Fire Too Close

The siren was close. The main road I live on, Berry, intersects with Meridian three hundred feet east of my drive. It’s not unusual to hear the siren of ambulances or police cars. Sitting at my desk I tried to determine the direction of the sound. It had stopped near my house.

Not good…not good at all. Which neighbor was in trouble? I immediately got up from writing and glanced out the upstairs windows. “Dear God!” I yelled as I saw smoke billow from Gary and Karen’s house two doors down. My heart and thoughts began to race.

Prayer comes first, always. I posted on line a plea; with speed-dial I called a friend to start a prayer chain…all this in less than two minutes. Glancing out the window again, the smoke had increased and turned an angry black. I rushed downstairs. The dog startled by my urgency ran behind me barking.

Grabbing my coat I bolted out the door in Muk Luk slippers, no gloves or scarf. “Dear God, dear God, dear God…” I kept repeating as I ran to my neighbors. Where was Karen? Gary? He would try to stop the fire…was he safe? Their dogs—two big boxers—had they been able to get them out? My breath caught, it was cold, bitterly cold at 5º.

As I came past the house I saw Gary standing in the drive. The second fire truck had just arrived. Firemen were donning equipment. The first responders who had already arrived had hosed the back of the house—the vinyl siding was melted away. The garage, his life, was burning.

“Gary—Gary are you alright?”

“Yeah…yeah…I was only gone a couple minutes…”

I put my hand on his back, the other on his arm—he had just dropped the cell phone.

“Gary—where is Karen?”

“She thinks it a joke…I called…she’s shopping…”

His face went from red to pale gray, then red again. I prayed he wouldn’t have a heart attack. I stepped back from him as his buddies showed up. I stepped back from the responders as the garage became fully involved. There was nothing I could do to help. I felt chilled…physically and in my heart. I headed back to my house as police and two more fire trucks arrived.

I watched from the upstairs window as canisters, gas tanks, and tires exploded. I prayed and cried for my friends.

Karen’s SUV pulled in our neighbor’s drive across the road.  Another small explosion and more flames—Karen ran from her car across the icy road. I prayed she wouldn’t fall.

The flames were so close, too close. Their house is a mere five feet from the garage. The black curling smoke carried flaming debris into the woodlot and towards neighboring homes.

When I saw Karen again, she was crossing the road with her dogs. I knew I could help. Back out the door in slippers and coat, I maneuvered past police cars, fire trucks, and their crowd of friends. As I got close to her, I saw she couldn’t control the two boxers and a friend was trying to help.  Veda and Jade are house pets and shivered from the brutal cold, and anxiousness of their owners. One over excited boxer is hard enough to manage, but two tethered on a single lead—and stressed—were overpowering.

Karen’s friend helped get the dogs to my house. I locked the cat in the basement, barricaded my dog, Lilly, upstairs, and unleashed the whining shivering pair. I knew my housemate would understand the invasion to her living space.

The only way to calm the dogs was to calm myself. As they paced from room to room, panting and drooling, I sat on the sofa and prayed for the safety of all involved. Eventually the two boxers calmed down and could be let out into the backyard to relieve themselves. I stepped out the back door and shuddered from the acrid smell of the fire. I listened to its crackling. Even from two doors down I could feel the unexpected heat in winter.

I saw their daughter park across the road and run to her parents. She had gone home to her place just days before. I can only imagine her trying to control fear and drive safely as she headed back to Pleasant Lake.

Hours later the fire was out. Gary’s “all” was gone.

I remembered one summer afternoon when I saw him in the back garage sitting on a stool. The golf cart was elevated in front of him. He held a pint-can of red paint. With a small brush he was touching up the undercarriage of the cart. He looked up at my greeting with the sweetest smile on his face—a happy contented man.

He and Karen took delight in his muscle car (lost to me is the model) and knew his neighbors would understand if he “burned rubber” once or twice a month.

The car, cart, jeep, truck, tractor, tools, landscaping equipment, patio furniture, and so much more were destroyed. He and Karen had taken a hard hit. What was left? Rubble and a few charred beams. The fire came a few weeks after another loss; all his tools at the property on Dixon Road had been stolen.

The Wrights are good people. They are honest, charitable, grateful and happy. What I don’t know about them is if they have Faith.

In the vulnerability of disaster, who can we turn to if not our God? How do we find the strength to not be bitter? To not lay blame? Is love reasonable in loss?

In the Wright family there was a closing of ranks. There were tears from the daughter who recognized her dad’s pain—for possibly causing the fire, and loosing his livelihood and his loves. Karen’s tears of loss were mixed with gratitude—her husband was unharmed physically, though the emotional challenges are yet to be faced. Both dogs were fine. And Gary’s tears were not meant for me to see. In it all, there was love for one another. And in that love there is God.

The next morning I brought them spiral bound notebooks to catalog their losses and offered help typing to compile the lists. Karen gave me a tearful hug. They know that I am Catholic and have prayed rosaries for them in the past. It was the first time Karen had asked me to pray…I began to tear up too.

The same love that expressed gratitude for no one being hurt would hold them together. They had faith and would persevere.


Lasers and Light

The furnace barely kept up. It ran almost constantly on Sunday as winter winds blew and made the awnings shudder and groan.

The kettle of chicken-vegetable soup simmered. Rice, carrots, and celery gently rolled to the top as I stood beside the stove and contemplatively watched the gentle bubbling. The steam incensed the kitchen—and all the house—with its aroma. 

I delight in making soups. All that was unfavorable and leftover can be brought together into a vital whole. For a single woman, a kettle of soup will nourish for weeks once frozen. More often than not, it is shared.

The happiness of cooking was short lived when exhaustion weighed in after I had prepped vegetables and pulled chicken from the bone. I sat hard on the sofa and leaned heavily into the pillows. The arthritic ache if my spine drained me physically and mentally. I’m not good at holding up well in adversity and whispered “Lord, have mercy.” 

A laser treatment on my spine a few days ago broke down restricting tissue to allow for more flexibility. The procedure was uncomfortable, but tolerated knowing better movement would result. The days that followed were filled with an unrelenting achiness, similar to overexerted muscles from gardening, but flexibility was definitely improved. 

It is the “daily” of it all that tries my patience. Things like having to make several trips up and down two flights of stairs because I can no longer carry a full basket of laundry. Then the feeling of guilt for lacking gratitude in that I have clothes enough for a full basket, laundry equipment to clean them, and legs strong enough to climb multiple flights of stairs. 

The same guilt rises when I grumble doing household chores in my tiny flat. There are only four warm and cheery rooms. Still I mutter under my breath about changing bedding, dusting furniture, and cleaning up pet hair. Sometimes I think God must see me as a fussy three year old needing a nap. 

I had been doing my best to adjust to a new normal. Grateful for the laser treatment and being a bit more limber, I offered up the discomfort as I worked my way through chores. But by Sunday I was spent.

There is a fine line between acceptance and resignation—or hopelessness—and I was about to cross it. That line is drawn with trust that God is near and in control, especially in the struggle.

On Monday morning I had an appointment and was slow to get out of bed. The delay meant there was not time enough to ease into my day with coffee and prayers. It was below zero that morning and the car engine was rough to start, and I thought “yeah, me too.” 

The heavy clouds and naked trees did nothing to improve my mood. Slumping towards the steering wheel, hands at 10 and 2, I looked and felt like I was 90 as I drove off into town. Leafless black-limbed trees whizzed past in a blur. 

Cresting a small hill I saw the fullness of a red and coral sunrise that had been hidden behind the woodlands. I saw in the distance a sunbeam on a small patch of dormant trees. Maybe only a dozen or so that was a vivid crimson in the band of light. 

The light on their dark limbs sparked in me a desiring. I hoped as I drove down the road that the light remained long enough that I would enter into its rays. There was a restlessness in me to move toward the Kindly Light, and I saw a need to maintain that restlessness when I felt distance from the comforting love of God.


Suffering Succotash Mother!

She preferred to be called Mother Bailey. She was a stately Scottish woman; tall and handsome with wild blonde-gray hair that no matter how desperately she tried to secure it, frizzed and blew in all directions. Her eyes were a steely-blue and reminded me of thin ice over a lake. Much like her homeland she was rugged and sturdy.

Though she gave an air of fixed and singular determination, she was known for her wicked sense of humor that was subtle and witty. I was often a recipient of this humor and rarely caught on until I saw the glint in her eyes. She seemed to draw delight in my simple trusting nature.

Mother Bailey was a devout Presbyterian and followed the rules of her church, one of which she believed included frugality. She wasted nothing and bordered on the edge of hoarding, except that she willingly gave away whatever she had.

She lived in Pennsylvania with her English Cocker Spaniel named Tillie, also a blonde. This particular area of Pennsylvania reminded her of home; hilly, rocky, windswept and a neighborhood clannish in nature. Her only frustration with the region was her inability to grow a decent patch of heather in the garden. I wondered if this inability was due more to the activities of her energetic dog than the environment. Whenever we would walk about the sloping gardens, care would need to be taken so as not to sprain an ankle in one of the many digs Tillie left behind.

Listening to Mother Bailey talk gave rise to wonder and curiosity about her native land. Her tongue would roll and lilt as she spoke of land and sea. Words like glens and straths or firths and links peppered her descriptions. I would set a mental note to check the encyclopedias when I got home.

Being Scottish, and as I mentioned, frugal in every regard, Mother Bailey repurposed everythinglong before it was fashionable. And her home reflected this habit, especially her kitchen. It was a galley style kitchen with one end open to the central hallway and the other open to the dining area with a half-wall counter dividing the room.

Every surface, shelf and ledge were filled to capacity with half-hazard stacks categorically organized. A colorful mountain of seasonal and holiday napkins, some only slightly used, spilled over onto the canning jars filled with plastic cutlery—being utilized more frequently than the drawer of pristine flatware.

The white porcelain enamelware table, with red edged extender leaves and chrome legs, bore the brunt of the stacking. Only a small half-moon space at the front edge of the leaf remained open for her to work. The organized clutter sloped up and away to rest against the gold floral papered wall.

Boxes of loose tea and half used tea-balls rested nearest the front. Emptied bread bags lay half folded under the casual mound of English muffins, bannock cakes, and partial loaves of assorted breads. Cartons and cans filled the remaining space in an uphill climb with the summit of the pile stacked with steel cut oats imported from Scotland. Mother Bailey was a bit of a snob when it came to her beloved oats.

When I had come to visit her one afternoon, she had intended to make chowder for our ‘sup’. With bacon fat leftover from breakfast, she sautéed the onions as we talked. A barely concealed fear of a kitchen fire raced through my thoughts as I observed the nearness of her stacks to the lighted range. Rummaging through the cans on the counter to her right she pulled out whole corn and from the freezer a bag of lima beans. Opening them she added them to the pot. I had not eaten limas before and asked if they were like navy or black beans. “Tis neither” was all she said while dipping a wooden spoon into the stock, pulling up a plump green lima for me to taste. I enjoyed its creaminess, like butter wrapped in a pale green skin.

Mother Bailey explained that succotash was a baked dish of corn, limas and evaporated milk. She had adapted the ingredients to make chowder, “for the soups are healthier you know.” A practical woman, she often used boxed potato flakes when she had no leftover mashed. This is an adaptation of her recipe, God rest her soul.

 Succotash Chowder

4 strips thick bacon, diced, fried and drained, reserving about 1 tbl. of the grease

1 medium onion, diced

30-36 oz. chicken broth (2 large cartons or cans) or equivalent using bouillon paste

¼ tsp celery seed

¼ tsp thyme

10 oz. frozen lima beans (or canned, drained)

10 oz. frozen whole kernel corn (or canned drained), or for a sweeter chowder use corn stripped from the cob

1-1 ¼ c. potato flakes, or equivalent leftover mashed thinned with some of the milk

1 c  half-and-half, or  equivalent whole milk (do not use skim or low fat) mixed with a small can of evaporated milk

Pepper to taste 

Cook the bacon bits until well done but not overly hard. In soup kettle add the bacon drippings and sauté the onions until translucent. Add the broth, celery seed, thyme, limas and corn. Boil gently for 15 minutes. Whisk into soup the milk and potatoes. Add bacon bits. Add pepper to taste and simmer until thickened.

I usually use leftover mashed potatoes for this chowder. I find that boxed potatoes work very well to thicken up a soup, but use them in moderation for you can quickly wind up with a succotash mud. You can also use corn starch to thicken.



Be Still and Shovel

Image by Margaret Rose Realy, Obl. OSB. All rights reserved.

Restless and awake through the night, in bed under layers of quilts, I listed to the sleeping dog’s whimpering barks. The cat had realized that the dog’s sleep and my wakefulness was an opportunity for undisturbed cuddles. She chortled softly as she walked around the foot of the bed. She placed her front paws on my shoulder and nestled her head against my cheek.

I stared out the small dormer window. The streetlight’s glow through the window marked a cross high on my bedroom wall. Even without my glasses I could tell it was snowing. I let out a deep sigh of both relief and weariness. The purring cat curled closer to my chest.

Sometime during the past few weeks, among the holiday cheer and in-between presents, the switch had flipped from alone to isolation. To live a reclusive life is a blessing; to feel isolated is a thing to be cursed. St. John’s words on dark nights of the soul helped me understand these familiar occurrences. When in that darkness, I rely deeply on faith and seek earnestly the Face of God in the smallest events. Like a mantra I’ll repeat the Bible verse, be still, be still…“Be still and know the I AM God.”

From the window the dawn filtered slowly through the winter storm. I encouraged the cat from the fold in my arm and sat up on the edge of the bed. Nesting feet into slippers I lumbered into the day. It was The Solemnity of Mary and I readied for Mass.

Throughout the day it continued to snow and had steadily increased to well over six inches. With a second night of snow predicted, and another eight from a second storm soon to follow, I had to start clearing the drive before the accumulation was more than I could manage.

I love snow, love how it softens and quiets my world, how it mutes distractions and draws me into the present. I become more attentive to how I step, to watching out for others, and realize how vulnerable I am in a world grown cold—and blessed to have protection.

I headed out the front-porch door, bundled in an old seam-frayed coat, furry hat, and insulated mittens. I grab the shovel, and broom to clean off the car, and paused, distracted by the beauty of it all. The apples that still hung on the tree had snow thick and peaked like frosting and looked like suspended cupcakes. Every limb and tiny branch was edged with snow. The parallel white-on-black lines of branches were an entanglement of contrast that fooled the perception of depth.

The contrast of it all—the beauty and the threat—was what had my attention.

With an arthritic spine I knew the task of shoveling was a dare…a triple-dog-dare. I would either feel heroic in success or as foolish as a preen-teen boy with tongue frozen to the tether-ball pole, knowing better. I took the gamble and began to clear the snow.

Immediately I realized that lifting a shovelful was not an option. The accumulation was already too much for me to handle. Usually my neighbor Gary (aka Bear) would plow the drive, but he was out of town. I stood upright, and for a moment felt discouraged…there was no one to help.

The contrast of delight of new-fallen snow rubbed hard against the reality of the situation. The contrast of perceived isolation in my heart chafed the joy in my soul.

If I were to get the car out in the morning, the snow would have to be removed before more accumulated. Stooping, I began again, and prayed. I persevered and pushed, rather than lift, small lines of snow.

Image by Margaret Rose Realy, Obl. OSB. All rights reserved.

As the drive was slowly cleared I thought of the people in my life that, these past weeks, helped me push through depression. There was the delight at Mass of seeing Sheri, who lives over an hour north from church. And the unexpected marketing gift from Daria shortly after Christmas. The sweet teasing and bantering of writing friends on Facebook brought laughter to my days. Then, from 2500 miles away, came an embrace of caring words from Joanne.

Sometimes it’s not possible to alone lift ourselves from the accumulation of challenges in life, but we can with the help of others push our way through whatever is at hand.

By the time the drive was cleared, the switch of isolation had been turned off. With a warm cup of tea I rested my back and watched the snow continue to fall as dusk came and settled the day.