Monica Bielanko
That's What She Said
Just A Junk Drawer Dream
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From The Ashes

A sad reminder of better days, miles of red ribbon are wrapped painstakingly around white porch columns. Once festive, it now appears as if those who live in the dignified country house are too lazy to take down their holiday decor. But no one lives there. Anymore. So, like an unopened Christmas present, the house waits. Blue tarps cover the second floor where fire once crackled and cackled during battle with walls of water yet it's the massive pile of charred belongings blocking the driveway like a blood clot in an artery that burns the most.

I drove by our old house the other day and immediately wondered why I did. I was alone, wanted to pay homage to the place, I guess. But I shouldn't have done it.

What a strange feeling to see once cherished possessions scattered carelessly across the driveway of an abandoned home. So many things that mean so much, lovingly packed away for safekeeping over the years and now it all sits in a heap of ruin. Photographs, love letters, mementos from so many relationships, milestones, important events... It is surreal to me that these things I had collected since I was a child, these things that feel as much a part of me as the memories in my head, now litter a driveway. A pile of garbage waiting to be hauled away.

A couple days after the fire.

After the fire we used our hands and later a rake to sift through the charred remains, searching for anything that could be salvaged. A letter here, a photo there. It was both physically and emotionally difficult to sift through the blackened remains of our lives. But, like panning for gold, each new find was invigorating. I spent hours rummaging through that pile. My clothes and hands turned black, I cut myself on shattered picture frames and splintered wood, but still, I searched, hoping against hope that I might find our journals.

Yeah. I know. Paper? Surviving a fire? I had about as much of a shot at finding those journals as I have a hope of getting Brad Pitt to notice me if I show up and spend a day lurking around one of the 25 homes he owns.

I have kept a journal for as long as I can remember. There are entries from a 7-year-old Monica writing about playing with her best friend who lives next door, about the profound experience of reading The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time. Entries from a 13-year-old Monica who kissed a boy for the very first time. A 16-year-old Monica excited about picking up her drivers license. A 17-year-old Monica writing about her pregnancy and subsequent abortion. A 20-year-old Monica detailing her relationship with a married man she can't seem to escape, a 27-year-old Monica meeting a guy in a band and getting married.

All of those girls would be strangers to me now at 35. Difficult to understand their motivations for doing the crazy stuff they did. Except they weren't strangers because I could always go back and read the how and the why. When my kids ask what in the world I was thinking when I tell them the story of meeting their dad I would know exactly what I was thinking. Because I chronicled it all every step of the way. Even though I lived it I have forgotten so much of it. Not the major events, but all the stuff in between, which, in retrospect, is the important stuff.

Memory does that. It turns entire years of life into faded photographs stored in our brains. We remember snapshots of faces and places and then with the passage of time even those eventually recede into the darkest corners of our minds. But I had written it all. A Monica Was Here manifesto to the world... Or anyone willing to read. Most likely my children and maybe their children...

I can't even begin to articulate what it's like to lose something so priceless, the words of yourself, your entire life, essentially, from the age of 7 to 35. It's like losing a part of yourself. Because as much as we like to say that memories stay within us forever they don't. Time marches on and we forget the details. Forget about that one junior high crush, what it felt like to touch lips with a boy for the very first time, to fall in love, to have sex.

I thought I lost it all. And I did lose a lot. So many priceless mementos. But a lot was found too. Including all my journals and a couple notebooks Serge kept as a way to write letters to me while he was touring with his band just after we got married. Charred, yes. But still legible. What kind of miracle is that? From the ashes of burn and black and stench and destruction...all five journals.

Fire is so random. The way it burns reminds me of those towns you see after a tornado roars through. This house totally gone. That one left untouched. And so it was with fire. This book totally burned, that picture gone, but these journals, although a little worse for the wear, pulled from the ashes.

It's how I feel. A little burned, fragile, but still here.

Reader Comments (20)

Oh my God... just a little singed around the edges (the journals and you). So glad you still have them in your life!

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

How amazingly lucky, I'm so happy for you that these were able to be salvaged. I have also kept a journal for most of my life (since age 11/12) and feel the same way... if mine were lost or destroyed somehow I would be devastated.

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterErin

Please tell me the thought of digitizing them has already crossed your mind...

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAl

I cannot even tell you the relief I felt when you revealed that the journals had been saved. What a gift from the universe and from yourself. After the relief, the next thought I had is that you should, if you're able, have a book conservator look at them to make sure the effects from the fire don't compromise the long-term integrity of the journals. If that's the case, there might be a way of treating them so that they don't become too brittle or start to fall apart. My thoughts are with you and your family as you try to recover from this scary and traumatizing event.

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLauren E. E.

wow - what a find through the ruble. i lost everything that i had saved as well but in a different way - it was in the car after our move, my sister snuck out with the car, the car got stolen and all my things were thrown out somewhere...yearbooks, notes, journals. i was keeping it in the car for safe keeping for three days. fire is so devastating and i'm so sorry for your family. but i am happy you found your journals......

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjen

That is a miracle. I am so happy for you! Just amazing.

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKristin

Oh, Monica, I am SO THRILLED YOU FOUND THEM!!!! I have kept journals for years for all the reasons you just detailed. To lose them would devastate me, absolutely. So, so, so, so glad for your blessing.

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCaitlin

I'm so glad you found them... and that you and your family are okay (a very belated comment, I think).

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNoelle

i'm so happy you found these! it must have been such a relief.
also, as a graphic designer, i must congratulate you on your gorgeous handwriting!

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteranother monica

when i first read about the fire, all i could think about were your journals. you hadn't really mentioned them in detail, but it was where my mind went. particularly the journal between you and serge in your first part of life together when he was touring and you were loving deeper. i have wondered and wished and hoped. i am SO glad for you. so so glad.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermr

I got goosebumps from this. I couldn't imagine losing my journals with all those memories and I'm so happy you still have them! I remember reading your first blog about these being in the fire and that is when my heart sank the most for you. I know it's tough still but just having something wonderful like that come out of the ashes has got to feel great. :)

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTina

OMG, so happy for you!!

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkds

Al, I agree digitilising them is such a good idea.

My Granma, moved a lot as a young married woman and in the process lost all her diary's she was sadened by this for the rest of her life, knowing how she felt. (especially, when she came to write the first of her three autobiographys; and needed them for reference) I am so very pleased for you :)

Monica can I ask, who is responsible for removing the 'pile of garbage' - I am sure it is your landlord, but, if it was me ... I don't think I would want just anybody going through my stuff. (or maybe I am just a weird Brit)

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSaffron G

I'm so glad you found them! Plus, they look pretty freaking awesome now.
You must be going through some crazy emotions, with having to let go of so much. Hang in there.

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSharon @ discovering

oh, that is wonderful! when I was going through a Goth phase in high school, I burned all of my journals on purpose. I really wish I hadn't done that!

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteramy

So happy that you got them back......another chapter to add

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKacy

Wow, I actually felt terrible for most of the post I am so excited you were able to salvage the journals. I have thought about creating a journal but have never followed through. Who got 7 year old Monica started? What was the longest break you took?

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterE @ Pregnancy Pool

i similarly lost a thousand pages of journals and other writing almost 15 years ago now. i know that i've been insanely lucky to be able to say that that still ranks as the greatest loss in my life, but it just resonates so completely when you say that you wouldn't even know that girl now... losing a journal really is like losing a best friend. i'm so happy for you (and envious) that those, of all the things lost, were found. wish they had a "congratulations on the occasion of your resurrection" card...

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteramy

Oh my Gosh Monica! I know what those meant to you!!! Bawling my guts out here! So happy for your find and how it must be helping your mind.. ( Mama made a little rhyme) hugs to my girl and missing my kids so much!

February 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermama

I love your writing so much. You are just amazing. I look forward to clicking here first thing in the morning! Thank you, thank you, thank you.

February 24, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfranny

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