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September 26, 2013
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When I was seven, I lost my home to an electrical fire. I remember exactly where I was when I got the news: first grade show-and-tell, listening to my classmate talk about her trip to Hawaii over Christmas. The phone rang, and I was sent to the office. As I walked down the hall, I wondered if my parents were picking me out early as a surprise, maybe to get pizza or see a movie. I rounded the corner and when I caught sight of them, I knew something was terribly wrong. My father, usually a larger-than-life funnyman, had the gravest look I'd ever seen.

That day was the first time I saw something with my own eyes that I could not believe. Our house had been reduced to a smoldering pile of gray and black, completely obliterated, unrecognizable. I was told later that where we lived was out of the area serviced by the fire department, so they didn't even come to fight it. By a stroke of luck, no one was home, but my neighbor ran into the burning house, thinking my mother and baby sister were inside, since they had been sick in bed all week. They returned home to find him sitting in our driveway, crying because he thought they had died inside.

That night we slept in a hotel. Some people from the Red Cross gave us bags with a toothbrush, a coloring book, and a Beanie baby. My mother cried herself to sleep, and my father didn't say anything at all. I remember very little of the weeks that followed; they went by in a blur of grownup talks, stays in the homes of neighbors, and the feeling of both being lost and being taken care of.

The community came together in a way that I still can't believe. Donations of toys and clothes for my siblings and me came pouring in. Boxes full of canned goods showed up at my school and my father's work from anonymous well-wishers. Everywhere we went, strangers would come up to my mother and hug her, offering prayers and condolences. Despite all we had lost, my family was surrounded by the love and care of our community.

Besides rendering us homeless, the fire affected my life in other profound ways. It was a factor in my father's deserting us less than a year later, leaving my mother without a home or a job, and the care of four children, one of whom was just a year old. The fire also brought what was left of my family closer, since we had to rely heavily on each other during the difficult years that followed. The way my community helped bring us up out of the ashes, so to speak, instilled in me a faith in humanity that I keep with me today. Most importantly, though, losing my home gave me a gift more precious than any of the donated clothes, food, and toys. It gave me a real home.

When one has no physical “home,” no real place with which to associate one's faith and strength and hope for the future, the world becomes a very different place. Everything loses its certainty, and the very earth seems to shift beneath one's feet. There is no guarantee of a piece of the world to return to after the aches and pains of the day. Since I was just a little kid when we lost ours, I learned early to connect the word “home” not with a house, a kitchen table, a warm bedroom, and a front porch, but with my family and me. In the years following the fire, we lived in countless places – rented lodges, neighbor's homes, trailers. Several years were even spent in a one-room cabin, all of us cramped together. As a result of all this moving, to us, home became not a place we left and returned to each day; it was an integral, visceral part of who we were, the blood we carried inside of us as we moved from place to place, struggling to survive, to find our place on the planet again. Home was inside. Home was all around.

I can't say losing my house to a fire was a pleasant experience. It has caused me to spend a good part of my childhood living just above the poverty line, wearing donated hand-me-downs, and eating canned food. It required my mother to work multiple jobs, wearing her thin and preventing us from seeing her very much. It ­effectively turned our world upside-down, but it also gave me something not a lot of people have: a home within myself.

No matter where I go, no matter what hardships await me, I will always be home. Home is something I carry inside of me, it is the air I breathe, all the lessons my mother taught me about strength and love, all the times my big brother made me laugh, all the things I've been through with my sister, all the reasons my kid sister looks up to me, it is every beat of my heart and every step of my foot. Although this home may not have a front door or electric lights, though it is not a specific patch of soil my family has cultivated for generations, it is the most valuable thing I possess. No matter where I end up, home will always be there with me.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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Mckay This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Oct. 1, 2013 at 5:16 pm
Toucing from beginning to end. Literary sister, I felt the emotion with which you wrote this piece. Writing personal pieces aren't always the easiest because you have to relive an experience, which more often than not, is a dark, uncomfortable experience. And the memories along with it make it all the harder to share. Nonetheless, I found strength in this article. Even though, you do realize the pain, heart-ache, sorrow, and hard-ship of it all, it's as if this experience shaped you into... (more »)
Mckay This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Nov. 13, 2013 at 9:53 pm
Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!!!! I absolutely loved this piece. To know that it will be featured on the magazine brims my heart with genuine happiness for you! ^u^ 
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