Category Archives: Fire

The Case of the Reclaimed Redhead

If you were a fan of the old Perry Mason show, you might remember that the episodes usually had titles like this, with a clever (or not so clever) alliteration that let you know what was about to happen. This story doesn’t have anything to do with Perry Mason, and it’s not really a “case” at all. But this title popped into my head, and I’m sticking with it.

What, or who, is the Reclaimed Redhead? The answer takes me back to when I was a newlywed. I have to start there, in the first place we lived as a married couple, a small one-bedroom apartment in Albany, California. Excited to be in our first little home, but definitely on a budget, we went to some effort to make it feel warm and welcoming to friends and family and our two (soon to be three) cats. We painted the one large living room/study/dining area a pale gold, and I took a small brush to the trim with a deeper shade of butterscotch. We furnished the place with our combined hand-me-down and bargain furniture, turning our cozy place into a home we loved. We had brick-and-board bookcases, rescued kitchen chairs, and the formerly unfinished desk, rocking chair, and dresser I had painted, stained, or varnished. We hung a collection of prints and posters on the walls.

I think I first saw the redhead in the window at Dow and Frosini, the old framing shop that used to be on Oxford Street, just below the UC Berkeley campus. This shop, and its charming Italian proprietor, were favorites of ours. There was something about this print, though. If I recall correctly, I wanted to buy it and get it framed for my birthday. The redhead: She is nude, in repose, completely engrossed in the book she’s reading. She leans on one elbow, her hand at her cheek. Her other arm is bent, and is parallel to the pages of the book. Her pale body glows against the russet background, which becomes redder until it seems to match her hair. The artist has caught her in a moment of  relaxed, but deep, contemplation. She neither notices nor cares if anyone is watching her. She is a reader.

The frame we chose picked up the reddish brown of the print’s background, but was also tinged with gold and a deeper red. We hung it up over the small green love seat we had purchased at Sears after our wedding. This is the only photograph I have in which you can see the print. I am posing with two of our three cats on the occasion of my twenty-fifth birthday. The black one, Capt. Midnite, is on my lap; Kinky Raoul’s gray ears and the top of his head are just visible at the bottom of the picture.



My husband and the cats and I moved several times after we outgrew our apartment: first to San Jose, and then to three houses in Oakland. We moved with one–then two–of our kids (the third hadn’t been born yet).

If you’ve been following this blog for any time at all, you will be familiar with what happened in 1991: a disastrous fire that destroyed our neighborhood. You would also know that I wrote a memoir about the fire that was published last year. As part of the memoir, I wrote about several of the “artifacts”  I had loved and lost in that fire. Naturally, I had to choose among the massive number of “things”  we lost. Many ideas came from  looking through my photo albums, which we managed to toss into the car before we evacuated on that October day. But I hadn’t given a moment’s thought to my reclining redheaded reader.

Until this past Saturday.

A friend and I were browsing in one of the local independent bookstores in my neighborhood. I had placed three copies of my book there, on consignment, and thought while I was there I would check to see if any had sold. I was hopeful, but resigned that I would still see three books on the shelf. I saw only one copy, which was a pleasant surprise. I spoke to the guy behind the counter, and he went on the computer to confirm the sales. He asked if I’d like “a payout.” “Sure,” I said. And while I waited, I looked over at the display of cards arrayed on one of those tall, rotating racks. Down at the very bottom, I saw this:




I gasped, then reached down to take it off the rack. It was her!

I started babbling to the man and woman behind the counter–you know I wrote this book about the fire and the stuff I’d lost, and this picture was in my house and I loved it and had almost forgotten about it and now here she is again and how much is this card because I have to have it?

The woman, also a ginger, by the way, said, “Just take it. It’s worth it for the story.” So I took the card home with me. I cannot even put into words what it means to have found this long-lost treasure and all the memories it brings to mind.

Just the other day, I was listening to a program on NPR and the subject was coincidence. At one point, someone said, “If there is no coincidence, there is no story.” I don’t know about that, but I do know that the case of the Recovered Redhead has a happy ending.


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A Book Review

With thanks to Wendy Martin, editor of Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, and Elizabeth Fishel, writer and mentor, for honoring my book with these very kind words. There Was a Fire Here: A Memoir “Have you ever asked yourself: if my house were on fire, what would I grab?” So begins Risa Nye’s elegant, hauntingContinue Reading

The Fire Next Time?

On this rainy weekend, we accompanied our youngest grandson to the Oakland Museum of California. It’s a great place to take a two year-old–lots of room to run around and look at stuff. I lost track of how many times I’d visited the museum with my own kids: years of school field trips, rainy dayContinue Reading

Button, button . . .

My aunt had the buttons! I’ve written about my Aunt Ruth and her buttons here and in my book. She inspired me to start my own collection when I was a teenager. I kept them in a small box inside my grandparents’ secretary desk. I visited my cousin recently and we talked about his mother’sContinue Reading

Aunt Augusta’s Chair

 An excerpt from my book, in which a special chair follows our family through many transitions. This is from one of the “artifact” chapters that are woven into the story of the fire’s aftermath. There is only one black and white photo in the book, but there are so many more… I first saw thisContinue Reading

A Fly on the Wall

Today I’m trying something new–joining in a bloghop with other writers, checking in on what you might see from the perspective of a small winged creature looking down on my house this week before Christmas. Sparkling gold candles. This is as far as we’ve gone in terms of holiday decorations so far. Oh, and andContinue Reading

The Pink Dress: Loved and Lost

Inspired by just one of the amazing women I met at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop 2014–Ilene Beckerman, author of Love, Loss, and What I Wore–this is an excerpt from the fire memoir I’m working on.   If a travel agent hadn’t messed up our reservation and nearly left us without a hotel room in NewContinue ReadingContinue Reading

Visions of LaDonna

In my elementary school, there was a girl a few years ahead of me named LaDonna. A fearless, redheaded tomboy–always a first-round pick for playground games of softball–she had Lauren Bacall’s bedroom eyes and husky voice.She talked out of the side of her mouth, looking as much like a guy as she could, back whenContinue Reading

From the Ground Up

I realize that the last post jumped ahead of where I am chronologically, but it seemed like the right thing to do.My rules; I break them. But I need to backtrack to the whole rebuilding drama. I kept a journal that began with the following entry on May 14, 1992:Our permit is approved! We meetContinue Reading

Making a List, Checking it Twice

After the fire, our insurance agent told us we needed to compile a list of everything we’d had in the house in order to be reimbursed for replacement costs. We were lucky to have purchased this type of insurance the previous year when we renewed our policy.  It was inexpensive to add, and we’d hardlyContinue Reading