Monica Bielanko
That's What She Said
Just A Junk Drawer Dream
You can also find Monica's writing here:
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Tingalayo. Come little donkey, come.
Tingalayo. Come little donkey, come.
My donkey walk, my donkey talk,
My donkey eat with a knife and fork,
My donkey eat, my donkey sleep,
My donkey kick with his two hind feet,

As our house burned down behind me.

I turn up the volume on a children's CD given to us upon registration for one of those mom & me type classes that Violet and I attended every Friday morning from September to December, and turn around to look out the the rear window of our SUV.

Just over Violet's cloud of curls I can see fire shooting from the roof of our home. The flames are higher now, licking skyward, and smoke billows in every direction. Firefighters have not yet arrived and, for a second, I wonder if the neighbor's house is in danger. donkey walk, my donkey talk,
my donkey eat with a knife and fork...

I force my lips to stretch into what I imagine must be a sickly smile and sing a couple lyrics from Tingalayo, Violet's favorite song. She grins and picks up one of the books that have taken up permanent residence in our SUV to keep her occupied while driving. I never imagined they'd be used as a distraction to keep her from witnessing our house burning down.

Tingalayo, come little donkey, come.
Tingalayo, come little donkey, come.

I see a fire truck, no, two fire trucks, turn down our road and reach down to crank up the volume even louder. I get out of the SUV and walk toward our house. Serge is standing across the street watching the flames. We just look at each other, expressionless.

Is this happening?

Smoke is pouring from the front of the house now, from the attic window where I had set up my office. I think of all our family files, birth certificates, marriage certificate, my childhood photos, journals, yearbooks, newspaper clippings, clothing, memorabilia from Serge's time spent in Marah, boxes of keepsakes collected from the first years of Violet and Henry's lives, hard drives, discs with pictures and videos - all of it on fire. I try to remember what I'd left on my desk this morning. My glasses. My phone? My computer? Wait, no. Serge had shoved both computers at me when he pushed me into the SUV with the kids. I look at Serge again and he motions me to get back in the car with the kids.

I walk weakly back to the front of the car as another fire truck races past. The SUV feels like a prison. My house is on fire! My house is on fire! I'm supposed to sit here listening to the fucking donkey song while my whole life turns to ash? There, on the passenger seat, sit both computers. I notice mine is still on, which tells me that not even ten minutes ago I was sitting on our couch trying to explain WordPress to Serge. Ten minutes? That feels like ten hours, ten years, a lifetime ago...

After a glance back at Henry and Violet who are both playing with toys, I open my laptop to see that I'm still logged into Facebook and Twitter. With shaking fingers I type that my house is on fire. I don't know why. For help, maybe? Someone to talk to as my house burns? No matter because my battery dies within seconds of sending out my internet SOS and I am alone again with the donkey song.

Serge returns to the SUV and I tell him I need to see, I need to know what's going on. He silently takes my place in the driver's seat and I walk back to where it looks as if the entire second floor of my house is engulfed in flames.

I watch as firefighters break into Henry's bedroom window and begin spraying water. They are everywhere now, the firefighters. I count five fire trucks before turning my attention back to my house. Flames are shooting from Violet's bedroom windows and the roof above her bedroom. I think of getting her dressed in that room just hours before. Had the fire been burning then? I smelled smoke all morning, but had assumed it was the neighbor's wood burning stove. On really windy days the smoke from his chimney blows right into our house and smells like burning wood. Had I been smelling our own house on fire? Yes, I was, as it turns out. Fire in the walls. In Violet's walls.

After lunch I'd sent Violet upstairs to pick out a book to read. I was helping Serge navigate Babble - it was his first day writing for Dadding - when I heard Violet make a strange noise. I've thought about it a million times - what noise did she make? Was it a cry? No. Was it a scream? No. Did she call for me? I think she called for me in a tone I'd never heard before. Mom. Whatever sound she made, it was alarming and unusual enough for me to run to the back stairs leading directly to her bedroom. At the same time, someone began pounding on our front door. Also alarming and unusual. We used our side door and so did everyone we know.

As I reached the foot of the back staircase Serge opened the door and I heard a man yell, "Your house is on fire! Your house is on fire!" I was hearing this as I ascended the stairs into smoke.

Violet. Violet. Violet. Violet. Violet. Violet.

She was standing there, in her bedroom door, as flames licked the wall not inches from her head. She wasn't looking at the fire, she was looking at me. Waiting. She had been waiting for me to come find her. I scooped her in my arms and screamed to Serge, "CALL 911. THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE. THERE ARE FLAMES EVERYWHERE. CALL 911."

I rushed downstairs carrying Violet. I later learned Serge had immediately scrambled up the front stairs to look for Violet and couldn't find her. How scary those moments must have been for him. All I knew at the time was that Serge appeared in the driveway and already had 911 on the phone. I have a vague recollection of the man who knocked on our door standing there. His wife jumped from the truck they'd been driving past our house when they spotted smoke pouring from our attic. Serge and I had been arguing about HTML coding and our house was on fire. Sneaky fucking fire. In the walls. Could've been smouldering for hours, the fire marshal later told me. Only at my worst moments do I let my mind wonder what would've happened if the fire blazed up at night. It started right at Violet's door.

I turned back to look up at Violet's room and could see flames. I began screaming incoherently. Not my finest moment. Monica! Serge barked at me - the equivalent of a vocal slap to get my shit together because my daughter was watching me.

These were bizarre moments, the ones just after calling 911, before anyone arrived to help. You just stand there, helplessly. Where do you go? What do you do? It was below freezing. I was now carrying Henry. Running around my driveway like a lunatic, feeling like I should be doing something to stop the fire. Maybe I could still stop the fire, I thought. Maybe it's not so bad. Maybe I can get all our family documents out of the attic. It had been one minute, maybe, since I first carried Violet downstairs. It can't be that bad, I thought. As Serge began putting the kids in their car seats in the SUV, I loaded Max and Milo in the back and went back inside the house despite Serge yelling at me to get in the car.

Stupid, yes. I know. I was later severely reprimanded by the fire marshal for going back into a burning house and you can sit there shaking your head at my frantic actions, but, at the time, if you were in the first floor of our house you could barely tell that the top two floors were burning. It didn't feel dangerous. Maybe the fire was just in Violet's room, I thought. Maybe I could contain it with our fire extinguisher? Maybe I could minimize the damage by shutting doors? Maybe I could just grab the box filled with our family files?

I dunno what I was thinking, really. But I ran back inside. The first floor was relatively normal. I ran up the back steps and into the guest bedroom where a staircase leads to the attic where my office was located and everything I've ever saved since birth really, was stored. I opened the door leading to the attic.


Thick black smoke poured around my head and into the bedroom. This is bad. This is really bad, I thought. My body nearly gave out from the realization that this was no little flame-up, this was no burned wall that we were dealing with, this was going to be a devastating fire.

I slammed the attic door and ran downstairs closing every door behind me. I was later told that closing one of those doors was key in keeping the entire house from burning.

My journey upstairs took a total of 30 seconds, maybe. Serge was loading the kids into the car. He tossed our computers onto the passenger seat and told me to drive the car down the street facing away from the fire. We need to clear the driveway for the firefighters, he said. He was going to follow me in our white car.

I pasted a happy smile on my face and asked Violet if she wanted to listen to the "The Donkey Song". Never one to turn down Tingalayo, she readily agreed. And so it has become the soundtrack to the fire that destroyed our beloved house in the country.

A couple days later someone posted a link to a story in a local paper featuring photos of our burning house on my Facebook page. Some of the photos show fire and lots of smoke and firefighters wielding hoses - but this one below, it's the one that gets me. There, you can see our SUV facing away from the fire, nose to nose with our white car Serge had parked in front. You can't see us, but we're all there in the SUV, just feet away from fire trucks and firefighters, listening to Tingalayo while our house burns behind us.

Reader Comments (57)

I am so, so incredibly sorry.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSara

What is money when you lose a houseful of memories? But I hope the fund that Katie set up helps you through this tough time.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKoockie

I'm just so glad that you all are ok!! i know it doesn't make the loss of what happened any better, but thousands of people were thinking and sending positive vibes your way through all of it. i'm glad to see you back online and i hope the rebuilding of your lives is going well.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterhilary

I'm so, so sorry Monica. I'm so glad that everyone is safe and sound and no one was hurt. That's the most important thing.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterErin

I do bookkeeping for a toy store, so I am very familiar with the Tingalayo song that plays here at least once a day - not what I would want as the soundtrack to those moments. I'm so sorry that this happened to you and your family, and so glad you are all okay.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCheney

That is so haunting, Monica. The smelling smoke all morning and the way you heard Violet call and sensed something was up and how you found her...those are the parts that really get me (and everyone else, I'm sure). Still sending good vibes your way. Thank heavens you're all okay and we're all still sending good vibes your way! Hope you're hanging in there!

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKristin

Monica - What you went through has always been my biggest fear. I don't know if I ever could have handled it or even written about it as you did... thank God you all are ok. You will rebuild - and you have tons of friends both in real-time and cyberspace who will be there to help you when you need it.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdasi

You sound shell-shocked, girl, and I imagine you are. How terrifying. It's gonna be okay, though. Eventually, it'll all be fine. Time to get busy making new keepsakes and memories. There are a lot of good vibes aimed in your direction as you start picking up the pieces - you've got this. You'll be fine.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie

I just cried a river for you. I wish tears could bring back your memorabilia. I'm glad you are all safe, including the doggies.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSunny

Monica, I don't know you at all and I only recently became a regular reader to your blog. But my heart aches for you. I can't even imagine grabbing my daughter who was waiting, calling for me frightened while her room was on fire. The description you wrote of that scene made me literally gasp out loud in tears.
I know you've heard (and are probably tired of hearing) all the standard cliches by now but I am so very sorry and I truly wish you and your family the best!

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLolaK

"Had I been smelling our own house on fire? Yes, I was, as it turns out."


So sorry that you had to go through this and lost so much, but happy for you that it wasn't each other.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGreenInOC

So sorry for your losses. So glad for you that your loses were only material. Thanks for sharing.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Absolutely terrifying, I'm so glad that you are all ok,

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDeirdre

"Sneaky fucking fire." Wow. I am grateful that your family is pysically unharmed. Kudos to Serge for having the foresight to get your cars away, and for you to close interior doors (even though it's unreal to think you RAN BACK INSIDE). Omg it makes my heart pound to think of the absolute terror of that day. Your children are fortunate that you were able to manage it in a way that kept them as safe and unafraid as possible. Thank you for updating, and know that your family is in thoughts and prayers.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Tingalao was on of my favorite songs growing up, you may have a Bob Marley fan on your hands, I've often thought that song was the beginning of my love for a good reggae beat. Thank god for the good sameratin that stopped to bang on your door, and that you were able to hear Violets call. What a terrifying experience. It really puts things into perspective. Still sending good vibes your way, you'll need them for a while im sure. Take care you guys!

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMandy

Monica, quite a few years ago my parents had a fire that started in their kitchen wiring. It necessitated their living in a local motel for 3 months and left my mother horribly traumatized. How my father handled everything so incredibly well, dealing with insurance companies, contractors, etc. resonates with me to this day. Having been part of the restoration (I took my mother through the process of kitchen reconstruction but made all the decisions), I can empathize with what you're going through. Know that things definitely will get better. Btw, if by some lucky chance you were able to save any important documents or if not, once they're replaced with copies, you might want to rent a safety deposit box at your bank for storage. We still have post cards from summer camp that were written by our kids & now repose in the vault.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarole

Oh my good gosh - memories are not just on paper but in the head and heart too. You will make new memories, onwards and upwards! Just watch yourself for post traumatic stress, it can happen at any time. Good luck and best wishes from the Ghost family x

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSaffron Ghost

I am so sad for your losses. I know this must seem like the most awful thing in the world right now, but I am just so thankful that the four of you are safe. You will get through this.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKristen

Oh thank goodness your babies, doggies, husband and you all got it ok. I know the emotional stuff prolly sucks. I had chills reading this, thinking of my own babies in,y own house. This is my worst fear, along many others'. Just so glad you are all ok. Rebuilding is going to be stressful and emotional but stuff can be replaced.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThe Domestic Goddess

I'm so sorry Monica. And I'm so glad you all are ok, physically. I hope the mental and emotional healing can start soon.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

Oh Monica, this brings tears to my eyes to think of you dealing with this! I'm just so glad it was not at night! Not when you weren't all there together to get out! Thank God it turned out this way...I'm so thankful. Love, DAD

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDad

Goosebumps. Holding my babies tighter tonight. So thankful that you and the family were kept safe. Nobody should ever have to go through this type of emergency, but thank God it turned out the way it did.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSUPAHMAMA

I'm just so sorry. Thank heavens you all are ok.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanet

I'm so so sorry for your lost and glad you're okey. a big hug!

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteranajo

I couldn't breathe while reading about Violet. I'm so sorry for all you lost, but so glad everyone got out okay. Thinking of you all.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkds

Monica, please know that there are lots of us out here in webland sending you love, hope and positive thoughts. I'm so very glad you all got out okay. You and Serge showed tremendous presence of mind to get the cars away from the house and distract the kids. I can''t even imagine how crappy things are right now, but I firmly believe from reading your writing that you and Serge are people who will rise above this. Hugs to you all.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarti

I'm so thankful your family is OK. I kept thinking that once you wrote down this story, it would become real--- for you and your readers. What an incredible moment, when Violet was calling for you...

Everything is all right.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

I've checked here several times a day hoping to learn you're all ok.

My best friend's house was washed away completely in Hurricane Katrina. He lost everything. He asked every friend and family member to look for photos or memorabilia he may have sent them over the years and to please return them to him. It's one way to get some of those keepsakes back, perhaps.

I wish you all the very best and will keep thinking of you and sending positive vibes. Lots of love to you!

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJacqueline

Yikes, lady. What a miracle that you all got out unscathed. There must be bigger plans in place for you all in this lifetime.

Best wishes to you and yours.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSvasti

Oh my dear. Writing "Violet" six times like that? Captures it. Perfectly and totally.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlison

I'm so sorry.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJill

Monica I got actual chills down my body as you remembered starting up the stairs while a man screamed that your house was on fire. I can only imagine that was one of the worst moments of your life. I'm so glad you guys are all OK, I am so sorry this happened to you all.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaggie May

Sending you every good wish for recovery on top of prayers that have been sent since I heard. When things get dark, which is a natural part of processing trauma, think of Madonna Badger and know your experience, as terrifying and upsetting as I know it must be, is really kind of a miracle.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterE.

So glad you're all safe.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristine from Canada

What the devil meant for evil..... God will turn it into good.
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord.
Gods plan is to prosper you and not to harm you,
he is for you and not against you, he plans to give you hope and a future."
Prayers of peace, love and light sent up for you and yours.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commentershuga

My moms best friend and young daughters died in a fire. Her son was the sole survivor. You all are so lucky. I know you may be focused on what you lost right now and how traumatic the experience was... But you are so lucky. Sending prayers for recovery and healing.

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAtg

Also I know the fundraising is closed but do you guys need anything else that your readers can send you?

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAtg

Oh, man, Monica. I am so thankful you are all OK. Thinking of Violet just standing in the doorway is horrifying. Please let us know if we can send you anything.

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKate

I am so glad you are all safe and can't even begin to imagine how horrible an experience this was.

We are all thinking of you, and sending lots of good energy your way.

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterA

No words can help. "I'm so sorry" doesn't seem to help enough. But hopefully sending positive thoughts your way can help within the universe somehow. Glad you are all safe. You can't replace you. Or Violet, Henry or Serge. Glad you are all safe. Pups, too ...

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPam2

That was an eloquently-written post, Monica. Thinking of Violet standing in the doorway waiting for you to find her with flames just inches from her head gives me chills. I can't get over the truly miraculous factors involved in this horrible situation that prevented it from becoming so, so much worse. The couple just driving by...Violet's strange cry and your response...the fact that it happened during the day. And I think of the way you and Serge, traumatized as you surely must have been, had the presence of mind to keep up a "normal" front for little Violet, playing her favorite music and distracting her from the devastation of your burning house just feet away. I can only imagine how hard it was to go through those motions in the midst of all that heart-wrenching chaos, but your strength in the face of all of it is truly admirable. May you continue to find strength in the love and comfort of friends and family, find a wonderful place to live where new memories can be created, and continue to write as you work toward healing. Sending much love...

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSue

God, Monica. I've been checking here everyday, just to see if things were okay enough that you or Serge would be back here to say something. The day I found out about the fire, I was coming here to your blog to comment about what a great first post Serge had made on Dadding...but then to learn that things had gone so unbelievably haywire...I was so worried about all of you.

I'm so glad you all got out okay. You've all been in my mind and in my prayers everyday since I found out.

Take care, you guys.

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterConnie

I can believe this happened to you. Like everyone else I feel like I know you and you are a friend. I cant believe this happened to a friend. Your writing speaks to so many people. You are strong and you will teach your kids to be the same way. Resilience is a virtue. It is very hard to believe in times like this but I believe everything happens for a reason...yes even bad things. There are no words I can say to make anything any better just everyone else...we are here for you.

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

wow. Just wow. Your family is in my prayers. Im gonna hug my 2 kiddos extra tight tonight when I get home.

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterval

I'm so glad you heard her call for you and thank God that person stopped by to tell you there was fire. I'm sorry this all sucks so bad, but I am happy you are all safe.

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercjsmom

I've been reading this blog for a long time and have been thinking so much about you and your family. Please keep us updated on how you're doing and what you still need.

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHilary

I shudder to think what could have happened, and I'm grateful for what didn't. You are all in my thoughts.

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkimtisha

There are no words. I am a recent reader of your blog and I am so very very sorry to hear about this tragedy. I'm not going to give you any cliche lines about how everything happens for a reason or everything will be okay. Of course, eventually everything will be okay - your family is together and you will get through this challenging time. Take care of eachother and be gentle with one another and know that all of 'us' out here are praying for you and learning from you and loving you.

January 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterstella

Were there working smoke detectors in the house -- at all?

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKace

@Kace - Yes. They didn't go off until after we were already outside. Most of the smoke, initially, was up in the attic, in Violet's room and, I guess, inside walls. There was NOT a smoke detector in Violet's room.

January 18, 2012 | Registered CommenterMonica

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