No chestnuts were roasting on that open fire

No chestnuts were roasting on that open fire

When your first Christmas in a new house involves the fire department, a front-page blurb in the paper and the local radio station, it’s safe to say things might have gone, well, better.

I was 10 years old, a fifth-grader, an altar boy and a member of the Little League team that had won the city championship the summer before. I got good grades, enjoyed listening to my transistor radio and was becoming just a bit better at taking care of the family dog.

Heidi was a mongrel who came into our world just as we moved from the apartment where we had been living into the five-floor split level that would be our home for the next decade and a half.

She was persnickety, prone to bouts of melancholia that alternated with periods of anxiety. In short, she was a puppy with problems.

My father, almost by design, became her chief benefactor, assuming the role he had played during the formative years of his three children, quietly reassuring her that no matter how bad things seemed, he’d take care of everything, so just stay calm.

His outlook was in direct juxtaposition to Mom’s Irish-Catholic belligerence, a stance that placed her at odds with anything that stood in her way or fed her sense of grievance. She was quick to defend her children, which I appreciated, since I was quite often at fault.

Between them, though, there existed a pervasive bond, an unspoken understanding that provided a blanket of comfort, one that made growing up a kind of magical thing, free from worries.

And then Dad tried to light a fire in the hearth on Christmas Eve.

There was chaos as a burst of bright flame leapt from the ruptured gas line into the living room, threatening to ignite the festive tree that stood just to the side of the fireplace, backed by a bookshelf.

I’m not sure which was more flammable — decorated pine branches or the pages of best-selling novels — but I’m pretty certain you’d have to go quite a ways to find a more potent combination.

In Catholic grade school, there was always an emphasis on fire drills, which were conducted almost as often as pop quizzes. Despite the theological mainlining of a belief in a higher power, precautions were drummed into us, well, religiously, which meant that just about the time Dad tackled the Christmas tree, we three kids knew enough to get out of the house, walking in single file.

But what about the dog?

In the years that have passed since that fateful Friday night, both my sister and my brother have insisted it was they, not I, who took on that important responsibility, and I mostly let it be. After all, the only thing that mattered was we all ended up unharmed.

But I scooped Heidi into my arms and got her to the lawn safely.

I know this as surely as I recall the squirmy feeling of holding her.

Anyway, it was there where we witnessed the fire truck, its siren wailing and emergency lights illuminating the neighbors’ houses, pull into the driveway. The rest was a blur of motion and orchestrated procedure as men dressed in fire-retardant gear tromped up the steps into the living room only to find … nothing.

By that time Dad had turned off the gas spigot, and Mom was wrapping one of her bandanas around her head, having reached into the hearth and come perilously close to setting her hair on fire.

In the paper the next morning, it was faithfully reported, “Mrs. Dewey suffered a singed forehead,” which the radio station echoed.

Though we couldn’t have known it at the time, the key word in that sentence was “suffered,” because 15 years later, on her last Christmas Eve, my mother lay in bed, about a week from her death.

We had prepared ourselves for the end, having received the terminal prognosis around Labor Day, but that didn’t mitigate the sorrow we all felt as we went about our Christmas Eve traditions, those she and her husband had engrained into the very marrow of their three kids, one following another as reliably as time itself.

First, there was Mom’s tuna noodle casserole, a frugal meal suitable for all seasons, but especially handy when Christmas Eve fell on a Friday. That was followed by the treasure hunt, designed to sate a child’s appetite for at least one early present, though it had to be earned, each of us writing clues scattered about the house, leading to a gift that had been hidden. After that came the dishes.

Then it was time to gather for the reading of “A Certain Small Shepherd,” a book we passed from hand to hand as the miracle of Hurricane Gap came to life once again. Finally, with a little port wine poured, we lighted candles and listened to “A Christmas Carol,” a recording of the Dickens tale, starring Ronald Colman.

We made a few adjustments that final Christmas Eve, but the spirit of the night, one that reminded us about family, remained intact.

I like to think Mom felt reassured to be included in our annual celebration, one she and Dad had created and nurtured over the years, and that she was determined not to die on Christmas, that she would hang on, stay strong enough not to leave us that memory.

It’s been a while since I drove past that house on the corner, the one where so much life happened, but I know if I ever get to do it again, I’ll be happy it didn’t burn to the ground long ago.

Mike Dewey can be reached at Carolinamiked@aol.com or 6211 Cardinal Drive, New Bern, NC 28560. He invites you to join him on his Facebook page, where tuna noodle casserole is on the menu.