What Remains This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

When my youth group found out we’d be helping a woman clean up after her house fire, I never imagined this. This wasn’t just a little fire damage; the only things remaining were two brick chimneys and the foundation.

When we pulled up and stepped out of our vehicles, our noses filled with the stench of rotting food from the freezer and other smells we couldn’t decipher. Everything in sight was burned or damaged in some way. The mortar between the bricks had gotten so hot that it looked like it was oozing from the walls. A pile of coins had melted together, and even the siding was bent, broken, and burned and lay in the grass. It looked as though the fire had happened a few weeks before. Burnt trees and dead grass surrounded the foundation.

Waverly, the homeowner, came over with her gray hair up in a knot, a smile on her face, and her floor-length skirt gliding over the grass.

“Believe it or not, the thing that was meant to keep my house cool caused it to burn down last August,” she explained.

Last August!? It was July now. The fire had been almost a year ago, yet it looked and smelled as though it had just happened. This made our job seem even more important.

It turned out that her air conditioner had started the fire. Thankfully no one was home when it began, but the loss was still devastating. Waverly took us on a “tour” of her house. We walked around and she pointed out what used to be where and what memories each room held.

Dividing into groups, we tackled what had been the garage but now was just cement and a few burnt remains. Her son, who lived next door, raced derby cars, so Waverly’s garage had been full of random car parts and was now filled with melted, misshapen ones. My first job was to load siding and other pieces of aluminum onto a trailer so they could be sold for salvage. The crash of metal hitting metal rang out every time a piece was thrown onto the trailer.

There was also a pile of clothing, wood, and other flammable items. Once the pile was large, it would be set on fire. At one point, Waverly asked her daughter, “Can I start the fire?” Her daughter replied: “Be careful – you don’t want to burn the house down.”

I found it amazing that after all that they had experienced, they could still joke. Waverly said, “I used to mope around and cry all the time, especially when I looked at what had been my home for 45 years. Then we went to New Orleans where I found lots of people who were much worse off than me, and I realized that my loss was nothing compared to theirs. My house was lost, but whole cities were wiped out because of Hurricane Katrina. People had to relocate to other states. You couldn’t even go into a house without a mask, rubber boots, and a special suit because of the mold.” Now we understood what she had realized so many months before: Although her house was a huge loss, there were still many things to be grateful for.

With the trailer full and the pile of aluminum gone, I headed to the garage to help. Singed clothes remained folded in plastic bags, and pieces of china and glass were everywhere. Going through everything made me think, What if this was mine? I wondered what memories these items held and I realized my own family’s possessions could be gone just as fast.

I decided to see if I could help in the basement, but when I got there, I quickly changed my mind. Waverly had stored a lot of food in Mason jars. I threw broken china and glass into a box until I couldn’t stand the overpowering odor of rotting food anymore.

I headed back to the garage where I found my friend sorting through clothes and broken china. Soon we realized that not all the china was in pieces. As we unwrapped some, we found two pairs of porcelain praying hands. It was incredible that in this huge pile of ash and shattered china, there were hands praying, whole and flawless. How likely was it that something so fragile would survive?

Our time at Waverly’s was almost over. As we left, she handed us each a couple coins, bent and melted together. She also showed us photos of her house. A few of the girls admired the way Waverly had fixed her hair. “Oh, I just threw it up this morning; it looks terrible,” she replied modestly.

Waverly explained that her hair actually reached her waist, but because she now lives in a trailer, she has to wash it every morning in buckets. Hair that was a couple feet long couldn’t be easy to wash that way!

The next day, we were unloading skids of food to take to a food pantry. As we worked, Waverly appeared. She looked sad and a bit ashamed that we saw her here.

“Waverly, what’s wrong?” we asked.

“Oh, it’s just a boo-hooing day,” she answered.

After we were done, we decided to pay Waverly another visit. Remembering how she washed her hair, we stopped at the hardware store and bought a large water jug with a cup holder and cups. Our next stop was a nursery where we got a hanging flower basket to help spruce up her lawn. When we pulled up, Waverly had an astonished look on her face.

“What are you doing here?” she asked. “I didn’t think you would be coming back.”

Little did she know we weren’t back to work, but to bring her gifts. When we gave them to her, she again started crying but assured us that it was now a good boo-hooing day. She hugged us and said, “I didn’t know there were people like you in the world,” which really surprised me. When you are working with someone like Waverly, how can you not feel close to them? We had to say good-bye again, but not completely. Before we left, we gave her our addresses, and she gave us hers.

My mission trip taught me how much more there is to life than just what we want. Our wanting a few CDs is nothing compared to what others need. Waverly lives in a trailer without a shower. Next door there is a bath and shower that Waverly is free to use, but she refuses, washing her hair in a bucket instead.

Waverly is a great reminder that we have become attached to so many things that are just possessions and mean nothing compared to family and friends. After this experience, my house seemed like a mansion. I felt rich for having things that I once viewed as necessities, but really aren’t. Now every time I feel like complaining about what I don’t have, I remember Waverly. I hope I will never forget her boo-hooing day that turned good and how those couple of days changed my life.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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