Hold on loosely

Grab hold

Grab hold! Jannes PockeleCC BY

Just hold on loosely,
but don’t let go
If you cling too tightly
you’re gonna lose control. 

—38 Special/D. Barnes, J. Carlisi, J. Peterik

The draft of this post has been sitting here a long time, gathering cobwebs, while I considered how to write it. The idea began with seeing connections between teaching, instructional coaching, parenting…with those cautionary lyrics, above, coming to mind: “If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control.”

That’s the problem with many relationships, isn’t it. Control. As in, who‘s trying to assert it? By holding too tightly? By force? What are the consequences? Why do I think of Aesop’s fable of the North Wind and the Sun trying to prove who was stronger by making the Traveler remove his cloak? What does this imply about human nature?

And not just human nature…that little green vine in the photo, above…it has goals, doesn’t it? To keep growing, climbing, gaining strength daily…soon the difference between “holding on loosely” and “clinging too tightly” will be evident in the absolute destruction it will wreak. It cannot know the cost to whatever tree, gate, house, other plants, anything it overtakes.

How did I land here, when I began with thinking on connective threads of teaching, coaching, parenting? Where will my metaphorical thinking take me next? What philosophical point am I trying to make?

Is this out of control now? How DO I write this persistent…thing?

When at a loss to say what can hardly be said, there’s always poetry. Maybe that’s what this idea wants to be…

Each poem is a metaphor, a philosophy, a journey of its own. This one, like life, goes fast. The form is designed for that. Sylvia Plath said that once a poem is written, interpretation belongs to the reader. Read it just to read, then maybe reread to decide for yourself if you see threads of teaching, coaching, parenting…and more. With poetry, there’s always more.

So here’s where the poem took me. I landed in a blitz: “Hold On Loosely.”

Have only today
Have and to hold
Hold my hand
Hold it dear
Dear one
Dear children
Children laughing
Children leaving home
Home is wherever YOU are
Home place
Place of remembering
Place in the sun
Sun rising in the east
Sun dappling the grass
Grass rippling in the breeze
Grass withering, fading
Fading light
Fading fast
Fast go the hours
Fast and furious
Furious argument
Furious storms
Storms wreaking havoc
Storms passing
Passing over
Passing by
By the way
By getting to work
Work it out
Work hard
Hard to handle
Hard to reach
Reach anyway
Reach out
Out of time
Out of breath
Breath of fresh air
Breath of life
Life is short
Life is precious
Precious moments
Precious faces
Faces in photographs
Faces tugging at heartstrings
Heartstrings reverberating at final words
Heartstrings tied loosely
Loosely hold on
Loosely, not letting go.
go…
on…

What threads did you see?

Oh, and writer-friends…maybe reread one last time to see how the blitz might describe a relationship with writing.

Having shaken off the cobwebs, I go on…

On children and hope: Spiritual Journey Thursday

Photo: Child of Vision. Baby eye in black and white. Iezalel Williams. Public domain.

I’m a hopeful person. A hopeful writer. I created this blog in hopes that whomever encountered it would come away feeling uplifted. There’s already too much in the world pulling us down, every day. Burdens can pile until one hardly feels able to move. Grief is like this. Depression is like this. Oppression is like this.

Always, I am looking for a way, or writing my way, through to the better I believe is there. That, to me, is hope. Coming through. Knowing that possibility exists, sensing it, even when I cannot see exactly what it looks like. Eventually it reveals itself. And so I hope.

Yesterday I read that hope is not enough for one of humanity’s biggest burdens. Not COVID-19, which will eventually pass, although it will destroy many more of us before it is done. But we will be fighting diseases as long as we’re alive. No—hope is not enough, in itself, to remove the unbearable burden of racism.

As hopeful as I am, I know this is true.

Yesterday evening I watched a news segment featuring families talking to their children about racism. Black families, families with brown skin. A beautiful little girl—little girl—coached by her dad on how to respond if she should be singled out by those in law enforcement. Eyes wide, brow slightly knit in concentration, the child dutifully repeated everything her dad taught her on how to move, how to hold her hands … she covered it all. Dad paused in his feedback. He nodded. Then he said, quietly: “I did all that. And they still tased me.” The little girl’s face froze, then crumpled. Weeping, she climbed into her father’s lap, into his arms.

Another parent, a mother, said that as awful as it is to burden her children with this knowledge, it’s ultimately for their protection. They need to know.

A boy and another little girl from different families said they know it’s wrong for people to treat each other this way. “We are all human,” said the boy, a young teen. “It doesn’t matter what color skin anybody has,” said the girl (is she maybe six? seven?). “We should all be good to each other and love each other.”

Love one another.

The greatest spiritual journey we can ever take.

Loving means bearing each other’s burdens; it does not mean hoping the burdens go away. It means putting love into action, working to remove the burden, the systems, the structures that oppress others. The possibility is there; our hearts just have to be burdened enough, collectively, to usher it into reality.

For what’s the alternative? Hopelessness. The deadliest thing of all.

As I tried to sleep last night, so many images flooded my mind. Mostly children. Many I’ve known over the years. Black, brown, white faces, eyes full of light, little arms open wide, always ready to give away their love. How easily laughter, wonder, song, and joy come to them … my daughter-in-law texted that my granddaughter woke up singing yesterday morning, before she got out of bed: “Everyone is a star, and everyone has to see how strong and powerful, and everyone has to see how much I love you and how much I’ve grown.” She is four. The thought of anyone robbing the pureness of her heart is … inhuman. It should not happen to any child. Ever. But it does. It is the most terrible of dichotomies, that the big love we have for one another as children does not grow as we do. If it did, the world would be an entirely different place … and if we have any hope of it being better, it begins with acting now. Understanding now. Changing now. Breaking out of age-old racist, prejudiced molds that may have shaped us, now … or they remain intact, shaping those who follow.

I remembered a thing last night, as I finally fell asleep only to dream about children (babies, in fact, standing in a crib, laughing because they’d just learned to pull themselves up). Somewhere there is a photo of me in a crib with my doll, Suzy. So long ago. I saw her in the store while shopping with my grandmother. Beautiful doll. What was it about Suzy that I loved? Her dark eyes, like my own? Black hair and skin, not like mine? I don’t even remember the shopping trip; my Grannie told me years later how I asked for that doll. So she, a white woman from the rural South, bought it for me—in the late 1960s.

Every day, every action, great and small, every word … colors the picture of society that the children see.

That’s us, reflected in their eyes.

In kindergarten I drew a family picture that made my mother angry: “Why did you have to draw me with a cigarette?”

I blinked, and couldn’t respond: Because I always see you smoking.

Children.

On my mind when I go to bed.
On my mind when I wake.
Not just my own
or ones I’ve known.

Children.

So full of love.
So full of song.
So free with their giving
in everyday living.

Children.

We hand them the crayons.
Blank sheets of paper.

And set little hearts so earnestly
to coloring the world they see.

Children.

Is there a crayon called Hope?
To color Tomorrow?

And what will that picture be
if they copy you and me?

My little granddaughter once explained sadness this way: “I was crying with my blue eyes.”

I know, Baby. Same as I cry with my brown ones.

Everyone is a star, and everyone has to see how strong and powerful … let us all keep loving. And growing. And working together to help and heal. Daily finding the way.

That, I’d say, is what hope really looks like.

From my granddaughter’s heart: I love you so very much.

Special thanks to Ruth Hersey for hosting Spiritual Journey Thursday, and to all my friends and sojourners. You are welcome to continue the journey by reading their thoughts on the theme of Hope here.

Cookie commemoration

Quarantine cookies are a real thing.

Not just the baking of them as a means of COVID-coping productivity, but as an expression of the times.

My daughter-in-law—artist, baker, craftsperson extraordinaire—created these cookies a few weeks ago. She and my son delivered them with my granddaughter via a front porch social-distance visit:

My ebullient four-year-old granddaughter belly-laughed on presenting these whimsical delights: “TOILET TISSUE COOKIES!!!!!”

“And face masks and soap!” I exclaimed.

“They’re too pretty to eat!” said my husband.

But we did. Every crumb. With joy.

I thought about the joy with which these cookies were infused, how ingesting them was an antidote to the virus zeitgeist. What you put into a thing is what you get out of it …

Yesterday my son and his family made another delivery:

“Ooooohhhhh,” my husband and I breathed in unison.

As we admired the astonishing artistry, I noted a shift in the cookie symbolism: Not just physical survival, as in the previous batch, but spiritual (coffee counts as both, right?). The fleur-de-lis, emblem of our daughter-in-law’s Louisiana roots, long associated with Christianity and the church, an icon from antiquity for royalty and protection. Choosing to believe, as the stages of isolation drag on, that the uncertain future can, and will, be beautiful. “Unbridled hope for tomorrow” … such trust. Such zest for life.

And a pencil.

Truth is, we write our tomorrows by our choices today … and nothing represents spiritual survival to me more than writing.

I call it: “The pencil is mine.”

“I want this one,” said my husband, picking up the fleur-de-lis. How he misses going to church, being with the flock he pastors. A shepherd pining for restoration, preservation.

We share the consumption of hope.

Every sweet crumb of it.

I am from poem

How have I lived to be this old without attempting an “I Am From” poem?

A rectification …

I am from sharp pencils
from Ivory soap and Duke’s mayonnaise
I am from the secret vault under the concrete back steps
(cool, cobwebby, smelling of ghosts)
I am from gardenias
from towering Eastern pines
heavy boughs whispering
waving to me like a vertical green sea
I’m from storytelling and dogs
from Columbus and Ruby
I’m from Reader’s Digest and gospel music
From “You’re the oldest, set the example”
and “take care of your precious self”
I’m from Jesus Loves Me, red-letter Bibles, put your offering in the plate
I’m from the riverside and the shipyard
from collards with hot pepper vinegar and carrot cake from scratch
From my father’s crew-cut ever since his head was pierced
by a friend’s cleats in a childhood game of deer and dog,
from three translucent pink moles on Grandma’s chin.
In trunks and in closeted boxes my grandmother’s painstaking albums
rest atop layers of loose photos, paper strata of many eras.
I am etched deep in this phosphorite, the living reliquary
of all the stories.

Frozen acrostics

Once upon a time, a terrible enchantment swept across the land like a howling, raging wind. It forced people into their homes so lives could be spared. It kept children from being with their friends and grandparents so the evil sickness would not spread. Many heroes waged a mighty battle with a tiny germ at great cost to the whole kingdom. Meanwhile, the people waited … and waited … and waited … and longed, with all their hearts, to be together again. They missed each other fiercely but they knew the waiting was an act of true love, and that love, eventually, conquers all

I would love to hold you close
Sometime soon
Only when it’s safe again
Let this virus go, let it go
All will be well in
Time
It is so long, so hard
On the heart, being apart
Now

Soon the spell will be
Over and we
Can be
In the same bright kingdom together
Again
Let this virus go, let it go
Don’t come back any more
It’s funny how
Some distance makes everything seem like
Time is frozen
Although, little queen of my heart, we are one day
Nearer to overthrowing this
Corona-nation separation to resume our happily
Ever after

Original photo with text: L. Haley. Edited with Cartoona Watercolor.

Signs of the times

A friend wanted to know if my family would like some face masks.

She is making them.

She sent us pictures of the fabric—she has bolts of it—for us to choose the prints.

Yesterday she and her husband pulled up in our driveway to drop off the masks. My husband and I went out to meet our friends, offering our thanks only in words, no hand-grasps or hugs … a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing … a few weeks back, we were all sitting around the dining room table here in the house, laughing and telling stories after a lasagna dinner. It seems long ago.

When will we be able to do so comfortably, again?

When I look at these masks, I see all that they represent. Shields in time of trouble. A friend channeling inertia into something productive, a practical means of battling an unseen enemy. Self-care spreading out like a blanket to cover others. Homemade love. Colorful patterns against the dark backdrop of our days.

These masks are artifacts of our times. Symbols of our story as we live it. And nothing connects humanity as much as story.

As I walked out to the driveway to receive these gifts, my grandmother’s voice echoed from across the years:

You won’t believe it, but where these woods are now used to be houses and farms, up and down this little road … when the Spanish flu came, it hit all but a couple of them … twelve people died in one week … Mama made pots of soup and Papa would carry it to their doors. He wouldn’t go in, of course …

Grandma wouldn’t have had living memory of this. When the influenza pandemic began in January 1918, she was only two. But she knew the stories. If my own memory serves me correctly, as I walked the tiny country cemeteries surrounding her homeplace, listening to her narratives of the people resting there—for she knew all their stories, and how they were connected— there was an unexpected commonality.

A death year. 1917.

That was before the Spanish flu.

Grandma nodded. There was a sickness before: They called it hemorrhagic fever. People would bruise and bleed from their noses and ears and eyes … a lot of people who tried to take care of the sick caught it and died, too …

She was hardly more than a baby then, a girl born and raised in a hard place in hard times, but here she stood, by the weather-worn stones under a cloudless blue sky, telling the stories seven decades later.

Because of story, these events are lodged in my memory a hundred years after they happened.

My father was Grandma’s first child, born during the Great Depression. Flour companies made their sacks with patterns and bright colors so people could make clothes out of them … look at my handmade face masks and tell me they aren’t reminiscent. A second child, my aunt, arrived with the war. Granddaddy moved the family from North Carolina to Virginia; he found work in the shipyard, where production increased to the point of cranking out ships in less than a third of the time it normally took. How can one not compare that to the scramble for mass production of ventilators today …

Grandma said: It was so hot that summer. I was miserable, being pregnant. I’d sit by the upstairs window and watch the iceman delivering blocks of ice to grocers … companies stopped making refrigerators … everything went into the war effort. I just cried. I’d have given anything for some of that ice … then we had ration cards and could only get certain things at certain times … once my sister Jack and her husband pooled their gas ration cards with ours and we all went on a trip to Massachusetts … it was so beautiful and so cool there …

I look at these masks and that is what I see.

The story of overcoming. Of determination. Of resourcefulness in time of scarcity. Of finding a means to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a real and present help in time of need, even if from a safe distance. Sharing so that everyone has enough. Acts of service, gifts of love. Sacrifice.

The story of surviving.

It’s a collective one.

I will love you forever

Can I play it?

Sure. This was my Grandma’s piano. She let me play it when I was little like you.

I’m not little. I’m a BIG girl.

Oh, sorry. I meant when I was a big girl like you.

How do I find the white part?

The keys? You just open the lid. Here, I’ll help you.

I am going to play a song for you.

Really? For me? What’s it called?

It is called “I Love Your Heart.” [playing] [Ballad feel] [singing] I love your heart, your heart. I love and love and love your hearrrrt …

That is so beautiful. [sniffling]

I have another song.

You do?

[nodding] Yes. This one is “I Will Love You Forever.” [Slowly, freely] I. Will. Love. You. Foreverrrrr…

[instrumental] [rocking small body in time]

{I love YOUR little heart, and …}

Hey Franna. [still playing and rocking]

Yes?

Can I live here with you until I am a hundred and nine? [pause]

Oh, I … um, that’s a really long time.

Is it forever?

Well, no. Forever is longer.

[nodding] [playing] [a tempo] I. Will. Love. You. Foreverrr …

{I know one thing, Little Big Girl}

{I.Will. Love. You. Forever.}

Spittin’ image

Memoir is probably my favorite kind of writing.

It’s like small moments on steroids. When I write myself back into childhood, scenes, conversations, little forgotten details are pumped full of meaning, for I have the advantage of understanding so much more than I did then . . .

This event occurred when I was seven or eight. As I write, I think of how we don’t know all that children are experiencing or how they’re trying to navigate life. Families don’t make perfect portraits. There are so many reasons why.

We are our stories.

With that in mind I’ve opted to change family names here. It gives me the final shot of courage needed to share “Spittin’ Image.”

*******

We are going to visit my grandfather.

Not my Daddy’s daddy, my Sunday-afternoons-in-the park Granddaddy who bought me red rubber boots when I started school because all my kindergarten friends had them and I wanted them, too.  We are going to see my Mama’s daddy.  I don’t know him very well. He came to visit us once, sat in our living room chair with his hand stuck out so that when I ran by, not paying attention, not being careful, his cigarette burned me.

Mama says he lives in a hospital.

I don’t know why anyone would live in a hospital. I don’t want to go see him, don’t know why we have to go.

My mother gets snappy: “He’s your granddaddy—you’re going!”

My aunts are taking us because Mama doesn’t drive. She doesn’t know how.

“Last time I seen Daddy, he was looking better,” says Aunt Bobbie, who’s driving us in her maroon Ford LTD, a Marlboro sticking out from the first two fingers of her right hand on the steering wheel. I see her mouth in the rear-view mirror. There are little pucker lines around her lips. “I believe he’s eating good. Acted happy to see me, too.”

Aunt Imogene—Genie, I call her—is riding shotgun in front of me. She takes a long drag on her own cigarette. I slide over so I can see the thick white smoke pouring out of her mouth and how it all goes right up her nose, like a waterfall in reverse. It’s neat to watch. About ten minutes pass before she speaks; Genie never does anything fast.

“Waaaay-yelllll…” says Genie, stretching the word well into four or five syllables, “at least we know he’s taken care of at the Home.”

Beside me in the backseat, Mama puts a Salem Menthol in her mouth and flicks her lighter, inhales. She doesn’t do fancy stuff with her smoke. She is quiet.

She is often quiet.

The ride takes forever. Finally Aunt Bobbie says, “We’re here,” and we pull into a parking place bordered by pine trees.

Mama drops the butt to the ground and grinds it into the gravelly dirt with her sandal. This is my grandfather’s Home, I guess, but Mama told me it was a hospital, so I’m confused. When we go in there are many small rooms but no bright lights, no doctors in lab coats, no nurses wearing white dresses and little caps. There’s a lot of wood paneling. The Home makes me think of a really big cabin but the people here don’t look like campers. Some are in wheelchairs, some are standing. Some are in pajamas. Not all of them are old. They stare at us as we go by and I don’t like the feel of their eyes.

Aunt Bobbie leads the way, down a hall, around a corner. I peek in one room and see a man with long white hair lying in bed with his mouth open, but he’s not asleep.

I want to run out of here.

Genie says, “Waaaay-yelll, hey, Daddy.”

He’s sitting in an armchair in a little living room area, holding a lit cigarette in the first two fingers of his right hand. All of his fingers have yellow stains. His nails are brown and long, and the ashes on that cigarette are the longest I’ve ever seen; why don’t they fall?      

Genie hugs him. Aunt Bobbie hugs him. He says “Hey” to them in a high, raspy voice. He doesn’t have much hair. His face is long, kind of yellowish, kind of gray, with brown spots. His clothes have spots, too, except that they’re actually small holes. From dropping cigarettes. Or ashes.

Mama is hanging back but Aunt Bobbie pulls her over.

“Daddy, look who come to see you. Beverly Ann.”

“Hey Daddy,” says my mother, bending to hug him, then stepping back. “How are you doing?”

My grandfather looks at her, his daughter, my mother, and I can tell he doesn’t know her.

Next thing I know, she’s yanking on my arm.

“I brought your granddaughter to visit.” She tugs. “Come on, give your granddaddy a hug.”

I do not want to.  I don’t move. I just look at him.

Genie pokes me from behind.

“Go and see him,” say my aunts. “He’s your granddaddy.”

I already see him and he sees me. For a minute I look into his eyes—they are big, green like moss—and the emptiness there makes me think of a hole in the ground that has no bottom. Or the time Daddy was holding me when he opened the medicine cabinet and its mirror reflected into the mirror over the sink. Mirror, mirror, on the wall . . . it became a mirror, mirror, mirror hall, reflected mirrors going on and on and on, growing tinier and tinier, like a never-ending nothingness. I’m frightened of my grandfather’s eyes, frightened that he’s looking at me with them, that something about them makes me think of my mother.

Then they light up. He knows me! He holds out his hand—not the one with the cigarette, I have my eye on that one—and calls to me:

“Beverly Aaaannn…” he says, drawling like Genie does.

“No, Daddy,” says Aunt Bobbie, “this is Beverly Ann’s daughter. That,” she points to Mama, “is Beverly Ann.”

He keeps right on staring at me.

He doesn’t get it. He thinks I am my mother. When she was little.

I hug him because I have to, because the sisters, his daughters, are making me. His skin is cool and frog-like. When I pull away, he’s still looking at me.

 Am I supposed to love him? I don’t know him. And he doesn’t know me.

We don’t stay long. As soon as we’re outside, Genie bums a light off Mama, who’s shakily firing up another Salem. Genie sucks deep, does her dragon-smoke thing, nods at me.

“I’ve said it a thousand tiiiiiimes, you are your Mama’s child, that’s for sure. Spittin’ image.”

“Ain’t she though?” agrees Aunt Bobbie.

I walk beside Mama. The aunts move ahead of us. Hoping they won’t hear, I whisper: “Why did he think I’m you, Mama?”

“His mind’s not right. Never has been,” she says, taking a drag, looking off in the distance at nothing in particular. “I really wasn’t around him much. I was a little girl when he left home.”

“Why did he leave?”

She turns her eyes on me. Dark brown eyes, like mine, and for a second they have that bottomless look. She’s slow to answer but not in the way that Genie is slow to do things. She takes another long drag.

“Grannie sent him away because he tried to hurt her.”

“Were you sad?”

“No.” Then, softly: “I was scared of him.”

Aunt Bobbie cranks the maroon LTD; Genie is getting in the front passenger side. Mama looks back at the Home and I wonder what she’s thinking. As I reach for the door, I catch my reflection in the backseat window. I glimpse the pines and the cloudless blue sky behind me. Crows fly overhead, cawing loudly. Yes, I do look a lot like my Mama. Even I can see that.

I feel shaky, too. I lean in to look closely at my own eyes, hoping to God I never find them so empty.

My new name

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts

—Shakespeare, As You Like It

Life’s transitions tend to sneak up on us.

For example, when it dawned on my oldest son that high school wouldn’t last forever and beyond it was college plus this thing called The Rest of Your Life, involving responsibility and duty, he looked at me with big brown eyes full of gloom: “I don’t want to grow up.”

Alas. It happens.

But he found his way. Last fall he simultaneously started the pastorate, married, and became the dad of a beautiful four-year-old girl. That’s a lot of transitions in one fell swoop, and he’s embracing them all. He’s thriving.

One man in his time plays many parts . . .

All of a sudden, his father and I have reached the grandparent stage of life. While it’s the loveliest transition, I can’t keep from thinking, with a pang, How did I become this old? Truth is, there’s exactly the same age difference between my grandmother and me as there is between me and my new granddaughter. It shouldn’t seem so astonishing.

The hardest transition isn’t mine, however. It’s my granddaughter’s. She loves to come over, loves to climb in my lap with a book as much as I loved climbing into my Grandma’s with one. All of this is glorious fun. No, the hard part is what to call me. She’s used to saying Miss Fran:

“Miss Fran, I’m hungry!”

“Oooo, Miss Fran, I like your nails. Can you paint mine?”

“Can we have a popcorn party and watch Frozen again, Miss Fran?”

“Let’s go outside and blow bubbles, Miss Fran!”

She likes telling everyone that I am her grandmother now. She even likes pretending to be me. My son said that after I broke my foot she went clomping around their house with one rain boot on, saying “I’m Miss Fran!” Yikes.

This transition away from Miss Fran has proved challenging. But she’s working on it.

The other night she asked me to spell words for her with magnets on a whiteboard. I did, without realizing that she intended to copy them with a marker.

Here she is, writing with utmost care. A message to me.

With my new name, for the new role I get to play in her life:

Franna.

Life just gets grander.

I asked her if she wanted to spell “Franna” with one ‘n’ or two. She chose two.

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