“Denise, get in the car. We are leaving.” Mom shouted to me as she was coming out of the door of our house. I had my Chrissy doll, a Christmas present that had barely left my hand since I rescued her from under the tree. I ran her out to our fort in the woods before racing back to the car. The blue Ford station wagon was always packed full of children. It was my sister Robin’s birthday and we were going out for pizza, a rare treat for all of us.
Grandpa Hershberger worked at The Dover Market snack bar on Friday nights and after our dinner at the local family restaurant, we walked into the market. As we walked up to the bar to order milkshakes, Grandpa ran over to Mom, his face filled with dread.
“What are you doing here? I thought Grandma caught you at the restaurant. Your house in on fire. The fire trucks are there now. Someone drove by and saw the flames coming from the rear of the house.”
“What do you mean? How can that be? It was less than an hour ago that we left?”
“Head home right now. Maybe it was caught in time for them to save the house. Grandma didn’t fill in details.”
I remember my stepfather, Jack, driving very fast racing against time. Mom kept saying to us that maybe we didn’t lose much. But turning on our road, we saw the orange glow from a quarter mile away. The sky was lit on fire and the flames were licking the tops of the trees surrounding the house. The glow said to all of us nothing could be done. Mom got out of the car at my grandparents to look over toward our burning house. She fell to her knees. My mother rarely cries, but her moans and tears of desperation are etched in my memory. “What will we do? Where can we go?”
Grandma held her shoulders. “Betty, of course, you can all sleep here tonight. We don’t have much room, but we will put down sleeping bags on the floor for the children, you can have the middle bedroom. We will sort this out tomorrow.”
“My house. All of our pictures and other things we cannot replace. All we have are the clothes we are wearing.” I don’t think the reality of that statement sunk in with me until days and even weeks later.
The next morning after the fireman sent word that it was safe to sift through the rubble, mom and Jack strolled gingerly over to see the charred remains of our house. My siblings and I stood at the corner of our grandparents house watching as they walked over to our house. Small ribbons of smoke from smoldering ashes float toward the sky and my eyes water. The smell burns my nostrils and permeates the air.
“We will go first and call to you when we feel it is safe. Don’t go into the middle the house. Hot spots are all over out here. Stay around the outside when we call for you.”
She didn’t have to worry. Fear and apprehension grabbed a hold of us. This was like nothing we experienced in our young life. As soon as Jack and mom motioned to us to come on over, I ran around to the back of the house, down the path to our fort. Chrissy was sitting right where I left her. It was blessed reunion and how perfect that I had put her in the fort before heading out for pizza. My sister’s doll was now part of the ash heap. As I looked around at all of our treasures in the fort, I thought these were all the toys we had left. I stayed in the fort until Mom called for me to come. I didn’t want to look at all of our things burned black.
“Kids, I know this is the hardest thing we’ve ever faced, but we will start again. We have to finalize the insurance, but we should have enough to build another house right on this spot. Maybe even bigger than the one we lost. We will rent a house until it is finished.”
“But what about all our stuff?. We won’t get them back, will we? All of our Christmas presents? They’re gone!” I looked at mom with the gravity of the situation, tears welling and this time nothing to do with the smoky air.
“And we had so many new presents this year, didn’t we?, she knelt down to me at eye level. “This was our best Christmas, but there will be more. I promise. Life can be cruel, Neese, it just isn’t fair. We’ll get more toys and clothes, but they’ll be other things. What is lost is lost.” I closed my eyes at the gravity of her words in my 8 years old brain. My heart felt heavy in my chest.
The only other thing I recall about the aftermath of the fire is the donations that poured in from all over our Delaware community. The story was on the local news and a flood of furniture, appliances, kitchen items, clothing and toys poured in through the schools. In a week, we set up in a farmhouse rental with our hand-me-downs. Something broke in me after our house was gone, I became more careful about attachments to things and even people. After all, life can be heartless in who it chooses to burn out, even then I prayed to the One who I was told could be trusted when the waves of loss threaten.