ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: It was a week's vigil, riveting and awful, as we sat in front of our TV sets watching much of Southern California burn to the ground, watching people flee with what few possessions they could get out with. The fires finally were stopped, and then we watched the new footage: People stumbling through the charred remains of their houses using their hands as clumsy sifters. Perusing our own houses, we made mental notes thinking about what would matter, what we would bolt with in a disaster. What stuff? DVDs? Computers? Tools? Toys? Hardly. Clothes? Maybe a handful. Important papers -- wills, insurance policies? Maybe, but those are replaceable. Jewelry, specifically meaningful items?
MAN: We are looking for my grandmother's wedding ring. My mom was unable to get it when she took off.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Now we're getting close -- the stuff of sentiment, the stuff of your history, the trigger prompts for your memories.
MAN: She had some pictures and stuff from her great ... great grandparents, and ... great grandparents, grandparents, parents, and she was hoping to pass it down through the generations.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: And, ah, yes, the photo albums. That's what you'd go for first. We listened to countless evacuees talking about that: Pictures. Baby pictures, graduation pictures, wedding pictures. These are the things that are irreplaceable. And then the letters, the written record. Things I wrote, things written to me -- cards, notes, diaries.
Where are they? Where'd I put them? The last time we had a big earthquake out here in L.A., I actually got out the love letters my husband wrote me when I was very young and at the beginning of being loved, and I put them here, right here, so I could get them first and fast. I thought about the choices we make and about those love letters again when I read the letters some of the soldiers in Iraq had written home.
They were printed recently on the op-ed page of The New York Times. How simple they looked, tender and immediate. This is Captain Joshua Byers writing to his mother and father.
CAPTAIN JOSHUA BYERS' LETTER BEING READ ALOUD: I still love being a commander. I love leading troops and taking care of them. It is a huge responsibility and I feel the weight of it every day. I send the thing I love most out here -- my men -- into harm's way every day and every night.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: That was Captain Byers' last letter to his mother and father before he was killed in action. All the letters were the last. I read and reread them hoping they would stop hurting, and they didn't, and I thought about the miraculous potency of words. Listen to Army Private First Class Rachel Bosveld of Oshkosh, Wis., writing to her mother.
FIRST CLASS RACHEL BOSVELD'S LETTER BEING READ ALOUD: Oh, how my feet hurt. ... Eighteen days till my birthday. I can't wait.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: She died 12 days later. The last letters: Are they solace, or stabs to the heart, or both? Will they be put away or reread compulsively? I don't know. What I do know is how much they matter, more than the wedding rings and the photographs. Here are the words of 34-year-old Army private first-class Jesse A. Givens writing to his wife.
ARMY FIRST CLASS JESSE A. GIVENS' LETTER BEING READ ALOUD: You will never know how complete you have made me. You saved me from loneliness and ... taught me how to live and to love…
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: And in the same letter, to his 6-year-old stepson, Dakota:
ARMY FIRST CLASS JESSE A. GIVENS' LETTER BEING READ ALOUD: You taught me how to care until it hurts. …You have a big beautiful heart. Through life you need to keep it open and follow it. ... I will always be there in our park when you dream so we can play…
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: This was his last letter, written to be delivered to his family if he died.
ARMY FIRST CLASS JESSE A. GIVENS' LETTER BEING READ ALOUD: I will always be there with you, Melissa. I will always want you, need you and love you, in my heart, my mind and my soul. Do me a favor after you tuck the children in. Give them hugs and kisses from me. Go outside and look at the stars and count them. Don't forget to smile. Your husband Jess.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: These are the things that matter most, these letters. They are what we would flee our houses with and what we leave behind for those we have loved.
I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.