On March 12, 2013, we said our final good-byes to Polly Chandler, matriarch of our family. She was Mam-ma Polly to my three children, a great granddaughter, and three great-great grandchildren. To dozens of nieces and nephews, she was Aunt Polly—many of whom had preceded her in death. Mam-ma Polly lived 100 years, 123 days. Over that span of a century, she worked hard and overcame numerous losses, including the deaths of a husband, her only living son, and a grandson, as well as her mother and all of her siblings. One of the most challenging losses came one December Sunday when she fried sausage for breakfast while her husband fed their cows. She heard a rattle on the roof of their old farmhouse—almost like a logging chain dragged across the tin, she said. Her husband burst through the back door and yelled, “Get out! The house is on fire!” He backed their car out of the carport and grabbed an armful of clothing from a closet in the back entry. Polly called the fire department and swooped up one of her handmade quilts as flames danced up the draperies. From somewhere—we never knew where—a young man appeared and swished a cherished clock from the fireplace mantel while orange fire gobbled up the Christmas tree with handmade decorations. Hungry flames fed quickly on the seasoned pine inner structure of the house, held intact by new aluminum siding. In only a matter of minutes, the roaring fire leveled everything in its path.
Mam-ma Polly, clad only in her nightgown and a thin robe, watched her home turn to ash. Cold wind swirled at her bare ankles. The sense of abandonment—held tight in her heart since her Papa had left his family when she was only twelve–overwhelmed the spirit and strength she had exhibited in her adult life. She and her husband had worked for almost half a century to own a home—to surround themselves with the comfort and security of a place they called their own. In an instant, she saw it all fall into a heap of ash. Both in their early 70s, how could they start over? Where would they live? What could they do? The grief and sense of loss fell like a dark cloak over the spunk and sparkle of her can-do nature.
Lingering over Sunday morning breakfast at our home in town—four miles from their farm—we received the phone call that their house was ablaze. My husband and son dashed out the door and I pulled on clothes to follow them. Within two miles of their house, I spied a trail of black smoke swirling against a bright blue winter sky. What will I find? Are they hurt? Questions played games in my head.
Turning off the main road and around a curve to their home, I met my son driving their car. His grandparents sat beside him, their faces white with shock. The backseat was piled with clothes and one quilt, anchored precariously by the old mantel clock. I drove on to the house and saw flames licking around pieces of the curled tin roof already crumpled on the ash heap. Smoke billowed into the treetops and clouded the sun. I looked for my husband—just a glimpse for assurance that he was safe—before I turned back toward home. Feeling so numb that my eyes defied the tears swelling inside, I remembered a scripture: “God shall supply all your needs according to His riches…” (Philippians 4:19). Looking in the rear view mirror at the boiling breath from the smoldering ruins, God’s promise comforted me. I knew our needs—their needs—would be met. But at that moment sitting in front of our fireplace with their tear-stained faces buried in their hands, my mother-in-law and father-in-law could not see beyond their moment of grief.
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 for my in-laws. I smiled remembering, “God shall supply all your needs.” But Pap-pa Trup and Mam-ma Polly did not smile. They went through the motions of living during the Christmas holidays and into the new year. After Christmas, they settled in their friends’ home, and 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 oaks.
Work progressed quickly. Decisions about light fixtures, placement electrical outlets, doors, windows, carpet, and cabinet hardware were necessary, but Mam-ma Polly said to my husband, “Do whatever you want.” Our church family showered them with pots, pans, dishes, and linens. Several shared odd pieces of furniture. Mam-ma Polly and Pap-pa Trup worked to refinish a bedroom suite, but the joy in their home was gone—burned up with treasures accumulated in a 50-year marriage.
By early March, moving day arrived. While we arranged furniture on the new-smelling carpet, Mam-ma Polly did what she did best; she cooked a feast. I pressed and hung draperies, asking her advice, yet knowing her answer: “I don’t care. Do what you think.”
When the pictures were hung and a cozy fire warmed the hearth, my husband and I said our good-byes and closed the door. “The old house is gone,” he said. ‘I can’t build it back. I’ve done my best to make them warm and comfortable, but I can’t make them happy.”
Spring sunshine moved them outdoors to dig new flower beds and a vegetable garden. “The first sprouts of green will give them a fresh outlook,” I assured my husband. But their defeated spirits refused to respond to new life covering the charred remains of the old home site. Cross words flared between them over the size of a flower bed.
But one bright May morning, Mam-ma Polly phoned. “Come and see,” she said, showing the first enthusiasm I’d heard in her voice since early December. When I rounded the curve approaching their place, 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 exclaimed. Seeds from petunias she had planted—and seeds from women who had lived in that house decades before her—grew on the very spot where the old house had stood. God shall supply all your needs according to His riches, I thought. What could be richer than the simple beauty of those hearty flowers?
“Petunias from ashes,” I heard Mam-ma Polly say. And the healing of this major loss began.
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