Growing up Italian, it was not unusual that last-minute invitees might show up at our Thanksgiving table -- aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, neighbors -- you name it.

Never, however, was the entire Manhasset-Lakeville Fire Department ever on that list; that is, not until my father and his less-than-sober brothers decided to turn our newly constructed fireplace into a house-eating conflagration.

In those days (the early '60s), Great Neck was dotted with uninhabited woodlands that provided the perfect spot for log-gathering. One of my earliest memories involved fumbling an armful of kindling with little frozen fingers that refused to bend in compliance. It made the fireside warmth of the resulting blaze that evening even more memorable -- but it paled in comparison to the inferno that sweet little fieldstone fireplace would become just a few short weeks later on Thanksgiving night.

What started out as a welcoming holiday hearth, ended up hours later as a raging bonfire that overwhelmed the small firebox to which it initially had been confined. It was only after an insistent knock on the door that anyone had bothered to notice the danger that seethed within the walls.

"Hey lady," an anxiously concerned passerby alerted my mother (who, apparently, never heard the doorbell since my dad and uncles had been singing opera at the top of their lungs). "I could be crazy, but I think there's smoke coming out of your house!"

"Of course there is," she answered matter-of-factly, "our fireplace is going."

"No," the stranger insisted, "not out of your chimney -- out of your house!"

I followed close behind as she ran out into the frigid night, racing to the side of the house where the brick chimney and surrounding wall were fully engulfed in smoke. Within seconds, we were encircled by a swarm of shocked relatives whose shivering had more to do with panic than it did with the cold. Immediately, people ran back inside to grab coats, pocketbooks and small children as my father quickly scooped me up and held me close to stop my uncontrollable trembling. Within minutes there were sirens, flashing lights and faceless firemen in head-to-toe gear, charging through my living room with pickaxes in hand.

Somehow, my mom had managed to salvage my favorite stuffed animal (a little brown and white dog, ironically named "Toasty"). I remember clutching it all through the night as I lay awake in my aunt's house, wishing I were back in my own bed. We weren't homeless for long, though, as my father soon encased the livable rooms in heavy tarps, and hastily boarded windows to keep the encroaching winter at bay while the affected rooms underwent reconstruction -- although my brother and I still had to pull on our coats to go downstairs to get to the kitchen.

There would be other Thanksgivings, far less dramatic, as well as many more joyful (and safer) celebrations before my brother and I left home, but none would ever be as memorable. Because, even more than the terror of that night, what I remember most about the whole upsetting incident is the love and protection of my parents that sustained us through a dark and stressful episode -- that same devotion that reclaimed our ravaged house and made it, once again, our home.

--Clare Lowell, Huntington

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