Burning Down the House

"Mobo" oil painting of my tin horse.

“Mobo” oil painting of my English antique tin horse. The painting was burnt but I still have the actual horse. 1989

I can’t show you a new drawing this week as I am still working on it.  So I will tell you a  story instead, of when our house burned down in Sydney in 1992.  Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I will begin…

Pre-story note: The four illustrations in this post show my favourite of 15 burnt paintings.  I am lucky to still have photos of them.  The images can live on my blog as from today, if nowhere else.

"Mary Podstolski" oil painting of Mum.

“Mary Podstolski” oil painting of Mum, which I painted for Dad after Mum died in 1987.

The fire happened on Friday afternoon around 5 p.m on 15th May 1992.  It started while everybody was out.  I had gone down the road with Alicia (middle daughter) who was then four.  We had gone to collect Emily who had been playing with her friends at their house.  Emily (eldest daughter) was seven.  Trish and I sat inside having coffee while my children and hers played together in their back garden.   Trish and I didn’t notice the sounds of a helicopter overhead or sirens.   Perhaps the children called us to go outside to see the action but I don’t remember.  Trish went to the bottom of the garden and in a very serious voice told me that I had better come and have a look.  We could clearly see our house in the distance – with smoke and flames blasting out of the roof.  The helicopter, it turned out, was filming the event for the evening news!  Can you imagine what it is like to recognize that your house is burning in front of your eyes?  Rigid shock.

We got in cars and rushed back up the hill.  The fire brigade was already hard at it and we had to identify who we were to be allowed to turn into the blocked-off street.  All we could do was stand and watch.  It was far too surreal to be emotionally crushing.  Rather, it was like watching from behind a screen.  Somehow I rang Matthew who was still at work.  He will never forget the call because I was extremely calm.  I told him that all of us were safe but the house had burned down…and could he please come home now?

I was busy talking to firemen, neighbours, our children and police.  Everyone was supportive and comforting.

"Emily on the Flying Thing" oil painting of my oldest daughter, Emily, when she was nearly two.

“Emily on the Flying Thing” oil painting of my oldest daughter, Emily, when she was nearly two, at a park in Denmark (Europe). 1986

I wasn’t devastated.  There was nothing to be done and all that mattered – ALL – was that we were unharmed.  Matthew drove home in I-can-hardly-imagine-what state of mind.  Not long afterwards his cousin, Andrew, turned up to babysit the children as we had been going to attend a concert that night (Billy Bragg).  Oddly enough, the week before we had been to see David Byrne in concert.  He had sung ‘Burning Down the House’!  (Needless to say, Andrew’s babysitting wasn’t needed on the 15th May after all.)

"What Does Alicia See?" oil painting of my middle daughter, Alicia when she was two.

“What Does Alicia See?” oil painting of my middle daughter, Alicia, when she was two, looking out to sea at Plimmerton, New Zealand. 1989

Guess what caused the fire?  No doubt about it.  It was a RAT.  A rat had moved into the wall cavity exactly one week before and every night I would hear it running around in the roof.  I didn’t know that rats chewed through wires but now I do!  The firemen confirmed that the fire started in the roof cavity and was ‘consistent with a rat’.  I was jolly glad it was the rat because my first guilt-ridden thought had been “what appliance did I leave on?”  Thank heavens it hadn’t been my fault.

Some very good fortune came out of that fire.  We had only bought the house nine months before and it was our first home; rather old and ramshackle.  We had insurance so we were able to have a brand new home built.  Most of our photos survived because part of the house was left standing and that was the area with my photo albums in.  A lot of my books survived too, even if the outside covers were singed.  I can still open a book and get a whiff of THAT smell.  My oil paint tubes survived as well though they looked rather grimy.  (That was before I had started to use coloured pencils.)

It was never a tragedy because it was only stuff.  Sad about the paintings but most of our losses could be replaced.  Nothing replaces people and we will always feel that the timing (after I took Alicia out) was miraculous.

I heard David Byrne sing “Burning Down the House” again during his outdoor concert at Perth Zoo in 2009.  I still like the song.

A photo of our family room a few days after the fire.

A photo of our family room a few days after the fire in 1992.

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9 thoughts on “Burning Down the House

  1. Elizabeth

    Rats have funny appetites with outrageous outcomes. I love the paintings and their ghost-presences too. Thank you for posting!

  2. Camilla Loveridge

    Ironic really, don’t you think? You lose everything in a fire…and you end up feeling elated. Life is precious, and tragedies bring us to our senses. When i was a teenager i was with my 4 siblings, mother and father in Swaziland…our breaks failed down a very steep hill. Miraculously we all survived unscathed….and clung to each other with so much joy. Before that moment we were all having a pretty ordinary afternoon drive!
    Night night
    Camilla x

  3. hafandegFran

    Thank you for sharing that, Julie. It explains even more than your work the depth of your resilience and spirit. I say this in acknowledgement of the huge amount of time you spend on your wonderful paintings and drawings. In the brief time I’ve been following you, I am often amazed by you.

  4. juliepodstolski Post author

    I forgot to add, the thing we liked best about our first house was the view. We had a huge view which swept down to Parramatta River and right across to the city on the left and the Illawarra hills to the right. After the house had gone – we still had the view.

  5. Robyn Varpins

    Yesterday I was helping a friend try to get rid of all the huge amount of STUFF that accumulates, almost magically, in his house…..it would make sense to burn down our houses every 15 years or so, to clear away the burden of all that STUFF…. and start Afresh

  6. anna warren portfolio

    Julie, I read this a day or so ago, and it made me think. At first I was slightly shocked at your very relaxed response to the fire, then I realised that I think I would feel the same. If my family was safe, nothing else really matters. Every time we go travelling (often for weeks at a time) with just our (very-well equipped!) camper trailer when I return home I realise just how much stuff I don’t need. Something like this would focus the mind on what is really important. In a strange way, as long as you can pick up and carry on, something like this could be liberating!

    1. juliepodstolski Post author

      It wouldn’t be honest to say that we never felt hard done by sometimes, Anna, but mostly we were positive. Rather than a relaxed response, I would say that it was a response of acceptance. It was an act-of-rat, it was done, nothing could be done to change the situation so one simply had to accept it.
      After my post, Matthew and I brought up the subject with our now grown up daughters. They didn’t think of that fire memory with any trauma either. Their main memories were bonus sleepovers at their friends’ house, and that their favourite soft toys were safe (though they had to be washed in the bath and the white of ‘Seal’ was kind of grey ever afterwards).
      It would have been another matter if we hadn’t been up to date with insurance but we were. We got a much nicer house to replace the burnt one. In fact we ended up with the nicest house in the street.

      1. anna warren portfolio

        Yes, ‘relaxed’ was probably the wrong word, maybe ‘calm’ would have been better! It is an absolute credit to you and your husband though that the girls had no sense of trauma as a result, it could have been something that caused them fears, but it sounds like they came through it well. I think with all adversity if you can put as positive a take on it as you can, everyone comes out of it better. That does sound a bit Pollyanna-ish, but I think it is still a good philosophy to work towards.

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