How Big Does a Christmas Tree Need to be When There are 10 Kids?

Even though we had been evicted from the old housing projects just a few weeks before Christmas, we were determined to have a festive holiday nonetheless. I was only three years old, so my head was filled with nothing but thoughts of Santa Claus, sugarplums, elves, and baked goodies. The dilapidated hotel we were living in temporarily would need to be decorated as best we could, considering its dingy walls, cracked windows, and peeling paint. Although it was cold and drafty due to faulty heating, we relied on the warmth in our hearts to kindle the Christmas spirit. With my nine siblings and my parents, we certainly had plenty of “kindling!”

My older brothers Walter, Herbert, Carson, and Harvey were all train enthusiasts. The two oldest were very talented in woodcarving and were working on a few pieces to hang on the tree. The two younger ones helped their brothers by meticulously painting the pieces. Harvey was only six years old, but he had a developing knack for artwork. Carson – not so much, but he was working on it. At nine, he still had time to nurture his budding talent.

Most of our decorations were homemade since we couldn’t afford store bought ones. I was the youngest girl and all three of my sisters were teenagers who possessed talents of their own. My mother had taught them how to sew and cook, so they were also making various decorations for the tree. Lila made hand-beaded stockings to place under the tree (there was no mantle). Lucille made an angel and decorated it with wings and a halo. The angel was prominently displayed on top of the tree while its wings sparkled in spite of the dinginess surrounding it. Clodine loved collecting thimbles and was able to make a few innovative decorations with them.

Choosing a Christmas tree for displaying our homemade masterpieces was not a task for the faint-hearted. My father would take my two oldest brothers and head out on a search for the perfect tree. Even thinking about an artificial tree was considered sacrilegious! They traipsed from one tree lot to another until “that” tree was found. Then, they hoisted it up to the second floor and put it up in my parents’ room. In my eyes, as well as those of my two younger brothers (William and Sanford Jr.), that tree was monumental. Of course, with the size of those cramped rooms, the tree was probably not that big in actuality-but none of us noticed.

On Christmas morning of that cold, 1956 day in Niagara Falls, New York, we woke up in the Moonglow Hotel to the smell of homemade hot chocolate and freshly baked cookies. The family gathered in my parents’ room to open presents and sample the tasty treats. There may not have been much under the tree, but the love in the room overshadowed any lack of physical presents. The presence of family, kinship, shared memories, laughter, and comfort was enough-more than enough. The size of the tree or the amount of presents under it paled in comparison to all of that.

When There’s 13 at the Dinner Table, You Learn to Eat Really Fast!

When I was in boot camp and we were getting ready for chow, the drill instructors always reminded us that we only had twenty minutes to eat. Inwardly, I laughed because when I was a child, there were thirteen people at my dinner table-eleven siblings and my parents. Nothing lasted for twenty minutes on that table, not even the crumbs!

Back in the early 1950’s in the housing projects that I grew up in, it was common for the entire family to eat meals together. With the size of my family, we could not all fit at the same table. When I was four years old, I had three siblings younger than me and seven older. We younger ones usually ended up in someone’s lap at mealtime. However, before reaching the dinner table, there were many preparations ahead of time.

Although we were receiving government assistance, like many in the housing projects we grew much of the produce that we ate. My father had a marvelous green thumb; there was not anything he couldn’t grow. (Too bad that talent was not passed down to me-my vegetable garden can be found at our local grocery store.) So, before meals, we had to pick and clean the vegetables. There is nothing like the taste of freshly grown vegetables!

Preparing vegetables was easy compared to what we had to do in order to have meat with our meals. Believe it or not, we had live chickens in a coop in the back yard. I remember seeing my father chasing chickens through the field. When he caught one, he would wring its neck several times. This usually killed them right away, but there was one time that my father set the chicken down after a neck wringing just to have the creature stagger about drunkenly. Needless to say, that chicken was spared execution for a day as my father was laughing so hard he let it get away.

Four of my six brothers were old enough to help my father with the garden and with the chickens. They plucked and butchered; cleaned and seasoned. My mother and older sisters washed the collard greens, turnip greens, cabbage, or green beans. Washing vegetables, especially collards, was a unique process. But when all was said and done, our large clan gathered at the table, gave thanks to God and shared our meal together. So many hands went into the preparation-each one important, each one loved, each one sharing in the joy of family (one very large and happy family).

Coping with Loss

Whoever said that time heals all wounds probably needed a sanity check. After all, it has been fifty-five years since I lost seven siblings in a tragic house fire, but the pain of their loss still haunts me today. How does one come to grips with such a loss; how does one cope? Since I was only four years old at the time of the historic fire that claimed eighteen lives, coping became a matter of reliance upon my family’s ability to overcome.

For the most part, my family chose to cope with the tragedy simply by not addressing it. There seemed to be some unspoken rule that we would not even mention the horrific event, much less talk about our feelings. I can understand the reticence about opening up right away-the months following the fire were tumultuous, to say the least. We were homeless for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays in that year of 1957. It was a struggle just to survive from day to day.

In her struggle, my mother never fully recovered from losing seven of her children all at once. I often would see her sobbing quietly at the kitchen table. I am sure that her heart was broken. Within a year after the fire, she was dead. She would no longer have to try to cope anymore. My father coped in the same way he handled most things-by drinking. His drinking increased dramatically after my mother’s death. My three sisters did their best to resume some sense of normalcy. They were all teenagers who rallied to help fill the void left by the loss of all six of their brothers and their five-month-old baby sister.

Part of my healing process started when I was a teenager and my father had agreed to take me to the site of the fire. The emotions evoked there instilled in me a desire to learn more. Many years later, I did an Internet search as well as some research at various libraries. I made copies of several of the actual newspaper articles about the fire. I often look at those clips and cry. The tears flow as freely as if it happened yesterday.

Some of the articles inspired me to write a memoir about my family, which I did earlier this year when my book “Out of the Fire: Life from the Ashes” was published. However, inspiration is a funny thing-it needs to be acted on in order to be effective. The thought of gardening inspires me, but until I get my hands in the soil, nothing grows. So a word of advice-revel in your inspirations, but also allow them to spur you on to success. Do not let time be your enemy; it does NOT heal all wounds, it only puts distance between you and them.

Spiritual Healing

After nearly three decades of hard-core drinking, weekend binges, raucous alcohol-fueled house parties, and hangovers, my father became a born-again Christian and ordained minister. What a change! Some would say his drinking was understandable-after all, he had lost seven children in a tragic house fire in 1957. However, my father’s drinking began long before the fire. The spiritual change happened about five years after the fire, but it didn’t occur overnight. The path to salvation was fraught with a few detours. One of those detours took my father deep into the world of the occult.
My father entered that world while trying to help my stepmother overcome a supposed curse placed on her by the man she was living with prior to marrying my father. (The man was rumored to be a voodoo priest and very powerful shaman.) My stepmother suffered from bouts of mental illness, similar to what is known as paranoid schizophrenia now, but was not really labeled back in the early fifties. Then, mental illness was shrouded in mystery, intrigue, and mystique. Talking about it was taboo. My stepmother spent time off and on in an insane asylum. Her behavior mystified me sometimes and frightened me at other times. After a particularly horrendous episode, my father decided to try an unconventional method to help her.
I don’t know how much of the voodoo culture my father believed in, but it was enough to send him to psychics and prophets for assistance. I observed rituals in the middle of the night that were altogether eerie, dark, and ominous. This continued for several months until one day when my father was visited by a member of a local church who was participating in their outreach program. During that visit, he accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior. The difference in my father was like comparing night to day. The alcohol-fueled binges and parties stopped. Soon after, we began attending church and hosting prayer meetings in our home.
The church became a very big part of our lives as we attended services nearly every night of the week. My church was one of those old-fashioned Pentecostal churches where people were likely to dance in the aisles, speak in tongues, and run around the church shouting praises. I have fond memories of that church and was even baptized there as a young teen. Once my father was ordained, he would become a guest minister there now and then. Spiritual lessons I learned through Scripture, prayer, and study while at the Bethlehem Revival Temple will always remain with me.
I may have veered off the path a few times in my life, but the solid foundation set in my early youth will never crumble. I found myself leaning on that foundation as I wrote my memoir “Out of the Fire: Life from the Ashes” depicting the loss of my seven siblings in the fire. I had to walk away from my writing on several occasions as I became overwhelmed by emotion and bitterness. But through prayer and supplication, I was able to persevere. God helped me to overcome my bitterness and even see the good of His will in the outcome of the fire.

The Moonglow Hotel

Fires - Allen StreetAllen Street Fire VictimsPhoto - By Niagara Gazette

It was not easy facing eviction, but as fate would have it, the owner of a tenement building called the Moonglow Hotel opened up rooms for the housing projects evictees. It was a run-down three-story structure with a basement. The … Continue reading

Out of the Fire – The Details that Haunt My Dreams

The thought of becoming a first time author was a very intimidating one, but I knew that I had a story to tell. This was not just a story; it was a historical event, which had a dynamic impact not only on the families involved, but also on the local community and the state of New York as a whole.

On November 16, 1957, I became one of seven persons who survived a hotel fire in Niagara Falls, New York that killed eighteen others – fifteen of whom were children. Seven of those children were my siblings, all six of my brothers and my five-month-old baby sister. One man lost his entire nine-member family (wife and eight children), and two other adults out of the firealso perished. Sometimes it overwhelms me just to think about the loss. Although I remember very little about the fire (after all I was only four years old), those details that I do remember often come back to haunt my dreams.

For several years I have contemplated writing my story, but I kept making one excuse after another. My determination to start the project was cemented, though, in 2007 after I attended a commemoration ceremony in Niagara Falls, New York, which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the fire. One of the original first responders was there and his speech was a moving and emotional testimony to the horror of the tragic event of November 16, 1957.

My short life before the fire was certainly not idyllic – my father was an alcoholic, my large family depended on state government assistance, and we were evicted from the housing projects we lived in just weeks before Christmas in 1956. When the owner of the Moonglow Hotel opened rooms for the evictees, my father seized the opportunity. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Getting back on our feet after the fire was no easy task since we had nothing but the clothes on our backs. The community banded together to give us aid, and even the governor of New York took a personal interest in our recovery effort. My father’s life changed about three years after the fire when he accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior and became a born-again Christian. As a result, my family became more economically stable, though we were by no means middle class.

My life centered around religion for several years and my own faith in God became very strong even though it was tested several times: when I lost my job and my apartment in 1977; when my oldest sister Lila died in 1986; when I was divorced in 1993; when my father died in 2002; when my older sister Lucille died in 2012 (while I was writing my memoir); and when I suffered two miscarriages several years apart.

My life had more stability after I joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1978. I  planned on serving for just one tour, but twenty years later, I retired as a First Sergeant. After just a few years, I found myself back on the same Marine Corps installation that I retired from, but this time in civil service. At the end of 2011, I garnered my second retirement and my second wind toward writing my memoir.

I currently live in Hubert, North Carolina with my husband, John and one very fat cat named Stinky. I enjoy doing volunteer work and helping others in need.