Beloved Geyserville mail carrier loses her house in Kincade fire
One week after she lost her home and all the things she loved inside, Geyserville’s mail carrier Bernadette Laos was back in her delivery truck.
The Kincade fire ran roughshod twice through parts of the Alexander Valley, destroying dozens of homes of people Laos has come to know in the 17 years she’s been delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service here.
Laos drives about 80 miles a day making nearly 500 deliveries from Lake Sonoma to the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains she used to see from the windows of the little red farmhouse on Geysers Road she and her husband called home.
Before the fire, Laos knew she had one hour and 10 minutes left in her workday when she arrived at her own mailbox. Her husband, Justo Laos, often came outside to meet her with a snack and a cold drink.
“It’s the hardest part, driving by my house,” Laos said.
On Tuesday afternoon, she idled briefly on the narrow shoulder across from her burned home site. She glanced at the twisted, blackened metal of appliances and other indistinguishable parts on a bed of ashes. Her bucolic neighborhood was transformed by the smell of burned buildings and the cacophonous mix of bulldozers, chainsaws and bellowing cattle.
“I don’t have a choice. I have to drive by every day,” Laos said.
The world didn’t stop moving, even though at times it felt as if it had, in the two weeks since Laos and her husband escaped with nothing but their pajamas and their poodle Canela. Laos was given one day off and took an additional two personal days before returning to work.
The mail needed to be delivered.
Most everybody knows “Bernadette” in this part of Sonoma County. She’s known for keeping track of vacations, hip replacements, illnesses, deaths and births.
Rural mail delivery requires special attention to these matters, although Laos said her colleagues tease her for babying her clients. She decorates her mail truck with lights and drives it in Geyserville’s annual holiday season lighted tractor parade.
“I love my route,” Laos said. “Everyone will tell you I love what I do.”
So many have lost homes, buildings, grapevines, tools, cattle feed and more to the Kincade fire, but the news of Laos’ loss has hit a nerve.
Geyserville Coffee Company owner Kim Petersen put out a collection jar for Laos, and one grape farmer wrote a $500 check on the spot. Another farmer said he’d cover Laos’ daily morning cup of coffee there through the first of the new year.
“She’s so incredibly loved,” Petersen said.
At the corner of Highway 128 and Wasson Lane, Diana Gutierrez ran outside when she saw the white mail truck coming with Laos behind the wheel.
Gutierrez asked Laos if the rumors were true that her home was gone. Laos asked Gutierrez about an ailing family member, and learned he had died. They cried together, these two women who had for years shared secrets on the roadside, although before the fire it was tamale recipes and beauty products.
“It takes a heart of gold to get back to work and see the damage,” Gutierrez said as Laos drove away.
Throughout the day, Laos swapped stories about the fire and delivered mail, accepting condolences and embraces from person after person. One child put a hand-drawn note in the mailbox: “Your the best mail ladie! I am sorry for your house.”
When Laos’ mail truck drove up the Wasson family farm’s long driveway, Beverly Wasson got up from a kitchen table and grabbed a bottle of cold bubbly water from the fridge. Laos walked through the open door and handed Wasson her mail. Wasson gave her a warm hug and handed her the water.
Years ago, Laos got the paperwork together so she could hand-deliver the mail and save Wasson’s then-elderly parents, Fred and Ruby, a walk down the driveway to the roadside mailbox.
Now, Wasson’s parents are memorialized on the hill and it is Wasson, with arthritis and other ailments, who benefits from meeting Laos at the door.
“She’s a gem,” Wasson said as Laos got back in the mail truck.
Even with the community’s generosity, Laos said she and her husband are worried their plans to retire in Sonoma County may be impossible. They were told their renters insurance would pay $25,000 minus a $2,500 deductible, hardly enough to recover from losing everything, she said.
Laos has three grown children and four grandchildren who live in Sonoma County, including a 3-year-old girl who cried after learning the play kitchen she had at her grandmother’s house was destroyed in the fire.
In the rubble, Laos found the charred remains of a bracelet her husband bought for her their first Christmas together about 25 years ago.
Laos had asked for a tennis bracelet but her husband didn’t know that meant the kind of diamond bracelet that flew off tennis champion Chris Evert’s wrist during the 1978 U.S. Open. He gave her a bracelet with tiny tennis balls and golden rackets. She treasured it just the same.
“Sometimes I just want to go home,” Laos said. “I want this terrible vacation to end.”
There’s some comfort in driving the familiar roads and seeing neighbors once again coming outside for their mail. But comforting other people over her loss can get exhausting. Tears welled up, and she moved her hand in an up-down-up-down roller coaster gesture to show the emotional experience of each day.
“As horrible as this is, I feel like I have an army behind me,” Laos said.
Laos put a stack of mail into a mailbox and drove on.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter ?@jjpressdem.