Some Christmases are stamped in our memories more than others. Perhaps a disappointment, a particular joy, or even a tragedy etches those scenes into our minds. This particular Christmas in the 1980s is one of those forever remembered with sadness in my family.
On that Sunday morning a week before Christmas, sun danced across our breakfast table in patterns matching my light heart. I looked out the patio door at the crisp December morning, its bright blue sky like a canopy covering our house. Our son Tim entertained his dad with stories about his college classes. I snuggled my warm robe around me and sipped a second cup of cocoa, content to have him home—happy to be on Christmas vacation from my teaching job.
The kitchen phone’s ring interrupted my thoughts as Tim grabbed the receiver. I saw the crinkle around his eyes straighten. Color drained from his cheeks. “We’ll be right there,” he said.
Slamming the phone in place on the wall and pushing back his chair, he said, “Mam-ma’s and Pap-pa’s house just burned.”
I sat glued to the seat of my chair watching Tim and his dad grab heavy coats and race out the door. In a stunned frenzy, I dashed to my closet pulling out first one sweater and then another. Shoving my bare feet into boots, I, too, dashed out the door. My in-laws’ home was four miles from town. I drove in frozen silence. Within two miles of their house, I saw black smoke trailing up and across the clear blue sky. What will I find? Are they hurt? Questions played games in my head.
Turning off the main road to their house, I met Tim driving their car. His grandparents sat beside him, their faces white with shock. The backseat was piled with clothes and quilts, anchored precariously by a cherished old mantel clock. I rounded the curve to see flames licking around pieces of the curled tin roof already crumpled on the ash heap. Black smoke billowed and clouded the sun. I caught a glimpse of Tim’s dad before I turned around and turned toward home. Feeling so numb my eyes defied the tears swelling inside, I pulled back into my own driveway. I dreaded facing my in-laws’ grief. They were seated in front of the fireplace, their tear-stained faces buried in their hands.
As family members, church friends, and our pastor came and went, we pieced together the frightful morning. Mam-ma Polly fried sausage while Pap-pa fed his cows. Shortly after he returned to the house, they heard sounds like a log chain scraping the tin roof. Pap-pa ran outside and then yelled for Mam-ma to get out of the house. He grabbed clothes from a closet near the back door while she phoned the fire department. He was able to put the car in reverse and get it out of the carport. Going out the front door, Mam-ma gathered up two handmade quilts and whisked the old chiming clock from the mantel. Fire danced up the draperies and engulfed the Christmas tree decorated with her handmade ornaments. Flames gobbled up the wrapped presents under the tree.
Friends and neighbors came calling with gifts of food, clothing, and money. One couple, planning a winter vacation, offered their home until a new one could be built. But Pap-pa and Mam-ma did not smile. They went through the motions of living through the Christmas holidays and into the New Year. After Christmas, they settled into their friends’ home. We began plans for the new house. They half-heartedly agreed on where it would stand—not at the old site, but on a little knoll a bit east and behind two giant oak trees. Work progressed quickly and decisions were necessary, but Mam-ma said: “Do whatever you want.”
Our church family showered them with pots, pans, dishes, and linens. Several shared odd pieces of furniture. In the basement of their borrowed house, Mam-ma and Pap-pa worked to refinish a bedroom suite. But the joy in their home was gone—burned up with the treasures accumulated in a 50-year marriage.
Soon moving day arrived. While we arranged furniture on the plush new carpet, Mam-ma Polly cooked—the one thing that gave her pleasure. I pressed and hung draperies, asking her advice, yet already knowing her answer: “I don’t care.”
When pictures were hung and a cozy fire warmed the hearth, we said good-byes and closed the door. The old house was gone. We could not bring it back. However, we had done our best to make them warm and comfortable. But we could not make them happy.
Spring sunshine moved them outdoors to dig new flower beds. We hoped the first sprouts of green would give them a fresh outlook. But their defeated spirits refused to respond to the new life covering the charred remains of the old home place. Cross words flared between them over the size of flower beds.
But one bright May morning, Mam-ma Polly phoned. “Come and see” she said, showing the first enthusiasm I had heard in her voice in months. When I rounded the curve approaching their farm, a mix of purples, whites, and pinks filled the yard and garden of the old home site. Petunias grew from every blackened scar, their soft colors and green leaves waving in the spring sunshine.
“Can you believe all those seeds were lying dormant at this old home place?” Mam-ma Polly asked. Seeds from petunias she had planted for years—seeds from petunias other women had planted generations before her—grew on that very spot before Mam-ma’s eyes.
“Petunias from Christmas ashes,” I heard Mam-ma say to Pap-pa. And the healing began.
Other Christmases followed, as years rolled past. We gathered for Christmas Eve nights in the new farm house. Mam-ma made new velvet redbirds for her tree. Then we had the first Christmas without Pap-pa—and the first without Tim—and Tim’s dad. Christmas Eve dinners happened in a different house when Mam-ma moved into town. One Christmas she tottered and fell on her granddaughter’s driveway, cracking her skull. That Christmas Eve, instead of peeking into our Christmas stockings, we went to the hospital. And then Mam-ma’s final Christmases were in an assisted-living facility. Some we remember with a tear; others with laughter. But we celebrated all past Christmases, as we will celebrate future Christmases, for the most important reason: the birth of Jesus Christ.
Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com