2018: A Year in Questions #4

In 1974, when the movie The Towering Inferno released, my father stated flat out that he would not go see it. My mother explained to me that, what with Daddy having lost a home to fire, he simply couldn't watch "things like that."

My whole life--by '74 I was 16--I'd heard of "the fire." An old 1942 Philco stood like a silent soldier in my grandparents' home as the only thing that survived. Other than the children and my grandparents, of course.

But Daddy never really talked about it. That is, until many years later when he took me to where the house had once stood. Until the moment he pointed to an old tree across the road and said, "See the charring on that tree?" I said that I did. "That was from the heat of the fire."

I had to have been around 46 at the time, so 30 years had passed since the release of the movie. Many more since the fire. Unbeknownst to either of us at the time, Daddy and I only had 3 years left before he would leave us for streets of gold--the cancer within taking its toll--but even not knowing, I treasured every moment I had with him.

I'd gotten interested in our family history so Daddy and I met up in his hometown of Glennville, Georgia. We drove into a community called "Gooseneck," so named because (as Daddy once told me) "from the air, it looks like a goose's neck." Gooseneck is where Daddy grew up. Where so many of our family gravestones rise up like granite greetings, glittering in the afternoon sunshine. "Over here," they call. "I'm over here."

I had my camera with me to photograph the evidence of lives gone by. If I had been really smart, I would have brought a video camera with me to record the sound of my father's voice telling me the stories about Granny Belle and working the farm as a sharecropper's son ... of the old mule who took his daddy "to town" every Friday night and--by instinct--brought him back home after a "night of it."

I would have recorded him talking about the tree. And the fire that charred it. But something painful lingered in his words. In his voice. Something I dared not penetrate. I didn't even ask to photograph the tree ... that's how it was.

By this point, however, I'd video-recorded my grandmother's recollection of that night. "Pure fat-lighter wood," she said when describing the house they lived in. She spoke of helping to get her youngest (my Aunt Audrey) out of the house as she (Audrey) clutched the photo of a boy she kept by her bed. Of how my grandfather "and the boys" rocked an old gas stove away from its place and then rolled it as far away from the house as they could, in case it exploded and caused more damage (although I cannot imagine how). She spoke of getting in the car and leaning on the horn, hoping to wake the neighbors in their little farming community ... as everything they owned went up in the blaze. No clothes. No shoes. No mementos. Only the '42 Philco.

The author holding a pillow made from her grandmother's bedspread, next to the old Philco.

She told me later that, at one point, my father ran up to her, feet bare and reddened, and said, "Mama, everyone got out." My mother told me that Daddy had told her his mother had passed out at that point, mostly because she realized his feet were bare ... and there were no shoes ... and not a lot of money to buy all they'd need to start over. But I don't know how true that is.

Like so many others, for me, Sunday February 4 was not about the Super Bowl ... but about the This Is Us episode that would finally tell us how Jack died. Not since "Who Shot JR" has America been so fascinated with the death or near death of a TV character. Not that I can remember, anyway.

I cried as I watched the flames lick away the lives of the fictitious Pearson family ... not because a TV set cannot be rebuilt, but for the memories of a house fire and a charred tree that haunted my father nearly his whole life. "Do you see that tree?" became words that echo in my heart every so often ... reminding me of the charred and scarred places in my own life.

Because, you see ... the point it ... the tree remained. The tree didn't die. The tree--as hot as it became and as soot-covered--continues to stand as a reminder of the things we all suffer through ... and survive. "God will not take you to what He can't get you through," I heard Charles Stanley say via a radio show on the night my mother took her last breath.

He wasn't kidding. Every single thing in my life I thought I could never survive, I have.

To my knowledge, Daddy never saw the movie. He was a very young man when he saved an old Philco--one that stands in my house today, adorned with Daddy's memory candle--from a burning fat-lighter sharecropper's house. He was an older, dying man when he took me to see the tree. And he was, always, a source of strength I never fully recognized until he was gone.

So, here's my question for you today: Where is your tree?

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