Blown Away: A Thanksgiving Lesson
The author and her family saw possessions and a home go up in flames last Thanksgiving, but the experience provided a perspective that cannot be extinguished.
It was Wednesday, November 26, 2013. A chilly and quiet day had ended, and my family and I sat together in the living room of our two-story, brick-and-panel yellow house. I was on break from IUPUI, where I was a senior and a student worker for the IU School of Journalism. It was unlike most nights, when we would bustle through the front door at late hours after long days at school and work, only to eat a sandwich or a bowl of cereal in the dark before tiptoeing upstairs to our rooms. A holiday was nigh. It was the evening before Thanksgiving.
“You’re not watching this, are you?” Dad asked, as he grabbed the remote from the green rug and began flipping through channels.
He finally landed on a football game. I exhaled an annoyed sigh at Dad’s rhetorical question, leaned back in his navy blue La-Z-Boy, and took to scrolling through tweets about the impending need for elastic pants and holiday cocktails. I was on my laptop, and I was sporting gray sweatpants, socks, and an old zip-up jacket. Sitting to my right, my parents, older sister, and 2-year-old nephew were sprawled on the couch. Food preparation for Thanksgiving was underway. Rolls, dressings, and meat lined the kitchen counters.
“Your house is on fire! Get out! Get out!”
Around 8:15 p.m., amid our back-and-forth banter about why Keeping Up with the Kardashians was allowed to air on TV, a loud thump sounded from our home’s second story. It echoed through the mahogany wood floor, directly above where I sat. I pulled down the hood of my black jacket and glanced over at Mom. We were oblivious to the idea that flames were quickly burning through our roof, that smoke was slowly seeping into our bedrooms, bathrooms, and hallway upstairs.
At the time we heard that loud blow, Diane, our neighbor of 13 years, had just turned onto our street. She saw the flames immediately. After pulling into her driveway and jumping out of her car, she frantically ran to our front door. She pounded her fists on it and screamed. We rushed through the dining room in our pajamas and socks. As Dad fumbled with the lock, her muffled words leaked through the microscopic cracks and pores of the wooden door until it swung open: “Your house is on fire! Get out! Get out!”
It was as if someone had hit “pause” and then slowly fast-forwarded through the scene. I felt like my internal clock, and only mine, almost stopped ticking. It was weighing me down just enough to be in slow motion, even as my family zipped through the front door and my dad rummaged through the closet for his coat. But adrenaline soon surged through me once I stepped toward the door. It filled my veins and flowed down through my legs, leading me up the stairs as smoke billowed through the second-floor hallway. I grabbed Nala, my cat, off my parents’ bed, ran back downstairs and out the door. I stowed her away in my Jeep and ran to the middle of the neighborhood court. My family and neighbors were standing there.
We gasped when firefighters opened the front door of our house. Flames were devouring our family room.
As I turned to look at the roof, I saw yellow and blue flames moving from the back of the house to the front, and then into my room. Those flames danced in the window, taunting me and licking the glass. They twirled my magazine clippings and notes in the air. My window soon combusted, allowing an escape for those burning pieces of paper. Most of them floated to our backyard, where they sat in rain for the next several days. Neighbors also in pajamas and robes soon filled our court; they watched with us as gray smoke permeating the home quickly grew into electric yellow flames.
Within 10 minutes, the flashing red lights and blaring horns of fire trucks lined our street. The workers alerted those in the court to move back, as there was a chance the house could explode. As they began to hose down the fire from above, it grew. It reached out to the houses next to ours, even partially melting the side of Diane’s house. We gasped and murmured when the firefighters opened the front door of our house. We could see flames devouring our family room.
Then, as the flames began to disappear, relief began to sink in. So did reality. The charred skeleton of our home remained, but we were safe and lucky. Sitting in Diane’s living room after the fire with my family, I learned that the loud noise we heard earlier likely came from our chimney, where the initial spark had started—several feet from where I argued with Dad about a reality-TV show.
The Next Day
That next afternoon, on Thanksgiving, I returned to the house. It looked like an oversized dollhouse. You could see the remains of the second floor from outside, including the frame of my parents’ bedroom door, which led to nothing, just the sky. After parking down the street by a neighbor’s house, I walked to our front porch. I peered through a partially broken window next to the front door. From there I could see that the large fan had crashed to the floor. It lay among many other burned and water-damaged items plastered to one another and the floor. Black soot covered what was left of the walls. The roof was gone, and the TV room where we sat the night before was filled with several inches of water. Before leaving, I picked up a charred issue of Ivy Tech’s student-run newspaper in our backyard.
On Saturday, I returned again to search for salvageable items. The heaps of what used to be the roof shifted underneath my boots as I tiptoed up the unstable staircase. Only 10 minutes in my room, the firefighters instructed, as the second floor could easily cave. Formerly a pale yellow, the walls were now punctured with closet-sized openings and tears. The ceiling was gone but for the beams. I tried to dig through shards of broken glass and burnt blankets for my prized newspapers and magazines, which had once been organized into stacks around my room, but I gave up. Before leaving my old room for the last time, I was able to crawl over what used to be my bed and grab my Audrey Hepburn poster. That was enough.
Back to School
Over the next few weeks and months back at the journalism school, classmates, staff, and faculty stopped by my office to check in on me and bring me gift cards, AP stylebooks, and clothes. I was blown away by their generosity, as well as that of family and friends who reached out to help and make conversation, even distract me. That began immediately after the fire. Of the many memories I have from this past year, these acts of kindness mean the most to me—not the items themselves, really, but that willingness to extend a line of support.
One Year Later
A year ago, Emily Turnier, my supervisor at the journalism school who I also call friend, suggested that I document my experience. “You should write a story about it,” she said. “Not right now, of course, but maybe next Thanksgiving.” So I did. After a year of recounting in scribbled notes how it felt to lose my many things, I realized that I didn’t lose everything, as I had once thought. Things are just things, really. People can’t be replaced. We were lucky. We remain lucky. We remain.
This year, I’m thankful for my family and friends. I am thankful for my story.