As I prepare to leave this drenching summer in West Tisbury for autumn in scorching northern California, I am haunted by last September, when we had to evacuate because of the wildfires.

New Englanders are for the first time packing “go bags” to have at the ready in case of hurricane or flood. In the wildfire and earthquake-prone West, people store these small bags, curated with survival essentials, permanently in the trunks of their cars.

Last year, as wildfires and the coronavirus raged up and down California, the aptly named Diablo winds redirected flames our way. We had an hour to decide what else we should take, to consider what mattered most.

We live south of San Francisco, just west of Stanford and 20 miles short of the Pacific Ocean. The woods in our town are etched with trails that weave through cypresses and manzanitas and spill into grassy meadows of larkspur and purple lupine. The snowy fog, in the cool misty mornings, pulls back toward the ocean as if God is making her bed.

The fog had been black for about a week from the wildfires, and one morning the sun never rose. We waited for it all day, stuck in an anxious twilight.

None of our neighbors had seemed too worried. “Just another smoke season,” they tried to assure me. “Doubtful the flames will reach us. Even if they do, everything’s replaceable.”


I am not a Californian. I am a New Englander married to a Californian and, despite my efforts to let go of stuff, my family’s possessions seem to weigh more. When we were given an hour to pack, I froze. What should we take? How could I pack my life and my family’s history into a few suitcases?

My grandfather, who named me, was a famous golfer in Massachusetts in the 1920s and 1930s. He entrusted all of his best trophies to his girlfriend before he died, when I was a little girl, instructing her to present them to me when I got married. We use his engraved sterling-silver bowls and cake plates and feel close to him, as if he is sitting at our table.

I couldn’t be responsible for his trophies melting in a wildfire. They are not replaceable.

I grew up knowing my ancestors by taking care of their belongings. My mother, a careful conservator, would scold me for leaning back in the chair of a long-gone relative whom I worried might appear at the door any minute.

In our living room, two bibles boasting family trees dating to the 17th century served as bookends for my great-grandfather’s leather-bound sailing logs. I couldn’t fit the chair but made room in my suitcase for the bibles and logs.

When I was 10, my grandfather’s sister told me about a scoundrel of an uncle and his heroic wife and said I should write a book about them. She later gave me old sepia photographs and secret 19th-century letters, and for the past few years I’ve been a sleuth, stitching together their story. By the time I’d crammed my binders and folders into another suitcase, I could barely zip it.

Researching that story I’ve spent many afternoons reading letters written by the scoundrel’s mother, my great-great-grandmother, while sipping tea from her blue teapot. I feel her sitting next to me, looking over my shoulder. I wrapped the teapot in my mother’s small linen tablecloth and put it in my purse.

The smoke was billowing down our street. I had one suitcase left and took my favorite winter coat, which I wrapped around our children’s baby books and nestled among their pictures.

But there was one bowl I couldn’t find. The loveliest of my grandfather’s silver, it wasn’t a trophy but a wedding present he had treasured after my grandmother left him — and their two-year-old son, my dad — and bought a one-way ticket from Boston to Las Vegas.

I hope my three children will never have to rely on old silver and ancient letters to give them a sense of family; they should have each other. Still, I couldn’t allow that perfect bowl to disappear because it is not mine to lose. I’m only safeguarding these things, shepherding them—if not for my children then for Lucy, our baby granddaughter. She might want to hold onto them someday.

I knew we had to go; smoke was seeping beneath the front door. My husband had our daughters, the dog and the photo albums. Our son, waiting for me in the driveway, said, “Why don’t you go look one last time.”

The perfect bowl was in the middle of the kitchen table, full of apples from the tree in our backyard. None of us had seen it, maybe because it was so familiar.

Those fickle Diablo winds changed again, this time in our favor, and we were eventually able to return home. But as we drove away that spooky day, I took my son’s hand. At that moment, we had no idea what was going to happen. The one thing we did know was that we were all together . . . and that was all that mattered.

Holly Hodder Eger lives in Portola Valley, Calif. and West Tisbury. She is the author of Split Rock: A Martha’s Vineyard Novel.