Here in Savannah, Ga., people in my neighborhood are accustomed to a variety of aromas: the occasional stench of the paper mill when the wind is from the northwest; the sweet, grassy fragrance of the salt marsh to the east; the perfume of magnolia and wisteria in the spring; the lingering essence of horse and buggy. On this warm spring afternoon a new scent—wood smoke—rides in on the southern breeze.

My mind spins back to childhood autumns in the Midwest, when my brothers and I raked leaves into piles and took turns igniting them under our father’s watchful eye. I am reminded of campfires on the beach, of roasted marshmallows and someone’s guitar accompanying us as we sang “My Gal Sal” and “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” I remember the scent of our neighbor farmers burning off their fields to clear them of old stalks in readiness for planting.


Photo: Tropical Conservancy.org


But these pleasant images quickly dissipate when I realize that today’s smoke comes from a forest fire in Florida, the first of the season. I picture firefighters risking their lives to battle 80-foot flames; rabbits and foxes fleeing side by side in terror; old pine forests sacrificed to the combined whimsy of wind and lightning.

On the 6 o’clock news, a weeping woman hugs a blackened saucepan amid the rubble that was once her home. “All my lovely things,” she says. “My piano, my new love seat, my dishes. Gone.”

Dishes? Love seat?

“If we suddenly had to evacuate,” I ask my husband, “what would you grab?”

“This is a trick question, right?”

“No trick. Assuming the cats are okay, what would you take?”

“Guns,” he says immediately. “Cameras. Credit cards. And the strong box with our insurance policies.”

Erick plays these “what if” games as a small concession to me. But he isn’t engaged enough to ask me the same question, doesn’t really care what I think. I tell him anyway.

“I’d take the second drawer from the little chest in the powder room. You know, the one with the photographs.”

I recognize the look. It says There’s a chest of drawers in the powder room?

“And my box of CDs with back-ups of all my manuscripts.”

For the thousandth time I am reminded that we are opposites, that we share little common ground when it comes to what is “valuable.” For Erick, that word is defined by convenience and economy. What a nuisance to have to replace the .357 magnum and the snub-nose .38.

For me, “valuable” means unique and irreplaceable. My journals, for example, and my great grandmother’s handmade quilt. Oh, and the box of poems and letters Erick wrote to me when we were just beginning to be us. These treasures ground me. Without them I’d be adrift, disconnected, rooted in air.

Sometimes our dissimilarities loom large, requiring nimble footwork to hop-scotch past the obstacles they create, such as last week when we took separate paths to meet friends for dinner and converged at their front door—he wearing cargo shorts and I in a new silk dress. But even during these awkward moments, I’m glad our differences exist. Because of them I know we’ll be okay when hurricane Zelda forces us to head for the hills.
With what Erick packs we’ll be housed, fed, defended and insured—while my carton of valuables will keep us connected to our hearts.

Susan B. Johnson is a novelist, playwright, journalist and historian. Her play “Finders Weepers” was published in 1993 and has been performed in venues across the country. Her short stories, columns and articles have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications. In 2007 she published both a non-fiction book, Savannah’s Little Crooked Houses (History Press), and a novel, Spirit Willing (Bonaventture Books), for which she was nominated Georgia Author of the Year.

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  • Susan November 26, 2017 at 6:59 pm

    Oh my, how I totally forgot “The o?LD Lady that swallowed a fly”. Talk about bringing back childhood memories. I visited Savannah Ga. in Sept.2016, I immediately fell in love and have tried very hard to find a way to either move there or just run away from this horrible place called Cleveland, Oh.. No, no I’m not even joking! Not rea!!y…

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  • beth everette March 9, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    How lovely, and true! I love your writing style and choice of content. And, you and Erick are perfect together !!

    Reply