When the bus pulled up to our lane, the kids yelled, “Oooh! Look at your house.”
Looking out the window, we saw nothing but a curl of smoke where our house once stood. Exiting the bus, mouths gaping in disbelief, tears streaming down our faces, my brother Lee and I ran, trembling, into the waiting arms of our Grandmother. Our house burned to a pile of smoldering ash while he and I were at school and Granny, our guardian, was visiting her sister who lived a few miles away. I was eight years old. My brother was six.
About nine months before the fire, our mother and father left to “go up north to work.” Motivated by a vision of becoming landowners – sharecropper and housekeeper no longer – they left us in the care of our beloved Granny and sent “boxes” frequently. Though they felt like special gifts – arriving by mail from our parents “up north.” In reality, they were just things we needed. A winter coat. A hat and gloves. New underwear and socks. A pair of shoes. All necessities. All consumed by the fire.
It’s good the fire occurred when no one was at home. We had so little, it would have been tempting to dash in and save it. But, by the time Granny and her sister, Aunt Mary, arrived to meet our school bus, there was nothing left – nothing but the four stacks of cinder blocks our ragged, frame house once sat on and a curl of smoke rising from still warm embers.
“Normal” was gone. We were homeless. No plates, no food, no table to sit at and eat. Nothing to wear. No place to bathe or sleep.
The community – a lot of whom were family members – gathered to help. Even in that world of stark racial divide – South Carolina in the early 1960s – several whites came forward to assist. Their concern and generosity were a surprise. Mr. Rogan, owner of the general store, gave us food. Mr. Fox and Mr. Joseph gave Granny, Lee and me clothing. The tradition of the black–white racial divide vanished, for a moment. The usual walls were replaced by compassion.
While I didn’t know it then, this scary, frighteningly sad moment was a pivot point – an experience that would change the course of my life. Within days, our parents arrived and brought us back to Bristol, Pennsylvania where we made a new life.
Up north, in an integrated world, I developed a perspective and way of life that differed from the one I knew in our little rural, segregated southern town. The house fire was the pivot point that redefined my life experience. It set up a change in environment and introduced experiences I wouldn’t have had if we remained in South Carolina.
That fire was the last time something happened to my home that I didn’t plan for, expect or want. That is, until Sandy arrived on Monday, October 29th.
Wisely, my husband Bill and I evacuated the day before as directed by Governor Chris Christie. I remember feeling very sad, heavy with grief, as we packed up select essentials and headed inland.
Finally, on November 2nd, we were permitted to return home. Breathlessly, we drove down the main avenue surveying the homes and streets. There was evidence of damage, but not bad. We looked at each other and took a deep breath as Bill made the left turn onto our street. It was filled with several inches of sand, dried seaweed and ocean debris. But our house was standing. No broken windows or missing shingles. Amazing!
Walking around back, we found the door to the lower level wide open. Busted, broken away from the frame, it collapsed under the pressure of surging seawater. Powerful and insistent on having its way, the ocean entered the lower level and filled it with about four and a half feet of salty, sandy, corrosive seawater, setting heavy furniture and appliances afloat.
With a nervous glance, we walked up the steps to the next level. It looked fine – just as we left it. The next level was fine, too. Hugging and feeling thankful, I cried with relief. We had lost a level of living space, but our house still stood, intact and absolutely fixable, though quite a mess. What a mess! Ultimately, the vast majority of the lower-level contents had to be discarded, sheetrock and insulation removed, all mechanical and electrical systems and appliances replaced.
Doing what needs to be done to clear out the ruined, preserve whatever is salvageable and keep up with existing professional commitments, I’ve been overly busy and haven’t taken time to feel my feelings. I haven’t made space for my emotional reaction to this loss. Someday soon, once all that was wet is dry and free of mold and mildew, I’ll sit down, breathe deeply several times and let my feelings flow. Right now, I’m pressing and moving through – doing my best to mitigate the damage.
While I’m no where near homeless and enjoy many pleasures and creature comforts I could not have imagined back when my house burned down, I know this experience is a pivot point. The particulars are not clear at this moment but intuitively, I’m confident this is yet another life-defining event. How and in what way? I don’t know. How will the flood influence the next segment of my life? I’m not sure. What’s the lesson in this experience? I invite it to reveal itself to me. I’m open to learning and making the most of this important pivot point.
In the meantime, I’ll keep drying out, clearing out, cleaning up and making space for what comes next – lessons, insights, inspirations and changes. All a natural part of life’s ebb and flow.