We’d like to thank Claire Taylor of the US for her short story submission “After The Fire”, a dramatic true story about a traumatic childhood event which shaped her feelings and perspective’s into Motherhood.
Claire Taylor is a mother, writer, and Licensed Massage Therapist. Her poetry and short fiction has appeared or is upcoming in Yellow Arrow Journal, The Loch Raven Review, Capsule Stories, American Writer’s Review, and Canary Literary Journal. Her writing about motherhood and depression has appeared on Scary Mommy. She is the creator of Little Thoughts, a monthly newsletter of original stories and poetry for children. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland (United States), and can be found online at clairemtaylor.com and you can follow Claire on Twitter @ClaireM_Taylor and Instagram @todayweread.
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After The Fire
I was seven years old when my mother nearly burned down our house. My brother, sister and I were watching TV in the den while Mom was getting dinner ready. She poured oil into a heavy cast iron pan and set the pan on an open flame to heat. We were going to have french fries. The phone rang and I went into my dad’s study to pick up the call.
“Mom!” I shouted to her from the opposite end of the den. “Phone!” I set the receiver down on the desk and went back to my spot on the couch.
“Who is it?” Mom asked as she came out of the kitchen and made her way toward the phone.
“Oh,” she said, and gently closed the study door behind her.
I can picture her sitting back against the cracked vinyl of my dad’s office chair, her feet up on his desk, distracted, at ease. I remember the sound of her laughter rising over the din of the television. I remember the flash of orange reflected in the TV screen. The brief moment that felt like slow motion minutes as my brother and I turned toward the kitchen, confusion melting into understanding and morphing into panic. I remember the fear in my brother’s voice as he shouted, “fire!” and that same fear on my mother’s face as she threw open the study door and paused for a split second before racing across the den and into the kitchen. She pulled a container of salt down from the cabinet and poured it over the tower of flames. They raged on. She frantically looked around the kitchen, her head on a swivel searching for aid and coming up empty. She caught sight of us in the kitchen doorway–three little wide-eyed faces–and without hesitation, grabbed the handle of the pan and carried it out of the kitchen and through the living room. She pulled open the front door, letting in a breeze that blew the flames back over her hands, and flung the burning pan into the air. It landed facedown in the middle of the yard with a thud, suffocating the flames and charring the grass.
The front door remained open as my mother stood at the kitchen sink, shoulders hunched as she ran cool water over the blistering backs of her hands. My sister, so young then, had disappeared into our bedroom in search of a stuffed animal. She wasn’t with my brother and me when my dad came home from work to find a pan sitting in the yard, the front door ajar, his wife somewhere unseen, and two of his three children racing toward him yelling, “She’s burned! She’s burned!” He thought we meant my sister until she came toddling into the living room with a teddy bear tucked beneath her arm, until he turned the corner into the kitchen and saw my mother leaning against the side of the sink, her eyes swollen from tears. I remember the way he wrapped his body around hers, pulled her into his chest, his embrace. The way their foreheads pressed together, radiating warmth.
That fire was the source of my insomnia. For years I’d lie in bed thinking I smelled something burning, or wake in the middle of the night from dreams in which my room had been set ablaze, the house slowly turning to ash and disappearing all around me as I sat trapped in my bed, powerless to stop the flames. I was constantly afraid that everything would catch fire. I turned the ceiling fan off at night despite the insufferable heat and humidity of Texas summers because I was certain the whirring sound meant it would spark and the whole house would burn to the ground. Well into my thirties, I still turn to my husband whenever an appliance makes a funny noise, or a lamp flickers when the air conditioner flips on and I ask “do you think it will catch fire?” It has taken him a decade to calmly reply “no” without first giving me a puzzled look.
I blame my mother for these anxieties, for my need to get out of bed each night and double-check that I turned off the stove. How irresponsible does a person need to be to leave a pan of hot oil sitting unattended on a gas range? What kind of mother forgets about the safety of her children? Forgets that she was in the middle of making their dinner?
I have a box of old photos in my living room that my son likes to look through. He pulls it from the shelf with his tiny thick hands and dumps the photos into a pile on the floor. There are pictures of my siblings and me dressed up and sitting in front of a Christmas tree. One of my brother, towheaded and round-cheeked, awkwardly holding a wrinkly, swaddled newborn me. There are school portraits, family vacation photos, and way too many images of my sister and me wearing hideous dresses or high-waisted floral patterned shorts. But my son’s favorite photograph is one from my mother’s 35th birthday. She’s sitting at a kitchen table, a cake in front of her with those number candles, 3 and 5, lit up in the middle of it. She’s smiling brightly despite the fact that three small children are climbing and hanging all over her, each of us scrambling forward to blow out the candles.
The first time he held up that photo, it occurred to me that I was only a little older than my son when that picture was taken, and only a little younger now than my mother was on that birthday. I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to be 35 with three children under the age of six, overwhelmed as I was by the demands of caring for just one toddler-aged child. I looked at the photo, at my little sister not yet a year old in the image, and flashed back to a day when my son was around nine months old and increasingly daring in his efforts to cruise around our living room from one piece of furniture to the next. He was holding on to the side of our sofa and reaching out to grab the coffee table. He’ll never make it, I thought and I moved toward him to help him navigate the gap, but at the last second, I stopped myself. How will he trust himself if I’m constantly stepping in to make things easier, I reasoned. How will he learn his limits if I never let him test them? So I held back and I watched him reach out for the table. Watched him let go of the sofa. Watched him fall forward and bash his chin against the edge of the coffee table. Blood filled his mouth instantaneously, muffling his howls of pain.
I couldn’t get the bleeding to stop and I couldn’t think clearly. I tried to push him to my breast to comfort him by nursing, but he pulled away and screamed even louder. Should I call an ambulance? Rush him to the emergency room? Was he going to die? It was just a bump on the chin, but I didn’t know what could kill a nine-month-old. Everything, I assumed. I felt panicked and desperate. I called my husband to have him call the pediatrician, and then I called my parents. My dad answered the phone, and though he is calm and comforting in a crisis, I remember thinking how much I wished my mom had been home.
As I drove to the pediatrician’s office, my son still crying and bleeding in his car seat, I pictured my mother on the day I fell on the playground in preschool. I was climbing up the side of a big metal fire truck and slipped on the rung of a ladder, whacking my chin against the metal. It split open, requiring stitches. I waited in the office of the church building for her to come pick me up and bring me to the hospital, and I can still recall the heartbreaking relief I felt as she walked through the door.
I pictured my mother kneeling on the bathroom floor, gently applying bandaids to scraped knees. My mother pulling the sheet back to let me crawl into bed beside her after a bad dream. The sound of her voice saying, “oh honey.” The weight of her hand smoothing over my hair. My mother holding a bag of ice to my swollen cheek as I sat on the edge of a hospital bed waiting for x-rays. My mother wiping tears away from the tip of my nose. My mother carrying a pan of fire out of the kitchen, not right through the den, just a few steps to the backyard, but through the living room, the long way out of the house, away from the area where her children were waiting, and out the front door, holding tight even as the flames blew back, scalding the thin tissue of her hands. My mother, overworked and overtired, enjoying a brief adult conversation, a moment of respite in a long day of parenting young children. My mother making a simple mistake, a forgivable error. My mother staying calm and clear in a moment of danger, knowing better than to throw water on a grease fire. My mother not nearly burning our house down, but heroically saving the house from catching on fire, sacrificing her own safety to protect her children.
My hands trembled as I gripped the steering wheel and glanced back at my son’s angry red face and bloody lips. I pictured my mother’s hands, mottled and scarred in the spots where the fire had burned her. I pictured them reaching out, gently cupping my cheeks, and I knew everything would be okay.
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