A House Fire, and a Moving Tenebrae Service on Good Friday (posted 4/18/22)

This was a tough week for our family. 

We’ve got three rental houses, and by far my favorite is a two-story Victorian built in 1886.  The original owner called it “Rosewood” after the distinctive color of its heart-pine wood floors, mantels and trim work.  It had been restored and updated in the 1980s, and we bought it the spring of 2015, and did a little more restoration. 

The circumstances in which we bought it has given it a little extra emotional hold on us.  As I’ve written in a couple of Father’s Day columns, my dad died in December of 2014, after a five-month cancer battle.  I spent a big chunk of those months driving back and forth from north Florida to Tennessee.  I would teach my college classes from Tuesday through Thursday, then drive up to TN Thursday night, and back home on Monday. 

When dad passed, I went home and slept for a week, and at the beginning of the new year, I started searching our town for an old house to buy.  I came across the Victorian, and when I was walking the surrounding neighborhood to see if it was a good place to invest, I found another house built in 1930 that had good bones but was ugly. 

So I went home to my long-suffering wife and told her my plan.  And three months later, we’d refinancing our existing houses and borrowed up to our eyeballs to buy both of those buildings, and I then threw myself into about 7 months’ worth of working on those houses, alongside some trusted tradesman I knew. 

I wasn’t really aware of what I was doing at the time, but looking back on it, it’s clear to see.  Because I’m a Midwestern male from the 19th century, I’m not the type to go to a therapist and discuss my feelings.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and not that writing these columns isn’t a great form of venting and therapy for me!)  I’m more the type to engage in a little Job-like, dark-night-of-the-soul meditation on a “from ashes we came, and to ashes we return” theme, along with listening to some hymns, some Johnny Cash and a selection of Appalachian murder ballads. 

Then I’m liable to locate some old houses that need work, order up a dumpster, and sublimate my grief over dad’s death into some sweet, sweet toxic masculinity, in the form of attacking some lathe-and-plaster walls with a 5-pound sledge and a crowbar.    

In this case, it worked out.  We’ve had years of tenants in that Victorian house, including two years during which my oldest daughter and four of her Christian sorority sisters lived there.  (She’s the nurse who – I may have mentioned once, or 600 times – saved someone’s life last November.)  If you’d like to see the house, you can go to Zillow, and type in the address: 320 NW 1st Street, in Gainesville FL.

Anyway, on Wednesday night, that house caught fire. 

The good news is that the two girls who were home at the time got out safely.  One of them got her cat out with her, but the other had been dog-sitting for a roommate who was out of town, and when she panicked and grabbed the dog’s collar to pull him along, he wriggled out of the collar and went to hide under his owner’s bed. 

I got a call from my alarm-monitoring service and drove over there, to find the top story fully engulfed, with three firetrucks pouring water onto it, and several firemen surrounding the dog on a gurney, where one was doing chest compressions and the other was trying to keep an oxygen mask made for humans in place on the dog’s muzzle.  When that wasn’t working as well as it could, he gave the dog mouth-to-mouth.

Sidebar: I love that fireman!  I would give Cassie the Wonder Dog mouth-to-mouth if she needed it.  (Obviously, because she’s the finest dog ever to walk the earth.)  But as much as I love dogs, I don’t know that I’d give a strange dog mouth-to-mouth, even in dire circumstances.  So God bless that guy!

The dog came to, and was taken to a local veterinary hospital, and he should be going home within the next two days.  The fire was put out within less than an hour, so there’s now at least a slim chance that the house can be saved, though the top floor will have to be removed and rebuilt. 

If you’d like to see the house now, I’ll soon post a collection of pics on this site.  You can also see local news coverage of the fire burning at this link: https://www.wcjb.com/2022/04/14/100-year-old-home-catches-fire-gainesville/

It turns out that a tenant was burning some incense on the upstairs porch early in the evening; she went back inside thinking that it was out, but it must have been smoldering, because the fire started there, several hours later.

After several sleepless nights, and days spent shoveling about six inches of wet insulation, burnt wood and other debris off of the upstairs floors in an attempt to preserve them, I went to a Good Friday evening service at our Lutheran church.

It’s called a “Tenebrae” service, which is Latin for “darkness.”  We never had those in the Baptist churches I grew up in, but if you’re a Christian and haven’t been to one, I’d recommend it. 

It’s very grim, of course, since it recapitulates the day of Christ’s crucifixion.  The crosses in the church are draped in black, and after each of six readings (the arrest, the scourging, etc.), one of six candles is snuffed out.  (Our church had someone working the lights, and turning more off with each extinguished candle.) 

At the end of the last reading, after the last candle is put out, the church is in darkness, and silence.  (This is the only service of the year that does not end with a benediction.)  Then after several minutes, a loud “thump” noise is made at the back of the church, to symbolize the rock being rolled in place to seal the tomb.    

It is a very moving service: somber, and thought-provoking.

But the timing, this year, was rough.  Less than 48 hours after the fire, I found myself ensconced in a ritual commemorating the darkest hour of human history. 

Plus there’s candles, at a time when fire of any kind is the LAST thing I want to see.  (I would say that it’s triggering, except that I’m a Midwestern male from the 19th century, and would thus rather give mouth-to-mouth to a strange dog than indulge in that nonsense!)

But as I write this, it’s Easter, and our hopes are born anew. 

The preliminary insurance inspection indicates that the house will be a total loss, and if that verdict is upheld this week, we’ll get a check that will pay off the mortgage and put some potential rebuilding money in our pocket.  I walked through the house with our realtor, and she’s confident that it can be salvaged, since the downstairs is almost intact, except for some water damage to the ceilings, which will have to be replaced anyway.

A woman from the city’s Historic Preservation department called me on Thursday morning, having gotten a call breaking the news from the couple who originally restored Rosewood in the 1980s.  She’s asked me not to make a decision or bulldoze the house until I talk to her, and she’s going to see if there is any way the city might provide any grant money to help in the restoration. 

Though my wife and I are still processing all this, we’re leaning toward selling the house to a restorer with the guts and cash to take the project on.  If the bids we get on the restoration costs look good enough, we might try to hang on, and have the restoration done ourselves.  But our emotional tanks are pretty empty, and I’m not sure if we’re up for that. 

But it seems appropriate on Easter to savor the chance to take a breath, and look at all there is to be thankful for.  Nobody was hurt, not even a pet.  We should be made financially whole, or close to it, and there’s at least a chance that Rosewood will survive, even if we will no longer own it. 

And, if my non-Christian readers will forgive me, Christ is Risen, and I’m going to get to see my dad again.  And we will laugh as we think about the fact that, in a strange way, his death led to me being able to own Rosewood for 7 years, and my daughter to live there, and then (God willing) I could pass it along to a new owner.

Okay, that’s it.  Not my usual column full of nonsense and mockery, but there it is. 

I will post a more typical column within a couple of days, because while we were going through our dark and fiery week, the world kept turning, and producing news that I am eager to comment on. 

Leftists continued to beclown themselves, Elon Musk terrified the censors, and – though my theological interpretation on this point might not be 100% correct – God sent an avian omen of His judgment to poop on Joe Biden.  (And we all said, “Amen!”)

Happy Easter, everybody!

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