It’s been a very busy summer indeed. I spent 90% of this weekend driving to or from Camp Wilmot, where I either picked up or dropped off my eldest child. We also did an outing with Adam’s company at the Boston Aquarium, made pesto, went swimming at Good Harbor beach in Gloucester (more driving), watched the new Ghostbuster’s movie (which was thoroughly enjoyable), attended a Mom’s Group fundraiser planning meeting (more later) and caught a lot of Pokemon. (Currently level 15 – go Mystic!)
Not on this list: blog posts and/or laundry.
Also, I think I might be getting sick. At least, I feel like crap. My neck is killing me, and that’s giving me a headache, and my stomach hurts. And I’m just as busy at work as I am at home.
So, of course, I’ve been thinking a ton about my house’s history.
The story of how this transpired is a small town story. Debbie Sullivan, proprietess of The Book Oasis and a friend of mine, posted on Facebook that she had a new book in on local history. Now I am on my way to owning every book on local history that’s been published (working on it, at least), so I figured I’d better get it while I loaded Grey up on some books from his summer reading list. Thus did “Stoneham’s Great Fires and Tragic Events: 1806 – 2016” by Chief Raymond L. Sorensen, Ret. end up in the bag of books in the back seat.
Somewhere just south of Concord, New Hampshire, a voice emerged from the back seat. “Mom,” said the fine young man being sent off to build character, “Our house is in this book.”
Maturely, I responded, “No way! Get outta here! Our house? What’s it say?”
As he read, my heart fell. In September of 1948, the charming pink house I love so much was home to one of the town’s great tragedies of the century. Three children were killed in a fire. Right here. The book focused on the effects this had on fire department funding. (Spoiler alert: the Fire Department asked for 10 additional firefighters but only got 6.) But my mind kept going back and back. What were the children’s names? How did the fire start? Where did they die? Did the family lose all their children, or did any survive? Most critically, was my son ever going to fall asleep in this house again? (Am I?)
I used the Google search engine. Nothing more than was in the book. It was time for the heavy guns. I sent a note to the lady who embodies the Stoneham Historical Commission. While I worked, she and the reference librarian pulled microfiche (a skill I do not possess) to find what was in the newspapers at the time, while she also looked at finding their graves. I feel a great desire to visit their grave, and tell these children I’m so sorry that this happened to them, and that we’ve loved living in their house.
The story unfolded through the day, and my goodness, is it a sad one. The oldest boy and youngest girl survived, with both parents. There was a oil stove explosion, and the accelerant closed off the staircase. They only got out through windows, and just barely that. Neighbors brought ladders. The time it took to hook the engine up to the hydrants was too long. Three of the children did not make it out. Two died that morning. The third died at the New England Sanitarium a few days later.
The town rallied, though. They came together. They raised money for the family. (One guy raffled off a bat signed by Babe Ruth, which would cost a pretty penny today!) They worked hard to support the family, and make sure this didn’t happen again. According to Mr. Sorensen’s book, “Citizens demanded a hearing, ‘not to condemn the fire department,’ they said, but to find out what went wrong.” And when they figured out they didn’t have the right equipment or personnel, the bought and hired the right amount. It’s the same small town where I’m connected to the book store, the historical commission, the library. It still feels like that rallying community.
I’m thinking about reaching out to that oldest son. He was 12 when his home burned, and his sister and two brothers died. He still lives in the area, as do the rescued baby and some more siblings added later in life. He’s 80 now. I would love to sit down with him and get an oral history. I do really wonder whether he’d be happy to tell the story of those lost ones, or if reliving what must be the worst day of his life is a cruel thing to ask him to do. I find myself wondering if his family knows the whole story. Is it lore among them? Or is it hidden? They’re very local – do they ever drive past my house and cry? Do they remember? Or do they try to forget? Do you think I should try to reach out?
I must say, I’m really surprised to find this out, nearly nine years into owning this house. We knew there had been a fire. It came up during the disclosures and home inspection. But it looked small. See – here you can see where they whitewashed the black scorch marks in the attic. The inspector assured us it was minor, and had no structural impact.
But I was mystified about why one of the unfinished attic spaces had one single, lone scrap of wallpaper – in a room where the roof nails stuck through perilously. How do you put up wallpaper, and not, I dunno, put in a ceiling to prevent you from splitting your head open on a nail?
It becomes clear. This was finished. And it all burned that night in September. And our plan is to finish it again, and live up there. This time with one key addition: