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

Help

Help

“Help.” James JohnstoneCC BY

As I entered the darkened cinema auditorium, an attendant handed me a pack of tissues.

Foreshadowing at its best.

The tears come at various points throughout the viewing of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—the lovingly documented life and work of Fred Rogers.

Mr. Rogers operated from a profound wellspring of love and empathy for children. At the outset of the movie, he’s young, seated at a piano. The film is black-and-white. With his hands on the keys, Mr. Rogers speaks of modulations: “It’s fairly easy to go from, say, a C to an F,” he says, playing each chord. “But to go from an F to an F-sharp,” he models, “you must navigate all sorts of things.” He saw the new medium of communication, television, as a means of helping children navigate the modulations of life. Fears. Changes. Questions. Emotions. A country at war. Hatred. Not understanding. Divorce. Illness. Death.

I watched and listened with the ears of an educator and the heart of a writer. This is my work, too, I thought, only my medium is paper and pencil. 

Then, after having helped generations of children through the modulations of life, came 9/11.

Mr. Rogers, then retired, was asked to help, his voice, his presence, once again a ray of light, this time cutting through incomprehensible darkness. In the documentary, the sorrow is etched on his face. He spoke of being tikkun olam, “repairers of creation.”

With his words I saw the world in all its brokenness, violence, despair . . . and thought, It begins with the world inside us. Repair begins there, within each of us, before we can work on the world without.

I thought of children I’ve known through the years, finding their voices through writing, facing their fears, overcoming them, gaining strength and courage. Children who have suffered loss and grappled with it in their own words. I’ve read the haunting account of a child being tortured in another country and celebrating his new life in the United States. I thought it was fiction until the third-person changed to first near the narrative’s end; the teenager was writing about himself. A second-grader whose mother was remarrying and her fear: “Will my stepfather like me?” A fifth-grader lashing out at her mother in the very first line of her memoir over how many times they’d had to move, and how it hard it was to have any friends.

And with the words that came from within, anger eventually melted to forgiveness, fears pointed toward hope, insecurities gave way to confidence and validation. With the writing, the stories became those of enduring, of overcoming, of celebration.

Repairing within.

I thought about how some educators look at writing only as a means of retelling what you know from what you’ve read, or a standard to be delivered, assessed, and crossed off a list. No time for this “touchy-feely” kind of  thing . . . yet the one thing that best helps children understand themselves, the world around them, and their place in it, is writing. Freedom versus constriction. Discovering potential, seeing possibilities, problem-solving. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Why is the goal “college and career ready?” How about life ready?

For the modulations don’t end in childhood, do they, Grown-Up.

Mr. Rogers spoke of his own childhood and what his mother told him whenever there was a catastrophe, or news of tragedy, on the air; she said “Look for the helpers. There will always be helpers, even if on the sidelines . . . because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

Look for the helpers. Repairers of the world.

Then be the hope.

And . . . write.