January 9, 1988. It’s been more than 30 years, yet I can still remember it like it was yesterday. I was 8, my brother 6, my sister 4. We had just returned from running the typical Saturday errands and were gathering our belongings from the car when my dad opened the front door and yelled: “FIRE!”
No flames were visible, but the smoke that came billowing out and mingled with the cold, northern N.J. winter air was a clear indication something was very wrong. We stood frozen, clearly in shock, until my dad yelled at us to go to our neighbors’ house. Once there, it was a blur of hugs, tears, a frantic 911 call, and more tears.
In that moment everything we owned, our childhood innocence, and our sense of security were gone… just like that.
What happened that day has taken me years — decades, even — to process. And now that I’m a parent of young children the ages my siblings and I were, I’m processing it all over again. That’s the thing about childhood trauma: It sticks with you. It wasn’t just losing all our belongings that has affected me; it’s the persistent, omnipresent imprint a tragedy like this leaves on you well into adulthood.
It started with guilt. The morning of our fire, completely out of the blue, I’d asked my dad what would happen if our house ever caught fire. My question naturally surprised him — as it wasn’t Fire Awareness Month or anything (that’s in October), but we discussed what we’d do: we’d stop, drop, and roll; we’d make sure we all got out of the house safely; we’d go to our neighbors’ house.
But because of this conversation, I blamed myself for the fire for many years — my childish mind thinking it was somehow my words that led an ember to escape our wood-burning stove and destroy our home.
Then came increased anxiety. Although I’d been a happy kid with little drama, the year before the fire, I had begun seeing a counselor at school to manage my anxiety which had started when I nearly missed the bus home from school one day. The fire only heightened my anxiety — suddenly, I was afraid of the dark, afraid of another fire, afraid of being left alone at night. These fears were equally legitimate and irrational, but they were in constant battle inside my head, and it hasn’t necessarily gotten easier with time.
To this day, I cringe when I hear sirens, and I need white noise to sleep. I ask my husband every morning if my curling iron is still on, even though rationally I know I shut it off. I’m hyper-aware of fire hazards; I emphasize fire safety with our kids, regularly going over escape plans, and checking our fire, and carbon monoxide alarms. I know firsthand that none of this is foolproof, but I find comfort in knowing it’s a start. It doesn’t appease my anxiety, but it does help mitigate it.
These days, when I look at my own daughter — who just turned 8 — I’m struck by how innocent and carefree she is, and how innocent and carefree I’d probably been until that day (end-of-school-day anxiety aside). Until that cold January day, my world was one of Cabbage Patch dolls, Barbies, Lite Brite, and My Little Ponies. For me, being 8 was all about ballet, and braids, and friendship bracelets.
When I think of my own parents in 1988 — who were a few years younger than my husband and I are today — I can’t help but tear up. I wonder how, in face of tragedy, they had to care for and comfort their three young children, even though they were hurting, too. They had to come to grips with the reality that sometimes parents can’t shield their children from pain or loss.
In our fire, we lost nearly everything we owned, including our sense of security. With the exception of some salvageable photo albums (which have soot-tinged pages and still reek of smoke today), and the blue stuffed octopus my dad gave me the day I was born, it was all gone: furniture, toys, clothes, books, electronics, sentimental items, family heirlooms.
But even through the shock of our great loss, my parents tried to remind us of the positives, like the utter relief that we weren’t home when it happened; that no one was hurt; that our friends and our community banded together for us; and that our dog had run away only months before (surely she would have perished). We may have been temporarily “homeless,” but we were together and safe — the biggest blessing of all.
I began referring to life as BF (Before Fire) and AF (After Fire). My parents did all they could to make sure we felt safe and secure, and we found a “new normal” as our house was gutted and redone. We rented a condo off the ski slopes in our town, and, in spite of the circumstances, we had a blast there — we swam in the indoor pool everyday after school and made new friends. We still went to dance and karate classes, and Hebrew School, which I had just begun that fall. We got new toys and stuffed animals, and made our condo “home.” And we grew tighter than ever, the five of us. A shared experience — even a negative one — can do that to a family.
Fortunately, we weren’t out of our house for as long as had been anticipated. About four months later, we moved into our “new” house — the very same house my parents still live in today.
I wouldn’t wish a house fire on my worst enemy, but 31 years later, I’m still blown away when I think of how selfless, strong, and resilient my parents were; how they made us feel safe and secure even when they were suffering an enormous loss, too. I hope never to be tested the way they were, but I like to think that I would draw from their courage.
The effects of our fire may be lifelong and we’ll never get back the things we lost — but ultimately, it’s just stuff. I feel blessed to have had loving family and friends, plus the kindness of strangers, who all supported us during our time of need. It’s something I’ve carried with me ever since, and something I hope to teach my children by example.