Sunday, December 20, 2009
Love Family Christmas Memory -- Dec. 20, 1984
Today marks a family milestone of 25 years. The story below (unedited version) ends the collection in my most recent book Lessons with Love (www.amazon.com).
Our house burned down 25 years ago today. Indeed, it was a singular, momentous event in our lives. The aftermath of the fire, however, rose from the ashes in a profound, poignant and meaningful way---not only for a teacher but also for this season.
I'll let the story illustrate why . . . .
Teaching Moment No. 1: Supreme Lesson: It was a Thursday, the day before Christmas vacation, 1984. We had experienced a wintry week with temperatures going below zero, roadways posing hazards because of solid ice surfaces, and snow blowing in from the north. Bill had gone to Louisiana. His father had died the previous weekend and had been buried in Oakdale the day before. On this Dec. 20, I’d taken my time picking up the kids from Patti Howell’s Day Care center. After all, we had an abbreviated class schedule the next day, so I could afford some extra time to go to the post office and mail cards. While there, I even enjoyed the luxury of yakking with Pam Parks, one of my colleagues. Stopping at Patti’s, I chatted with the kids' babysitters, Bernetta Young and Carol Blessington, before summoning Willie and Annie to load up in the pickup, which I'd driven that day because of the scary roads. We headed north on Boyer and broke into a lively chorus of “Jingle Bells.” Turning on to Baldy Road, we continued our merriment.
Days before vacations---especially those of the two-week variety---always brought on a sense of euphoria for me as I thought about the good times ahead. Once the Christmas craziness ended and company had headed home, we could enjoy the silence of winter and a temporary break from the down-to-the-minute time management of school. There’d be lots of lazy hours, lying on the couch watching TV. I also looked forward to cross country skiing and pulling the kids on their sleds around the fields, quiet afternoons reading----definitely a time to savor. Bill would be home soon from Louisiana. All would be well for the Love family within the next couple of days.
While these festive thoughts resounded through my mind, our voices continued to celebrate “one-horse open sleigh.” Suddenly, I caught a glimpse of something unusual off to the north, toward Greenhorn Mountain. A dramatic, orange conflagration reached skyward, lighting up the night sky. In front of the giant flame, I could see the silhouette of our majestic classic red barn. Within an instant, joy turned to horror. Our house was burning up across the open fields less than a mile away. The driving route at that moment stretched a bit further. We’d have to continue down Baldy for half a mile, turn off on Great Northern Road and proceed another three quarters of a mile to our driveway. We all instantly began to shriek, sob or wail as I composed myself enough to control the pickup from sliding off the icy road. The remaining drive home lasted seemingly forever as we finally turned north.
I have no clear memory of the next few minutes----just fragmented images of myself screaming hysterically while standing before the giant flames as they shot into the night air. Neighbors like Pat Gooby and Eddie Nordgaarden tried to comfort me. Fire trucks with flashing red lights and wild sirens maneuvered their way from out of the darkness up the snowed-in driveway. I do remember a sheriff's deputy interviewing me, asking my name----did I know how the fire started? I knew nothing at that moment. All I had to offer anyone was uncontrolled emotion.
In seconds, I realized the reality that our possessions amounted to the clothes we'd worn that day, a sweater left in the back seat of the station wagon, and ironically, a freezer full of meat lugged miraculously by adrenalin-filled neighbors from inside the laundry room. In the light of the next day we would discover another item ironically rescued from that room just off the kitchen---a lone green plastic bag filled with garbage.
As the minutes passed, my family members---my dad, my mother and my siblings came down the driveway. All had spotted the flames at almost the same moment from different locations in the neighborhood. Seeing my condition, Mother immediately insisted that we go with her to the family home about a mile away. Annie, then just six years old, stood just a few feet away from us, but we could not find Willie. We frantically looked among the crowd of people and still no sign. As I walked over to our Ford Escort station wagon, parked near the huge willow tree, thinking he might be sitting inside, my eyes were drawn upward toward the expansive tree trunk. The kids played in a partially-completed tree house, calling it their apartment. That’s where Willie was crouched with an expression reflecting the horror of the moment----his huge, fearful brown eyes transfixed on the leaping flames which cast an orange tint on his face. He was silent, but his statue-like pose spoke far more eloquently of the depth of this catastrophe than any words I was able to utter.
In less than one week’s time, Bill had lost his father, and we had lost our home. We faced a daunting situation, especially five days before Christmas. A lifetime’s worth of philosophical sayings would be uttered or would drift through my mind over the next few days. This event would demonstrate their truth firsthand in so many ways. Material possessions are fleeting, but life is precious. Possessions can be replaced, but lives cannot.
After convincing Willie to come down from his perch in that giant willow, we accompanied Mother to her house. In the kitchen, my sister Barbara had been tutoring Rod Berget, also one of my students. His mother, Judy, another teacher, had come to pick him up. She teamed up with Mother to try to calm me down as I, still blubbering like a baby, headed to the telephone to call Bill in Louisiana. The two women immediately urged me to calm down before making the call. Knowing that words would not quite do the trick, my mother held out a small bottle of whiskey, a souvenir from an airline flight she'd taken to Spain that summer. Judy held a glass.
“Drink this; it will help you,” Mother announced.
“No,” I said. “I'll be all right.”
“No, Marianne, this will help calm you down,” she insisted.
“I'm NOT going to drink it,” I shot back just as Mother began pouring the whiskey into the glass in Judy’s hand. It was obvious these two women were on a mission. In that split second, however, the “calmers” stood over the “calmee” and accidentally proceeded to pour the entire bottle of hooch into my crotch.
Although I did not imbibe a drop, the whiskey did jerk me to my senses. If ever there were a need for comic relief, this was it. I had to laugh. Looking down at my Jim Beam-soaked khaki slacks, I reacted calmly as the two women who hovered over me immediately broke into apologetic laughter.
“Thank you so much! The only clothes I own in the world are the ones on my body,” I announced taking great pains to enunciate each and every word. “And now you've spilled whiskey all over my crotch!” The incident served as a turning point. Humor does help in the depths of despair.
The momentary levity put me back on course for the obstacles that would lie ahead. I called Bill, who had ironically been having dinner with the Oakdale, Louisiana, fire chief. His location 2,500 miles away spared him the horror that all of us in Idaho had just witnessed. It was shocking, yes, but in his usual fashion, he remained calm, knowing that he'd have to concentrate on a pretty big obstacle of his own---getting home earlier than planned in the midst of hectic Christmas airline traffic. We had a lot on our plate that night, but we would soon learn that we also had a lot of guardian angels looking over us.
As soon as I hung up, Mother's phone started ringing. It rang steadily that night. In every case, the caller had heard about the fire and wanted to offer help----a temporary home, clothes, money, food. The gestures seemed endless and continued the next day when cars started streaming into Mother’s driveway with bundles and baskets with envelopes, containing cash or checks. A student in my first period class, Robbie Hubbard, brought a plate of cookies, a hug and a simple “I'm sorry for your loss.”
School lasted until noon, and soon thereafter, my sister Barbara came home from the high school where she also taught. She carried her books and a heavy cloth bag, which she set in the middle of the kitchen table. We all stood, wondering what it was for a second. Then she explained.
“This is from the high school staff and students,” she said. “There's over $1,000 cash in that bag. They collected it this morning. You are also to go to the counseling office at the school when you have time to pick up the other items.” A later trip to the school revealed a huge room filled with dozens of piles of items stacked to the ceiling, all brought to school by students and colleagues that morning. Overcome with the magnitude of such widespread generosity, I broke into tears after Barbara finished telling me about the efforts that had transpired overnight and during the morning hours at school.
“How can I ever repay all these people?” I asked, feeling overwhelmed. “There's no way possible.”
“You have a gift,” my mother suggested. “You have the gift of writing. You can write something for the paper, and they'll know that you appreciate what they've done.”
Later that day, my brother Jim and I drove into Spokane to pick up Bill, only to learn that his flight had been delayed until the next morning. After a few hours sleep, I sat in the motel restaurant with a yellow legal pad and penned my thoughts, which later appeared in the local paper.
The fire and its aftermath involved a tapestry of giving, caring people representing every age and every interest in our community. It changed my outlook forever. I couldn't repay each person individually, but since that time, I've followed the simple suggestion of one of my favorite folk hymns “Pass It On.”
For several years afterward, whenever it came time for the school-wide food/toy drive, I looked forward to galvanizing my students into action by telling my Christmas story of 1984 when our family became recipients of that very drive. I told them about the sack of money gathered in less than three hours, the room filled with boxes, the dozens of visitors to my parents’ driveway. “You never know when a split-second incident can put you on the receiving end,” I said. “And when you are, I know from experience that you're overwhelmed with gratitude for living in such a caring community.”
After telling the story, I'd challenge them to do their best and to have a good time attempting to unseat the “master of all food-drive organizers,” my colleague, Rick Gehring, who taught math at Sandpoint High School. Every year a plaque went to the classroom that topped the charts for items collected. We always exchanged friendly banter between our classes to inspire enthusiasm. Although always competitive, we never did win first-place because Rick, never showing his hand until the last day, had calculated a foolproof strategy for getting his troops to comb the town for donations. I believe his homeroom held an undefeated record for more than a decade---regardless of what method was used to determine who was the best. One year my students chose not to compete in the drive.
“Let's pick just one family and put together something really special for them,” Christine Bauer, then a senior, suggested to her fellow photography students. So, we followed her lead and gathered money, food and clothing. We also extended our fun by meeting at my house one Saturday and baking Christmas goodies. The satisfied pride among those students when their collection was ready to be delivered rivaled the thrill experienced by athletic teams capturing the state championship. Whether they won or lost the annual food drive title, each year wonderful stories emerged about students sacrificing for others as homeroom classes gathered thousands of pounds of food and welcome items for families in need.
Because of these annual holiday food drives and thanks to one life-changing catastrophe, I learned the ultimate “Lesson with Love.”