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 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.
Over and out.