By Reshma Kirpalani
For Reporting Texas and KUT News
Mary Gray recently sifted through what was left of her Smithville home, one of the more than 1,600 houses that were destroyed in the Central Texas wildfires this month. Even though fires have struck the area twice in the past three years, she said that she planned to rebuild in the same spot where she had lived for 16 years.
“I guess I think it can’t happen again, but I know it can,” said Gray, a Bastrop High School teacher. “We had fires in 2009, and some of those same homes burned again with this fire. And some people may say that’s just really stupid to think you’re going to go back and build in with those trees. I just feel too connected to the land.”
The remains of Gray’s home littered the ground, crunching beneath her sneakers. With her ex-husband Richard Gray helping her on Wednesday, she pieced together some mementos: a china cup from her great-aunt, shards of broken wind chimes and two clear blue marbles — the eyes from a statue of a bear named Ralph, which had sat on her front porch.
“Is that one of his eyes?” Gray asked enthusiastically. “That’s one of his eyes!” Laughter ensued even in this setting. In all, what the pair salvaged would fit neatly in two plastic bins.
Gray said that if the walls of her old house were still standing, they would speak of three little boys, now men. “I think of my boys, growing up,” she said. “I think of my youngest son, he always had such an imagination. He was always fighting ninjas in the study.”
She said that community is another reason to stay in Smithville. On Wednesday, the Red Cross and a state trooper, looking for any suspicious activity, came by. Then a stranger rolled up to what remained of her house.
“I had no idea what he wanted,” Gray said. “He started taking out his wallet and hands me a $100 bill — somebody I had never met. I didn’t even ask him his name. I couldn’t really talk. He couldn’t really talk. We were both so choked up.”
Since the fires, Gray has lived out of her Jeep by day and slept at a friend’s house by night. She is planning to move into a 25-foot trailer home, where she will stay for at least a year while her new home is constructed. Gray faced the task of totaling the value of her home and her belongings to file an insurance claim. She may be only partially reimbursed for both.
“I’m worried about being underinsured,” Gray said. “I know I will never be able to build as much house as I had there. I mean [money is] tight, even though you have the random acts of kindness, it’s still going to be tight.”
Gray envisions a Spanish-Mediterranean style home, surrounded by her favorite towering pine trees and filled with the people she loves.
“It’s going to be family,” she predicted, “sons a little older, friends a little older, and I’m just going to hear a bunch of little grandchildren running around, just running around.”