Memories of a Fire in February
A Quiet February Afternoon
Author's Note: pmorries, a fellow hubber encouraged me to explore a genre outside of essays and poems. He suggested a fictionalized story set in World War II, but fiction is not my forte. But our conversations stayed with me and so I began culling through my life experiences and it seemed a worthwhile endeavor to write about the February Fire.
It was late afternoon and I was in the middle of cooking dinner, some casserole I think - I don't remember what kind. My two older boys, Jason and Brian, were not at home; they stayed after school to play basketball. My youngest son Chad was supposed to be doing his homework in his bedroom, although I knew he was probably reading a science fiction novel. But reading is always a good thing and as long as he finished his homework before bedtime, I wasn't terribly concerned about precisely when the homework got done.
My husband wasn't due home for another couple of hours, plenty of time to finish dinner and do some more reading for my Wednesday history classes. My graduate school courses were fascinating, but they were an incredible amount of work. For months and months I had been getting by on four hours of sleep each night, and so naturally I took every opportunity to read and study while doing other things, like cooking.
It was mid February, but it was one of those bizarre Georgia winters that seem more like early spring. It was pleasant outside, nice enough to have the kitchen windows open and the three cats were lazing around in patches of sunlight. Outside the forsythia bushes were blooming, two months early. I think I was wearing sandals as I puttered around the kitchen, reading, chopping, reading, stirring.
Chad, came tearing into the kitchen, screaming incoherently. He was pointing back down the hallway toward the end of the house where the bedrooms were, and after a moment I was able to understand him. “The bedroom is on fire. There is a fire!" I followed him down the hallway and as I came to the door of his bedroom waves of heat rolled over me. Chad and Brian shared a bedroom and slept on old government issue metal bunk beds. The mattress and cotton sheets on the lower bunk bed were burning furiously and I had no idea why. Chad burst into tears. It’s my fault! I found a lighter and I was playing with it!
I hugged him fiercely and ran to the bathroom just across the hallway; I turned the water on in the bathtub full force. I grabbed every towel hanging in the bathroom and threw them into the tub, told Chad I needed his help, and sent him to the linen closet to gather more towels. As soon as the towels were soaking wet I threw them onto the burning bed. Meanwhile, Chad, no longer crying, kept throwing more towels into the tub. I made four trips back and forth; on the fifth trip I realized that the mattress and quilt on the top bunk were also on fire in spite of all our efforts. The fire was spreading rapidly.
Finally, the heat was so intense I could not re-enter the room. During the five minutes when I had been trying to put out the fire, the bedroom had been filling up with a dark gray-black smoke -- in the real world fires do not look like the house and apartment fires depicted on television, not at all. You are surrounded by flames, but your vision is almost entirely obscured by thick smoke.
Smoke began spilling out into the hallway limiting our vision and burning our throats. I rushed my son out the front door with instructions to go to our neighbor’s house across the street, call 911, and then stay there. He started running and I panicked momentarily, fearing he would run across the street into the path of a car. With my heart in my throat, I watched to make sure he made it safely across the street to the neighbor’s yard.
On the other side of the road, my neighbor Linda had just come out on her porch because she smelled the smoke which was pouring out of all the bedroom windows. She rushed Chad inside and they called 911. As the other two bedrooms caught fire and smoke kept filling up the house, I turned on the attic fan in a frantic and mindless attempt to eliminate some of the smoke. A fire marshal told me later that the attic fan had accelerated the fire. Sometimes you unknowingly exacerbate an already tragic situation.
After making sure that all three cats were safely outside, I grabbed my car keys, purse, and three large binders of history lectures that a professor at the university had lent me. They belonged to someone else; I couldn’t let them be destroyed in the fire.
By then half the house was on fire, but there was a phone at the far end of the house by the back door and I headed that way, thinking about picture albums, books, my mother’s dishes, and the years worth of research notes on the computer. I desperately wanted to gather all those things up and take them with me, but my arms were full of binders and the smoke was getting thicker and closer. I stopped near the back door and called 911.
It's strange what happens when you are suddenly under immense stress. I knew the moment I called 911 and they picked up, that my address would automatically appear on the computer screen in front of them. Our county had adopted that system some years earlier. Even as I was dialing, I could see someone with a head set sitting in front of a computer screen in a dimly lit room.
Nevertheless, when the telephone operator answered I shouted my address at him. Actually, I shouted it twice in a row, as if he were deaf, and just in case he didn't get it the first time. Even while I was shouting, part of me knew he wasn’t actually writing down what I was saying. While the adrenaline rushing through my veins was making me shout like a madwoman, the 911 operator was busy sending the information electronically to the nearest fire station.
He asked me if he should send an ambulance and I said no. He asked me if everyone was out of the house and I said yes. He told me to hang up the phone immediately and leave the house. For some reason I hesitated like there was something else I could do, like there was something else I ought to do.
He raised his voice and shouted at me, "Get out of the house. Leave now!" I dropped the phone and left through the back door just as the last room started filling up with an oily, acrid smoke. I dumped the binders and purse into the back of the family station wagon, which was parked within a foot or two of a big glass bay window.
Watching the House Burn
Above the sound of the fire’s crackling and popping, I could hear the mournful sound of the fire engines in the distance, it wouldn’t be long… but the windows in the bedroom where the fire started had already exploded outward. It seemed sensible and necessary to move the family station wagon away from the house before the windows on that end exploded, so I did. For a couple of minutes, I stood alone in the front yard watching the house burn.
While literally watching my life and home go up in flames, I thought about how less than eight months earlier, my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather had both suddenly died within three weeks of each other. The previous fall my sister failed out of graduate school where we had both been pursuing a doctorate in history -- and my husband had been making noises about the advisability of going our separate ways just as soon as I graduated. Then the house caught fire and my very best efforts to put it out were simply not enough.
It was simply too much, so for about ninety seconds I raged against God and shouted to the heavens about the incredible harshness and unfairness of life. God didn’t speak to me audibly, not that I exactly expected him to, but somehow shouting made me feel calmer. Calm is really not the right word, maybe what I felt was resigned, resigned and determined.
My sons, twelve, fourteen, and sixteen, were aware of their father’s desire to move on with his life elsewhere. For their sake someone had to be strong, someone needed to be resilient and help them deal with the loss of everything they owned. So I was resigned and determined. The fire trucks arrived and the firemen set about containing the fire. They were quick, effective, and surprisingly tender and kind. My younger brother is a fireman, and although he was not assigned to the same station house, they knew him, and I somehow found that oddly comforting.
My older sons arrived to see what looked like a giant smoldering carcass and my husband arrived shortly thereafter. A casual friend up the street invited us to come stay the night with them; that night turned into four months. She became, and still is, my very best friend in the world.
They were wonderful to take us in, but their house was only so big, so my two older sons went to stay with their grandparents who lived about ten blocks away. Meanwhile, I worried about how my sons were doing emotionally and I worried about passing my university exams, but I didn’t cry. Truthfully, I didn’t feel like crying … I don’t think I felt much of anything, but tired and determined.
Four months later we moved back into our mostly empty house. The boys were promoted to the next grade at the end of the year and continued playing basketball. I managed to pass comprehensive history exams at the university the summer after we moved back into the house. Family and friends were incredibly supportive and helpful. I began working on the dissertation and we all seemed to settle into a fairly comfortable routine of school and work. Life seemed good, bearable, almost normal.
The months of autumn rolled by full of bracing winds and colorful leaves -- my favorite time of year. We had a lovely Thanksgiving with my husband’s parents and we were looking forward to the Christmas holidays when things would slow down a little, more time for family and friends. For some years I had been in the habit of getting all the Christmas decoration boxes out of the attic the weekend after Thanksgiving. The following weekend we would go to a tree farm and cut down a fresh tree, a family tradition we had begun when our three boys were quite young.
Everyone but me had gone to see a Saturday afternoon movie – which meant it was a good time to get the Christmas boxes down and sort through them. I headed down the hallway, pulled down the attic ladder, and climbed up… and stared into my completely empty attic. There were no boxes of ornaments or strings of lights, no boxes of baby clothes, no boxes of family mementos, no handmade quilts, no handmade cowboy outfits now outgrown, no tangible trace remained of our family history, all had been erased.
As my eyes filled with tears, I stumbled down the ladder and collapsed on the floor weeping. I wailed as if my heart were broken. Demetrius, one of the cats, knowing something was terribly wrong came and crawled into my lap. Through all the tears, I knew that my family was safe, that we had been incredibly fortunate, that things are just things and can always be replaced, but still I kept crying.
I even felt ashamed of my unseemly and inappropriate emotions. At last, the tears seemed exhausted and I tried to make sense of the huge difference in what I knew to be true, that we were so blessed to have each other, and what I felt … bereft, cheated, wounded, abandoned, stripped of possessions, which certainly did not mirror our reality.
My feelings made no sense, because we had possessions: the Red Cross made sure we had clothes and beds, friends helped us with dishes, sheets, and towels, our house had a reasonable amount of furniture in it. I sat on the floor trying to disentangle my emotions from the reality that surrounded me. We did not want for anything. And I knew I wasn’t really weeping over things, a chair, a table, a lamp.
What I missed and desperately wanted were the things that cradled and carried my family history; the things that brought back the sights and sounds and smells of my sons when they were little boys. We had pictures of course, even pictures of previous Christmas trees, but they paled in comparison to the yearly experience of unpacking the handmade ornaments one by one.
We Are Tactile Beings By Design
I remember gently holding each ornament in my hands, and being transported back to that particular Christmas in our lives and all the sweet memories would come flooding in – who helped me make the ornaments that year, who had just lost their first tooth, who had just learned to ride a bicycle, what kind of music were we listening to then, who came to our house on the 24th for a Polish Christmas Eve dinner. All the tender memories of a life together were tightly bound up in the physical objects from that time.
I wanted to be able to open the boxes with the boy’s clothing and find the cowboy outfits I made for them, little denim vests with little red and silver embroidered sheriff’s stars…and the “oh so cool” superman and batman capes, and the crazy Halloween costumes, and the soft flannel pajamas. To take those things out of the box one at a time, unfold them, smooth out the wrinkles, then refold them -- was to relive those sweet years when my boys were young and we had nothing more pressing to do than pick dandelions or play in the rain.
In the bottom of each box would have been the quilt I made for Jason, Brian, and Chad. I remember shopping for the fabrics and the boys insisting on a denim navy blue border, because after all denim and the color navy were “manly” and at six, eight, and ten they needed to be manly. They wouldn’t have known to use the word masculine then.
They didn’t want me to make them a girlie or sissy quilt, something to be embarrassed by when friends came over to spend the night. But I didn’t. I made striking and colorful, but still “young boy masculine” quilts in shades of blue and red with bits of yellow here and there. Strong primary colors for my strong and beautiful sons.
Whenever I held the quilts I could see them laughing and bouncing up and down on their beds; I could see the quilts draped across chairs to make caves, forts, and other boyish fantasies; I could watch as a stream of sweet bedtime hugs and kisses paraded through my mind. Fine evenings when I slipped under the quilt with my youngest while I read him a bed time story; evenings when I sat cross-legged on the bed on top of the quilt while we said our prayers together. Evenings when ….
It really isn’t the possessions we lose in fires and floods that so wound our hearts; it is the loss of those special tangible things that poignantly help remind us of our shared history. When life gets too busy, when children are nearly grown, when life – for whatever reason, becomes sad - almost more than we can bear… mothers, maybe fathers too, instinctively return to what we can touch, to those things we can hold close.
We are very much tactile beings and those things we can touch are proof certain of the life we have lived, of the good and joyous moments we have shared, and the sad ones too. And of course our past is also part and parcel of the present and strengthens and enables us to stand up and move forward to keep loving and to keep creating memories. New memories to add to the ones we already hold dear in our hearts.
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