By Emily Schottman, LPC, FCOVD, OD. One of the most confusing things my father ever did when I was growing up was set our front yard on fire. I was about 5 years old. He had seen our neighbor, Mr. Walkey, do something similar with dried, fallen leaves in a pile raked up against the chain link fence that separated our back yards. This created a smoky, meandering plume that used to remind me of fall. We had an unruly bank of green ivy in our front yard that must have irritated my Dad, so one bright Sunday morning he decided to “burn it back”.
Most of my Sunday mornings were spent in the living room lying on the floor reading the comics. If it had been an especially fun Saturday, I might have had some Silly Putty from the toy store to press into the newspaper and pick up Garfield or Snoopy. Sometimes Mr. Walkey’s little dauschund Snooker would join us, asleep in a sun patch from the front window, our adopted pet.
It is a stretch to say these were peaceful weekends. My parents would run many errands and knock out chores for a busy week of two working parents and two girls who knew children should be “seen and not heard”. We were along for the ride, listening to a lot of arguing and screaming in the car and our home. That’s why sitting still on a quiet on a Sunday was a nice break.
Suddenly, there were big red flames rolling up the front lawn. Not long after, a neighbor called 911 and a loud fire engine siren announced to everyone what my father had done. By then I had jumped up and raced out the back door, flying across prickly fallen Sweet Gum balls, a minefield of its own most of the fall and winter but barely noticed this day. I must have hopped the chain-link fence trying to fetch Mr. Walkey, a larger than life character, who clearly had fire knowledge my father did not.
Mr. Walkey found me hanging by the back seam of my pajama bottoms on his side of the fence. He helped unhook me before running with a hose towards the front of our house.
And then the memory stops.
It is seared into my mind and yet I cannot for the life of me tell you how it ended or — before years of my own therapy — why it was so significant to me. Sometimes I wondered if I had made up my memory.
But I know the event happened because Mr. Walkey bought my Dad a Smokey Bear figurine that said “Only YOU can prevent forest fires”, a well-known campaign based upon a rescued orphan cub who survived devastating fires in the Pacific Northwest. The little bear died the following November 1976 at the National zoo where I grew up in Washington DC. My father died in 1996 without ever speaking of the day he decided to set our front yard on fire. They both survived traumas and died young.
I have often thought the image of my 5-year-old self, hanging on the fence into my neighbors yard, as the most poignant part of my memory. I was secretly proud that my little body knew how to run and get help in an emergency. I loved that Mr. Walkey knew what to do in a crisis as well. Twenty years later, he was the one who drove me quickly to my father’s deathbed in Greenville, South Carolina so I could say goodbye. Although my father could not speak or look at me, I am glad I showed up “Mr Walkey style”.
Of course the story would be different if I had not been found stuck to the fence, or even if my father had not done such a ridiculous and reckless thing. It occurs to me now, as I listen to the stories of my clients who have similar strong memories with unknown meanings, that I stopped my memory at the point that made the most sense to me.
Of course Mr. Walkey found me. Of course he was not surprised that odd things happened at my house. Of course he knew a scared little girl when he saw one. I spent a lot of time in the backyard watching and talking to him with fingers curled through the silver metal fencing. I was invited into his and his wife Marie’s home, sometimes spending the night there. I remember just as many details of their living room as my own. I do not know if those times happened before or after the fire, but they burn in my memory. I know I was loved and safe in that setting.
Years later, I drove by my old house and saw that it had been razed and replaced by a new surburban home. I noticed that I was not upset to see it gone. Oddly, it made sense to me. My experience of love and safety moved on from that first home of confusing parents and symbolically singed front lawn because of the love and modeling of a neighbor who saw me, knew me and showed up for me. The memory burns in a new way for me now.
Emily Schottman, LPC, FCOVD, OD helps individuals put out their own forest fires and make sense of their memories and relationships as a Counselor specializing in visual, brain-based techniques in Austin, Texas. You can learn more at www.austinmentalwellness.com and www.austinbrainspotting.com.
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