What Labor Day Means to Me

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.-

Giving the Gift of a Good Death to a Good Friend.

Today I had the honor to stand by the deathbed of a dear and loyal friend.  Today I had the privilege of being with him to ease him out of this life.  And today I also had the responsibility of deciding that it was time for that life to end.
Today we put our dog to sleep. Over 20 years of pet owning, two dogs and eight (at least) cats, and I’ve never had to do this before.  We’ve lost cats, but they’ve had a way of just disappearing.  By the time we realized they were never coming back, we had grown at least somewhat used to their absence.  We’ve never known in advance that today would be the day we would say good-bye forever. Anyone can tell you that I’m no animal lover.  But I loved OUR dog.
We got Balthazar from the pound almost 12 years ago, when he was about eight months old, because Jake begged for a dog.  We named him for the first Sholly to come to the New World.  We thought he was part German Shepherd, part Shiba Inu, maybe part Collie.
It was a good mix, whatever it was.  He was strong and gentle, smart and stubborn, protective and loyal. Once I had him tied up on the porch while some men were cutting trees in his yard.  When they were done I heard them knocking on the side of the house, because he was so threatening that they were afraid to come to the door so I could pay them.  Half an hour later, I heard him whimpering.  I came out to find this vicious beast crying as he patiently allowed our three-year-old to pull on his ears.
He loved to run away so much that we designed an “airlock” on our fence to prevent it, but he always came back.  He loved chicken so deeply that he jumped a three-foot-high baby gate to steal some once. But last night he lay in front of an open door and would not get up to go out.  And this morning he turned his head away from the piece of rotisserie chicken I offered him.
We always said that we never wanted our dogs to suffer, that we would never put them through anything just to keep them alive because we would miss them, that we would let them go when it was time. It was time. They could try to stabilize him, the doctor said.  They could try a transfusion.  But after it was over he told us he was so glad we didn’t try to save him, that we had done the right thing.
Lorelei and William came with me.  John is out of town, Emily was working, Jake was too upset.  They were brave.  We hugged him and petted him, and William patted me.  Lorelei told him he was going to a better place. It was peaceful.  It was easy.  It was quick.  His suffering was over as ours was beginning.  Lorelei sobbed all the way home.
Dogs are naturally good, Lorelei said later.  They must go to some kind of Heaven, maybe not the same one we go to.  I’ve never been one to assert that all dogs go to Heaven, but now I find my theology is uncertain where MY dog is concerned.
RIP Balthazar
Creative K Kids

Beneath the Ashes

“The fire which seems extinguished often slumbers beneath the ashes.”
Pierre Corneille
I’ve been debating all day whether to write this or not . . . but I’m still thinking about it so I guess I will go ahead.
I came across a blog post today in which the author described some “must have” items as (paraphrased) “things I’d save in a fire,” complete with little flames dancing inside the letters of the title.  And it bothered me.  I contemplated saying something to this person (whom I don’t know at all) but I didn’t want to make her feel bad.  And I felt like I was overreacting to her light-hearted post.  After all, I myself once wrote a post entitled “Kids’ Books You Can Read without Wanting to Shoot Yourself in the Head,” without ever thinking my jocularity might trigger some unpleasant feelings for those who love people who have actually shot themselves in the head (although not because of crappy kids’ books).
It just goes to show that you never really understand things until they happen to you.  I mean, even when you say to people, “That must be so terrible.  I’m so sorry,” you don’t really know what it’s like–whatever IT happens to be.  You know it sounds awful, but you don’t know how awful.
Yesterday William remarked, “We’ve had our house burn down and we’ve also been robbed.  Those are two unusual things and they both happened to us.”  And truthfully sometimes it’s almost unbelievable to me that such a terrible life-changing event did, in fact, happen to us.
It happened a little more than three years ago now, and the anniversary passed without comment.  I thought about it a few days before, thinking about writing something, and then forgot on the actual day, because life goes on and life is busy.
But that post today brought back some of those feelings of loss, as do the all-too-frequent occurrences of fire-as-plot-device in the books I read.  People’s homes burn to the ground, and everyone is all like, “Oh, how terrible!  You lost everything!” and then they put them up somewhere and plans are made to rebuild or something, and everyone just happily moves on about after a day of sad.
I bet you’ve had the conversation, haven’t you?  The one where someone asks you what one thing you would save if your house was burning down, and you say, “My kids,” and they say, “Your kids are safe.  Pick a thing.”  I know I had that conversation and I think I always said I would save the (supposedly fireproof) box that contained the negatives for all our photos. Which ironically WAS saved after the fact, but it wasn’t waterproof, so that was a bust.
So I started thinking today, if I could go back in time, and save five things from that house before it burned down, and those five things didn’t have to be my children, what would I save?  The pictures didn’t even make the list, frankly.
The first thing that came to mind–and it came to mind immediately–was the pack of love letters that John wrote to me, at first every day, then less frequently, during the first year we were dating.  I kept them in a drawer in my bedroom, and I used to read them over, which he couldn’t stand because he found it embarrassing.  I know I’m just as glad all the letters I wrote to him aren’t around to be read in the future!  But after the fire when I thought of those letters, that was the closest I came to crying over anything I’d lost.
The next item was easy too.  I had a little board book which I kept next to my bed.  It was called Global Babies and it was the only thing I had bought for the baby we lost.  I used to hold that book and cry and cry.  I could buy another copy, and maybe someday I will, but it won’t be the same.
After that I had to think.  I had a box of things that were Mima’s.  There was some jewelry I had given her.  And a scarf that still smelled like her.  The program from her funeral.  At our Victorian house I had made kind of a little shrine to her with those things.  I would have liked to save that box.
And I wish I could have saved the bag of newborn baby clothes, the one that would have had things that belonged to both me and John when we were babies, as well as special blankets our babies were wrapped in, and the outfit they wore home from the hospital, and the sweet little fluffy snowsuit they all wore.  I would like to have those to hand down one day.
I couldn’t settle on a fifth thing, although it would probably be something wedding-related . . . and I’m not going to spend any more mental or emotional energy on it because it’s kind of pointless anyway, isn’t it?  The fact is, had I been there, I would have run around screaming gathering children and cats and wouldn’t have thought for a second about saving anything, I’m sure.
And it’s only just occurred to me as I’ve been writing that I haven’t given a single thought to five things I would save if by some cruel twist of fate THIS house were to burn down.
entire house 2

A Breath of Smoke and Ashes

It’s there every time I go into the garage.  The smell of fire.  It’s there, and then I’m here:

That’s not a place I really like to be, figuratively or otherwise.  In fact, it’s become a bit of a thing:  I don’t drive down that part of Northshore any more, no matter how inconvenient the detour.
But I can’t avoid the garage.  And the boxes of pictures and books that survived the devastation.

I’ve decided that the books will stay in the garage.  We will put them on shelves, and whenever I decide to read one I will attempt to clean it then.  Occasionally I will pick one up and flip through it, and leave the garage with sooty hands that smell of fire.

Then there is the box of photo albums and baby books, miraculously rescued from a cabinet in the office.  The pictures need to be removed from the albums.  They are probably deteriorating.  I can’t make myself do it.  Emily will finish the job she began over Christmas this summer, I’m sure.

Right after the fire I worried that I would always be haunted by the smell of burning, that I would never be able to enjoy the scent of a campfire again.  But that’s not the case.  Campfires, smoke from a barbecue, the aroma of someone’s fireplace in winter, even the mulch fire running amok near downtown right now–that doesn’t bother me.  It’s the singular scent of our own personal fire that I find uniquely disturbing.
Seven months later it both seems long ago and very close, especially when another loss makes itself felt, when I suddenly think of something that I have only no, I don’t have it anymore.  It’s a little joke around here, saying, “I had that, but IT BURNED UP!”  But there’s a morbid part of me that keeps me lying awake some nights going room by room (not of the burned house, which to be honest never really felt like home, but of my Victorian house), looking in each drawer at things that are gone, remembering even what the drawer pulls felt like, torturing myself with my incredibly clear visual memory and discovering new things that I haven’t had a chance to feel sad about yet.

Cat People

This morning, the first thing on the agenda is to take Mace to the vet for his first set of shots.  Mace is one of three now half-grown kittens who adopted us when we moved here.

Jake holding the first kitten to appear

We didn’t start off being cat people.  John never had a cat growing up.  In fact, he SAID he didn’t like cats.  Certainly, he was allergic to them (dogs, too).  My family had one cat when I was growing up–only because my little sister begged.  Celeste was a part of the family for 17 years, but we felt like she was an exception.  She was not like the other cats.
We never made a decision to own a cat, either.  Cat ownership was thrust upon us when Rosemary appeared on our deck, homeless and expecting kittens, when Teddy was a baby.  She stayed 15 years.  Mima urged us to keep her.  Children should have pets, she said.  She’d pay for all of it, she said.  She did, and we did.  Rosemary was a sweet, undemanding, affectionate cat.  For a time, we had a companion for her, another stray–a fat furry black and white creature named Tosco–but they never got along well and when he wandered off one day and did not return no one missed him much.
Rosemary disappeared one day shortly before we moved to the house that burned down.  She’d been gone for a few days before, but this time she didn’t come back.  I still miss her.
Lorelei and William decided they each wanted a kitten of their own.  I did not consent to this.  John and Emily between them brought home two kittens from Emily’s roommate’s cat.  Both were supposed to be girls; both turned out to be boys.  Carrying on a theme, we named them Pepper and Parsley.
Watching those two grow up was a joy.  They had so much fun playing together.  We had five acres of woods behind the house and it was a wonderful playground for them.  Wildlife abounded, and Parsley was a merciless hunter, killing something just about every day.
Those cats were spoiled rotten.  They ruled the house.  Rosemary was rarely inside.  Those two had windows open so they could come and go as they pleased.  They slept right in the bed with us.  I posted so many pictures of them on Facebook I embarrassed myself.
Lorelei in my bed with her kitten, Pepper.

Under the tree

Spoiled Rotten

Brotherly Love

After the fire, we never saw Pepper and Parsley again.  Pepper hadn’t been seen that day.  Parsley was in the house when the boys left at 4 p.m.  By ten, the house was in flames.  There was a window open for Parsley, of course.  We hope the fire scared them, that they ran into the woods, that when they came back to a foul-smelling blackened shell and we weren’t there, they found someone else to love them and take care of them.  That’s what we hope.
Lorelei and William didn’t care about the house.  They didn’t care about their toys.  All the cried about was their kittens.
So it seemed like God had a hand in sending those three little kittens to our porch only a few days after we moved in:  Cicely for Lorelei, Mace for William, and Mr. Kimutis (after his religion teacher) for Jake.  They will never replace Pepper and Parsley, but they are sweet and loving and have helped us heal.
First night

Eating us out of house and home

It's a bed if we say it's a bed

Saying her prayers

Drying off after getting caught in the rain

Just pitiful

Evidence of Conviction

“If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
As Christians, our lives are supposed to be our witness.  In the Gospel of John (13:35), Jesus said to His disciples: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”  And this was true of the early Christians, according to Tertullian: “Look . . . how they love one another . . . and how they are ready to die for each other.”
I would like to think that my life gives some indication of my beliefs:  my kids go to Catholic schools, we attend Mass regularly and are active in our church, and of course Facebook and blogging have given me a public platform to witness to my beliefs.
But I also used to take comfort in the many visible, outward manifestations of Catholicism with which we adorned our home.  We didn’t just head out to the Catholic knickknack store one day and come back with a bunch of decorations; no, our collection was meaningful and gathered over several years.  Almost every room in our home bore evidence of our family’s religious convictions, daily reminders of what we believe to be the real purpose of our lives.
For some reason last year I went around and photographed several of my pictures and now I am so grateful that I did. 
This is a portrait of the Blessed Virgin as a child.  It had a companion which I did not photograph of the Child Jesus.
Obviously, this is the Madonna and Child.
And here’s the Holy Family.  I purchased all of these, at different, times, from my dear friend Antoinette Fritz, the proprietor of Myrtle’s Mess in South Knoxville.

When I was a little girl, we lived across the street from two brothers from Lebanon, Hafez and Joseph (Youssef, really).  Hafez and been in the U.S. for awhile, but his brother, who was a college student, was newly arrived and didn’t speak English very well.  We becamse friends with them, and you cannot imagine how incredibly exotic this was in Knoxville in the 1970s.  The above picture was originally a gift to my mother from Joseph.
This was the Polish Madonna that once hung in my laundry room.  It was my blogging friend Dwija‘s tweet about this picture yesterday that inspired today’s blog post.
Finally, my Kitchen Madonna.  I loved this visual reminder that Mary was a homemaker, too.
I also miss our crucifix, and the marriage cross that we received as a wedding gift that hung above our bed, and the statue of St. Patrick that I won in the Irish Basket at the St. Joseph Fall Festival, and the small print of the T.Chandler painting of our church, and the multitudes of crosses and rosaries, and more.  I know that what’s in our hearts is most important, but these outward manifestations are important to Catholics, and my house feels bare and soulless without them.