Like many children I was fascinated with fire. We didn’t have many opportunities to see it in all its chaotic glory: our house had no fireplace and my mother rarely lit candles. The exception was at Thanksgiving and Christmas. There was the central candelabra and four candles that spelled out NOEL, shaped like either snowmen or reindeer (I actually can’t remember). Each kid had one that also was a letter in their name. We all had N and E in our names. My sister and I only had L and I was the only O so it was m letter. These were reverently lit every Christmas but preserved for many years.
The only other time we would see a live fire was when camping in the summer, which we did pretty much every year as that’s an affordable vacation for lower middle class families with not a lot of spare cash. Marshmallow roasts and s’mores and of course, staring into the flames, watching all those fire sprites dance and caper about.
Perhaps it was these tantalizingly slim glimpses that tempted my brother and me to more dangerous games. My parents hadn’t separated yet, which meant that matches were readily available because my father smoked.
It might have started with finding a stub of a candle. I was probably eight or nine and my brother six or seven. We would come home from school for lunch and sneak downstairs to play before going back. Obviously my mother was otherwise occupied or we would have received a good whooping just for lighting the candle. But hiding out in the cement playground, the rumpus room, we would light up the candle, then take the papers straws absconded from the kitchen and light the ends. Ah, the role models of smokers. That’s what we did. We pretended we were smoking those paper straws, always putting out the fire when we were done. This was the more guilty of the two activities that involved fire, but one we were never caught at.
On the weekends we would get up early, as kids are wont to do, and go down to the rumpus room to play with dolls and trucks. There was a spare bed in there that we would sit on and dress the dolls. One morning we dropped a piece of doll’s clothing below the bed. Of course we had the candle lit because we could. My brother took that stub of a candle and looked under the bed for the clothing. The flame licked at the under structure of the bed and before we knew it, things were beginning to smolder. We could see the smoke rising and kept running to the bathroom filling cups of water and pouring them on the mattress. But the smoke grew thicker…and thicker.
Finally, realizing this was getting out of control, my brother and I did the walk of doom, up the stairs to my mother’s bedroom. We had a right to fear because her punishments were often harsh and heavy with wooden spoons and leather straps. I awoke my mother and said, “We were just playing… and all of a sudden the bed caught on fire.”
She was up in moments, and had awakened my older brother downstairs (he would have been about 16/17) He got to haul the mattress outside and house it down. Surprisingly, my mother soundly scolded us but didn’t beat us, laying the blame at my feet, saying, “You should have known better. You’re older.”
I was so ashamed for years about this incident that I didn’t tell anyone until I was in my later twenties. That scold was way more effective than a spanking would have been. My brother and I never repeated our firebug ways and got off light, in terms of punishment and destruction. I have candles now, have had other dangerous dances with fire but I’m very careful about candles.