Firing from the Lip

A collection of thoughts, stories, tall tales, half truths and opinions from the Heartland of America.

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Location: Missouri, United States

An irreverent but loving grandfather of five and father of three, I enjoy writing of family, love, life, and the never ending fascination of it all.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Year Without Gifts

Two weeks before Christmas in 1969 our home burned to the ground. Despite the tragedy of that loss it was a memorable time.

The most memorable Christmas of my life is the year we had nothing. I was eight-years-old, my parents home had burned to the ground two weeks earlier. They had lost everything in the fire and we were living in our storm cellar. My parents were sad and worried that year, but as always, they put me before themselves and tried to make it special despite the loss.

My grandmother lived next door to us. Her home was old and warm, with a large wood stove in the living room, and the memories of her life surrounding her. I loved that house, and I adored her. Granny’s house had a loft that was my daddy’s bedroom when he was a child. I’d climb the ladder and look over the rail at grandma and laugh.

“You better be careful up there, little boy. You’ll do just like your daddy did if you’re not!”

“What did he do, granny?”

“He fell! He was horsing around, just like you are now, when he slipped and fell on his fool head.”

I thought of all the happy moments I’d spent in her home as I looked at the ashes where it had stood. The heat from our fire had ignited granny’s house as well, and it was a total loss. My father had not only lost his home, but the house he grew up in. He was terribly sad over the loss of his mother’s home, and I think dad grieved over that more than anything. The loss of our home was sad but he was still young and healthy, and he could build it back. He knew he couldn’t replace what his mother had lost and it hurt him deeply.

The most difficult loss for my grandmother was her family pictures. She’d grabbed her wedding portrait off the wall and it was the only thing she had time to save. She told me later that it’s funny what you think of at a time like that, and that all she cared about was saving a picture of her and my grandfather together.

“As long as I have this, son, I can make another home.”

My father said he heard the explosion as the furnace malfunctioned, and had looked back in shock to see fire already rising from the roof. I’d never seen my dad cry before that day, but after he’d gotten me out of the house, he hugged me tight and when he put me down, his deep blue eyes were full of tears. Pop told me many years later that all he remembers thinking that morning was “Oh, God. My boy's in there.”

As dad spoke of that day, his voice was almost a whisper as he looked at me and said, “I thought I’d lost you.” He couldn’t say any more, but he didn’t have to. I had children of my own then, and I knew how deeply afraid he’d been.

As our homes burned on that terrible day, I stood in my neighbors yard and watched. I had on a pair of pajamas and they were the only clothing I had left. The fire was fast and hot, and the houses old and dry. There was no chance to save them. As my mother softly cried in the arms of my grandmother and my father, our neighbors gathered around. Dad had always treated folks with respect and kindness, and now that he needed them they were anxious to help. As the men talked to my dad, he stood by me with his hand on my shoulder, holding me to him. Dad was a loving man, but he was never openly affectionate. He wasn’t a hugger, he didn’t say I love you every day, and I think it embarrassed him to do so. On that day, he became a different man. He knew I was confused and scared, and he stayed right by me.

“Everything will be okay, Luke. I promise.”

“I know, daddy.”

I remember watching my mom and dad sift through the ashes of our home hoping to find anything they could save. I’d never seen them so sad, and I would have done anything to make it all go away, to bring back what they had lost. I told dad how sorry I was, and sitting on the ruins of our home, he gave me a little hug and said, “You and your Mom are okay, son. I can build it back. As long as I have you guys, I’ll be fine.”

We spent that Christmas Eve in the storm cellar my grandfather built in 1917. It had a ten step staircase and was large enough for a queen size bed, two chairs, and a bus seat. Light came from coal oil lamps, heat from granny’s down-filled comforter and a small, wood-burning kettle stove.

Dad cooked our Christmas dinner on a Coleman stove outside. We had fried potatoes, bacon and eggs, and sausage. It’s still the best Christmas dinner I’ve ever eaten. Sitting in a cold and damp storm cellar, without gifts, without a home, but surrounded by people I loved that I knew would take care of me, was far more meaningful that any toy could have been.

Over the course of the following year my dad built a new home and a three bay garage for his business, and bought my grandmother a small mobile home and placed it next to our new house. Things were never as they were again, no longer could I sit in granny’s old house and pretend to be my dad as a little boy, no more nights spent lying in her floor listening to the antique radio in her living room. We had lost much of our family history and irreplaceable photographs, but we had what makes a family in our hearts, and we’ve never lost it.

On that cold Christmas so long ago, I received chocolate chip cookies as my gift and fell asleep in the loving and protective arms of my father, and I was blessed.


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