She tells me her father was a hard man. And he’d earned the right to be. He’d survived one Depression, one World War, and he was a dirt farmer. He’d forgotten how to cry.
And when it came to the subject of God, he once told his daughter, “If God’s real, he’s a heartless sumbitch, honey.”
His words, not mine.
Anyway, it happened one sunny day, while she and her brothers were in the woods. She saw smoke in the distance. Black smoke. The bad kind. They ran home.
Only, there was no home. Just flames.
Her mother stood covered in soot. Her baby sister screamed. Her daddy was coughing in the yard.
They salvaged what they could from the dust. A few skillets. A potbelly stove. Their clothes were gone, photo albums, beds, food.
That night, the family slept in the barn. She said it was the first time she’d seen her daddy look rattled. She expected him to cry.
He didn’t. He only cussed the sky.
The next morning, a man came to visit. He was dressed in his Sunday best. He placed a handful of cash in her father’s hand.
“We talked about you in church today,” the man said. “And I wanna help.”
Not long after, another couple came. It was the neighbors, with a wagon full of lumber.
Next, she remembers her mother hollering, “They took up an offering at church! Look! Six hundred dollars!”
Before the day ended, one hundred thirty-two people had visited the rural plot, each offering help.
One hundred thirty-two.
Over the following days, she says men showed up to frame the home. Even local clergy swung hammers. Sunup to sundown, they worked.
You might think this sounds like a fairytale. Only this is no bedtime story. This was South Alabama.
She tells me they ran out of lumber. But it didn’t slow them. Men took apart their own barns and used the wood to finish the home.
After construction, they threw a party. Before supper, someone prayed aloud. Folks touched the white-washed clapboards, eyes closed.
She saw her father bow his head for the first time, and she saw water fall from his face.
There are a lot of folks who’ve let hope dry up. They’ve quit believing in things. In good. In people. In real love. And it’s not their fault. This life can be hell—don’t let anyone tell you different.
Every day, there is another pile of ashes where a house used to be.
Some folks cuss at the Old Man. Some folks do worse. They believe this world is going down the outhouse hole, and they don’t think there’s anything anyone can do about it.
I’ll give you one hundred thirty-two reasons why.
Deb - January 30, 2017 2:40 pm
Your writing brightens my day in this time of so much negative everywhere we look. Thank you.
Marie - January 30, 2017 9:17 pm
This is how love, especially the love of God, works! This is also my state! Same during the Depression, as my mother told me, even in the cities! People helping each other, not bickering & rioting!
Kelly - January 30, 2017 2:42 pm
Carole Smith - January 30, 2017 3:34 pm
Liked this a lot.I was born and raised in Alabama.
Joyce Hilburn - January 30, 2017 4:03 pm
This is only one example of why I love living in the Deep South. We’re seeing acts like these playing out all over Southwest Georgia as neighbors reach out to help those who’ve recently experienced devastating losses. Thanks for your wonderful words.
Linda Lewis - January 30, 2017 4:12 pm
I was introduced to your blog 3 days ago. I read the post and subscribed. I read your post yesterday and teared up. I just finished reading your post today and am wiping my eyes. You’re a first class writer. You make people identify and feel – a rare gift. I feel I’ve won the lottery, having access to your thoughts. Thanks so much.
Susan Victoria - January 30, 2017 4:44 pm
I love you. I cried when Lewis Grizzard died. Thanks for telling the truth.
Nancy Segovia - January 30, 2017 6:29 pm
I love your blog. Please never quit writng.
Susie Munz - January 30, 2017 6:59 pm
Great story, Sean. (I haven’t been responding because our computer crashed and is being restored.)
Maureen - January 30, 2017 8:12 pm
I love this hopeful story. It touches a chord with me of a time when our cottage was gutted by fire, and what my neighbours taught me about love…
Carol DeLater - January 30, 2017 11:41 pm
Great story Sean. Lots of others just like this one never get told. You are heartily appreciated.
Judy - January 31, 2017 1:21 am
I think, the wise know that most things are out of our control and to give the worry and anxiety to God and have faith He will come through for us, and just go on living the best we can.
Cherryl Shiver - January 31, 2017 10:49 am
And all the folks said Amen. There is still good people on this earth, you just have to be willing to see them.
Thank you for your writings.
Jerenell Gorbutt - January 31, 2017 1:48 pm
Thank you for this- with all this negative stuff we see in the press- you are the brightest spot in the news today! Never stop writing young man!
Lisa - January 31, 2017 5:50 pm
We lost our home to fire in 1993. It was midday on a Saturday in early January. I had returned home from a parish council meeting with the intent to take down and pack up “Christmas” – many of the gifts were still under the tree. My son was in his man cave playing video games and my husband and daughter were at work at the family business. I got distracted by the television and lay down on the bed to watch. The cat curled up next to me and I fell asleep – still had my shoes on.
My son woke me with cries of “Mom!! – fire!!” and we both ran to call 911 and grab and fire extinguishers. It couldn’t be bad, a lint fire in the dryer? Did I do laundry that morning? The phone didn’t work, so I sent him to find a neighbor as I headed to the basement, fire extinguisher in hand. I opened the door to monstrous, evil, growling sounds and thick black smoke that sucked the breath from my body. I ran out the carport door to go to the lower level and use the extinguisher at the laundry room window, thinking it must be just lint and smoke, right? The blinds were already melted on the window and door. Subconsciously, I knew not to break in the glass and ran back to the upper level planning to spray foam from the top of the stairs into the basement. I opened the carport door and that air sucking, growling blackness was already there. I closed the door mentally locating my family and dog and walked to the street straining to hear the sirens that were certainly on the way.
It was an older house. The fire had started in the brick chimney of the gas furnace and was already in the walls and the attic before my son saw the flames break through. The smoke detectors never sounded while we were inside.
We stood in the street as the neighborhood and people who searched out the billowing, black smoke in the sky gathered to watch. I looked down at my son’s bare feet on the cold street. The mantra, “it’s just stuff “, circling in my mind as I comforted crying neighbors, explained to the firemen what little I knew. My husband arrived and retreated to the back yard with the firemen, still trying to comprehend that what he had also assumed was only lint and smoke was actually that black plume in the sky he had seen driving home, and was indeed our home of twenty years. The older house that we managed to buy the first year we were married. Our home that we had scrimped and saved to remodel and upgrade and landscape through the years, as our children were born, and learned to walk and played in the yard we were so proud to maintain. Work my husband did himself as he taught us all to help and build together in the midst of our neighborhood watch family, some older and protective, some established and a few starting out like we were. I would have stayed there forever.
I saw my daughter pushing through the crowd, just as the firemen were aiming one of the hoses at the flames coming out of her bedroom window, and tried to comfort her fear and tears…”it’s just stuff”… my son had on too big shoes, but someone had made sure his feet weren’t cold. They cut the power to the neighborhood, tried to save the house for hours, but it was fully involved. The chief told his crew to hit it with everything, they’d lost it. My husband joined us in the street and we watched it burn. I repeatedly reassured my family, friends (how did they get here?) beloved neighbors, strangers and reporters, “it’s just stuff”, but a part of my heart knew it was our stuff, our memories, our home.
A young child handed me a small bag. It contained a toothbrush, toothpaste, a deck of playing cards, a hotel sewing kit a and a few pieces of candy from “her house”. I hugged and thanked that precious angel. God whispered, “I’m here, you will all be OK”.
We knew our kids needed normal. We stayed with family that night, went to church the next morning in the same clothes, our only clothes, and tried to remain positive. Everyone knew, everyone comforted us, everyone was glad no-one was hurt. Our parents took us to Walmart and we filled carts with, oh my gosh, how do you replace everything? Socks and underwear and school supplies and deodorant…the undercurrent of panic, what am I forgetting? God whispered, “I’m here, you will all be OK”. Breathe. Try not to worry, we’ll figure it out.
The next morning the children went to school and we went to work. The week was a blur of phone calls, and insurance agents and replacing cell phones and my driver’s license and oh no…we never thought the fireproof safe wouldn’t be waterproof, too? Our Church organized and collected donations. There was a some of everything to help us start over.
On Saturday, we went back to dig through the rubble and were met by a crowd of kindness, all ready to help search for keepsakes or anything that might be salvaged. Most we knew, some we didn’t recognize, but they had heard and they showed up. There were people I hadn’t seen since high school. The entire center of the house was gone, so they set up planks to maneuver through the remains and cautioned all to foremost, be safe. We had some luck and found bits and pieces, but so much was ruined by the fire, smoke and water. There was love and laughter and lots of black soot on hands and faces of all ages of people that gathered. Someone showed up around noon with fried chicken and fixings’ to feed the hard working team of goodwill. We gradually made our way to the back of the house and what was left of our bedroom. They asked me to dig through the rubble that used to be the closet, where I found my cat. I finally broke…into gut wrenching sobs, as they led me outside, sat me down and cried with me. At some point, I heard myself crying and looked up to the large circle of tear streaked, deeply concerned faces. And I started laughing. Because I realized we were surrounded by love, and it really was all ‘just stuff”. We all hugged and went back to work.
It wasn’t fun and it wasn’t easy but we moved forward and we survived. After all these years, I still sometimes miss lost family pictures, treasured Christmas ornaments and things I had saved from my kids early years of handmade gifts and security blankets and teddy bears. But “stuff is stuff” and I know that people are good and kind and that faith, family, friends and flag are what really matters. And God still tells me, “I’m here, you will all be OK”.
Ronda - May 7, 2017 8:06 pm
Oh yes we lost our housr to a ire as well. It has been almost 2 years ago. And yes it is just stuff but it was our stuff, mymother who had just passed away from cancer 6 months before the fire. Before our life changed completely. Our insurance did not cover our shelter and life has been a struggle ever since. I still have hope we will get everything back in order. But i can definitely relate on how u feel. It was our home of 21 years and it held alot of memories. My grandchildren still cry to go home.
And thank you Sean for your wonderful stories. You make me smile.
Lisa - May 9, 2017 4:46 pm
God bless you. You’re still very close to the fire event timewise…I was all over the place the first two years.
I wish I had magic advice to make it better. Lots of prayer and time seem to be what helps best. And waiting on time is not fun.
Stay as positive as possible, and when you need to cry or scream or chop some wood or lay on the floor…But always get back up. Getting back up every day is what matters most.
May God give you peace and grace as you continue healing and rebuilding. I will keep you in my prayers.
And thanks to Sean for loving the real South like I do and sharing that beauty with us every day.
My best to all,
Tish - February 5, 2017 3:36 pm
I love your stories, you really get to the heart of peoples’ souls. I lived in several small Alabama towns as I was growing up – love them.
Charaleen Wright - March 23, 2019 2:24 pm