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SUNDAY JOURNAL: Starting over, after 46 years

By BOB TISCHENKEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


The fire began as an electrical short in a utility room wall. No one was home. That spared lives, but also meant the lost chance of an early alarm. The house, in North Carolina, burned to the foundation. The firefighters arrived in time to drown the last flames, put out small smoldering fires, clear the scene and call in the investigators.

The owners of the house were my parents, each about 70 years old. They had been married for 45 years and had two grown children, my sister and me. This was the place they had moved to after selling the longtime family home.

They lost the personal accumulations of a lifetime, some more sentimental than others. My mother lost family photo albums, boxes of recipes and dresses worn on special outings. She also lost the jewelry that she had kept out of the safe deposit box at the bank. My father lost all his U.S. Navy navigation manuals and history books, his annotated maps of travels taken and intended, and a childhood collection of silver dollars. They lost their current bills, their insurance papers and Social Security and Medicare information.

They moved to my house in Florida and started a year-long wrangle with the insurance company. They were shocked to find themselves under suspicion because they weren't home when the fire commenced. After the insurance adjustor understood that they had never incurred even a speeding ticket, the argument shifted to insurable value in a total loss. Finally, they settled for a check.

The money bought them a new house near my sister and me in Florida. (They didn't want to return to the scene of their bad luck.) But they would have little left over for elaborate furnishings in the new house, and nothing for such necessities as dishes, silverware, lamps, or sheets and blankets.

One evening at a family dinner, my sister and I proposed an idea. Our enthusiasm for this idea carried our parents toward a genial consent. The idea was for them to renew their vows at their upcoming anniversary, their 46th. We would toss them a grand wedding party, inviting every friend and relative and every survivor we could from the original wedding.

And, best of all, my parents would register for wedding gifts at area department stores. In this way, they could furnish their new house.

We began the planning immediately. The wedding would take place in my back yard. A judge would preside. There would be flowers, music, lunch and a wedding cake.

My mother and father were enamored of the idea of a renewal of vows at this time of their lives. They allowed themselves to be swept along as the plans progressed. But the closer they came to the day of their renewal, the more uneasy they grew. The goal of furnishing their new house with wedding gifts seemed too materialistic. Seemed conniving. By the time they decided not to go through with the ceremony, with all the guests and gifts, my sister and I were deaf to their hints. They didn't want to disappoint the kids; they just didn't want to furnish the house this way.

They pondered how to stop the gathering force of the idea. After all, everyone who heard about it was delighted by it. None of their friends seemed offended. Finally, they came up with an idea of their own. It combined the best of the renewal of their vows, which they genuinely wanted to do, with the best of their reluctance about the wedding gifts.

They eloped.

They went to Las Vegas.

Now they are living in their new house. It's the first newly constructed home they've ever occupied. It invigorates them. The walls are white, the floor tile is white, the kitchen and bathroom fixtures are white. Morning sunlight bounces off all this whiteness and suffuses the house with warmth. Nothing in or about the house has yet suffered an aging process, a graying or a sagging or an exhaustion that can creep into the texture of things the way it does into people.

They have a king-size bed and a television set on a makeshift stand in the bedroom. They eat their meals on a card table and folding chairs. They are shopping for a living room couch. People come to visit bearing flowers and wine and, occasionally, a more permanent housewarming gift like a crystal candy dish. I gave them a fire extinguisher. My sister went to a warehouse store and bought them jumbo packs of paper towels and toilet paper.

As newlyweds, they're grateful for their few possessions and for each other.

Bob Tischenkel is a writer in Key West.

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