A matter of diet

Listening to a friend extolling the value of a high-fat, low-carb diet (“My sister-in-law, who’s had a weight problem all of her life, has lost sixty pounds. She looks great!”) got me thinking.

The conversation went something like this…

ME: It’s contrary to all we were taught, you know, with the food pyramid.

FRIEND: Right. That food pyramid is wrong. All those grains-!! The carbs-!!

ME: Well, in this heart-healthy era …

FRIEND: The diets cardiologists promote are NOT heart healthy. They’re detrimental. Dangerous.

ME: Hmmm … high-fat kind of amazes me, though. We keep being told that eating low-fat is healthy.

FRIEND: Low-fat is the WORST OF ALL. Take milk, for example. You’re altering it if you remove the fat. It’s supposed to have fat. Our bodies don’t recognize food that’s altered, they’re not designed to handle it, don’t know what to do with it besides convert it to sugar … plus, we’ve depleted important nutrients that we need from the soil …

ME: So do you take vitamins or supplements with this diet?

FRIEND: Yes. Boron, for example …

Boron?

It’s in borax. A cleaning agent. When I was a child, my family used Fab laundry detergent. The jingle, “Fab, I’m glad, there’s lemon-freshened borax in you!”—heavens, I haven’t thought of that in decades.

Boron, stuff of cosmic rays and exploding stars. Not overly plentiful in the universe or in the Earth’s crust, yet necessary to plants’ growth. Apparently it has a number of human health benefits, for everything from the brain to the bones to attacking kidney stones. But too much can be toxic. Plants will die, humans can be poisoned …

ME: It comes down to what each person needs, really. The same amount of anything could be too little for one person and too much for another.

FRIEND: Exactly. It’s a matter of finding what works for each person.

—And THAT is what got me thinking about a reading diet.

As someone who’s in and out of classrooms across grade levels daily, listening to children read, here is what I know: They don’t all need the same things. Some need a little supplement—the right supplement. Some need extra decoding or phonics support. Some need comprehension support (the point of reading is, after all, making meaning of it). Some are learning the language. Some have intensive needs requiring highly specialized support. Many need help with phrasing, with prosody, with CONFIDENCE … and what about vocabulary? ALL need to be read to, every day.

Reading is complex. Teaching reading is complex. There’s even an argument as to whether it can actually be taught, for readers essentially grow by … reading.

A healthy reading diet really comes down to this: What does each child need in order to grow? What is a balanced diet for this child? Too much or too little of a thing can be counterproductive. Potentially toxic.

All too often I hear students say I don’t like reading.

I sometimes ask students why but I know the answer’s partly shadowed by a much larger question: What’s being done to help kids WANT to read? To enjoy it, to love it, to stick with it? Allure is part of a diet, is it not? The pull of some promise?

Trends and beliefs about reading and reading education, like diets, are going to come and go. There will be clashes of opinion. Research is going to be (and should be) tested for validity.

And …

FRIEND: The Food and Drug Administration shouldn’t be one entity. There’s big money to be made by people not eating the right stuff and needing medication.

ME: Big money … cure-alls … why am I envisioning buzzards on a branch, poised to swoop in and devour?

[shudder]

Exactly what—or whom—is being devoured?

Photo: PlusLexia.com.

A matter of heart

Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.

-Ecclesiastes 7:8

Last week didn’t start so well.

On Sunday, I broke a bone in my foot while simply walking (and falling, somehow) down the garage steps.

I’d already taken Monday off to attend my brother-in-law’s funeral but spent it on my couch instead with my newly-damaged foot elevated, commiserating with my husband, whose leg has developed a discolored, painful bulge—the leg from which veins were removed for his bypass surgery last fall. It’s not a clot, and that’s all we know until his appointment this week.

“I never would have believed that I wouldn’t be able to attend my own brother’s service,” he sighed. It’s a seven-hour round trip; neither of us was up to it.

I surveyed our legs, propped on the same stool. His left, my right. Mirror-images of each other. Except for my orthopedic boot.

I sighed, too, the entire left side of my body sore from overcompensating for the right. “I know. This is like being eighty years old or something.” Which is decades away…

Our college-student son, passing through the living room, quipped in his deadpan way: “Well, at least you’ll know what to expect when you are eighty.”

So. That was Monday.

On Tuesday I returned to work. It happened to be the 100th day of school, meaning that most kindergarten and first grade students (and many of their teachers) came dressed as old people. White hair, glasses, wrinkles sketched with eyeliner, canes galore.

For a split second, I mused: Who wants to live to be a hundred?

But the kids were adorable, their teachers were having fun, and God knows we all need to have more fun at school. Too much of it isn’t.

That is where my mind was when a little “old” person wandered up to me in the lobby where I rested on a bench between the arrival of buses, my morning duty.

A kindergartner. Big, mournful eyes moving from my boot to my face: “Are you all right?”

“Oh yes! I am fine,” I said, touched by the obvious concern in that small voice.

“What happened to your foot?

“Well, I broke a bone in it.”

“Does it hurt?”

“No, really, it doesn’t. The boot is a cushion for it, see, and it doesn’t hurt at all right now.”

A flicker of relief across the little, made-up old face. The tiny pseudo-centenarian went on her way.

That was Tuesday.

And Wednesday, and Thursday, and Friday. Everywhere I went, the kids wanted to know: What did you do to your foot?

I shared the X-ray with some of them, saw the fascination in their eyes.

Some didn’t ask anything. They came up to me just to say I hope you will be okay. I hope you feel better.

As I labored up and down the staircases, one careful step at a time—the elevator at school is BROKEN—I thought a lot about the curiosity and compassion of children, how natural these things are for them, how comfortable children are with asking and expressing. If we can preserve, nurture, stir curiosity and compassion through all of their formative years … what a different culture, what a different world, it would be. Possibly our greatest work.

The week ended much better than how it began. Not because of satisfying still more curiosity about my broken foot with ongoing questions, or the taste of true human compassion at its purest. Not because I made it through the first week of recovery, although that was a glad milestone. No. Friday was a day of festivities, of celebration, all shining from the children’s faces.

“Happy Valentime’s Day, Mrs. Haley!” called the little ones when they passed me in line in the hallways, inviting me to their classrooms to share their candy, their cupcakes, their joy.

Valentimes. The mispronunciation seems almost poetic. As in, these times are made for Valentines. Definitely for love.

Oh my, thank you, I’ll come see your goodies but you keep them; they were given to you.

You yourselves are gifts enough to me, children.

You as well as puppy therapy. ❤️

Dennis the dachshund takes turns between my lap and my husband’s while we prop our legs.

Twist of fate

For all the clear memories I have of moments and conversations in years past, I cannot quite recall how this happened two days ago…

Early Sunday morning. Tote bag with Bible and Sunday School lesson, studied and ready to teach. Annotated cantata book for Easter drama practice, ready for first rehearsal and casting. So much to do. So much to think about. Mind full of minutiae to remember. Let me put all this in the car, lest I forget something… wait, the sweet pickles for lunch. I forgot to take them to church with the sandwich stuff for rehearsal. Let me put the jar in my bag. There. Ready…

Opening door. Garage steps, red brick. Car is right there, I will put everything in the backseat floor…

—Falling. Fast.

Everything in my hands scatters across the cement floor; I watch the music book and all my papers sliding away with remarkable speed.

I cry out. I don’t know if it’s during that split-second fall, or on impact.

A snap.

Sharp pain in my right foot… I am only wearing socks, no shoes.

My son, Cadillac Man, is there in an instant. He heard me fall.

I am clutching my foot. It’s bad.

—Mom, is that blood dripping down your bag?

No. Pickle juiceget my Bible out of there.

And get your father.

His father tries to help me up but I can’t stand and he can’t be pulling on me; he is still healing from bypass surgery.

Don’t touch me, I tell them. I don’t know how to move. I have to figure it out.

I crawl back in the house. I take off my sock.

My foot looks intact.

I will try to stand…

Knife-like stab.

No.

My husband and son do not know what to do. It is Sunday morning; one is a pastor, the other, a music director. They each have church services waiting,

Go, I say. I have to figure this out. Maybe it will be better by the time you get back. If not, you can take me to an urgent care. Just go.

They go.

I wait until they’re gone to crawl down the hall and, sitting in the floor, change from pajamas to street clothes, for I know I’ll be going somewhere about this foot.

Suddenly everything is exponentially harder than it was.

That’s when I cry.

*******

X-rays reveal that I broke the fifth metatarsal on my right foot. The tech tells me I snapped it and I say yeah, I heard it. Now I am in a boot for six, eight, ten weeks; who knows? These things are slow to heal, says the orthopedist.

And no driving with the boot, she adds.

So now my husband and son must take me to and from work, every day for weeks on end.

I cannot do this, I say to myself.

But I walk, lopsided, imperfect, maddeningly slow in my Frankenstein boot, out of the office. My husband takes me home.

I watch the countryside whizzing past the passenger window. I know what this is shaping up to be. A hard lesson in dependence, at the least. It’s not like I haven’t lived this before. Seventeen years ago, just after my father died, I broke my foot—the same foot, different bone—while preparing to direct a church play. This second time occurs just after my husband’s brother died. Déjà vu. A curious twist of fate. None curious-er. I am seventeen years older; this is going to be harder.

—Well. It’s just going to have to be one deliberate step at a time.

Oh, how much I take for granted.

Today, back to work.

Just a good bit slower than before.

Of the earth

Midway through lunch, the din in the cafeteria is too much. The new boy brings his tray to where I’m standing:

Can I sit here at this table?”

It’s an empty table, save for my phone, closed laptop, electronic entry key, all the things I carried with me because I didn’t have time to put them in my room before this daily duty.

I consider his brown eyes, looking up at me. Pleading.

I consider his boisterous classmates and the seat he left behind.

“Are you moving yourself here because you feel it’s a safer place for you to be right now?” I ask.

He nods.

“All right. That seems like a good choice.”

His face breaks into a grin. He sits.

And the questions start: What kind of phone is that? Do you have a dog? Do you like Doritos? What kind do you like best? What’s your favorite color? Where are you from? How old are you, twenty-nine? Forty? Older?

How old are YOU? Eight? Did you move over just here to ask me all these questions?

He just smiles and takes a swig of his strawberry milk.

Then:

“Mrs. Haley, what’s your favorite snake?”

“What? My favorite SNAKE, did you say? Yikes—I don’t …”

Of course I am about to say I don’t like any snake whatsoever, but something in his expression stops me. “Um, do you like snakes?”

He nods. “I like pythons.”

Heavens. I refrain from telling him about a man I saw on the news this week. He happened to find a boa constrictor in his couch and had no idea how it got there or from whence it came.

He’s watching my face. A keen observer, this child. He’s waiting for my response.

I could say I like green snakes, but I don’t. I could say I like black snakes because my granddaddy said they eat rats and mice, so don’t ever kill a black snake. I think about the copperheads Granddaddy killed on the dirt road where his barefoot grandchildren ran in the summertime. I think about the coiled baby water moccasin I found in front of the kitchen cabinets when my first son was just three, and I how I was about to pick it up, thinking it was an odd piece of rope . . . until I almost touched it. And saw its eyes. Or that time I was cleaning the attic and discovered a complete shed snakeskin; I nearly knocked a whole new exit in my ceiling, trying to scramble out of there . . .

I DO NOT LIKE SNAKES.

But this boy with the strawberry mustache is waiting. His eyes are shining.

And then I recall a little creature lying across my sidewalk a couple of weeks ago. So little that I thought it to be a large worm at first; it was the same pale tan. I noted a faint pattern of scales on it. Could it be a snake? I looked it up. It was. “Smooth earth snake.” They are shy; they live mostly in the dirt around trees and bushes. I’d just had all the old bushes around my house pulled up. Apparently this little fossorial serpent was disturbed, or even damaged, as the equipment pulled away deep, tangled roots. For whatever reason, it crawled out in the open only to die there on the sidewalk. Who knows, maybe it was just trying to get to safety.

—Poor little snake. The only one I’ve ever mourned.

I look at the boy. He’s new here. He’s been uprooted.

Perhaps he did come to this table for safety, after all.

Even as I begin to speak, I think of earth and geosmin, the organic element in soil that humans can smell to something like the trillionth degree (we can detect one tablespoon in three Olympic-size swimming pools) and why that should be, unless it’s because we were meant to live close to the earth, that we came from the earth, and to the earth we will return. A curious kinship with that little snake. With all living things.

“My favorite snake is the earth snake. It’s very small. Have you heard of it?”

He wants to see a picture, so I do a search on my phone just as it’s time for classes to clean up and go outside for recess. To run, to play, to breathe the fresh air, to enjoy being children . . . how well I remember.

The silence in the cafeteria now is too much.

Photo: Smooth Earthsnake. Cygnus921. CC-BY

Lost

It started with a feeling.

It led to a word.

Lost.

It led me to look for a beautiful book, The Lost Words.

I couldn’t remember where I put it.

I looked everywhere.

It’s lost.

Ah. A theme.

Maybe it’s the dreary January dusk, or the drizzle, or Monday.

Maybe it’s the news. Lost lives.

Maybe it’s growing older and being reminded of things I loved long ago, like koalas, because of a book my grandmother read to me, and wondering how many koalas are left in Australia now. Wondering if there are enough eucalyptus trees left in that charred landscape to keep them alive.

Maybe it’s everything.

So much is lost.

I am not lost.

Just caught in layers of lost, like being wrapped round and round with invisible tulle.

It’s there.

I feel it.

Cocoonish.

That’s what sent me searching for The Lost Words as reading it suited my mood. The book is a glorious creation based on words that are disappearing from the dictionary. Words about the natural world that children don’t know anymore. Lyrical verse, majestic illustrations, making something beautiful of something lost . . . it was calling me to reread it. The very thing I needed.

But I can’t find it or remember where I last left it.

It’s really lost.

Naturally that beckoned lost associations. Lost people, lost friends, lost dogs, lost moments, lost time, lost things. Lost opportunities. Lost relationships, lost trust. Lost vision, especially in the educational world of late. Lost sense, lost direction. Lost ideas that I didn’t write down (although I am better about it now than I used to be). Lost dreams, so vivid and clear — what great stories they would make! — disintegrating as I wake, alas. I can’t seem to hold onto the dream and wake up; too often I am left with odd fragments.

But even in my tulle-swathed, piece-y malaise, never lost hope. No, not that. Never lost faith. Never lost love, because, if it’s love, it’s there forever.

I lost interest in reading tonight. So, I write.

Never lost words, not for me. Not yet. They find me, somehow.

And tomorrow I’ll find that book.

Photo: Lost. gwenole camus. CC BY-SA

Possumbilities

It was not a thing I expected to see while on a Chick-Fil-A lunch run.

But there it was, directly opposite the drive-through menu board for ordering: A possum in a tree.

First thoughts: What’s wrong with it? Why would a possum be out and about during the day?

Next thoughts: Where did it come from? Why is it here? Has the smell of food lured it? Did it somehow manage to cross the busy street? Or (I shuddered): Will it TRY to cross the busy street? What will become of it?

Then: I need a picture. I’ll have to write about this.

And so I left the drive-through with the possum’s image preserved in my phone. Before I pulled into traffic, I looked back at the tree one last time. The animal wasn’t there any more.

It’s hard, for a storyteller, to not know fate or destiny.

I wondered many things as I drove away: Will restaurant workers or patrons call Animal Control? What does Animal Control do in a case like this? Will some random person decide to shoot it, deciding it poses a safety hazard, or just for the sake of shooting it? I am not a big fan of opossums but I didn’t want harm to come to it. Maybe it was old, weak, confused, like a person wandering in a nursing home. Maybe it was a female with babies hidden in her pouch. One Sunday morning when I was coming home from church a possum darted in front of my car. “Dart” isn’t really accurate; it hobbled as fast as it could. A mother laden with knobbly pink and gray babies on her back. Four little faces with eyes looking right at me. I slowed; they skittered across the road to safety.

That time, anyway.

And so I remembered them as I drove farther from my drive-through possum, contemplating the whole gamut of what might happen to it. Then, thankfully, my fanciful side kicked in: It knew where the speaker was. Maybe the possum comes on a daily basis to place an order: “Twenty-piece nuggets, please. Don’t forget my ketchup.” With those little pink hands, it could probably peel the ketchup foil back for dipping. Maybe the famous renegade cows are initiating this possum for the next round of their advertising campaign to ‘Eat Mor Chikin‘. . .

Oh, I thought, children would really like that story! I wonder what THEY would write . . . ?

There was a time when I’d take the photo and my story right into classrooms, across grade levels, as a model for any kind of writing. Small moment narratives, opinion, informational (for I ended up researching why an opossum would be so visible during the day and guess what? It’s not out of the ordinary at all. I further learned that opossums have a natural resistance to rabies and snake venom. Imagine people shooting it out of the tree because they don’t know). As an intro I might ask students if they know that the opossum is the only marsupial native to the Americas and link it to the koalas and kangaroos in Australia; we might consider relief efforts and life preservation, for all life is connected.

I’d even use my possum for teaching poetry writing. My mind is playing, this very minute, with opposite and opossum and tree and see, with an atmosphere of fear, wishing for a safe place. . . and of course there’s the fabulous fun of writing fantasy. Perhaps this possum took Chik-Fil-A home to its family where the bigger possum kids are playing video games (it always appears in some students’ writing). Maybe the possum babies got their nuggets “to go,” eating them in their mother’s pouch, with the littlest one crying that it didn’t get a toy . . .

The possibilities—or, in this case, “possumbilities”—are endless.

Or were endless, in the days when we did those kinds of writing, in that way, before the advent of programs that “incorporate” writing via a series of formulaic steps with whole classes writing on the same thing for the same amount of prescribed time. When authentic process was valued above uniform product and the end results were all different, because students—humans—are all different. In the days when students asked questions they generated themselves, because they really wanted to know the answers, because the answers mattered to them. When mining their own experiences for meaning lit up their faces and exploring their own ideas illuminated their minds. When the most priceless gift of childhood, imagination, wasn’t constrained and when teachers were not conscripted to teaching writing this way (with some believing that it’s better because it’s “easier”).

—Not me.

I saw a possum in a tree.

And I wondered, knowing I’d write about it, to find out why I needed to write about it.

It’s not about knowing fate or destiny.

It’s all about seeing possibilities, great and small, without and within, following a thread of thinking, of feeling, of life, to see where it takes you.

In other words, not blindly driving through and missing possumbilities.

Broken

broken moments

broken things

broken heart

yet it sings

broken flight

broken wings

broken fall

still it stings

feathers here

feathers there

feathers falling

everywhere

who’s at fault

I can’t say

we’re all broken

in some way

fallen is forever

broken is for now

people aren’t angels

anyhow

glue for mending

desire to start

wells within

the broken heart

in breaking through

not breaking worse

from broken pieces

comes broken curse.

Photo: Forgive Me. eddie dangerous. CC BY

Detour

This morning I planned to post a poem I’ve been working on for a while, about the brokenness of the human condition and the need for mending.

But the poem was stubborn; it wouldn’t allow itself to be finished. I ran out of time. A colleague came to pick me up for a meeting and we left early to beat traffic.

From the outset we encountered detours, one of which providentially took us by McDonald’s to grab a coffee. Liquid stamina.

There in the drive-through, between paying and receiving the order, my colleague and I watched a man pull into a parking place. He got out and opened the trunk of his car…

There wasn’t time to wonder, really, what he might be pulling out of that trunk, or for what purpose. He could have planned an act of destruction; isn’t that where our brains go first, nowadays?

I watched intently, not believing what I saw: The man took out a large bag. He shook it in a corner of the parking lot, by a curb and a tangle of trees.

Out of the brush ran a cat, followed by another.

To eat the food the man brought for them, from the bag he carried in his car.

Mission accomplished, the man returned the bag to his trunk and headed into McDonald’s for his own breakfast.

My colleague, a diehard cat-lover, took time to run in and thank this man. He laughed. “I do this everywhere I go. People either love me or hate me.”

It wasn’t a stop we planned to make, on a detour we hadn’t planned to take. This isn’t the piece on broken humanity I planned to post this morning.

Instead, the detour provided a glimpse of human compassion. A taste of the milk of human kindness.

Or, in this case, the cat food of human kindness.

If we can feel this for homeless cats, we can feel it for one other.

Meaning we’re not so broken. Not yet.

Sometimes a detour is about more than steering around a problem.

Sometimes it’s an opportunity to be fed.

Sometimes detours are a taste of the divine.

Reclamation

I love the stillness of the morning, before the dawn, which is presently hours away. I love the silence, the holy hush preceding the coming of the sun. My family, even the new puppy, slumbers on. If I have a word for these moments, it’s expectancy. If I were to step outside now I might hear footsteps in the pine straw beneath trees that border my back fence; I will not yet be able to see which creature is moving there in the dark. A white-tailed deer, perhaps, or a squirrel, which makes an astonishing amount of noise in the straw, much more more than larger creatures. Two mornings ago, in the first light, I glimpsed a huge gray rabbit running to and fro just beyond the fence. And if I wait long enough, I’ll hear my neighbor’s rooster crow. Any time now. He doesn’t wait for actual light that I can see. He’ll proclaim the new day, the continuum of daily living, before it’s set in motion. He’ll stir the goats in various pens throughout the neighborhood (not to be expected in a little subdivision—whatever happened to restrictive covenants?) and their loud chorus of wild baas will back up the rooster’s solo.

It’s life waking up again, claiming the day for its own.

On this new day, of this new year, this new decade, I think about life. The trouble with life, I once read, is that it’s so daily. Not merely being alive but trying to accomplish all that must be (or that we think must be) accomplished in this day, this week, this month … last year I learned a lesson about life on hiatus. When the life of someone you love hangs in the balance, all your best-laid plans disintegrate. Poof.

Moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to do what you can, what’s most important, for that given day. Recovering ground, inch by precious inch.

Reclamation.

Whether life is suspended, or stagnant, or spinning out of control, we still have choices. Maybe it’s resting more. Writing more. Reading more, singing more. Praying more. Maybe it’s seeking help. Maybe it’s restoring relationships, or releasing them. Or creating something beautiful, meaningful. What we want to do and what we’re actually able to do in a day, a week, a month, a year, may be vastly different, but reclamation doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in determined, consistent bits by bits. It is deliberate and intentional.

Once I wished for something like parallel lives, a cloning of sorts, with one of me staying home to write all day, one of me getting everything done in the house the way I want it, and another me going to work. I am exacting of myself; I do a thing, I want to do it well, and so I am easily paralyzed by my own standards.

I think of the sea, rolling on and on, its billows and rhythms, its continuity, its fluidity. I contemplate its healing properties, how it is designed to cleanse itself. I look at the photo I included at the top of this post, how, writes the photographer, the cemetery “is being reclaimed by the forest as alders, birch, spruce, fir and a couple apple trees crowd out the dozen or so headstones that stand here.” It’s in Newfoundland and that symbolism strikes right at my writer-heart, new found land.

That’s what reclamation is. Taking back solid ground, or creating new land, from what would submerge it, overtake it. Inch by precious inch, bit by bit. Yesterday I heard a sportscaster speak of Ron Rivera’s move from the Carolina Panthers to the Washington Redskins: “Coach Rivera has been part of a reclamation project before.” It took him four years to take the failing Panthers to the Super Bowl. He’s already begun the work for the Redskins, before he ever gets there … like my rooster here, calling to the dawn before it appears.

It’s hard daily work, reclamation. Progress is slow to see for a time.

But I’ve started.

I pulled the weeds out of the planters on my back deck and planted pansies, a bright bit of welcome on these cold mornings when I take the new puppy out. The puppy is himself an act of reclamation, an affirmation of love my family has always had for dogs (which, I’ve said before, have souls; purer than my own, there in those eyes). He marks a moving forward.

One step at a time, I’ll reclaim the house by many little needed repairs and coats of paint. Patience, endurance …

My writing, my writing. How many stories lay unfinished? Not begun? If I can learn to live nonlinear, to live as fluid as the sea, then anywhere is an entry point. Whenever, wherever, just plunge. The time necessary for writing will come if I just begin the reclamation.

Work. I write this paragraph not only for myself, but for other educators and instructional coaches struggling for clarity and a foothold in an ever-changing, shifting field: Beware the great chasm between theory and application, between programs that are packaged as “the magic bullet” and cost a pretty penny but fail to deliver. Be aware of the great gulf between data that’s visible and the stories of human children, not so visible. Push back all that encroaches on growing the children, that which would inhibit their love of learning. Reclaim that for them. Know them and their families and their stories. Know your colleagues and their stories. Write together, all of you; in this day of restorative practices and social-emotional wellness, why are people not writing more in such settings? We reclaim the very heart of our humanity when we share our stories.

—It is light now. A new day is here; I hear life stirring all around. Forget those restrictive covenants.

Let the reclamation begin.

Photo: Reclamation. Derrick Mercer. CC BY-SA

From ashes of auld lang syne

 

embers

New Year’s Eve. The wind gusts in the night beyond the bedroom window. I sit at my scarred old vanity, watching a tiny hand-me-down television. I am fifteen, this room is my inner sanctum, so I am surprised when Daddy brings me a slice of frozen pizza that Mom heated up for a late snack. “Something to munch on while we wait for midnight,” he says, and departs. My heart is stirred by this gesture. I don’t know why. I can’t even say if it’s a pang of happiness or sadness.  I take a tentative bite of the pizza and resume watching the movie Come Back, Little Sheba. I am safe and warm, the pizza is unexpectedly tasty, yet I shiver. The desolation of the characters and their story pierces me. How could things be so wrong? Would Sheba—a missing dog—ever come back home?

The wind moans under the eaves; I can’t stop this seeping inner chill.

Midnight arrives. I should say something to my parents.

I go down the hall to the living room, where they are turning off the big TV. “Happy New Year,” I say. 

They are stretching, yawning: “Happy New Year, Sugar. Good night.”

We head for our beds.

The ringing of the phone wakes me from a deep sleep.

I sit straight up. A phone call at this time of night—morning, rather—can’t be good news.

I wait in the dark, pulling the blankets around me, as my father’s footsteps hurry down the hardwood hallway to the kitchen. He answers the phone, hurries back down the hall to get my mother.

I hear her crying.

Heart pounding, halfway not wanting to know but also realizing I’ll have to face whatever it is sooner or later, I get up and go to the kitchen.

Mom is hanging up the phone, tears streaming.

“Grannie’s house caught fire. They all got out but the house is gone.”

I am suddenly weak. I need to sit down. I do, right there on the kitchen floor.

How did this happen? I want to know but can’t bring myself to ask.

My grandparents have been sent to the hospital for monitoring; within a couple of hours, my aunt arrives to stay with us. She is weeping, nearly incoherent, her clothes reeking of smoke. A charred, overpowering smell. 

The smoke woke me up, she sobs. Thank God for the phone in the bedroom. She tells us that when she picked it up to dial 911—the brand-new emergency number—the receiver was almost too hot to  touch. Coughing, knowing she had to get out, she opened her bedroom window and crawled through to the porch roof. There she found Grannie and Papa G. Within minutes, the fire trucks arrived, ladders went up, and my family was ushered to safety. As she speaks, I see hoses dousing orange flames that illuminate the icy black night.

Jenny was still in there, sobs my aunt.

Her beloved Siamese cat, twelve years old.

Three firemen held me back, she says, choking on her words, and I envision how hard my aunt fought to go back for Jenny. She’s a sizable woman; it probably took everything those three firemen had to restrain her until the fire was out and they could search. 

My aunt, middle-aged, unmarried, never having had children, dissolves in anguish: They found her body under my bedroom window.

Jenny, she sobs over and over in my mother’s arms. I am sorry, Jenny.

I am now as cold as ice, shaking uncontrollably.

—Come back, little Sheba.

*******

The question we all had: How did the fire start?

It was an old two-story house, drafty, with a curious assortment of doors and rooms. A chimney stood in the wall between the living room and Papa G’s little dressing room on the ground floor. As that New Year’s Eve was excessively cold and windy, my grandparents burned logs in the living room fireplace. They extinguished the fire before they went to bed but the wind gusted hot embers back down the chimney with enough force to blow the old plate off the wall at its back. The embers landed on the dressing room rug, directly under the room where my grandparents lay sleeping.

On that long-ago New Year’s Day, extended family gathered to survey the damage. Wooden doors on the ground floor were burnt completely through their middles but still held onto their glass knobs, like ravaged ladies saving their diamonds at all costs. The pantry where I stood so often as a young child, opening all of Grannie’s stopper spice bottles to smell the contents—cloves were my favorite—was destroyed by soot and water. The avocado-green telephone in the kitchen had melted down the wall like something out of a Dali painting. 

That phone, more than anything, sent my fifteen-year-old mind reeling. The horror of that much heat. That much danger, the near escape. The ruin of it all, the losses. Jenny. There would be no going back. No coming back.

The old house, the old year, a portion of my childhood lay in ashes. 

But my predecessors were survivors. They left a legacy of rising above, of carrying on. They knew, well before that night, how to bring something new from the old, something beautiful out of desolation. To my astonishment, the house was restored and refurbished more elegantly than before; my grandparents and my aunt lived there for many more years. 

We don’t go back, no. We can’t.

But we go on. 

It’s a long time since I was fifteen, straddling the transition from childhood to adulthood, coping with the temporal nature of life and its losses, but I believe that New Year’s fire marked the true beginning of my resilience, faith, courage, and, when needed, my fighting spirit. My inheritance. It’s carried me through every year since, even this last, in the greatest crisis of my adult life. Once again, my family survives, only this time I’m the older generation. We recoup, we go on to whatever this new year holds for us.

Perhaps it’s overcoming that sparks the memory. 

It’s auld lang syne, my dears, auld lang syne, beyond the darkest night, the ashes of what was. And not forgotten.

I rise and walk into the new carrying you with me, always.

Photo: Embers. Brian Douglass. CC BY