Memo From Mac



The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Burlington, Iowa

A Paradox of Survival and Loss
January 3, 1977

We will remember this as the Handi-Wipe Christmas. We sat in our traditional circle around the living room on Christmas afternoon, for the present opening. But there were differences. For one thing, it wasn't our living room, but our son Sean's, which we'd borrowed (confiscated would be a better word) while he and Linda were out of town.

For another, there was no gay pile of presents under the tree. They were, instead, sitting around the circle in plastic garbage bags. As each bag was dumped out, the gifts were passed around to the designated person, except for the growing pile in the middle, called "Miscellaneous," which were those too smoky for immediate identification.

When our house burned Christmas Eve it had been reported first that we lost all our Christmas presents, along with everything else. Then later I reported that the presents were saved because the corner of the living room, where the tree was, had escaped the worst of the blaze. Neither report was entirely correct.

We did get most of the packages out, but now as we took our turns unwrapping, we discovered a fascinating range of conditions. Some seemed perfect. The new camera, for example, packed in thick Styrofoam, seemed to have escaped both heat and water. But the phonograph records were warped; book pages were wrinkled and stuck together; the lace on lingerie had melted.

And, no matter how clean they might appear at a glance, every package was covered by a fine, greasy layer of soot, and every few moments the box of those treated paper washcloths was passed around the circle, so each one could wipe the black off his fingers.

That's when someone gave the occasion the name that will probably stick: the Handi-Wipe Christmas.

And a new cry replaced those that traditionally accompany gift opening, such as "Thank you," or "Oh, you shouldn't have!" or "Just what I always wanted." Now, when a gift emerged from the smoky wrapping, and seemed to be intact, a satisfied shout would go up from the group: "Hey, that survived!"

Our grandson John, who is four, took up the cry, shouting, "That survived!" even before he had enough wrapping off to tell whether it did or not. But after a while, John grew tired of the game, and gave in to the anger and despair we were all so phonily pretending we didn't feel.

He tore the paper off a pair of white gym socks that had ugly black streaks down the sides. "I don't want those!" he shouted, flinging them across the room, and then he rolled on the floor and cried. And that's what we all wanted to do.

Because he is four and unburdened by the rules about how you're supposed to react to disaster, John is the only honest one of us.

On that awful morning, he had been en route with his father from his other grandparents' house and they arrived at our house without any prior warning about what was happening. They got there about the time the blaze was at its worst. I saw them in the yard and put my arms around John and tried to comfort him. "It's all right," I said as he stared wide-eyed at the leaping flames and billowing smoke, the firemen swinging their axes and the torrents of water gushing from the hoses. "It's all right, John," I said, "everyone is safe."

"But but " he sputtered, tears streaming down his cheeks, "your house is burning down!"

Thus, John articulated the confusing contradiction the strange paradox of survival and loss, of gladness and despair.

The Handi-Wipe Christmas ended and there began the longest week of our lives, in some ways the best and the worst week, filled with gratitude to friends and neighbors, but then drained by despair and numbed by an awful weariness.

I had planned to take the week off anyway, to use up my remaining vacation for the year, so I did take a vacation from writing.

Now, in the next few columns, I'll try to tell you what it is like, after you have been told by a tear-streaked little boy, what has really happened to you.

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