A few weeks ago, I got a text telling me that the house I grew up in was burning and that the firemen were still at the scene. Even though we had sold the house twenty-one years ago, we still thought of it as “mom’s house,” and probably always would. Initial newspaper reports called it a chimney fire, and that gave us hope that maybe the house was salvageable. As it turned out, it was an electrical fire that had started in the basement and had been burning for a while before the owner returned home and discovered it. The family pet had been in the building and had suffered from smoke inhalation, but had survived.
When I drove by the house the day after the fire, a few boarded up windows upstairs and blackened windows downstairs were the only indications that there had been a fire. I could only imagine how much fire and water damage there was inside, but at least the house was still standing. My hopes were dashed a few days later as I learned that the place was a total loss and would have to be demolished.
When the scheduled day for demolition arrived, I woke up and immediately knew what a hard day it was going to be. I dreaded seeing it, but I couldn’t stay away. When I arrived, half of the house had already been dismantled, and I started to sob. I could see into what used to be the living room, and above it, the room that my two brothers shared and what was left of my parents’ bedroom. I could see the end of the upstairs hallway where my dad had built a simple plywood desk for me so I had a quiet place to do my homework. Soon I could clearly see the steps leading to the attic, and I recalled the time that I decided I was too old to play with dolls. I had gathered my much-loved playmates and trudged reluctantly up those steps to store them in the attic. I guess I wasn’t really ready to give them up, though, and sometimes I would sneak back up to the attic to play with my dolls and just be a little girl again.
As the demolition progressed, I could see the bathroom upstairs, and eventually the back bedroom that I shared with my sister. I remembered how chilly it got upstairs in the winter, and how I hated to get out from under the covers when the alarm rang for school in the mornings. I recalled my dad building a closet in our bedroom, as older farmhouses generally didn’t have closets, probably because people didn’t have very many clothes at the time. There were no closets downstairs either, and dad installed several large hooks in the hallway and back porch to accommodate our coats and such.
When I was two years old, my mom and dad bought a small farm on nine acres of land, and it included a large barn and our four bedroom house. My younger brother was born while we lived there and he joined me and my older brother and sister. There was no bathroom in the house, and we used the outhouse in the barn until one of the bedrooms was remodeled into a bathroom. We were all pretty glad not to have to take the path to the bath anymore!
Dad raised rabbits in the barn, and we had a small chicken coop full of chickens to provide us with food, and he also sold some of the rabbit meat to a few faithful customers. His biggest sale of rabbit was for the annual wild game supper that took place in January in St. Marys. My brothers and I played basketball upstairs in the barn in the winter, and I remember jumping in the hay as my more daring brothers played on the high rafters, risking life and limb as boys like to do. As years went by, my dad passed away, the rabbits were sold, and the barn was no longer sturdy enough to safely hold our parked car. Eventually it was torn down, leaving a huge empty spot where so much fun and activity had taken place.
Now there’s another empty spot where my childhood home once was, and when I drove away that day, the only thing left standing was the chimney. I had watched the huge jaws of the demolition machinery as it took large bites out of the house, making it look like it was made of flimsy match sticks. I had watched as the dumpster filled up with the remains of a well-loved house.
There was a bright spot in the midst of a lot of sadness, when the present owner of the house, Michelle, brought a note to us that she had found stuffed between the boards in the wall leading to the basement. It was written by my then ten-year old granddaughter Rachel, and it reads as follows:
“Bless this house with the memory of my Great Grammy Blessel who died this October, 1999.
Love Always Great Gram,
On the back of the note she had written: “Anyone who finds this, please put it back in the same place.”
Michelle decided it was time to return the note to its author, and we are so thankful that she saved it for us.
On March 11, it will be 22 years since I lost everything in my own house fire, and losing my childhood home brought all those memories to mind again. The thing I remember most about that horrible time was the kindness and generosity of so many friends, relatives, co-workers and neighbors who helped with their gifts of supplies, money, time and much-needed hugs as I slowly put my life back together again.
Now I understand how my mother and aunts felt as they stood sadly looking at a field where their childhood home had once stood. There wasn’t even the smallest remnant of that life left, except for the memories to be treasured in our hearts.
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