It was December 28, 1979, and my husband, Gene, and father-in-law, Jerry had almost completed the construction of our new house. That day they were spraying the ceilings and caulking window frames, and other odd jobs in preparation for our moving into the house within the following weeks. It was a gem…a double octagon (16-sided) with skylights in the kitchen, dining room, and upper story, built in a stand of hard wood Oaks, Beech, and Maple, on the northwest corner of our property in Michigan; an original design of my husband’s and an intense labor of love between father and son. Before the ceilings were finished that day, the house would be gutted by fire that would cause it to implode from the top story down. The only parts standing after the firestorm had abated would be the outside walls of the lower story. While, thankfully, all of us were safe and unharmed, the disaster was, as you might imagine, harrowing on more levels than can be discussed in one short blog essay; not the least of which being our young children’s Christmas presents were all destroyed in the blaze. The fire began in the small cabin next door that we’d built and were living in while building the ‘Big House.’ It’s still hard for me to look back on that day since the reason for the fire was due to my own negligence.
It was unseasonably warm that week in December, and we had let the coals in the small wood stove in the cabin go mostly out. Since I was headed to my in-law’s to use their phone to make airline arrangements (we didn’t have telephone wires strung to the back of our 15 acre property yet) to attend my sister Sheree’s wedding in Florida, I thought I’d better build a fire before walking the quarter mile to the front road where “Grandma’s” house was located. I threw a lot of building scraps into the wood stove to get coals started to burn the larger pieces of seasoned oak that I planned to add later. In my distracted state of mind, I forgot to add the more slow-burning wood and left the door to the stove wide-open when I left the house. Eventually, the ultra-dry building pine caught in a flash blaze that overheated the stovepipe going up through the cabin ceiling and attic. The rest is history.
As we looked out the bedroom window where we were all now safely gathered to witness the scene still blazing on our own property (the volunteer fire department on duty for the holiday doing their best to put it out, to no avail), I hated my earlier hasty actions in that moment. Grief-stricken, I sputtered out apologies to my husband and especially my father-in-law, who had spent so much time and selfless effort over the past several months helping us build our dream house. All I expected in return was their justifiable anger. What I got was a hug from Gene and his shoulder to cry on. My father-in-law, gazing out the window with me merely said, “Now, that’s what I call a Yuletide blaze! It looks mighty pretty from here doesn’t it?” Incredulously, I turned to study him, wondering what craziness was going through his head. Then, he, too, put his arm around my shoulder and said, “No use crying over spilt milk, is there? What’s done is done. We’ll see what we can salvage when it cools down.” It took weeks of shoveling out debris and rebuilding the second floor and roof sans the skylights on the ground floor roof since we couldn’t afford them the second time around. There was never a word of rapprochement spoken. Neighbors from surrounding farms came to help us rebuild. They also made donations of toys for the children and there were boxes of clothing and household goods given as well—a real outpouring of holiday love. We received beautiful hand-sewn quilts that women from the Quaker meeting in town had made for just such an occasion. My family cherished those quilts, so much so that many years later when my eldest son’s quilt was threadbare and I wanted finally to throw it away, he protested so loudly that I decided to sew it into the lining of a new quilt that I made for him that year.
So, when I heard of Dr. Cara Barker’s “Love Project, 2013” and her idea to make quilts for the grieving children who had lost siblings or a parent in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, CT, I was immediately on board. I told Cara about our experience with the quilts after our house fire, and she told me her own story of how a quilt made with love for her on her 21st birthday “brought [her] comfort when there seemed none to be had. [How] quilts like [that] can accompany the broken-hearted surviving children of Newtown and let them know that they are loved and not alone, even during the darkest of times.” I knew this to be true and signed on for the project.
I also discovered while beginning work on my quilt for a special five-year old girl, whose identity I will never know, that Love gathers more Love in its service like bits of brush collecting into a big, beautiful tumbleweed rolling across the high desert plateau. As I laid out my design one day, preparing to begin the project, the man who had been doing building maintenance on our house for the past several weeks asked if he could help in some way! I thought he was joking. He was not. He worked for several hours measuring and cutting material and laughing and chatting with me, making light—in more ways than one—the work. Thank you, Santos, for that! Another day while I was cutting, sewing, and appliqueing pieces on squares, a friend’s mother came to our house and asked if the cover was going to be for Serene, assuming it was for my own five-year old granddaughter. I told her Dr. Cara’s story and how I got involved in the Love Project. She offered to contribute money to help pay for some of the materials I had bought, and would not take no for an answer. I finally relented, and what she gave me paid for all the materials! Thank you, Veda, for your loving heart!
As my quilt took shape, I began to feel closer and closer to the child for whom it was being created and ‘saw’ her safely snuggled within its warm fabric, envisioning it bringing her the comfort that the quilts that were given to my own children brought them. Of course, I am not comparing losing a house and its contents to losing a parent in a violent shooting, but Love has its own way of lighting the dark moments of our lives and teaching lessons of patience and compassion so that we can pass more of it along to others when they, too, are in need.
I share this story as we approach the Winter Solstice with the hope that you will remember a time when kindness and love lit your way in the darkness; that you will in turn give that gift to another in whatever way you are able, with whatever large or meager resources you have at hand—even if it’s only a smile for a stranger that you pass on the street while doing your holiday shopping.
In that spirit, I wish us all a light-filled and blessed holiday season!
Jessica Rios said:
I will never forget G-Pa hugging you and saying that we shouldn’t cry over spilt milk. Even as I nine year old I grasped how “big” of him it was to comfort you. People have a lot of bad things to say about him but I always thought he was amazing. I know he had some really bad faults but I saw him as almost superhuman. He always had a twinke in his eye and he had the heart of a child. Both my grandfathers were amazing. I miss them.
Jenna, what a moving story. So much packed in a few well-designed paragraphs–like your quilt, I imagine. That’s how my husband Vic would have responded if I burned the house down. When I hit a deer with the car (when he was alive) or busted the bushhog mower on the tractor by hitting a stump (as I did after he died) he would say, “if it’s a problem we can fix by throwing money (or time) into it, it’s no problem at all.” I heat with wood and can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven half way to town–that’s ten miles–and returned because I hadn’t been mindful and double checked the stove.
Thank you for making the quilt. I’ve never made anything as beautiful as a quilt–and it is just right for a little girl.
You are a remarkable woman, and I love getting to know you through your writing and sharing. My Solstice ritual for the world each year is to raise money for a Nepalese women’s development group for Educate the Children (educated mamas who become literate and learn skills to help their family finances gain status and send their children to school–and I get so much from my women’s group that it seems only right to support another.
With peace and gratitude,
Hey, Jess ~ I answered your comment on the FB thread. But I want to add one more thing…you are so right about the twinkle in your grandfather’s eye. I loved that about him. But he could be the proverbial girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead (only change genders)…he had that little devil in him, too. He changed a lot from the young man he was when he was raising your dad and the other kids. I’ve talked to Sherri and Becky about it, too, and they all saw the transformation in him as he aged. Love you, mom
Elaine, It is a treasure to be married to a person you know will love you no matter what, isn’t it Elaine? Gene certainly had his faults (as do I) and we had many rough years in our marriage until we grew up and began the hard work of relationship as a sacred contract. But I always knew that he loved me from the inside/out and not the other way around. I appreciate the ‘thanks’ but to tell you the truth, I got so much out of making that quilt too that I feel it was a gift to myself as well. I like your Napalese women’s development fund raising work…what a worthy cause! I am so glad we’ve connected…
Thanks for being such a heart-centered and interesting friend, Jenna
Dennis Dore said:
I am a friend of Elaine’s. I feel so deeply honored and blessed to participate in the things she share’s with me and to turn quiet and contact the feminine principles within the depths of my own soul. It is a balm to my physical wounds and I rest more easily knowing that my three daughters will be mentored by the wisdom of ladies such as yourselves after I am gone. Your piece flooded me with tears as the gates to my heart flung open.
Dennis, It’s a pleasure to have you here. Thanks so much for checking in with me. From what I can tell, your daughters are blessed to have a father who is so in touch with his inner Feminine! I’m honored by your comment and grateful that my post touched your heart. All the best, Jenna
Very moving and beautiful piece Jenna! I am deeply affected by the acions of compassion you have related here that bear such a strong personal flavor and experiential tone… I so enjoy your sharing and am touched so that I have to say I will remember this teaching tale and surely make every effort to pass on the seeds of well-lit compassion that I feel you have planted here 😉
I’m also sensing such a powerful “trial by fire” from your experience and am reminded, re/hearted of the intense power of fire to transform in us and around us.
Much Love and Appreciation to You Dream-Quilt-Phoenix-Rising Friend, Travis
Thank you, Travis. Yes, my life has been all about “Trial By Fire,” my friend. I am beginning to realize that I couldn’t have it any other way being the person I am. “Dream-Quilt-Phoenix-Rising,” I LIKE it!
Wishing you and yours the gift of love and creative abundance during this new trip around the Sun, Jenna