The Flames of Experience


Most of my readers probably know that our home was destroyed by fire  a week ago.   I know now I really am a writer since I began composing blog posts in my head within a few hours of hearing this unbelievable, sickening, life-changing news.
We were not home, which was a blessing.  John’s 93-year-old grandmother had died the week prior, and John and I and our little kids were in Baltimore.  We had just returned to our hotel after the receiving of friends (they call this the “viewing” in Baltimore) and still had the funeral to get through the following morning.  Our oldest son had begged to be allowed to stay alone at the house but thank God we held firm and he and his brother were safe at my sister’s house.
The call came from the mother of Jake’s best friend.  I don’t think I said one word to her.  I looked down and I could see my hand shaking.  I grabbed John and pulled him into the bathroom to tell him what she had said.  Moments later our landlady called and confirmed the terrible news.  She was crying but from joy, because we left two cars at home and at that point many people thought we were inside, with flames shooting 15 feet above the roof.
Over 500 miles away from this unbelievable tragedy, with our devastated little kids worried about their cats and their favorite toys, we still had a funeral and surrounding events to get through before we could make the trip back to Knoxville.  It was Thursday before we even visited the scene of the devastation.  I got sicker and sicker as we approached the house.    There really are no words to describe what this is like, even though I have to try.  Looking at a corpse comes closest.  The house is dead.  The destruction is nearly complete.  I did not know what to expect but I had visions of this or that thing surviving.  It is true that several basement rooms suffered only water and smoke damage, but water and smoke do a lot of damage.  From inside the upstairs I have saved a badly singed wedding portrait of my parents, a fork from the set we received when we were married, and one laminated clipping from my trip to the National Spelling Bee.  John found (after hours of digging with a shovel in what was once our bedroom) several rings from the jewelry box that sat on his bureau.   I also have some soot-covered books from the basement that I’ve put into storage, my tendency being to want to hold onto anything that survived, although eventually they may have to be dumped.  I just don’t know.
And that’s it.  Our kids fared somewhat better–not much.  Gone, all gone–my wedding dress, thousands of treasured books, baby clothes dating from my own babyhood, all the afghans crocheted by my grandmother, the pastel portrait of my great-grandmother, my mother’s original watercolor painting, the flag that decorated John’s father’s coffin, his grandfather’s huge art deco cabinet radio . . . Well, I could go on.  The list of things that rises to my mind is different each time.  Your list would be different if this happened to you, but you understand what it would be like.
A week ago, if even one of those treasures had been destroyed–or even others less precious–I would have felt devastated by the loss.  The enormity of this tragedy–and I am using that word correctly–is such that I cannot even process it.  I’ve hardly shed a tear–whether because I am still in shock or because I am being held up by the prayers of so many, for which I am very grateful.
There is much more to say, but for now I will let the images do the talking.

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  1. Wow. The house really is dead.
    I’m looking forward to watching you rebuild, physically and metaphorically.

    • lesliesholly says:

      It’s awful, isn’t it? We won’t be physically rebuilding the house–it’s sad, but no one will. It was a rental, and the ownders were biding time until the economy improved so that they could sell the five acres it sits on. Metaphorically, however, there is plenty to do. 🙂

  2. Helga says:

    Leslie,
    I am so sad that this happened to your family. I am just happy you all are safe. I know that the loss is devastating, never the less. I am not sure how I would deal with this, but I always try to find the positive that might arise of a bad situation or experience. Wishing you strength to go on and find another suitable home for you and your loved ones.

    • lesliesholly says:

      Helga, It is true that there have been MANY positives, especially the generous outpouring from our community that makes us feel very loved. Someday I will probably look back and find all kinds of good arising from this. I am just not there yet. I am sure I will feel much better when we stop living like nomads! I so appreciate your kind words and good wishes.

  3. Kelly Luper says:

    God I dont know what to say, I feel for your loss, but I know that
    somehow you and your family will triump over this and be stronger
    because of it. God Bless!

  4. Kristi Birchfield says:

    Leslie,
    There are no words. For those of us who are your friends, we are so thankful that you all are physically safe, the family intact. But for all that you lost, I know they were more than just *things*; they were representations of loved ones, cherished moments and memories. I wish a hug or a donation of time or money could replace them all.
    I really hope you will be blessed with a permanent home again soon and you all can start moving forward again. God Bless You, Sweet Leslie!

    • lesliesholly says:

      Thank you, Kristi. It’s like what I said to John as we were lying sleepless in our hotel bed in Baltimore the night we heard: “The problem is that things AREN’T just things.”

  5. Amy Trocchi (Betsy's friend) says:

    Leslie, I am so, so sorry. I am almost OCD about family memorabilia, and, while I always search for the positive, I’m not sure I could in this situation. I saw your post that a lot of the geneology was online, so that is good. Hopefully people can email you back photos you have emailed or shared with them online, and you can begin to rebuild. This may be too late to tell you, but be very careful about looking carefully through the “rubble”. My grandmother’s home burned, and my father was given a box of “trash”. Turns out my grandmother’s original wedding rings were in it. They looked nothing like they should (obviously) and were almost unrecognizable, but he found a woman in Colorado who restored the rings to their original beauty, and they are obviously one of my very most treasured belongings now. I will be praying for you and your family.

    • lesliesholly says:

      Thanks, Amy. John already did comb through the bedroom to find some rings. There are two left he wants to find but we may not have the strength to endure another day over there. No doubt there are some things we might find in the rubble. I have struggled with whether burned remnants of things are better than nothing at all. I don’t think there is a right answer but I am leaning toward letting all of it go.

  6. Gerry and Carol O'Farrell says:

    Leslie,
    We just returned to Knoxville this evening, and we heard about your loss almost immediately. Words cannot take away the pain of your loss, but nonetheless we want you to know that we feel so badly for you and John and all your children. What a tragedy! I am sure tomorrow we will learn more about what has happened and how we can be of support and or assistance to you. God bless you and strengthen all of you as you endure this trial. Gerry and Carol O’Farrell

  7. Leslie, I found your blog through Mary Lauren (My 3 little birds). I’m so sorry for your family’s terrible loss. My thoughts and prayers are with you all! Forced perspective is a terrible burden to bear, so don’t feel that you have to bear it alone. Hugs!

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