Before Alex Haley’s Roots captured our attention and ushered in family reunions, funerals had been the impetus for our family to come together. Though painful to lose loved ones, the grief was always eased by the abundance of humor. We are a family that can find something to laugh about in just about any situation.
When the family would get together and start “lying” on one another and showing no mercy to the victim of the moment, someone would bring up “the fire.” The aunt, uncle or cousin who told the story would also mimic the action, such as running, and would be laughing so hard that they could hardly finish what they were saying. The funniest part of the story was how fast my mother—“Muhdear,” to me—was running down Hollywood Street away from the burning house. The storyteller would say that she out-ran the fire truck.
After tears from laughter were wiped from cheeks, somebody would recall that my grandmother’s sister had run back into the burning house, found me in the bed in the front room, grabbed me by the ankle, and pulled me to safety.
What really happened?
Me: Muhdear, how old was I when our house at 494 S. Hollywood burned down?
Muhdear: You were four-and-a-half years old. Your birthday was in July, and the fire was in December 1948.
Me: I thought I was about that age. I don’t know what I remember about the fire and what I heard people say about the fire. Muhdear, can I ask you a question? Did you leave me in the burning house and run down the street?
Muhdear (in her own words): I had planned to save my new suits to wear Christmas, but I decided to wear the navy suit and the navy shoes the Sunday before Christmas. When Mama asked me why I was wearing the suit before Christmas, I told her that I had a feeling that if I did not wear the suit on that Sunday, I would never be able to wear it.
I had put two snow suits for you, one blue and one pink, in the lay away, and I had put two suits for myself in the lay away—one navy and one gray. I also bought two pairs of shoes to wear with the suits. The suits were $140 each on sale and the shoes were $32 each on sale. These were good clothes that really looked sharp on me. I had the money because the Christmas savings club had divided up the money that we had all been saving.
This was going to be the happiest Christmas I had ever experienced. I bought the record, “Merry Christmas Baby,” and hummed it all the time. Every inch of the house had some decoration about Christmas and there were new covers on the furniture. The house looked great. We were all in good health, and I was happy that there was no man in my life.
It was December 18, 1948, when one of my Mama’s brothers, his wife, and their children came up from Mississippi where they were sharecropping to spend the Christmas holidays with us and our other relatives in Memphis. The children were excited to be away from home, and they squealed when they saw anything that they had not seen before. Despite their running and screaming, I went to sleep. There were pallets of blankets and sheets all around on the floor for everyone to have a place to sleep.
You were sleeping with me, and you woke me up and said, “Muhdear, I want to go wee wee.” I told you not to be scared of all the people in the house. You should just go through the room where the kids were and wee wee in the slop jar on the other side of Mama and Daddy’s bed and come right back. You came right back and told me that the children were in the other room playing with matches. As it turned out, the children were sticking paper into a space heater and when they heard grown-ups approaching, they threw the lighted paper into the closet and the fire was out of hand immediately.
Somehow, I got you to safety in a fire truck, and I was trying desperately to get my new shoes out of the burning house. My navy shoes were just inside the door where I had slipped them off when I came in earlier that night. Lucy Turner, our next-door neighbor, ran out of her house with her mink coat and her alligator shoes. The neighborhood had just gotten gas, and Lucy Turner was running and yelling for people to get out because the gas was going to explode. When I heard this, I started running too. Folks teased me later saying that I was outrunning the fire truck. I was really scared that there would be an explosion.
When folks calmed me down by assuring me that there was not going to be a gas explosion, I looked for you. During all the confusion, your daddy and his wife had come for you and took you home with them. I was grateful. We all had to find a place to stay. Mama and Daddy stayed two doors down at Miss Nanny’s. She owned the only little eating place and sundry in the neighborhood. I stayed with a co-worker named Augusta from Airways Cleaners, where I was now working.
Me: Wow! I’m sure that was a really scary time. I do remember being cold and I think I was in the fire truck for a while before my Daddy came for me. So how did the story about Aunt Lady grabbing me by the ankle and saving me from the fire at the last minute come about?
Muhdear: That wasn’t you. One of your cousins was still asleep on the couch and he was grabbed from the house just before the roof collapsed.
As Muhdear looks off into the distance taking herself back to that night, in my mind I’m playing the investigator as if a crime has been committed: Got me to safety, trying desperately to get the navy shoes, and out-running the fire truck all at the same time the fire is raging. Huh?
If she says this is what happened, this is what happened. This is the beauty of memory. It’s ours and ours alone.