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The Grace of Love
"Most house hold cleaners are flammable. You can put a flame in front of a can and make a clandestine flamethrower." A friend of mine showed this to me one night in a city back lot under a street lamp.
My cousin Johnny was up from Georgia with his family in the summer of 08' and we were inseparable. We caroused in the night and sleeping though the day. A few days before Johnny left, my mother's side of the family gathered at my late great-grandma's house, Mammaw to us, for a mid-afternoon meal. We, meaning all 18 of us, held onto Mammaw and her house for support. The house is nestled in the outskirts of a small town named Quarryville. Next door to a transplanted villa from Tuscany, the house was near 100 years old. Inside there was nothing to denote it's antiquity save the basement. The stairs leading down to the floor were wooden slats that threatened to break at every step. The cement floor had turned gunmetal gray from dust, grime and age. Boxes and piles and boxes and piles of surplus stood silent in the center. Nine children grew up in this house and the basement bore the fruits and strain of the labor.
Mammaw was much the same as the house she owned. A feisty old woman of 94 years. She single handedly raised those nine children after her husband died from the black lung. The kind that comes from coal dust coating your lungs. Her funeral was a somber and crushing affair. We buried her next to her husband in a graveyard in a field a few miles out of town. It's a strange thing to witness the knot holding so many people together unraveling.
At that last get-together, Johnny and me were tired of drinking sodas and watching television. We went down to the basement to escape the summer heat and we stayed. We talked about our teen problems. Flittering trifles that disappear as quickly as they come. I paced a circle around the basement and saw a can of aerosol. I picked it up and found one of those long lighters that you pull a trigger to get the flame. I motioned for Johnny to come over to me and I pulled some paper off a nearby roll. "Have you ever done this," I asked.
"Watch." I lit the lighter and put the paper towel on the floor so as to not burn anything else. I put the can behind the flame and pushed the plunger. Primrose flame, gassy in nature, burnt the paper to a shriveled ash flower. Johnny laughed excitedly and pulled the can and lighter from me. He lit his own scrap of paper. We laughed like cavemen. Discovering this sacred creature. We might as well have never seen fire before. Then we started using a little more paper, and then a little more and then a little more. Soon we had these medium sized fires going amidst the blackened stains of the other quick lived burns. When the towel roll was getting low Johnny tossed it down and lit it as well. When the cardboard started to take, someone opened the basement door. Hurriedly, we stomped the flame and pushed it under a high chair covered to the floor in plastic sheeting. It was my great-aunt Fey. One of the nine children that grew up in the house.
"Hi boys," she said with a smile.
"Hey," we said together. "She pulled a few drinks from an icebox in the corner of the basement and went upstairs. Johnny and I were relieved enough to know it was time to stop. We swept up the ash and sprayed aerosol around the fire pits.
An hour or so later, my Father came up stairs to the room Johnny and me were watching television in. "Can you guys come downstairs, we smell smoke," he asked. When my father turned away Johnny and me exchanged a worried look. In the basement my father, uncle Tim, my mother and a few of my aunts were looking for the source of the smoke. It was thick haze hanging heavy in the basement. Johnny and I stood aside. We didn’t believe a confession would do anybody any good so we didn't say anything. After a few minutes Johnny and me went back upstairs to our room.
"It's probably just the smoke from when we burnt stuff," Johnny said. I nodded and we watched more television. Not too long after though, my dad came back upstairs.
"You two, downstairs, now!" At this point, your stomach will drop. You believe that denial might save you yet. We went downstairs and the paper towel roll was on the cement floor. My throat closed in to the size of a straw at that. It was still pockmarked with glowing embers. "What the hell Randy," my father accused. With that, the torrent of shame came down like a monstrous waterfall. "How could you, you could have killed us, the house would have been destroyed." That was true and there was no rebuttal. My father and uncle were the most outspoken, calling us out and we could do nothing. I felt the slings and arrows in my chest and was all the weaker for it. When they were done my father told me to get in the car and we left.
That night my parents gave me our house phone and with arms crossed told me to apologize. My Aunt Phyllis answered. The worst possible relative to hear my guilt. She spoils my sister and me when she rides up from Virginia. I love her very much; nothing else can be said for how I feel and I very nearly killed her. Crying now, I pulled forth a long stretch of apologies and that dear woman told me to hush up and be quiet. She told me that I had done nothing and I was forgiven for what I was apologizing for. Mark these words, I was forgiven even though I could have burnt down the house she grew up in. Those memories and vibrant feelings centered in that structure gone; burnt in the complacency of youth. I was forgiven even though I could have killed her. I was forgiven even though I could have killed her family. I squeezed out a goodbye and hung up. I didn't sleep until two in the morning. God, the heart of that woman.
For her act of absolution, I am forever indebted to Aunt Phyllis and my family. They excused what I had done with raw compassion and understanding. They reserve that forgiveness and I do not offer such to myself, even now.