The gifts in the cardboard mail carton caught Colleen and John Thill by surprise.
Five months earlier, the giver, Benicia artist Wendy Anderson, had walked the fire-scarred streets of Coffey Park in northwest Santa Rosa. Amid the burned car parts, bird baths and chimneys on Dogwood Drive, a sign on a tree caught her eye. Written to alert debris workers, the sign read: “Please do not cut my trees ... Thank you Colleen and John Thill.”
Anderson had never met the Thills. She looked at the two trees on the couple’s lot, including a pine that appeared to have suffered significant fire damage. She spied a small charred pine cone in the gutter and thought of making a gift for the couple.
“I was struck with sadness by their sign, wondering what special memories the trees had, and how they were the only things left of their life on Dogwood Drive,” Anderson wrote last week in an email.
Like other fire survivors, the Thills are moving forward 10 months after suffering the most destructive wildfires in state history. The fires claimed 40 lives and more than 6,000 homes in the North Bay, including more than 1,450 residences in Coffey Park and nearby areas.
The Thills lost their Coffey Park home and their auto body shop on Mark West Springs Road.
This summer they moved a trailer to live temporarily on the Mark West property, where two residences the couple owns also burned.
Many fire survivors have spoken of the trauma and grief suffered during and after the fires. For Colleen Thill, a low point came this summer when she contemplated how her life wouldn’t be the same even after her home is rebuilt.
Thill wrote in a July email of progress and pain. Construction workers were slated to soon start rebuilding the couple’s Dogwood Drive house, “but a darkness hovers over me that hopefully will lift when we move in next year.”
About that time the priority mail package arrived.
Inside on turquoise and green ribbons hung nine pendants, each imprinted with portions of the pine cone Anderson had collected beneath the Thill’s tree.
An accompanying note read in part, “My heart goes out to you all for your loss, and hope things are looking up ... May you all stay safe and fire-free forevermore. Wendy Anderson.”
When Colleen Thill saw the pendants and read the note, the kindness of a stranger left her speechless.
“It was just what I needed at this time,” Thill said last week.
She noted hordes of people have visited Coffey Park since the fires, but Anderson took the time to do something special for her.
“It just says so much about who she is,” Thill said.
To make the pendants, Anderson had placed the pine cone in a latex molding material. Her first attempt failed because the cone was so dry it stuck to the mold. She soaked the cone in olive oil and found success. Once the mold was ready, she used a two-part clay epoxy to make the final pendants.
Anderson admitted feeling a little unsure how the Thills would react to the gifts. But she mailed them to the Dogwood Drive address and hoped the package would be forwarded to the couple.
Thill sent a thank you note, expressing how the pendants had lifted her spirits. The note, she said, was intended to be for Anderson a little like a “Purple Heart award. And she deserved every bit of it.”