LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- Ask 9-year-old Thomas Hemsing what he's thankful for this holiday season, and he doesn't hesitate:
"That we have a home for us to live in, just for now," said the fourth-grader. "For all the cool things I've gotten for free, all the donations."
The holidays have been bittersweet in Los Alamos, where 400 families were uprooted by raging fire in the spring. Snow has made the scorched hills look even bleaker.
Rita and Billy Hemsing often take son Thomas and 12-year-old daughter Renee to the spot where their house of 23 years turned to blackened rubble. As they make do in a rented home, they dream of the future.
"I'm glad we're rebuilding," Thomas said.
He thinks it will be "kind of neat" to have two bathrooms -- the old house had one -- and he likes the idea of bigger windows planned for the front.
Renee puts a higher premium on an intangible feature of the new home: "The same security we had at the old place, because we're all there."
Making do has not just meant deferring dreams of new closet space for Thomas and Renee but also enduring a 35-minute bus ride to Mountain Elementary School, about twice as long as before.
The school district allowed displaced children to stay at their old school, rather than making them transfer near temporary homes. So, buses weave through neighborhoods, picking up kids scattered like ashes by the fire.
"This was really all they had left," said Rosine McGhee, a counselor at Mountain Elementary School, where more than 70 students lost homes.
Renee and Thomas keep up straight As. Like their classmates, they work at restoring a routine and being optimistic, the counselor said. But overall the kids have more trouble concentrating and are more easily frustrated. Some still can't sleep soundly.
At the new Hemsing home, seasonal changes bring fresh, new reminders of what was lost.
But the kindness of strangers has acted as a salve.
A local church gave away free Nativity scenes and Christmas ornaments. A card store donated recipes, decorations and other holiday items. Someone made dozens of quilted Christmas stockings for the schoolchildren.
Meanwhile, Rita grapples with the loss. She has "virtual reality" dreams in which she glides through each room of the old house, noticing every detail.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.