Playing with Fire

My Mom, the Superhero

Photo by Emanuel Ekström on Unsplash

Mamas do some amazing things! You’ve all heard the stories of mothers lifting cars off of their children. One of my Dear Friends once practically walked on water to save a child from drowning. This is the story of the first time I really understood what a superhero my own mother is. Grace under fire, as it were.

I grew up hearing about the time my brother almost burned down the house. It happened before my memories begin, so I can only tell you what I was told. One of the important pieces of decor in the den was a stand of cattails. It wasn’t really a “stand of cattails.” I just like the way that sounds. It was a bunch of cattails, standing in an old milk jug on the brick hearth of the fireplace. My brother had a lighter and thought it was fun to “almost set the cattails on fire” until once he really did. They went up quick. I’m sure you can imagine. Unless you are a lot younger than I am. If that is the case, just Google it. In the seventies and eighties, cattails were all the rage.

Having heard this story over and over again, one would think I would have known better than to play with fire. Apparently it runs in the family. So, I had a lighter one day. I was probably around 11 years old. My father was a smoker, so finding fire in the house was never difficult. There were lighters all over the place. I’ve always considered myself pretty smart, so when I was playing with fire, I made a plan first.

I had a straw that I was heating up with the lighter and watching it melt. It looked really cool. But, I was smart enough to do this over a small wastebasket in my room. The little trash can was made of cherry wood. It had been designed, cut, and built by a member of our church. It was a gift for one of my sisters. I can only pull up a vague image of it in my mind, but when I texted her to ask her about it, she remembers many details. She has the best memory of anyone in the family. That comes in handy sometimes. It can also be a real pain when she reminds us of things we would rather forget!

I remember the wooden trash can’s edges were painted black. I think one side of it had some orange in it. Mr. Wood (I’m serious. The woodworker’s name was Mr. Wood!) had taken pictures from a magazine and transferred them to the four sides of the basket. Each side was a different picture. One of those pictures was a little girl with freckles eating a piece of watermelon.

So, I’m exploring what happens to a plastic straw while you hold a flame under it. And, I’m smart enough to hold it over the trash can while I’m doing it. The only problem was that the trash can was filled with paper. That’s all you use a hand-made trash can for! When we did our homework and messed up, the piece of paper was balled up and thrown in the wastebasket. (I don’t think I’d even heard the word “recycling” yet.)

You can imagine what happened. A piece of the straw burned off, fell into the can, and caught the paper on fire.

“Oh shit! I’m not as smart as I thought!”

I tried to put it out, though I don’t remember what all I tried. I do remember distinctly that I opened my bedroom door to go get Mom and closed it again hoping I could stop all of it from happening and never telling her about it. I imagined the curtains catching fire and the entire house being gone in an instant. I opened the door again.

“Mom! Mom!”

I ran to the kitchen. Mom was talking on the phone. I kept calling,

“Mom! Mom!”

She held a finger up to me to be quiet. I did not get quiet. She said,

“I’m on the phone!”

And, we knew better than to interrupt when she was on the phone. It just WAS NOT DONE.

So, I knew what I had to say.

“Mom, there is a fire!”

She immediately hung up on her friend and ran with me to my room. And, it seemed without a thought in her mind — other than wanting to kill me — that she just picked up a flaming wooden trash can, calmly took it to the shower in the bathroom between my room and my brother’s, placed it there, turned the shower on and “poof”- no more fire. Why didn’t I think of that? She yelled,

“What in the WORLD were you doing?”

And, I’m sure I came up with some elaborate tale of how a fire started at absolutely no fault of my own. I don’t remember what I said.

She went back to the kitchen and called the friend on whom she had hung up. She told her all about the stupid thing her kid had done. I remember hearing her laugh about it and being shocked that she could find it funny at all.

I never played with a straw and lighter again.

I’m always amazed by people who can think quickly in moments of distress. I like to believe that I have it in me too. I probably would have just yelled and ran around in circles asking my kid,

“Why have you done this TO me?”

Maybe not. After all, I am my mother’s child. Maybe I have a little superhero in me too.



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T. H. McClung, she/her(s)

T. H. McClung, she/her(s)


In no particular order: Writer, pastor, Mama Bear, LGBTQ+ ally, wife, preacher, watcher of TV, seeker, mystic want-to-be