2017 Winner

Nell Franchek

Newburyport, MA

I have moved 8 times in 18 years. So, when my Mom and her boyfriend Paul decided it was time to move in together and become a family, we found the most amazing townhouse to rent on Plum Island.  My Mom and I had been in a really cute 2 bedroom apartment in town, but it was tiny and had no yard. We needed a bigger place.

We moved to the Plum Island townhouse in December 2015. It had 3 floors, and the top floor was where we spent most of our time. It was one big floor with a kitchen, dining room table and living room all together. We were surrounded on three sides by windows and an outside deck. From virtually every side we could see the ocean. Even though my Mom and I had lived together alone for almost 10 years, adjusting to living with Paul was easy. Paul had managed the local bookstore for 23 years. He is really kind and a popular guy in the community. He found one spot on the north-facing deck to read when it became warmer. We called it his perch. My Mom had space enough to lay out her paints, easel and canvases. She began painting every day and never had to box up her supplies and get them off the kitchen table like she used to do in our old apartment.

Come the summer I was very tan and my hair lightened by sun and sea. My friends loved that I lived on Plum Island 6 houses from the beach.

This was a happy home. Life at the beach was good.

Sunday August 14, 2016 was just another beautiful, sunny, carefree summer day. I was at a going-off-to-college party for one of my friends in town. Then I got the call, the frantic one from my Mom. She and Paul were okay, she said, but our home was on fire and she wanted me to hear it from her, and not from anyone else. She told me it started in the adjoining townhouse but everyone had gotten out in time. My Mom told me I could stay in town with my friends because it might be upsetting to see our house going up in flames, but I wanted to be there with my Mom and Paul. I had my friends drive me home and what I saw was chaos and traffic backed up for a mile. Firetrucks from 10 different communities showed up to fight the blaze. My cat Willy was inside my Mom’s car and NOT happy about it. Hundreds of summer vacationers stood on our street in front of our home.  Neighbors were making videos later posting them on YouTube. The Boston news channels and dozens of news outlets covered the story.

Our happy home was gone. Just like that. Without warning. Not fair.

We never lived in our Plum Island townhouse again. The fire completely destroyed the other townhouse both inside and out, and while the outside of our townhouse looked relatively untouched, the inside of our townhouse and 90% of our belongings were gone. The firemen had to enter our townhouse and knock down the shared walls on the top and middle floor in order to get to the fire’s origin on the other side. That left piles of debris, soot and water on and in everything. We returned to the house a few days later to clean out the debris. Yes, to add insult to injury the owner of the townhouse insisted we clean out the charred furniture, waterlogged mattresses, appliances and boxes of personal belongings within days.

But here is when it became amazing, and the sadness and shock started to shift. Dozens of our friends started showing up at the house to take baskets of waterlogged clothes and sheets and blankets. The Red Cross came and provided vouchers so we could get personal products at CVS like shampoo and deodorant and a hairdryer. My Mom’s friend at work started a go fund me page for my family so we could replace our furniture and belongings. Friends opened up their homes instantly. Food arrived. Family came from out of state. Those with pick-up trucks started hauling load after load of destroyed belongings to the local dump. Local realtors pulled together listings knowing we would need a permanent rental as soon as possible and we started to look for a new home. I’m not kidding. It was crazy amazing.

NINE DAYS after the fire, we were 100% moved into our new apartment. 100% moved in. Furniture delivered, rooms set up and beds made. The clothing we were able to salvage because of the fast action on the part of my Mom’s friends who washed everything right away was folded and in the bureau drawers. Plants were delivered. Our refrigerator was stocked. Our bellies were full and our hearts so full of gratitude and connection, words cannot express.

And when we found a new place to rent back in town, the help did not stop there. While my uncle and grandfather were up in my new room assembling IKEA furniture so I could sleep in my new room on that very first night, my Mom’s best friends were setting up the new kitchen with everything from a new microwave, to new dishtowels, sponges and cleaning products. The girls I dance with and my classmates at school brought me clothes and school supplies. A woman who worked at a shoe store brought me new Birkenstocks identical to the ones burned in the fire.

NINE DAYS after the fire, we were 100% moved into our new apartment. 100% moved in. Furniture delivered, rooms set up and beds made. The clothing we were able to salvage because of the fast action on the part of my Mom’s friends who washed everything right away was folded and in the bureau drawers. Plants were delivered. Our refrigerator was stocked. Our bellies were full and our hearts so full of gratitude and connection, words cannot express.

My home was never the Plum Island townhouse. It sounds cliché I know, but true. I have a tribe, a safety net, a support group, an extended clan. This was a community move. My community.

I received a card in the week following the fire that destroyed our Plum Island townhouse. On the front it said “Happiness doesn’t have just one address.”

Truth.

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