I just got an email from my dad.  The subject: “When we walk through the fire”.

When I was five, a kerosene heater started a fire in our kitchen, which quickly spread to the rest of the house.  We were home- all six of us.  It was on Pearl Harbor day, December 7, and I was in kindergarten.  My parents got all of us out and we stood and watched from the front yard.  The fire trucks came quickly but our narrow dirt road and the stone gate entrances on our driveway made it impossible for them to get up to the house.  They had to come in through the horse pasture down the road, and by then the house was engulfed and beyond saving.

Where I grew up, it was lots of dirt roads and woods.  Some of my friends said they remember seeing a fire through the trees. My friend Logan could see it from his house up on the mountain, a few miles away.  Heather could see it from her house, about a mile away.

Neighbors came immediately.  One brought a heavy coat, another took off his shoes and gave them to us.  I think my Dad was standing outside in his socks.  My mom had driven our old Mustang to the neighbors’ house to call 911, since the fire had spread too quickly to call from our house.  Someone showed up with our dog, who was old and had been wandering around the road a few miles away.

The next morning my parents came to our house and saw friends and neighbors, slowly picking through to salvage whatever could be saved for us.  We have pictures that are black and burned around the edges.  Ellie and other Lincoln women went to work cleaning the fire damage off our family china, as best as they could.

We spent the night of December 7 at our neighbors’ house.  We spent Christmas in a friend’s guest house.  My dads’ appendix ruptured right around that time, too.  Maybe he was in the hospital for Christmas- I think that’s right.  Really a banner month for the Smith family.

I don’t remember much of any of this.  My “memories” are mostly pieced together from hearing the story of it over and over.  I do remember going to kindergarten the next day and I was a celebrity at our little school.  I remember having more clothes and toys than I could ever wear or play with.  My classmates all gave me stuffed animals and dolls and clothes.  I got a Strawberry Shortcake doll that blew out strawberry-smelling air when you pressed her belly.  I remember that.  The summer that I studied in London I walked by a burned-out building every day to get to class, and that smell is familiar to me.  I was 20 then, but it brings back a vague memory of what happened.

Here is what I do not remember:
being scared
being anxious or worried

I’m sure I was some of those things, from time to time.  But I was also cared for and safe and knew I didn’t need to worry.  Our neighbors (and by “neighbors” I mean anyone in a five mile radius.  That’s a “neighbor” when you live in the sticks) and friends gathered around us as a family and took care of us.  My parents led our family through the immediate aftermath, then through the season that followed.  We lived in a little house up on the Glebe while we cleared away the old house and rebuilt.  My sister ran my brothers’ go-kart into the chimney of that house.  (“I couldn’t reach the brake!”).  Fighting ensued.  Life went on.

The night of the fire, someone put a bible in my dad’s coat pocket.  He pulled it out and opened up to Isaiah 43:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.  When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.

Here’s the body of my dad’s email to his kids today:

I remember getting you ready for school the next morning.  We all smelled like smoke.  You each got clothes out of the brown bags which had been brought in the night.  Then you got on the bus. 

I love you.


I don’t know exactly why I’m writing all of this out.  There’s no neat and tidy “moral of the story”, per se.  But it is a true story, and the words in Isaiah continue to be true.

I’m thankful for my Dad.  For my Mom.  And for our neighbors and community that wrapped itself around us.  We were cared for, every step of the way.  True then, true now.


16 thoughts on “Remembering

  1. I will never forget that day, looking out the window and seeing the flame and my dad saying to me, it might be Mary katherines house. At that point either he or my mom left to go see. I don’t remember anything else about it but I do remember that strawberry shortcake doll. You have to love the small town of Lincoln va. It truly is a family!!!

  2. Well said Kat. And thanks for the scripture. I cannot imagine going through that with young children and although I have heard the story numerous times, it is neat to hear what you remember and written in your own words!

  3. Katherine, what was a horrific moment for all of you was covered in the shelter of His Wings…You guys had wonderful parents,who brought you up to love and fear the LORD….which gave you a sense of security and peace….and like you said….”.true then, true now “……and your little ones will learn. Love your writing. Keep it up !

  4. For nearly 20 years I lived in a rural mountain community (having grown up in a large suburban one), and I was always amazed at how everyone rallied around those living some kind of tragedy. There are some things about living there that I don’t miss, but I do miss witnessing (and participating in) that kind of caring. Thanks for sharing this story, especially on this day.

  5. Thomas and Richard had a better sense of direction and by the time we made it home they had gathered clothes for boys. Toni and Bob Wilson took you all in for the night, and I remember a dawn run to get breakfast food for all. The love and help that flowed was a reflection of the love and care your parents shared with our small area. Happy Christmas from a then and now neighbor.

    • years later, when heather and i wrecked my mom’s jeep, we (again) ended up running for help to the wilson’s house. by then they had moved around the bend, but that’s where we went to call my parents. that was about 12 years later!

      happy christmas to you too! thanks for sharing your memories of that time.

  6. I loved your “rebuilt” house, loved getting to know the Lincolneers, and loved your mama. I miss Loudoun many days so thanks for the stories! XO

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  10. Katherine, I didn’t see Elizabeth’s FB post today, but will look it up. I have never seen that picture of the burned house, but I will never forget where I was when your mom called to tell me about the fire! Your neighbors were incredible and your parents were incredible as they trusted God completely! Your mom was so grateful for any piece of burned around the edges pictures…what a legacy of faith and grasping what is really important! I love you all so much! Linda

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