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Archive for the ‘FIRE’ Category

Back in my high school days, the Drama Club was one of my favorite extra-curricular activities.  I participated in every production that occurred while I was a student.

My all-time favorite role was Penelope (Penny) Sycamore, the mother in You Can’t Take It with You.  This wacky woman, the matriarch of an eccentric clan of characters, was always at her typewriter, writing plays.

As the climax of the action nears, we learn WHY Penny writes plays–because eight years ago, a typewriter was delivered to the house by mistake!

I think about his whenever I talk about the peacocks in my house.

We moved here nearly seven years ago, after our previous home burned down.  For three weeks John and I and the “little kids” lived at my sister’s house, the big boys stayed with friends, and our dog hung out at my other sister’s (Emily was away at college).  We needed somewhere to move quickly, somewhere that would accommodate our large family and our need for an in-home office.

We ended up in a home that had been customized by the prior renter, who apparently had a thing about peacocks.  There’s a peacock stepping stone in the garden and a statue just outside the front door.  There are peacocks painted on either side of the front entry and another in the breakfast nook.  There’s even a tiny one in their family coat of arms which we’ve chosen not to paint over in order to give this very new house a little bit of history.

peacock 3peacock 2peacock 7peacock 1

Now we could have asked our landlady to paint over all the peacocks.  (We did ask her to paint over the red tree on the living room wall which was encircled by the words “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one, single, solitary step.“)  Or we could have just tolerated the peacocks.

Instead, like Penelope Sycamore did with her misdelivered typewriter, we embraced the unexpected.  Searching for meaning, I found that peacocks have been a Christian symbol of resurrection, which seemed fitting as we left our old lives more or less in ashes and started all over with a new home and new possessions.

And, as it happens, Cracker Barrel has a collection of peacock decor items which have over the years put me in serious danger of becoming a crazy peacock lady.  I have a peacock lamp and a variety of decorative items like candle holders and vases in peacock colors.  I bought throw pillows to match the theme and eventually plan to paint one wall a peacock blue.  I even have peacock shoes!

peacock 4peacock 5peacock 6002

As I wrote the above, I realized that maybe there’s a reason why the role of Penelope Sycamore meant so much to me.  I don’t know whether I absorbed something from her, or if the casting was foreshadowing, but there is more of Penny in me than I ever knew.

Like her, I’m the mother in a houseful of rowdy people who may or may not be related to me at any given time.  Penny welcomed a Russian ballet teacher, an expat grand duchess, a drunken actress, and the mailman (who never left) with unfailing hospitality and good humor.  When my boys were younger it was not unusual for our house to be filled with people I had never seen before.

Penny didn’t let her family responsibilities get in the way of her personal pursuits, and neither do I.  Like Penny, painting or typing with the chaos all around her, I’ve learned to tune out all but the loudest screams while I blog or read.  I ignore the shenanigans in my basement just like Penny remained unfazed by the sounds of exploding fireworks in hers.

Like her, I’ve learned not to care about being conventional but rather to follow my heart and allow my family members to do the same.  Penny equally applauded her husband’s fireworks, her son-in-law’s printing, her older daughter’s dancing, her younger daughter’s engagement, and her father’s snake-collecting.  It never occurred to her to worry about what others would think of the family’s lifestyle.

Penelope Sycamore was completely secure in herself and her family.  She didn’t even think about whether other people would like her or not.  She was able to put worry aside, fully inhabit her days, and enjoy life as it came.  I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.

I will not die an unlived life . . . I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me, to make me less afraid . . .

~ Dawna Markova

Thank you, Penny.  Now bring on the peacocks!

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I mentioned in my most recent post that I was embarking upon an eight-week challenge to declutter my home.  As I was taking my before and after pictures this week I thought it might be fun to share the process with you.  Maybe you’ll be inspired to join in!

Week One was the Master Bedroom.  I followed this order (one project each day for six days): Closet Clothes/Shoes; Closet Accessories; Closet Storage; Dressers; Books; Everything Else.

This was an easy week for me because I don’t have a lot of clothes and have not allowed much personal clutter to accumulate in the past six years since I suffered the forced minimalization of our house fire.  The books were the exception, but I’ll get to that.

These aren’t the kind of pictures you’re used to seeing from me, y’all.  They are purely utillitarian with bad lighting and indifferent focus.  But they should serve the purpose.

Day One – I went through all the clothes and shoes in my closet.

Day Two – I went through my jewelry.  I didn’t get rid of any earrings so that drawer is not shown here.

Day Three – I went through the luggage and the ridiculous collection of tote bags and whatever other random things I had in the closet.

TotesLuggage

Day Four – I went through two dressers.  I don’t have a lot in my dressers as you will see, but I do have two “sentiment” drawers, one of which I put every card I think I want to keep, and I was able to get rid of some of those, as well as some things I had saved for sentimental value but could no longer remember what they were supposed to remind me of!

Day Five – OK, y’all, this was the hard day.  One thing I’ve learned since the fire is what “things” are truly important to me.  I can tell what they are because they are what I have accumulated a lot of in six years as opposed to everything else I have refrained from acquiring.  And what they are, mostly, is BOOKS.  So whereas I finished the tasks on the other days in less than an hour per day, the books took two hours and lots of help from Lorelei (she helped most of the other days too!).  Anyway, I was very proud of myself when we were finished!

Before (1)

Day Six – This was easy, a cedar chest and a couple of piles of books so I didn’t take any pictures.

In the end, we removed two miscellaneous bags of clothing and accessories and two full boxes of books that will all leave the house, and we relocated a few items to other places (where we will face them again when we get to their new homes at the appropriate time!).

Next up:  Bathrooms! I am so excited!  I’ll try to post another update next weekend!

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“Blood is thicker than water,” was one of my maternal grandmother’s favorite sayings.  Family was everything to her.  She was extremely proud of her Southern and Irish roots, and often shared tales—possibly apocryphal—of the family history.  We are blessed to have many heirlooms and photographs that breathed life into her tales of those long-ago family members.  I never knew my great-grandmother, but I was brought up on stories about her beauty and grace.  I loved to admire her portrait, and to play under the intricately carved table that had come down to my grandmother through her, part of a set that’s been in the family longer than anyone can remember.

Mary Becker Hagan

I internalized the stories and the reverence for the past and felt its influence on the present.  And when I grew up I became interested in my father’s side of the family as well, and conducted lazy internet genealogy research to learn more.  I’ve built a family tree that goes back many generations on both sides, and have learned that my roots are not only Irish but English, Dutch, and German as well.

Family heritage encompasses many things.  Families pass down language–my Alabama roots are four generations back now but in my family we still use some expressions that are not native to East Tennessee.  Families pass down heirlooms like the table and chairs I mentioned, the prie-dieu on which my great-grandparents knelt to be married, the silver coffee and tea service.  Families pass down genetic material, as I think you can see in the comparison pictures of my youngest child and her great-great-great-great grandmother below.  And families pass down religion.

Read the rest at Everyday Ediths.

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Everyone who’s old enough to remember has a 9/11 story.  Mine is probably fairly typical of those of us with no personal connection to the events, and I’ve never written about it because it feels too much like trying to hop on the tragedy train in order to capitalize on the pageview potential.  But on this 15th anniversary I have some reflections I feel compelled to share.

My memories of that day are fragmented.  I was standing in my sunny yellow kitchen, chunky six-month-old William on my hip, when the phone rang–my husband, telling me to turn on the television.  A couple of hours later I picked him up at his downtown office and we went to lunch–at the top of the tallest building in Knoxville, which I remember feeling nervous about.

In the lobby of the building they were selling extra editions of the Knoxville News Sentinel, something so out of the ordinary that it was frightening.  We were all so desperate for news and there was no Twitter or Facebook to provide the instantaneous updates we’ve come to expect when a crisis strikes today.

On the elevator ride up to the 27th floor two men in business suits were discussing a mutual acquaintance whose son was in one of the towers.  At the time everyone still hoped he would be found alive.

I was worried when it was time to pick up the kids from school.  What did they know? What would I tell them?  Emily was ten and already knew.  Jake and Teddy were six and seven.  I remember at first just telling them that some bad people had done a very bad thing.  Because of my kids, I did not obsessively watch the television coverage for days as so many did.  I did not want them to see the towers falling.

The house we lived in back then was in a flight path.  We were accustomed to hearing noisy airplanes on their descent approach.  For the next few days, it was eerily quiet.  Once we heard an airplane and we all ran outside, terrified, to see a military plane overhead.  We were all on edge.  For some time after 9/11, loud noises made me jump.

Flash forward to the 10th anniversary, September 11, 2011, five years ago.  Six days out from our own personal tragedy, we were homeless–John and I and the little kids living with my sister Betsy, Emily away at college, Jake and Teddy staying with school friends, even our dog being farmed out to my other sister.  We had lost just about every material possession.  I didn’t have the emotional energy to think about 9/11.  I remember writing on Facebook that I felt guilty posting about our circumstances with all the posts about the anniversary reminding me that our tragedy was small by comparison.

Since its launch in 2004, Facebook has become a fixture in our society, the way most of us keep in touch,  read news, express our feelings on matters both personal and political.  I can’t help but wonder how our experience of 9/11 would have been different if Facebook had existed back then.  I know that in the case of our September 2011 disaster Facebook was how we shared the news and received encouragement and help.  This year, on the 5th anniversary of the fire, I was looking forward to seeing those old posts in the “On This Day” feature that Facebook helpfully notifies me about first thing each morning.  I braced myself a little because those memories are painful, but recalling the support of friends, family, and acquaintances is uplifting.

Imagine my surprise, then, that even though five years ago I was posting about nothing but the fire and its aftermath for probably two weeks, my Facebook memories are a cheery collection of memes and articles and comments from every year but 2011.  Facebook has apparently decided without any input from me that the events of September 2011 are too traumatic and I couldn’t possibly want to revisit them.  Presumably if 9/11 had occurred in the Facebook era, it would also be scrubbed from everyone’s “On This Day” feature as something too dark to recall.

And while I am in awe of Facebook’s algorithms and appreciate their intent (as I know people in particular who have been blindsided by unexpected and unwanted visceral reminders of such events as the death of a child), I don’t WANT to forget September 2011.

I don’t particularly want to remember the sight of my burned down house and the destruction of all my treasured possessions, but I do want to remember the offers of shelter, the months of meals, the clothes and toys and gift cards, the love and the prayers.  I won’t forget them, not ever, but I also like seeing them on Facebook.  It’s worth seeing the pictures to see them, and the pictures provide the context for appreciating them.

Today my newsfeed is flooded with “We Remember” and “Never Forget” memes.  Some show the Twin Towers in ruins, some show them intact, bathed in heavenly light.  I’m sure when some people say they won’t forget they mean they won’t forget the terrorists, the hated enemies who committed this vile and cowardly attack, the outrage of being attacked on our own soil.  Our country has changed since 9/11 and I don’t think it has changed for the better.  We have become an angrier country, a frightened country, a deeply divided country.  That’s not the America I love and that’s not what I want to remember about 9/11.

What I want to remember are those who gave their lives in service to others, the way foreign countries rallied around us, the incredible feeling of unity as Americans.  And what struck me most at the time and remains with me now and what I want to remember most of all is the same thing I want to remember about September 2011:  the love–that when people were afraid they were going to die, the last thing they did if they could was call their spouses and parents and children, to say I love you just one last time.

september-11-remember-the-love

 

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When I was a little girl, Labor Day meant watching Jerry Lewis, waiting to hear our names called out on the telethon for our donation.  It meant fried chicken and deviled eggs and buttermilk ice cream at my cousins’ house.  Later it became the day that my cousin and I got to appear on the local telethon to turn in the money we’d made at our annual backyard carnival.  Always it was the last real day of summer before the first full day of school.

Well, Jerry Lewis and his telethon are a thing of the past.  School started almost a month ago.  Some years we get together and eat burgers with the family on Labor Day; more often than not we take advantage of a Monday off to engage in actual LABOR–John and I will probably conduct a file review today.

What Labor Day will always be for me now, I imagine, is an anniversary.  Because on a Labor Day evening, five years ago, while we were thankfully absent from home, this happened:

fire 1

Every year in advance of this day I think about it, and contemplate writing some kind of profound post.  This year was no different, especially since it’s five years–kind of a significant anniversary–and September 5 and Labor Day once again coincide.

But despite thinking about it a few days ago and starting to plan out in my head what I would say, it took looking at my Facebook memories this morning (at a post I penned on the one-year anniversary) to remind me to sit down and write this today.

I just mentioned the anniversary to William and asked him what he thought about it and he said it doesn’t really matter to him anymore, that it was a long time ago and he didn’t lose anything important.

The events do have a certain remoteness, and I find myself looking back on them as though I were watching a documentary about something that happened to someone else.  It still seems so incredible that it happened at all.

I find myself paraphrasing Ronald Reagan and asking myself, “Are you better off now than you were five years ago?” The answer is an unqualified YES, even after all the losses.  The fact is that we were miserable in that house, that it was an exceptionally difficult time in our lives for a variety of reasons.  I don’t know what would have happened if the house had NOT burned down–obviously, the passage of five years would have brought changes although they would not have been the same changes–but it’s fairly certain at least that we would not have been living here, and living here has shaped our lives in interesting ways.

I’ve written before about the love and community we experienced and what a gift that was (and I remain wracked with guilt over my failure to finish all the thank you notes).  Does all the above mean that the fire was a blessing and part of God’s plan for our family?

Well, I don’t believe that.  Nor do I expect I will ever really “get over” it.  But I am grateful that our passage through the fire landed us where we are.

-Smoke your PAIN but keep the ASHES forever.-

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Growing up, I spent every Friday night at my grandparents’ home, only a few blocks away from my own.  And we were often in and out of their house during the week as well.  Like as not, when I walked in, I’d find my grandfather sitting in the living room in his favorite chair.

My grandfather wasn’t what you’d call a smiley man.  His resting face was grim.  But he’d beam when I entered the room.  “Hi, Granddaughter!” he’d say.

Always I remember him in that chair, his ash tray stand to one side, the table with the reading lamp and the clock with the numbers that flipped on the other, his feet propped on the ottoman while he watched the nightly national news, or Lawrence Welk, or his soap operas, or as he read Time, Newsweek, or U.S. News and World Report.

Sometimes I’d watch t.v. too, with him cautioning me not to sit too close to the big cabinet television with the record player in one end of it. “You won’t be able to have children when you grow up,” he’d warn me.  Sometimes we’d play checkers on the ottoman.

Granddaddy died on September 24, 1980.  It was my first encounter with death.  I remember entering the house for the first time and dreading the sight of that empty chair.

Granddaddy's Chair 2

When my grandmother decided to relocate to a retirement community, my mother moved into the house, and the furniture Mima couldn’t take was given away.  My little sister got the chair.  I took the Naugahyde recliner from the basement (which I believe was the predecessor of the chair I’m writing about).  It didn’t last long–my kids have always been hard on furniture.

I love old things and I love family things, and over time I had filled my house with items from my grandparents’ house.  I was the one who took that cabinet t.v., even though it didn’t work anymore.  I had the oil pastel portraits of my grandmother and great-grandmother, the Seth Thomas clock that used to hang in the living room, and so many other treasures that I took because I appreciated them and had room for them.  When our house burned down almost five years ago, I lost it all.  And felt guilty for being such a poor steward of family heirlooms and memories.

We’ve lived for five years in a house furnished by the love of friends and family.  We’ve even added a few heirlooms from John’s grandmother’s house.  Over time, the furniture has become ours, safe and familiar.

My sister moved at Christmastime.  She decided she didn’t have room for Granddaddy’s chair and she asked me if I wanted it.  She knew how much it would mean to me to have it.  It found a new home in our family room.

I had visions of spending time sitting in it, but honestly it isn’t a very comfortable chair, at least not for me.  Emily sits in it sometimes, but more often than not it’s inhabited by cats.  Still, it makes me happy whenever I see it.

 

Graddaddy's Chair 1

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The following was written in Advent 2011 and posted at my friend Lacy’s blog.  That first post-fire Christmas still seems very close and this time of year still is a little painful for me.

Traditions.  We all have them.  Children demand them—“We did that last year—we have to do it again!” I was fortunate to grow up in a home where holiday traditions were carved in stone.  For 25 years I knew exactly where I would be and when and with whom on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Life intervened—divorce, marriages, kids, estrangements, death.  Even as my husband, five children, and I began to develop our own traditions, we always had to be a little more flexible—never knowing for sure who would host the Christmas dinner, or where we would gather with extended family to open presents.

When my oldest was only a baby I started a treasured Christmas Eve tradition of giving each child a Christmas book to unwrap and have read to them before bedtime.  Our collection of Christmas classics grew and grew, leading to additional Christmas story evenings, reading to the kids’ classes at school, even a Christmas bedtime story party for my youngest two and their classmates for several years.

Other favorite traditions centered around the decorations we collected over twenty-two years of marriage:  the nutcrackers which covered the piano, part of a collection originally started for my husband by my grandmother and continued in later years by my mother; my less-planned collections of Santas, including my favorite of Santa kneeling by the manger;  the crèche that belonged to my grandmother and then to my mother, still in its original box from a long defunct department store.

christmas santa

The kneeling Santa my sister gave me for Christmas 2011 to replace the one that was lost in the fire

Tragedy struck on Labor Day. Our house burned nearly to the ground.

The books are ashes. The piano is reduced to its metal innards. Here and there among the ruins you can spot a piece of some treasure, beyond repair. Fire doesn’t just destroy, it consumes.

fireman

Fireman nutcracker in the ruins

Several years ago our Christmas tree fell over right after we decorated it, crushing several irreplaceable ornaments, many of them heirlooms from my husband’s German grandfather. The children and I stood around the fallen tree and cried. Every year since as we hung the remaining and replacement ornaments we have remembered and missed the ones that were broken.

This loss is so much more immense that we haven’t even shed tears over it. To lose everything you own is indescribable. What will it be like this year, putting out new decorations in an unfamiliar house?  How will it feel not to hang any ornaments commemorating “our first Christmas together”—we had FIVE! or any “Baby’s First Christmas” balls or handmade (childmade) decorations that their makers looked sheepish about but continued to hang all the same?

We believe in celebrating Advent before we move on to Christmas, so we haven’t had to deal with decorating yet. We cling to the traditions we can, so we started the season by attending the Advent Workshop sponsored by our church, where we made an Advent wreath that we will light each evening as we listen to a special reading for the day.  We’ve begun to attend the holiday celebrations—the downtown tree lighting, the Fantasy of Trees—that we have gone to every year since we’ve had children.  The Christmas Parade, the Living Christmas Tree, the Nativity Pageant, and the Walk through Bethlehem will provide continuity with other Christmases.

At home we will put up new decorations. We’ve already collected quite a few –some from a Christmas thrift store, some from Target, many from family and friends.  The question of whether to try to replace missing items or do something altogether new is something we still don’t have an answer for—and that applies to other lost belongings, not just Christmas decorations. So far, it seems we know what we need to replace when the time comes. The nutcrackers, for example—they seem to be important to everyone and we’ve already bought a few, including two big ones to guard the front door.

We don’t really need decorations to remind us of the true spirit of Christmas this year anyway—we are surrounded by the proof that there really are people who “honor Christmas in [their] hearts and try to keep it all the year.” If Christmas is about love and giving, we’ve been experiencing it since the day our house burned, when the offers of assistance started pouring in, shortly followed by donations, clothing, toys, gift cards, and enough furniture to completely fill our new home.

We are planning a holiday open house the weekend before Christmas, so that all our family, friends, and even strangers who shared what they had with us can come celebrate with us and see how their generosity helped us make it through the past few months. Who knows?  Maybe it will become a tradition.

christmas house

Our new house at Christmastime

I’m sharing this post at the #WorthRevisit linkup–please visit the hosts’ blogs here and here to see other great posts!

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