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How Nickels Became Divine Signs from Above

Her home was destroyed by the California Camp Fire. Could she rebuild her life?

Nickels; Illustration by Richard Mia

I was out on a walk,my eyes downcast, trying my eyes downcast, trying to sort through my thoughts. A few days ago, my husband, Russ, and I had lost our house of Russ, and I had lost our house of 28 years to California’s Camp Fire. We’d had to move into a hotel. It was all so hard to process.

An emergency phone call had alerted us early in the morning a few days prior. “Wildfire,” the robo-call repeated. “Evacuate immediately.” We sprang into action. Our next-door neighbor came over to check on us and helped Russ wrestle our four cats into carriers, while I tossed a few changes of clothes, blankets and the family photos hanging in the hall into a bag.

We dashed out to our car, following a caravan of our neighbors along winding back roads. We drove for hours until we were finally out of danger, but we couldn’t find a place to stay. That night, we had to sleep in the back seat of our Subaru, parked in a Walmart parking lot. The next morning, we drove three and a half hours to the nearest hotel that still had vacancy. Only later did we see photographs of the destruction. Our house had been consumed by the fire along with most of our neighborhood.

Our insurance was covering food and lodging until our claim went through and we found a new house. Still, I felt totally unmoored. Exhausted emotionally and physically. Grateful to be alive and safe, for sure, but lost. Not only had we lost our family home, our beloved fixer-upper into which we’d invested countless hours of sweat equity, but so much of our lives had disappeared overnight: family photo albums, my wedding dress, priceless memorabilia and heirlooms.

How are we going to rebuild after this? I thought, rounding a corner in the sidewalk on my walk back to the hotel. Is it even possible?

I noticed something up ahead. Something glimmering on the pavement. A pair of nickels, shining like precious jewels. I felt a flicker of joy and wonder, admiring the way the metal gleamed against the dull cement. They were just nickels, but they somehow felt special. I bent down and picked them up, slipping them into my pocket. Back in our room, I grabbed a paper coffee cup and set it on the desk, dropping the coins inside. If these were lucky coins, I could use all the luck I could get.

A few days later, I made a trip to the store to buy essentials. I wandered the aisles, not knowing what to buy first. The enormous task of replacing everything we’d lost overwhelmed me. I didn’t know if I could go through with the shopping trip. I felt panicky. I was about to run back to my car when I felt the urge to stop and turn my head to the right. I could hardly believe it—there on a shelf, right at eye level, was a nickel! Okay, maybe this is more than luck, I thought and put the nickel in my pocket. The panic went away and I finished shopping, feeling more buoyed.

I told myself the found nickels were probably just a coincidence. Then I found one next to my plate at a restaurant—on Thanksgiving, no less, when I was missing our house more than ever. A few weeks later, I found another in a grocery store while I was thinking about how much I missed our kitchen. It seemed that a nickel appeared whenever my spirits plummeted.

Our insurance claim was finally settled. We started to look for a new house right away, only to find that the market was incredibly tight. Hundreds of people and families in Northern California had lost their homes. All those lost homes reduced housing availability and drove up prices. The bidding was fierce. My daily routine became checking for new listings, calling real-estate agents, then traveling miles to tour homes. Sometimes the homes would be sold while we were on our way to see them. The time we spent living out of a hotel stretched from weeks into months.

And yet, whenever I reached my breaking point, I’d find another nickel. Nestled in the grass at the park. Peeking out from under the tire of my car in a parking lot. Once, my change for a quick lunch was given entirely in nickels. “I’m sorry,” the cashier said. “It’s all we have.”

It’s all I needed! I added the coins to my growing cache in the paper cup in the hotel room. It was practically full by now. When I didn’t feel as if I could spend another day browsing real estate listings, I’d glance at that cup and feel a surge of hope.

One day, I was sitting at the desk when my phone rang. It was a real-estate agent I’d been working with.

“I have a new listing,” she said. “In the area we discussed. Over an acre with a creek running behind it. Lots of mature trees—”

“When can we see it?”

A few hours later, Russ and I were following the agent down the driveway toward the house.

“What do you think?” she asked.

The house was obviously in need of repairs. A new coat of paint, for starters. But the trees surrounding the property were beautiful. They reminded me of the forested area we had lived in. The price was in our range. Had we finally found our new home at long last? Or was I just desperate to cast off hotel living?

I didn’t deliberate long. Because there, in the driveway, I spotted a flash of silver in the California sun. Two nickels, both heads up.

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