December 16, 1983 is a date, for my family, that will never be forgotten. My first memory of that day was at 5th grade recess. Our school principal came outside to give me a message that my brothers and I would need to get on the bus to go to our papa and granny’s after school. It seemed strange to me that he, The principal himself, came out onto the playground in the cold to give me the message personally, instead of just sending a message through my teacher. In his demeanor there seemed to be something more that he wasn’t telling me. But as a 10-year-old, I shrugged it off and went back to playing with my friends. We were digging tunnels in the snow which had drifted against a hill.
So after school, my two younger brothers and I boarded the bus to Granny’s, still unaware of the life-changing news that we would soon hear. We arrived at Granny’s and were instructed to begin our homework. Mom wasn’t home yet from her doctor visit. (She was pregnant with the youngest of us 5 brothers.) I think Granny sensed our worry, or at least our curiosity as to the reason why we weren’t taken home after school. If Mom wasn’t home yet, then Dad would have been there on the farm to greet us. I did wonder why, but I couldn’t have imagined this. She assured us that Mom was just fine after her doctor visit and that she would be coming soon to let us know what was going on. I think Granny knew that we needed to hear about such a tragedy from our own mother. I guess after that, we did some homework, played and caused the usual trouble.
When Mom arrived, I wasn’t ready for the news. How could I be? Mom sat us down and said, “Boys, I have some bad news.” My first thought was about Dad. Was he okay? The she said the words that I would never forget. “Our house has burned to the ground. Everything’s gone.” We began crying as the weight of these words sank in. I still recall the pain and hurt that I felt then. We all hugged Mom tightly and cried with her. My youngest brother cried with us, but I wondered if he really understood or if it just upset him to see all of us so emotional. My first thought for him was about his beloved pink blanket. In my 10-year-old mind I couldn’t imagine how my 4-year-old brother could survive one night without his pink blanky.When faced with this kind of loss, so many thoughts swirl around in your mind. And it’s interesting how kids think of these things so differently. I thought of the money I had been saving in a Hershey’s cocoa tin in my closet. I think I had saved about $20 from birthday money and money I had gotten from Dad for picking up walnuts. I was saving for some Star Wars action figures to add to my collection. A collection which was now destroyed by the fire. And my $20 had burned up in the fire. But Mom and Dad had money – no, their money burned up, too. How much had Mom and Dad lost? I was too young to understand their loss, but I knew that it was bigger than my $20.
Later in the evening, Dad arrived covered in soot and ash. I had never seen my dad cry until that day. He hugged us and Mom and assured us that God was going to take care of us. When I smelled the smoke on him, I pictured our house in flames. I knew that he had fought the fire for his family.
The memories get further apart after that but I know we stayed the first couple of days with Granny and Papa. The very next day Granny and Mom went to town for some shopping. We’d lost everything. Now, in my mind we needed everything. What store do you go to to get everything? I remember my papa had given Mom some money to make sure each of us had nice clothes to wear to church. We were still singing “What Child Is This?” for the service on Sunday, and he knew we that would need something nice to wear. A few days later we moved in with my other grandparents. They had more room and the extra bathrooms necessary for our big family. We celebrated Christmas there, and I got the Star Wars toy that I wanted – the toy version of the hoverbike from Return of the Jedi. (By design, it broke into 3 pieces on impact, just like in the movie.) I appreciated that toy so much and the giving hearts of my parents. It was strange to celebrate Christmas in a home that wasn’t our own. Our home was gone now. Or was it really? Words like “home,” and “family” now took on a bigger meaning than ever before.