Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Fire

My uncle is dating his ex-wife Kathy again, something like fifteen years after their divorce, and her family invites my mother over to Thanksgiving dinner. Ian and I are several hours away in Virginia at his mom's for the holiday, as his family is less dysfunctional and has better food.

It's post-Thanksgiving dinner, and my mom and the other womenfolk are in the kitchen, having a blast with each other, and one story leads to another, and they are soon telling macabre stories from their own pasts. My mom tells everyone of how when she was a young girl she saw the neighbor running out of her house with her baby, limp and bouncing in her arms, screaming for my grandfather, a doctor. The baby choked on a carrot minutes before, and died.

Then my uncle's ex-wife's mother, with whom Mom has not spent time in twenty years, begins to tell a story of how forty-two years ago she was driving down Lakeshore Drive, in Columbia, and saw smoke billowing out of the attic of a house as she passed it. She stopped and ran in the house and called the fire department, who made it in time to save most of the contents of the house, with only minor losses in the attic. Apparently, recalls Kathy's mom, the man who started the fire inside the house had died, drunk and passed out with a lit cigarette. The chemicals in sofas are incredibly toxic, and as they burned they filled his lungs quickly enough that he never woke up to save himself, and was almost the only thing taken by the fire. My mother says,

"That wasn't a man. That was my mother-in-law and the grandmother of my children."

Kathy's mother doesn't believe her at first, but the dates were the same, the house was the same. It was my grandparents' house. They were separated at the time and my grandfather was living in Atlanta. My dad was twenty-six years old, a year younger than I am now and a year away from meeting my mother, and his uncle called him up and simply said,

"Your mother died in a fire."

My own mother had often wondered how the family silver and antique furniture had survived a house fire when my own grandmother, an abused wife and chronic alcoholic, had not. My Dad's father was a notorious asshole, an Army general who was in both World War II and Korea, a man who couldn't separate his feelings about his own family from his violence as a soldier. It becomes difficult to justify kindness and love to certain people in a world where you have to kill other people, who are so often so much like you.

My aunt Sally, having never fully recovered from the loss of her mother at the age of twenty-one, inherited her taste for inebriation. She died almost four years ago at the age of fifty-nine, her insides pickled and her esophagus bleeding from what was probably over forty years of regular alcohol abuse. My grandfather died this past Christmas at ninety-two, having outlived his younger brother and sister, his own daughter, and two wives. It's funny how the people who make us hate life most seem to have the tightest grip on it.

So my mom thanked her brother's ex-wife's current girlfriend's mom for saving our family's heirlooms. If she had come along five minutes later, we would have likely lost them all, but then she says,

"Hey, but if you'd only come along five minutes earlier, my kids might still have their grandmother!"

Then she laughed. We have a similar sense of humor.

There probably wouldn't have been enough smoke to notice five minutes earlier, anyway.


  1. I know I read this blog I right? or am I right?

  2. Yep. I first posted it about a year and a half ago. Thanks for reading!