The blaze began at the cookstove. Sparks whooshed up the chimney igniting dry-as-tinder wood shingles. The father, an Alabama farmer, was away working the fields, but a hero was waiting in the wings: a fifteen-year-old who refused to let her house burn down.
She captained a make-shift fire brigade, organizing younger siblings from well to ladder to roof. Stationed at the well, she drew gallon after gallon, sending water by the bucketful down the line of youngsters until they extinguished the flames.
So goes an epic family story that I hope is one of many to round out our Thanksgiving feast tomorrow. Like gravy for the turkey and dressing, such tales are the secret sauce of our family gatherings. They remind us of loved ones we dearly miss and of all the people, places, and things that make us who we are.
Recently, though, I’ve been reflecting on the backstories we don’t tell and how important they can be, too. Take the house fire story. One of the reasons I love it so much is because it’s about one of my real life heroes, my grandmother.
The story shows that as a teen she was already becoming the practical, competent woman whom I knew as “Nana” a half-century later.
Nana was like Wonder Woman for me. She could keep a spotless house, cook umpteen dishes for a family meal, lead bible studies, and evidently give a fire fighter a run for his money.
But what about her less-than-Wonder-Woman side? What about a tendency toward perfectionism, especially with her house, that sometimes made her more task-oriented than people-oriented? Or a need to be in charge and in the right that sometimes caused conflict?
That sounds an awful lot like an ordinary human, not the stuff of legends, and I think that’s why we tend to omit such common frailty from our stories. For instance, I’ve never learned exactly who was doing the cooking that summer day, circa 1934. The curtains open on sparks flying up the chimney from the stove, like tiny villains who’ve invaded the house, hellbent on burning it down.
The absence of the kitchen backstory strikes me as odd, though. So much of Southern life revolves around food, and so many Southern stories include details right down to which brand of flour coated the fried chicken.
Dare I speculate on who might have been at the stove to begin with? About why she might have been first on the scene? Was my very human and still very wonderful grandmother too mortified to share that detail?
Maybe so, but I love her all the more because I see in that omission (and in the other frailties I’ve decided not to overlook) a woman more real and relatable than all the stories.
I’ll still champion that brave girl who saved her house because that really is the point of the tale. However, I’ll also smile at the thought that an awkward teenager might have been trying to fry up chicken when things got out of control. When I see her again one day in heaven, I’m just going to have to ask her for that backstory.
So here’s to all the people and stories that have a place at our tables tomorrow even when the backstories can be more complicated than we’d like. May truth tempered by love grace our speech, and may peace and gratitude rule the day. Happy Thanksgiving from our house to yours.