In 2012 I wrote about my only ancestor (my great-grandmother's niece) who was a poet, Marylu Terral Jeans and her book Statue in the Stone. Last month I received a fascinating email about one of her poems from a man named Patrick in Pittsburgh.
Here's is the story he told:
My mother, Mary, was a Peace Corps volunteer in its early days, right after President Kennedy's assassination. She was so inspired by Kennedy that she joined the Peace Corps as a 24 year-old woman and taught English in the Philippines from 1964 through 1966. She mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer about five years ago and died at age 67.
While I was going through some of her old Peace Corps souvenirs, I found a small poem which looked like it had been torn out of a magazine by hand. It was the poem "Love-Armored" by Marylu Terral Jeans. I found the poem very moving, and obviously my mother did too, as she had kept it with her while thousands of miles away from home in the Philippines for 2 years (long before email, cell phones or other technology made the world seem much smaller). I kept the poem in a ziplock bag along with some prayer cards left over from her funeral. I put the plastic bag in a wooden box with a Bible in it. The Bible had been given to me at her funeral. The box then went into an old oak dresser which came with me through several moves in the last few years.
This past December I bought my first home, a small brick ranch house on a mountaintop piece of land in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania (50 miles East of Pittsburgh). I had a woodburner stove installed into a basement fireplace, and the installer's must have made a mistake when putting in the new chimney liner. At 3:00 AM on December 12th, I woke up in the middle of the night because I wasn't breathing right and a smell of smoke was all through my house. I went down and checked the fireplace, and the fire in the woodburner was out. I figured the new stove just wasn't venting properly and went back to bed. At 7:00 AM I awoke again because I was breathing smoke and this time noticed a haze of smoke all through the house. (I wasn't supposed to get up until 10AM, because I had worked late the night before). I walked all through the house trying to figure out where the smoke was coming from but couldn't find any source. I opened windows to try to air my house at this point.
Little did I know, the underside of the hardwood floors in my home had been smoldering with fire all night waiting for oxygen. I then noticed smoke billowing up from behind the piece of furniture (an old family heirloom that had belonged to my mother's family) which held the Bible box. I ran downstairs and pulled the tiles of the drop ceiling and the entire underside of my floors were on fire. I dumped an entire fire extinguisher into the ceiling before having to flee my house due to smoke overtaking me. I made it out with just my clothes and wallet in my pocket.
Within a half hour, my entire house had burned and the first floor of the house had collapsed into the basement. It was a total loss fire. The fire had burned so intense inside the brick house that I never even found a trace of my mountain bike (all metal) and other large objects that were completely melted. But while the entire first floor had collapsed and incinerated in the fire, the old oak dresser with the Bible in it had slid down on a piece of broken floor into the basement...and it didn't burn. The area of the basement where it slid into was the vortex of the fire. It was within 8 feet of where my mountain bike and a couch had melted completely with no trace. The oak dresser was charred, but survived. The Bible in the wooden box had remained completely untouched during the fire. It had literally been in the hottest part of the fire where nothing else survived.
Last week I began looking for the plastic bag containing the old poem which i knew had also been in the Bible box. It was nowhere to be found. I began searching Google for lines of the poem which I remembered, but there were no Google hits for a poem titled "Love Armored". I couldn't remember the name of the author. Very sad over the loss of this old poem which meant so much to me, I went back to what remained of my old house last week, took the boards off the windows and tramped around looking through the sludge and debris. Over a foot of water had been dumped into the basement of the house by the fire department during the fire, and it was a mess. No luck finding anything. A friend of mine had removed the old dresser the day after the fire to dry it out in his garage, and I called him just to see if maybe the bag was still inside.
He called me back and said "This is really spooky. I have the bag, it had been lying near the dresser after the fire. The plastic bag isn't even sealed, and there are ashes in the bag, so it was open during the fire. But for some reason, none of the papers inside the bag are burnt, and there isn't even any water damage to anything in the bag". Just to clarify, a plastic ziplock bag containing paper items was lying unharmed within 8 feet of where a mountain bike and everything else in sight had completely melted in the fire. He sent pictures of the bag and the contents. A few people had been telling me since the fire that my mother had been watching over me and had awakened me before the carbon monoxide or fire could get to me. When I read the FIRST and LAST lines of the poem, it gave me chills. See the attached photos of the actual bag and poem.
My love surrounds the house in which you dwell,
The place you work, the streets your feet have known,
With more of tenderness than I can tell,
And prayers I have said for you alone.
If you are lonely, know that I am near;
If you are sad, my faith will comfort you,
The things you value I shall hold most dear;
Your happiness will make me happy, too.
If you are heavy-laden, be at rest...
He who is loved need never walk alone.
He has a cloak, a sword to meet the test,
A shield, a talisman that is his own.
Be sure of this: Though you may travel far,
My love will guard you anywhere you are.