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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Thomas

The Best of Lessons, the Worst of Times

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

Memorabilia given to family after fire
Some family photos and items given to us after the fire. (Thanks to Barbara Osgood for the montage.)

My eyes and heart were opened and my life began to open up, too. My family lost “everything” but the lessons were profound.

It was 4:00am December 1, 1985. I woke up to my dad shouting, “Fire! Get out!”

Our home was always toasty warm in winter because of our woodstove so I just had a long t-shirt on for PJs. I ran out our back patio door into the backyard and found myself up to my knees in the snow and a blizzard. My mom and brother rushed out. My “little” brother picked me up and held me so I wouldn’t have my bare legs in the cold snow. Though it was only a matter of seconds, it seemed like forever before my dad finally emerged. We saw flames coming out of windows. With a tall fence in the backyard, we needed to rush back toward the house in order to escape and be closer to safety and help. Right after we ran through the front gate, the roof of the patio collapsed where we had just been.

In my shocked daze, I blindly ran until I heard firefighters yelling, “You are running the wrong way. Turn around. We are here.” I turned and found myself with firefighters who instructed me to go into our neighbors home while they fought the blaze. A volunteer soon arrived to provide care and to explain what would happen next and how they would help us. They had been told a family of four with two kids had lost their home to fire and brought along mini survival kits with toiletries. They didn’t realize the two “kids” had recently turned 18 and 16 so we were each given tiny toothbrushes and a small stuffed animal. Even though we were older, those stuffed animals provided comfort and a symbol of connection and care. I still have mine to this day.

Photo of living room post house fire. Charred with insulation falling from ceiling.
How our living room looked after the fire.

The firefighters said it had just been three minutes since the time of my father’s call to when they arrived (the fire station is just down the street). By the time they were on the scene, the house was already destroyed, leaving just an outer shell. Once the windows had popped from the flames, the winds from the blizzard rushed in and quickly spread the fire. Our house was dry as kindling due to being heated with a wood burning stove so it burned quickly (this was not how the fire started…it was a short in my brother’s electric mattress pad). Fortunately, my father was an early riser and smelled plastic burning before the smoke detectors even had a chance to alert us. If he hadn’t been awake, we would not be alive.

Over time, powerful lessons unfolded and my life began to open up so that I could help others in this journey.


  • I didn’t think I mattered much or that anyone other than close family and a few friends cared about me. But in those wee hours of the morning, I began to experience something different and deeper. The neighbor who always acted judgmental to our family was the one who invited us to sit at their kitchen table. Other neighbors contributed hand me down clothes, household items and even took up a collection to help us manage until the insurance money could be processed and our home could be rebuilt.

  • I didn’t realize how interconnected we are in this world and how much our actions affect others. The volunteer with the survival kits helped me understand that there are wonderful people in the world who work together to look out for and take care of people they may never meet. I imagined them collecting items and gathering together to assemble the kits. I hope they know how much of an everlasting difference their seemingly small gestures make.

  • I had been shy and reserved as a kid. Being highly sensitive, I was often teased for how easily I cried. There is nothing wrong about being shy or reserved. But for me, shyness was about fear and trying to be invisible. It kept me from feeling fully connected in my life because I thought it was easier to stay within a shell of safety than to risk being bullied. I spent more time worrying about a few mean people than I did appreciating the good people around me.

  • I didn’t fully understand what it was like to be discriminated against for how one looked or dressed. Immediately after the fire, we moved into a hotel (followed by a small apartment). This was the mid-80’s when people wore big hair and flashy clothes. When we checked into the hotel, my brother and I were wearing hand me downs from the 70s, including corduroy bell-bottoms. The staff was dismissively rude to us. I’m certain it was because of how we looked because when we had acquired more modern clothes (and a curling iron and hairspray so I could fit in and have big hair), they were suddenly friendly. From that experience, I vowed to look beyond appearances in getting to know people.

  • I’d thought I didn’t have enough. Although I had my family, a comfortable home, friends and my health, I felt a sense of lack. I worried about how money was tight for my family. I sometimes thought about what other people who were better off financially were able to afford. This experience woke me up to how: life can be cut short in an instant; the material things in life aren’t important in the grander context; there are really good people in our world (and I wanted to be one and be connected with people like that).

The lessons I’d like to share:

  • The world needs you. You make a difference simply by being you. Allow yourself to be even more YOU. You matter.

  • Life is short. Let’s make the most of it. Living life fully matters.

  • We are all connected. We influence people we will never meet. How we live our lives matters.

  • Appearances don’t tell the full story. How we treat each other matters.

  • When you strip away everything else, it’s our connections that really matter.

Since this time over 30 years ago, I have worked to not only understand how to better connect with people but to share what I’ve learned with others to help them to connect in meaningful and uplifting ways.

What powerful lessons have you learned about connecting/networking?

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