Living in a rural and isolated place like Jolicure, we relied on the company of our own little family, and that of my aunt and uncle and cousins who lived just a few miles away. So naturally Christmas was a time for our families to get together and eat and drink and visit.
Practically every year that we lived in Jolicure, NB, we had Christmas dinner at my aunt Joanne’s house – she always made tortierre (a French Canadian traditional meat pie) for the occasion and spread the table with many delicious dishes like her signature green beans with nuts.
And, frequently we had them over to our house on Christmas Eve for drinks and merry making.
It is naturally freezing cold and snowy outside and very dark at this time of year – the sun goes down early in the Great White North in December. So this particular Christmas my aunt and uncle and cousins drove in along the miles of our bumpy rutted dirt road, through the black forest, to our red house blazing with golden light – the only light visible for miles in the darkness.
Inside our house we had our two Franklin stoves going with hot fires to warm the kitchen and my father’s studio in the kitchen loft above it. The stoves were connected to the same flue (a metal tube about 8″ or 10″ in diameter also called a stove pipe) that ran the height of the house from the kitchen up through the ceiling to the studio above it, and then up to the roof where a chimney released the smoke and fumes.
We had to put the stoves into the house by necessity – our original oil range in the kitchen failed us terribly the first year we lived there, and the furnace did little to combat the freezing air that penetrated the old 19th century walls and windows of the kitchen wing. Even with the Franklin stoves, it could get bitterly cold just a few feet from the fire. My father who painted in the studio all winter, would sit at his easel just inches from the flames, while downstairs we sat as close as we could to the fire as well.
On this particular night I remember everyone feeling very jolly – lots of laughter and drinking going on, when all of a sudden the kitchen filled with acrid smoke. Suddenly we could see that the flue pipe was burning hot. Through the seams of the pipe you could see the bright intense orange glow of fire, and smoke was coming out of the seams as well as coming off the surface of the metal – the painted coating was bubbling and burning.
We quickly put out the fire in the kitchen Franklin while my father, uncle and my cousin’s boyfriend ran up to the studio to check the flue up there. Sure enough, the flue was on fire upstairs as well, and up close to the roof – the rafters closest to the flue were already charring and smoking.
My father was storing paintings in the rafters and one oil painting on canvas that sat closest to the flue, caught fire. They pulled it down and stomped on it and managed to somehow extinguish the flames.
Buckets of water must have made their way up there too, but I only remember the shock of the moment.
We were miles from the next house and even more miles from the volunteer fire department. If we hadn’t acted so quickly and didn’t have company over, we could have lost everything.
Sadly all that remains of the painting on canvas that burned, is a small piece of an angel’s face and hand.