Through the Eyes of a Child

By Michelle Gunnin

May 15, 2017

“What’s going on?” I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, curious to why my aunt was standing in my mom’s usual place in the kitchen.

“There was a fire last night,” she explained, “The House burned, and your mom and dad had to go take care of things, so I am here to take care of you while they are gone.”

The House is what we called our mountain home.  Suddenly wide awake, my mind started reeling. Between me and my two siblings, there were a million questions. Explanations were given. Our house in the mountains was gone, struck by lightning. No one saw the smoke for hours, and since it was built in the 1800s of hardwood planks, it burned extremely hot. By the time the volunteer firefighters made it up the mountain, all they could do was watch it burn and try to prevent it from spreading into the forest.  Mom and Dad arrived in time to watch their dream farmhouse swallowed up in smoke and flame. They would be away for a few days to “handle” things.  My siblings and I were to try to remember as much as we could of what was in the house.

I don’t remember crying in the moments following the conversation. There were things to do, places to go, and as we went about our morning, the reality hadn’t set in yet.  Later, however, my little sister and I were tucked in at bedtime. The porcelain nightlight on the dresser was illuminated so the hand painted figures of a mom and her little girl glowed.  My sister was in her sunshine-yellow, twin bed, which matched mine, and we talked in whispers in the dim light until she drifted off to sleep.

I was alone with my thoughts, which turned to The House.  The idea it was a gone was foreign to me.  I had no point of reference. I was racking my 7-year-old brain trying to remember things because it seemed important to the grown-ups that we make an inventory of each item. I thought of the jigsaw puzzles we put together with Pop on an old table, and Memommie sitting on the couch knitting an afghan.  I remembered playing hide and seek in the attic with siblings and friends, and the massive stone fireplaces where we hung our winter gear to dry.  Tucked in the corner of a sitting area, off of the living room, stood an old pie safe. As that particular memory came, so did my tears, and once they started, they did not stop no matter how hard I tried to prevent them.  My bed shook with the sobs of a broken hearted little girl.  Soon my aunt was sitting on the side of my bed rubbing my back.

“Shhh.  Don’t cry, you don’t want to wake your sister.”

My voice whimpered, “I remembered something in the House.”

“What did you remember?”

“All the homemade toys in the corner cabinet. The whirligig, the thingamajig, the checker set, and the wooden car…” I choked out, as my sobs began again.

She assured me, “We can buy more toys.”

But I wasn’t so sure it was true.  These toys were special because they weren’t bought at a regular toy store.  When we would go gallivanting (that’s what we called it when we drove aimlessly through the mountains), we would stop at flea markets, antique stores, and craft shops.  There were handmade toys in abundance in places such as these.  Each trip would increase our little toy collection at the house, and because we never brought these toys back to the city, I was sure I had remembered something uniquely important.  In my mind, they were irreplaceable because we could never go back to all those places and find the same toys again.  These were the kind of things I cried over in the night. These were my little girl worries. I could only see through a child’s eyes, and so the only things that mattered were the toys.

The day we finally drove up the driveway, we were greeted by the two stone chimneys.  There was nothing else left but a pile of ash. The stone walkway led to an ugly hole where the house had stood.  What were left of the surrounding trees were scorched and brown. The rhododendron leaves were curled and appeared dead, leaving our secret play fort in the bushes exposed for the world to see. The only thing that remained the same was the spectacular view from the top of the mountain.

It was obvious it had been a huge fire, but now that it was cool, the whole family began the search to see if anything at all had survived. I knew our toys were gone, and I was still grieving them, however, the prospect of finding treasure in the ashes quickly captured my imagination.  It was like a scavenger hunt, and soon my siblings and I had a small pile of items, or, I should say, pieces of items.  They were not the “important” things my parents were looking for, but to me, they were memories.  An old skeleton key, old-timey irons which we had used as door stops, and pieces of pottery were among the riches. I found an old piece of electrical wire. A Coke can.  Some Corning Ware (It was intact and, other than being completely black, was still usable.  We always said mom could have done a commercial for them!)  Each weekend we headed up to sift through the rubble, and each weekend the “kid pile” grew.

While the grown-ups were working, me and my sister decided to build a fire museum.  I know it may seem odd for a 4 and 7-year-old to design a museum in rhododendron bushes, but there was nothing else to do, and evidently, I was a nerd early on.  We took the electrical wire into the bushes, which were beginning to recover some green leaves.  We cleared out underneath and used the wire to tie back some branches to make a circular open area.  For those who have never been inside rhododendron bushes, the branches twist and turn but the leaves are mostly on the outside, creating a natural protected area on the inside which is fairly open and makes perfect fort—ummm—I mean museum.  Once the branches were tied back, we got to work on our displays.  We found rocks and old pieces of wood to serve as pedestals.  In my head, I can still hear our conversation.

“Let’s put this rock here for the iron to sit on.”

“Okay, and we can put the coke can over here.”

“No, that is not the first thing you want to see.  It isn’t as interesting as the key, so let’s put it around towards the end.”

We had it mapped out where to start the exhibit and where to end it.  We decided the key didn’t show up too well on the display rock, so we hung it from the wire instead.  Once we figured out we could hang things we went back to find “decorations” for the museum in the ash pile.  There were no wooden toys in our Fire Museum, but there were plenty of other items my child’s memory wanted to preserve, not to mention, we planned to charge people to come to our museum.

These days, I don’t remember if we ever took anyone through it.  In fact, it wasn’t until my own house burned a few years ago that I even remembered we had made the fire museum. I didn’t know if my sister would remember it at all since she was so young at the time.  When I asked, she said she did remember, and we wondered if it was still there.  The bushes are all grown up now, some 45-years later, and it is much more difficult to get into our fort.  Stooping and crouching are required beyond what my body can do for very long.  Yet, I felt the draw to revisit our museum.  The electrical wire is gone, along with all the items hung from it.  A couple of the pedestals remain, at least I think that is what those rocks are.  The treasures are gone as well.  I don’t remember ever removing them, and as I look around I wonder if the bushes have grown so much that the items are buried, or if someone else came after us to carry them away.

Being in this place, the nostalgia fills my mind with memories.  I recognize the difference between the eyes of a child and my own.  I know to process tragic events, children must find a way to work it out, and many do not.  I look back and see what we did as a sort of game to manage the feelings associated with the loss.  I wonder if creating museums might be a new type of therapy, a way to put order to disorderly things.  A way to contemplate and consider events in time and how they relate to the present.  We could call it, Fire Museum Therapy. Hmmm…I might be onto something.


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Michelle Gunnin

Michelle is an everyday woman – a writer, a wife, a mom of four nearly grown children, a teacher, a colleague, a sister, and a daughter. She is also a cancer survivor, a caregiver, and a recovering Pharisee. She has more questions than answers, and she writes to explore both. She is determined to be in the moment and live fully…both things life has taught her. You can follow her blog at

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  1. Marilyn,
    Children are so resilient and I think it is because they “play” to process. As I studied Psychology in college I was drawn to play therapy as a way to help kids…music therapy, and art therapy as well. I think kids naturally process through other outlets instead of directly sitting and talking about the “trauma” whatever it may be. I see that in this memory, anyway. 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing such a heartfelt and personal piece of your childhood. I feel like it’s those emotional scars that form who we become as adults. May you continue to heal and share in order to heal others!!!

  3. Hi, Michelle. Your story evokes childhood memories of negative events and how they were perceived at the moment. Reading a comparison of your coping skills is enlightening. Very sad to read about your later residential loss – such a difficult loss to recover from. Your writing is so easy to – a pleasure. Thanks for this personal story.

    • Thanks Slug. Coping skills as a child are ore fun because you don’t realize you are “coping” because it feels more like “playing.” Much different as an adult…I am all for going back to childhood coping strategies!

  4. Wow Michelle, great story! I’m sad for your loss back then and about your home not so long ago. So sorry to read this. Your coping mechanism intrigues me. When you think about it, you processed the negative and created a positive with your museum. You also thought well enough to protect your display inside of a bush. That is clever! When I was younger, I would dig holes in the ground to expend negative energy. Weird, right? I would then cover the hole with scrap plywood and crawl in it to think. 😂

  5. Michelle, I am so sorry for your loss of not one but two homes. Your post vividedly describes not only loss, but the need all of us have to process it. As a child, our awareness and ability are limited to our young point of view. You were able to come up with both a creative and effective way to deal with your loss.
    Thank you for sharing and I do think this is key for not only children but adults. I am glad you were able to recover some “valuables” from your beloved House and hope you were able to do the same with your home that burned a few years ago.

  6. Hi, Michelle. Fire Museum Therapy sounds like a wonderful idea. You make several astute observations in this piece, as well as excellent descriptions of how the child versus the adult processes and handles things. Like you, I didn’t understand the concept of handling things; I thought it was physically touching something as a child. And I think that’s probably where some of your acceptance and ability to find some measure of solace in your loss occurred when you created your museum.

    You’re fortunate that you can remember and then return; seeing through the eyes of the child and the realizations of the adult give us those moments of understanding. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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