Long shadow of grief lingers in Sonoma County after 2017 wildfires

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When Cathie Merkel closes her eyes, she can still see the birds her mother, Sharon Rae Robinson, painted on the interior walls of her home north of Santa Rosa in the Mayacamas Mountains, songbirds taking flight down the hallways and into rooms filled with edgy and whimsical murals inspired by surrealist René Magritte and fairy tales.

She can see the tiled mosaics Robinson pressed into the walls along the baseboards depicting characters from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and in a bathroom shampoo nook where she recreated the White Rabbit blasting his trumpet.

Closing her eyes, Merkel also sees her daughter, 16-year-old Ruby Salkeld, rearranging Robinson’s vintage folk art dollhouse collection. It is Oct. 8, 2017, and she has brought her daughter, weak from an untreatable tumor in her brain stem, to spend a few hours with her grandmother.

Gone. Everything.

The Tubbs fire that burned into Robinson’s rural Mark West Springs community more than one year ago forced the 79-year-old woman to cower inside, killing her and destroying a life’s work of murals, quilts, photography, woven baskets, mosaics and gardens. There are few if any photographs of the masterpiece that was her home.

Then in January, Ruby died after a one-year battle with glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive cancer that led doctors to say things like school no longer matters.

Without her daughter, without her mother, without her mother’s art and the family home in the Mayacamas hills where she once rode horses, Merkel must go on.

“I grew up here. I know the dead trees will eventually be removed and things will grow back,” said Merkel, 58, of Santa Rosa. “I know those scars will mend themselves. But for me personally, I view life now with an undercurrent of grief that will never go away.”

Death takes with it so much more than a life.

Deep pain remains in this community one year after the 2017 firestorm. While it may be hidden, masked by the sounds of construction in neighborhoods emerging from the ashes and the resilience embodied in the ubiquitous Sonoma Strong signs across the community, the losses inflicted by the wildfires cast long shadows.

Merkel has been private in her grief, yet there are times when she has stepped into the fray of public life to give a glimpse at the true wreckage the October fires wrought for those who lost loved ones.

Never involved with state politics before, Merkel was among dozens of people, mostly those who lost homes, who traveled to Sacramento in August to talk with lawmakers. They aimed to bring their stories of loss to a fierce political battle over liability for damages when power company equipment causes fires, a battle being waged far from the places where the fire’s destruction left marks that will remain for years and, in Merkel’s case, a lifetime.

Merkel saw firsthand the fickle nature of politics when one lawmaker — who was pushing a PG&E-backed bill that would have allowed utilities to pass on the costs to customers for damages caused by power equipment — decided to attend a legislative meeting rather than keep his appointment with them.

It felt bitterly disrespectful, she said. But there were lawmakers who kept their appointments. She recalled asking one state senator to imagine it was his mother who died in her home.

“The look on his face changed,” she said.

Each day feels like scraping against a kitchen grater. “Sonoma Strong” posters strung up around the city make Merkel feel anger. She thought she would avoid all commemoration ceremonies, but Merkel was present Oct. 8 at Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa when they rang a fire bell 44 times in recognition of each person killed in the October firestorm.

“I can understand why it’s done, but it just was not for me,” she said. “It all makes me sick.”

Like her mother, Merkel is an artist, a goldsmith who for nearly one year has not been able to will herself to light her torch. Her full-time job was caring for her dying daughter. Then when Ruby died, she turned to challenging the insurance company that initially far underestimated the value of her mother’s home and suggested the worth of her mother’s artwork be estimated by adding up the cost of canvas and paint.

The art wasn’t hung on the walls at the home where Merkel and her brother, Chuck Merkel, were raised by Robinson, a single mother and prolific artist. Robinson copied photographs taken during her travels, reproducing a row of memories along the chair rail in her bedroom. Room to room, she filled their home with dark and fantastic expressions from the depths of a creative mind.

“Her whole property was like that inside and out. Everything was turned into a piece of art,” said Merkel. “I live 10 minutes down the road. I just came over when I wanted to see it.”

Holiday celebrations with Merkel’s family were akin to none. With Merkel busy at the stove, Robinson would entertain Ruby and her older sister, Roxanne, with bags filled with art supplies, like the Easter when she arrived with piles of tiny plastic furniture.

One red-dyed egg ended up on a miniature sofa donning horns and a red feather tail.

“It looked like this egg was reclining on a sofa — it was incredible,” Merkel said. “That’s my house. That’s what my house was like.”

Those family gatherings are in the past. After the trees fill out again and the neighbors’ homes are rebuilt, Merkel said she will sell the land.

Merkel and her brother have a few of their mother’s paintings and other pieces. A basket Robinson crafted from coiled pine needles dyed red and black is part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection in Washington, D.C., and some of her quilts were donated to the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.

No one knows where Robinson collected the pine needles she used to make her basket. They had to be long and strong, Merkel said.

Maybe those trees are gone too, or maybe they still stand.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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