claimed our house was no exception. We are stronger and wiser now, more grateful, less materialistic. I no longer go on shopping sprees. There's more space in my closet and in my heart.
I still miss the fire's loot. Just the other day, when company arrived, I went to retrieve my serving pieces and -- oh my gosh, that tray is gone! It has never been the same.
But I would feel ungrateful to God if I complained, so I focus on the many ways He has guarded and sustained us.
In a way I feel lighter without my silk dress and leather pumps. But I also feel more grounded, tethered to the things that matter most.
Martha Lyles is a longtime religious educator and co-founder of the Catholic Renewal Campaign. Learn more at CatholicRenewal.org.