It was a stereotype in many ways — but a lovely one. The symmetrically proportioned colonial house with four white columns nestled attractively amongst the green fields and apple orchards.
The bright and happy memory of my childhood home is overshadowed at times by another memory. That darker memory is a vision of a snow-clogged road out front where no vehicles could pass, my younger sisters bundled up in snowsuits as Mother held their hands and dragged them through the snow drifts up the long driveway and across the road to the neighbour’s house, and my own backward glance at the flames shooting up through the center of the roof. In a very short time, all that was left standing of the 2 story white house was the living room wall that had the chimney still attached and a tiny portion of the front facade.
All of those fearful memories came racing back last night as we had a chimney fire in the wood burning stove in our gite here in Normandy. At precisely 1:30 in the morning, I snapped awake, sat up in bed, and said aloud to Mark, “I smell smoke, toxic smoke. Something is wrong!” Every hair on my body was standing up as I maneuevered down the steep stairs from the bedroom into the lounge room and a sickening smell overpowered me. It took rather a lot of self-control to not vomit all over the tiled floors.
An hour passed as we opened the glass French doors and all of the windows, vented the cottage with freezing air, then closed it all back up and tried to go back to sleep for all of 10 minutes. It was almost immediately apparent that the house was quickly refilling with the toxic fumes.
Doors and windows were flung open again. We ventured out into the icy night, stood on the patio and stared up at the chimney pipe, and I exclaimed to Mark, “That’s liquid tar running down the sides and glistening!” For whatever reason, a build-up of creosote in the chimney had caused both the excessive heat and the dreadfully toxic fumes.
Mark went out to the garden for the wheelbarrow, shovelled every single bit of logs and coals out of the wood burner, and placed the smouldering load out in the gravel of the driveway. Back inside in the now ice cold house, we cuddled up together under a blanket on the sofa and watched a movie until almost 5:30 in the morning because we were too agitated to sleep.
My brain stores rather a lot of facts — some useless, some not. But it serves me well when one of those facts bubbles to the surface and I remember some essential item or past episode that will help me in the current circumstance. I had seen 2-3 chimney fires in the past and smelled the sickeningly acrid tang of burning creosote. All of that came flooding back and I knew that we could have died in the house that night.
Glowing flames in the wood burning stove
Mark, in his quiet and purposeful way, just went about sorting out the danger once he realised that I was quite correct about what was unfolding. And this morning he got up on a ladder outside, took all of the chimney pipes apart, and spent several hours cleaning out the entire mucky-oily-black mess.
We’ve had a quiet afternoon because we both feel quite shattered from the stress and lack of sleep. But there is one more thing to mention.
My mother died in the late 1980s, so yes, she has been gone from this world for quite a long time. But she was here last night quite briefly. She spoke a mere two sentences in my head and these were right on the edge of being brusque.
“You listened didn’t you? You’re fine.”
And then she was gone.
©Deborah Harmes and ©A Wanderful Life
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