I woke up disoriented and displaced. The hotel walls slowly came into focus as I heard Mom and Dad talking in hushed tones. Confusion gave way to memory and bile rose in my throat. Tears came and I choked them away. My home was gone. Forever.
I don’t know why my parents decided to go to church that first day after the fire. Maybe they needed routine. Maybe they needed community. Maybe it was check out time at the hotel and they needed somewhere to corral five kids while they tried to stay sane. I don’t know. I do know exactly how warm and rough the sidewalk felt on my bare feet when I stepped out of the van and headed into Sunday School. The hot February sun that had dried the fallen leaves into tinder was still at it, and the pavement was summer to my winter soft toes. I was wearing every scrap of clothing I owned: panties and a baggy T-shirt. Dad assured me it was long enough to be a dress but I tugged on the hem self-consciously.
Sean met us on the steps all Sunday Smiles, but a gasp escaped her when she saw the state we were in. Without a word she squatted, unstrapped her Women’s size 7 sandals, knelt in front of me and slipped them on my skinny 10 year old feet. The toes flopped like clown shoes but the soles were soft and I felt less naked. As Sean entered church barefoot and I flopped along behind her smile radiated friendship. By the end of the day another church member had bought us all new tennis shoes in our sizes, but I kept those sandals until the toes broke off from tripping me with their ill-fitting length.
This is a story of when a community works– when grassroots is at its best.
The local radio station spent months airing invitations to donate to our family. A benevolence fund was established and cash poured in– not an insurance settlement by any means, but generous for the small working class town. In fact, the word spread so rapidly and thoroughly the donations came from not only our home state but from places as exotic as Omaha, NE, Portland, OR and far away France! A family friend opened their basement as the donation collection point and it filled so quickly with an almost comical mound of clothes-stuffed trash bags we had to ask the radio station to announce a moratorium on clothing donations. Still the donations poured in.
Even in the face of a life altering tragedy such as a total-loss house fire, access to a swimming pool is awesome. We spent the summer rent free at the lakeside condo of a business associate of Dad. It was a tumultuous summer for my parents, but for us as kids the pool, the patch of woods across the parking lot, and the balcony overlooking a motorboat-filled lake provided more adventure than we had ever dreamed possible. It was a summer long Christmas, sorting bags and boxes of new things, never a clue what would come next.
One special day a large box arrived from a homeschool family in Omaha. Their daughter was just older than me, so her hand-me-downs were a perfect fit. In this box was my world: Every Mandie book yet published (my adventuring soul sister whose stories I devoured) in pristine boxed sets, a beautiful collection of Lady Lovely Locks dolls, clothes and accessories (we were of course a Barbie-free home), even a complete Black Stallion collection for Saturn. Looking back I suspect some wish lists were shared but at the time it was a straight up miracle.
Box by box, bag by bag, friend by friend, we rebuilt our lives. Months passed and donations slowed as minds turned to newer stories. The condo was needed for other things, the benevolence funds were running dry and Next Step pressure grew crushing. With no energy to rebuild, no way to re-imagine his dream, Dad turned to other options, slowly accepting a mobile home as our best immediate plan.
So it was late one summer day that I climbed up the tall passenger seat of our van and headed on a road trip, feet swinging inches above the floorboards, just me and Dad, to check out our probable new house on wheels. Just a quick stop at the Post Office on the way out of town…
There was an envelope in the mail that caught Dad’s eye. A church, having heard our story on the radio back in February, had been collecting donations for our family. But they’d never quite gotten that check in the mail until now, so with a profuse apology for the long delay we received another timely miracle: a check for within $100 of the price of the mobile home and the moving fee. God bought us a trailer.*
Surrounded by tokens of love and support, seven months after we drove away with only the clothes on our back, we returned to the farm. My family of 7, our amazingly refreshed library and more clothes than we could ever wear crammed ourselves into a 2.5 bedroom trailer 500 feet up the hill from the buried ashes of my childhood home.
And we began again.
*God Bought Us a Trailer is clearly going to be the title of my book some day. Dibs.