I wasn’t even born when the fire happened. But I’ve heard my Dad recount the story enough that it has become a part of my world view. The fire taught him about mistakes. About unforeseen consequences. About finding treasure in the ashes. It showed him that the greatest tragedies often make it possible for the most necessary opportunities to break through.
It was the fall of 1953. There were bees in the upper gable vent on the east side of the house. In the early morning, while he was waiting on his ride to the foundry, Dad decided to put a ladder up against the house and burn out the nest. He soaked an old rag in burnt motor oil, wrapped it on a stick, lit the rag and climbed the ladder. The nest was gone in a minute.
A horn blew out by the road. Dad snuffed out the rag and tossed it into the field next to the house. He hopped into the car and left for work. But the rag smoldered in the dry October grass.
He had barely got to the foundry when he got word that the house was on fire. On the way back, he could see the smoke rising in the distance. By the time he made it to the house it was completely engulfed. Mama, holding my 7 month old sister, and Manny, his mother, were standing in the yard. It was gone.
As a kid, I couldn’t comprehend how Dad must have felt on that fall morning. I never knew him to be a careless man. He certainly never tolerated carelessness in me. It was a mistake. It was irreversible.
I know it weighed heavy on him because his eyes would sometimes get misty when he talked about it. He was 30 years old. His Dad had died in 1951. He brought his wife home to the house where he grew up to make a life there. He was supposed to take care of things. My Uncle Robert, his older brother by 15 years, lived across the road and watched how his kid brother would handle it all. And he burned down the home place.
What transpired next, Dad said, was this: “The fire probably saved our marriage.”
The reality was that he had brought his wife into his Mama’s house. And as long as it was Mama’s house, it could never belong to his wife. Young wives can be intimidated by mother-n-laws in the best of circumstances. But when you sit in “her” kitchen, and cook at her stove, and decide to move her chair by the window; well, it can get tense. The fire changed all that.
When they rebuilt on that very spot, the house in which I grew up, it became my Mama’s house and Manny was the guest. She lived with us until she passed in 1971. There were still moments. I saw tears in Mama’s eyes that I didn’t understand until much later. But, she was always kind and generous. But, most of all, she was free to do whatever she wanted with her house.
Lord knows, I’ve made my own share of mistakes. As hard as he was, I know that Dad forgave me of some pretty awful ones because he had learned to forgive himself for this one. And, as a result of the fire, I’ve always tried not to be too hard on anyone, especially my kids, for any honest blunders, even the really big ones.
The old saying is that we learn from our mistakes. Wisdom demands it. Forgiveness calls for it. It is possible to watch your life go up in flames and still rebuild. It is conceivable, that on the other side of whatever mistake that goes bad, there is something good that God has in mind.
They lost everything. House. Pictures. Belongings. Keepsakes. But for 67 years they still had each other. The fire, in a way, made that possible.