There was one Christmas I’ll never forget. It wasn’t the day that magically 2 feet of snow fell on Christmas morning, and it wasn’t the one where I woke up at 3 am to open all my presents before anyone was even close to being awake.
It wasn’t even the one where I made a contraption of scotch tape and cardboard under the fireplace to trap Santa and capture all the toys for the rest of the kids in the world all for myself. (I woke that morning seeing a note attached to the chimney saying “Nice try!”)
It was September of my senior year in high school, and most of my weekend nights were spent wondering why no one else liked the smell of onions that permeated my clothes. Working at a cheesesteak and hoagie shop will do that. But, it was better than smoke.
That was the weekend a teenage jerk set fire to our home while we were inside it.
Apparently, officials knew the kid and suspected him in a number of fires. They just never connected him with the places he torched. Until us. I remember waking up to my sister’s screams (thank god), and running into a wall of smoke. She screamed we had to jump out the window, but I thought “it’s still dark downstairs, so let’s go out the door” and then I remember running down 14 steps in about 3 out the front door, whose doorknob I only could see because of the reflection of flames from the next room.
House was gutted. What wasn’t burned was smoke damaged. In fact, I have an album collection still that has smoke discoloration on most of the covers. After some cleaning, most of these records made it. I still have a turntable today just so I can listen to my high school records like Peter and the Wolf narrated by David Bowie and Duran Duran Live.
We moved into my grandmother’s house, which wasn’t so bad. This was Philadelphia. No one moved far away. Everyone in my family lived either on the same street or within a few streets of each other, with aunts, uncles and grandparents always walking distance away.
Home was rebuilt. Better than it was before, actually. Everyone made it through ok, despite some injuries, and my less-than-thrilled experience watching the conviction of the arsonist, and the weepy, excuse-laded, bleeding heart attorney who tried to ignore everything he did because his life was so tough (he went to private school, but had a deprived childhood? Yeah, right). Somehow, prosecutors didn’t advise me to take the stand and testify.
We moved back home on Christmas Eve.
We didn’t even have furniture yet. But everyone agreed that rather than wait for the niceties like TVs and couches, we had to move in by Christmas. We borrowed some metal folding chairs and ordered pizza. We plugged in a portable radio that couldn’t have cost more than $9.99. We had no time for the usual large Christmas tree, but locked in some closet somewhere in a grandparent’s house was a very small tabletop Christmas tree from my Mom and Dad’s first Christmas in their first apartment. That was our tree.
We had presents, but they were basically wrapped things of everything we needed replaced. No toys. Just clothes, shoes. The basics. After wearing my older brother’s Saturday Night Fever retreads for two months, I was starved for something a little more 80s.
But I didn’t care. We were in our home as a family, pizza and paper plates, gifts that really weren’t the reason for being there, and a tree that hadn’t seen the light of day since the 60s.
And it was the best tree ever.