The holiday season has always been difficult for me, even as a child, and especially since the Christmas of 1976, when I was 15 years old. But after having children of my own, I always made sure they had a very enjoyable Christmas, no matter what the circumstances of our lives were at the time.
Until 1976, my family always spent Christmas Eve at my Grandma Meiers’ house. Grandma Meiers was my stepfather’s mother. She had a spacious, gorgeous home, and it was one of my favorite places to visit as a child. And Christmas Eve was my very favorite time to visit. The house would be beautifully decorated. There would be brightly wrapped presents under the tree and lots of good food. Best of all, all my cousins, aunts, and uncles would be there. Those Christmas Eves at Grandma Meier’s are one of the few fond memories from my childhood, and to this day, I hold them dear.
Every December, I would count down the weeks, then the days, and then the hours before it was time to go to Grandma Meiers’ house for our family Christmas celebration. Year after year, my mother would start a fight with my stepdad while we were getting dressed and ready to leave, because she never wanted to go. I would try to block out their screaming and fighting by thinking about what a good time I would have at Grandma Meier’s house. I’d pray my stepfather wouldn’t give in to my mother’s tirade or go without us. I just wanted to have those few hours of fun with my cousins and to enjoy some happiness with my relatives, a rare bright spot in my life that came only once a year.
In late fall of 1976, I got a job babysitting 3 days a week after school. I was excited not only to make some extra spending money but also because it enabled me to be out of my home and away from my abusive mother for a few days each week.
Peggy Anderson, the mother of the children I babysat, had recently separated from her husband, John, a building contractor who had recently remodeled their lovely, old, wood-frame house. The Andersons were both very nice people, and they seemed to get along very well, even though they’d separated.
Peggy got home from work a few hours after her children got home from school. John took care of the children until Peggy got home on 2 days of the week; I watched the kids the other 3 days. The Anderson home was a short walk from my school, so I arrived on my scheduled days before the kids got off their school bus. The kids — Mark, 9 years old, and Stephanie, 6 — were always very excited for me to be at their house and to care for them.
One day, Peggy asked me if I would be able to watch the children 4 days instead of 3 and all day rather than just the afternoon during the holiday break. She suggested I just stay at her house overnight, because she left for work at 5:00 a.m. That way, John would not have to come over to watch them before I arrived and I would not have to walk in the cold and snow to her house so early in the morning. I told Peggy she would need to ask my mother, because my mom almost never let me stay over at other people’s houses. I was almost certain she’d just tell me no.
Peggy called my mother, and to my shock, she said yes. Wow! I was so excited! I was going to be out of my abusive home for 4 whole days and 3 whole nights! It was like a dream come true. I packed my clothes and personal items along with a few games I’d received for Christmas to play with the kids. Peggy came and picked me up.
On the drive to her house, Peggy said, “I hope I’m not taking you away from having fun with your friends over Christmas break.”
“No, not at all,” I said. What I didn’t have the nerve to tell her was that my mother very rarely let me go anywhere with friends … that I was a virtual prisoner in my own home, where my mother treated me like an indentured servant and routinely abused me, verbally, emotionally, and physically.
The first night, Peggy and I played games with the kids and stayed up late watching TV. When we finally decided to go to bed, Peggy told me the kids usually got up around 9:00 in the morning when they didn’t have school.
“Do you have an alarm clock I could use?” I asked, explaining that, since it was so late, I’d set it for 8:00 to make sure I was awake when Mark and Stephanie woke up.
“Don’t worry. If they get up before you do, they’ll come and wake you up,” she assured me.
Peggy told me I’d be sleeping in Stephanie’s room and Stephanie was sleeping with her. All three bedrooms were upstairs.
“I can just sleep on the couch downstairs,” I said.
“No. You’ll be more comfortable upstairs in Stephanie’s room,” Peggy insisted. “Besides, it’s a treat for Stephanie to sleep with me.”
The second night, the kids went to bed early, as they were tuckered out from a day of playing. Peggy and I stayed up a little later, playing Scrabble and eating popcorn. Then, we watched the news on TV, and I remember us talking about Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago, who had passed away and so they’d talked about his funeral on the news. After the news broadcast was over, we went upstairs to bed.
The next morning at approximately 7:15, I awoke to smoke coming out of the forced air heating vent in Stephanie’s room, where I was sleeping. The room was so filled with smoke, I could hardly see. I jumped out of bed and ran down the hall, glancing toward the stairway on my way. “Oh my God!” I screamed, seeing that the entire stairway was engulfed in flames and the entire upstairs was filled with thick smoke. I started screaming for Mark and Stephanie, praying they were not downstairs.
As I ran into Mark’s room, I heard sirens approaching. (Later, I found out a neighbor leaving for work had called 9-1-1 when he’d seen flames through the windows of Peggy’s house.) Mark was still asleep. I pulled him out of bed and screamed at him to come with me and to not go downstairs.
We ran into Peggy’s room, where Stephanie was still sleeping. I yelled and shook her to wake her up. Like Mark, she was so groggy I had to drag her out of bed. Later, I would find out they both had smoke inhalation.
I could hear the firemen outside, but I didn’t know what to do. Panicked, I looked around Peggy’s bedroom and saw a large window that overlooked the roof of the addition (a new kitchen) that John had built. The roof was right outside the window, and the roof sloped downward. I could see and hear the fireman out there, putting up ladders and screaming for us. I could not understand what they were saying, and the kids were screaming because the flames had moved into Peggy’s bedroom. It was total chaos!
I tried to open the window, but it was frozen shut. So I busted the window and heard the firemen screaming at us to get out. I picked up Stephanie, lifted her out the window onto the roof, and pushed her down the sloped roof to the fireman. But breaking the window fanned the flames, which were now racing toward us. Later, I would learn I should have closed the door before opening the window, because oxygen fuels the fire.
The heat was intense, and the window sill had started to burn. I struggled to pick up Mark, who was really heavy and lethargic. I hoisted him out the window, and he slid down the roof into a fireman’s arms. Then, I climbed out and slid down the roof to safety, too.
The street was filled with people and rescue vehicles. The firefighters hugged me, asked me what my name was, and repeatedly praised me. Mark, Stephanie, and I all had minor burns and smoke inhalation, especially Mark, and we were freezing. So the paramedics hustled us into the warm ambulances, where they checked us over and administered first aid.
I sobbed as I watched the house going up in flames, horrified at the realization that the kids’ kitten was still in the house, that we’d all barely escaped death and serious injury, and that this wonderful family was losing their home — at Christmas, to make it even worse.
Shortly after we arrived at the hospital, Peggy and John and my mother arrived. I was in shock, so the nurses put warm blankets on me as I was examined. I kept asking, “Are the kids okay?” The nurses kept assuring me that Mark and Stephanie were going to be fine.
One nurse said, “Becki, you are a hero. You saved those kids’ lives. You got them out of that burning house and to safety.”
After a while, a couple policemen and a fireman came into the ER room where I was and asked me questions about what had happened. I told them about waking up to smoke choking me, finding the stairway in flames, and running through the thick smoke to Mark’s room and then Peggy’s to wake up the kids. I told them about breaking the window and lifting the kids out the window before climbing out myself, while smoke and flames filled the room.
“You did a great job, Becki,” they all said. “You were so brave and did everything right. You just saved all of your lives.”
My mother was sitting in a chair across from me, silent and cold as ice.
Later, Peggy and John came to the ER room where I was. They both cried as they thanked me for “saving our children’s lives.” I was crying, too. I asked if the cat had been rescued, but they didn’t know. Then, I asked if I could go to the room where Stephanie and Mark were to see them. Peggy and John said yes, and the three of us went to their room. The kids both looked so scared, and even though their burns were minor, I knew they hurt a lot. The kids were also getting oxygen, as they’d inhaled too much smoke into their little lungs. My heart broke for them.
After spending most of the day at the hospital, I was released. Mark and Stephanie were admitted overnight for observation. My mother took me home, and we rode in silence. As we drove by the Anderson’s house, which had burned to the ground, I started to tremble and cry.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re crying about!” my mother yelled. “If you would have gotten your ass out of the bed when Peggy left for work, maybe you could have put the fire out before it destroyed the house.”
Her words scorched my soul, and I just hung my head and sobbed. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that was a defining moment for me — when I realized how much my mother truly hated me. I just didn’t know why.
When we arrived home, my mother told me to go to my room, that she was “really pissed off” at me. “Now, thanks to you, the phone is going to be ringing off the hook with people wanting to know what happened, and I’m the one who’s going to have to deal with all that crap!”
On the way to my room, I walked through the living room, which had a large bay window. I went to the window and just stood there for a few moments looking outside; all of a sudden, I saw huge flames. I shook my head and looked out the window again. There were no flames; I was just imagining it. I went upstairs and crawled into my bed, wondering, Am I going crazy now, seeing fire that is not there?
Mark and Stephanie were released from the hospital the next day. The children healed physically but they were traumatized. Fortunately, the kids received lots of love and support, so their emotional wounds eventually healed, too.
The kids and Peggy went to live with relatives. Later, the fire inspector would determine that the fire was caused from faulty wiring, which created a spark that lit the Christmas tree on fire. Because the wiring, which had been installed by John when he’d remodeled the house, was not up to code and had not been inspected, the insurance company would not reimburse the Anderson’s for their loss. The Andersons lost their home and everything in it — including, I was saddened to learn, their kitten.
A few days after the fire, the Andersons stopped by our house and again thanked me for saving their children’s lives. The fire department gave me a special commendation for bravery and for saving Mark’s and Stephanie’s lives.
Two and a half months later, I found out my stepfather wasn’t my “real” father, located my biological father, and left the House of Hell to live with him. Finally, I was away from Mommy Dearest … for good.
Now, as an adult, I wish someone would have provided that little girl, the young Becki, with some counseling — not only to help me get over that traumatic event and the guilt over it that I’ve carried inside since 1976, but also for the 15 years of my mother’s abuse. Because I didn’t get the help I needed, every year when the holidays roll around, I am depressed and consumed with sadness about the Christmas the Anderson’s house burned down.