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We Nearly Burned The House Down When Our Parents Let Us Stay Home Alone

“Parenting is hard, but learning to adult is harder.”

10 is a pivotal age. It’s when you leave the playacting on the playground behind and stand around talking instead. Teachers give harsher criticism because, though it’s cool that you’ve shown imagination, you really must understand where a comma goes. To be honest, I still don’t know. However that is not the point of this story.

Emotions become more complicated. The simple “I am angry because my sibling snagged the last otter pop,” becomes, “I’m not actually hungry, but that otter pop will perhaps alleviate this sinking feeling of inadequacy I feel. And my sister has taken that chance at comfort just as she has taken everything else.”

Parents look forward to the double-digit birthdays so they can give more personalized gifts. One of my friends got an heirloom ring that had once been worn by a mysterious grandmother. Another received a science kit that had fake lava and goggles.

When we turned 10 my parents gave my brother, sister, and I the thing we’d never thought to ask for. They gave us independence.

I’d like to think this was because they had complete faith in the maturity of their progeny. Yet I can’t shake the feeling this choice was made to save on babysitting costs.

According to my parents, at age ten we three were sufficiently capable of handling the responsibility of not dying. I’m not sure how they reached this conclusion. Perhaps they believed that the combined age of all three of us was enough. Three ten-year olds basically equals one adult, right?

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Whatever complicated formula they created to come to their decision, the answer resulted in my brother, sister, and I having the run of the house after school.

Oh it was a thrilling rush that first day. We could do ANYTHING. And we did.

We used our new found liberty to watch all the TV we wanted, read lots of books, and gorge ourselves on left-over Halloween candy without anyone suggesting that it was time to reacquaint our skin with that orb in the sky whose only job was to burn our sensitive skin.

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Hunger for real food is what led to our downfall. We couldn’t cook much, besides ramen. Luckily, the night before we’d eaten Chinese food. From watching our parents we thought we knew how to heat leftovers. We’d seen them dump remaining food from those white boxes onto plates and heat them in the microwave. Easy!

Unfortunately we did not understand anything about WHY they dumped the food on a plate. If you could enjoy it hot out of the box the night before, then why not now? Plus no plate to wash.

My sister claimed a box of orange chicken. She, with the confidence of one who has never caused mass destruction by accident, placed it in the microwave for 2 minutes. As she did so I can only imagine her thinking, “What a mature little adult I am.”

It was 1998, and Chinese food boxes still used metal handles. They were also made of cheap cardboard. While I believe that most children can handle being home alone, I don’t assume that most children understand thermo-dynamics. We certainly did not.

First there was the sound of the microwave whirring. Then, there was screaming.

The box had caught fire in the microwave.

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It couldn’t have been a big fire, but everything seems big when you are a child. My brother and sister began to shout, blaming the other for the eventual doom of our home. I thought about putting the fire out but there was a conundrum. The microwave was plugged into the wall. Looking at my cup of water, I wasn’t sure if I’d make the situation worse. So, as the fire and my siblings raged, I called my mom at work.

“Hey mom.”

“Hey baby Is everything ok?”

“I just have a question.”


“Should I unplug the microwave before I throw water on the fire?”


Now that I’m older I know the look that comes across someone’s face when they realize they’ve lost. Particularly those times when one moment of overconfidence costs them everything. Though I couldn’t see my mother’s face, I’m sure it would have been similar to that of my friends who lost at poker.

She’d spent ten successful years rearing her spawn and now we were in peril, far from her intervening hand. In the background she could hear her two other children shouting, while her simple child, waiting patiently on the phone, was the last line of defense.

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“Yes,” she said calmly, so as not to scare me, knowing I freeze up easily. “Unplug the microwave and then you can throw water in there.”

Surprisingly enough we three, after getting a rundown on microwave safety, we’re still allowed to continued our latchkey kid lifestyle. Sure, there were other instances that showed our lack of common sense. Like when we broke a window screen trying to get into the house when we forgot the key.

Or when my mom once came home only to find my sister trying to dislodge the toaster’s contents with a fork. Which means she didn’t learn anything from the fire safety talk or Looney Tunes.

But we got the hang of it eventually, and made our parents proud.

I mean, how could we not? Imagine how much they saved on childcare.

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Writer of humor, spooky things, and history. Subscribe to my newsletter, Guffaw for updates, musings and other fun stuff

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