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The Time My Sister and I Nearly Burned the House Down

December 4, 2019


You know how sometimes a completely random thing (maybe a photograph, a snippet of music, a taste or a smell) can trigger a memory? Well, it happened to me the other day, and I thought I’d share it with you.

My husband and I were watching something on TV (honestly, I can’t recall now what it was) that was set in the 1950s. The camera panned to a side table with a double gooseneck lamp sitting on it. The minute I saw that lamp, I had a flashback to the time (I’m going to say it was around 1959 or 1960) when my sister and I nearly burned down our house. Here’s what I remember.


My sister and I in the “rec” room, circa 1958

At the time, my family lived on the main level of a three-storey Victorian house that had been converted into a triplex (my grandmothers lived in the two apartments upstairs). I had an older brother (born in 1942) and two older sisters (born in 1944 and 1951); I was born in 1953. Sometime in the late 1950s, my father divided the basement into two rooms, and finished one as a “recreation room” for the teenagers (paneling on the walls, an asbestos tile ceiling, linoleum floor). I suppose they held parties in there on weekends, but my sister and I also used the room; it was in there that the (nearly) ill-fated event took place.

My older sister and I had very active imaginations. We also had an impressive collection (for the time) of Barbie dolls and accessories, “teenage” dolls, stuffed animals, and costumes (long before Mr. DressUp had his “tickle trunk”, we had a couple of heavy cardboard barrels filled with Halloween costumes [mostly handmade by my mother], prom dresses of my eldest sister’s, and Victorian-era dresses [complete with bustles] and fur stoles [complete with heads and tails] of my grandmother’s). One of our favourite “games” was “playing circus”.


Me (and Tommy, our cocker spaniel) on the basement “shelf”; Christmas 1956

There was a high “shelf” at one end of the “rec” room. I suspect there was some kind of mechanical or other equipment underneath (a sump pump, perhaps, or the old coal chute and storage space), as there was a latched door on the front. In any case, we would line up our stuffed animals on this platform and turn them into performers in our circus. Generally, that included: the bears: Lovey, Doc, Teddy, and Inter-hoochin-bokken-bikken-bokken (his name was taken directly from the bear that appeared on “The Santa Claus Show” on CBC Television in the late 1950s; he was a very large bear that my maternal grandmother had won at Bingo); the dogs: Bingo (a large red poodle and another of my grandmother’s Bingo prizes), Nosey (a terrier that wouldn’t stand on his own 4 feet), and Princess (a large black poodle my sister got one year for Christmas); my tiger with the music box inside; a number of miscellaneous smaller stuffed animals and puppets.


Doc (in my sister’s arms); my first birthday (Nov. 1954)


Teddy (in my arms, spring 1956)


Nosey (on my oldest sister’s lap; circa November 1953)


Princess (Christmas morning, 1959)

We would set up lights (the aforementioned double gooseneck ones – we had two sets) at either end to act as spotlights. My sister and I would alternate roles (one acting as “the ringmaster” while the other one “made the animals do what they’re supposed to do”) and put on a show for the audience of dolls arranged on the furniture and floor below.


Inter-hoochin-bokken-bikken-bokken (2016)

Some of the stuffed animals couldn’t (or wouldn’t) sit up on their own; they needed to lean against something. Unfortunately, one day we leaned two of them (Lovey and Inter-hoochin-bokken-bikken-bokken) against the lights. It wasn’t long before they began to smolder. Fortunately, my sister and I smelled the smoke before either bear burst into flames, and somehow managed to keep the damage to a minimum. I don’t recall if one of us went upstairs to get my mother, or if she smelled the smoke and came downstairs, but I do recall there weren’t any major repercussions (except for a stern warning to “never do that again!”) Mom cut out the burnt bits from the backs of the bears’ arms and shoulders and patched them (with dark brown felt), and they continued to be part of our games for many, many years afterwards.


Doc, Teddy and the puppets (bear, cat, tiger and dog), plus friends, waiting patiently for the ringmaster to return!

NOTE: Lovey remained in my sister’s possession until a few years ago, when she decided he was too old, worn and smelly to keep any longer. Inter-hoochin-bokken-bikken-bokken “lived” in the kids’ room at my parents’ retirement home until 2004, when he “moved in” with me after they downsized (sending him to “teddy bear heaven” when I retired was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made, but I took a photo of him for posterity’s sake). The tiger and Nosey went to a needy family we sponsored in PEI during the 60s; some of the others went into the donation box at the local United Church. Doc, Teddy and the puppets are still residing quite happily in a cabinet in my bedroom, waiting (I believe) for the “ringmaster” to return!

I don’t pretend to know how the human brain works, or how memories are formed and recalled (although there’s been a lot written about the process, and innumerable documentaries produced on the subject, much remains unknown). I do know that when a memory strikes me out of the blue, as this one did, it’s important to record it so I can revisit it as many times as I wish here on … the other side of 55.

  1. December 5, 2019 1:42 pm

    Oh, those memories triggered by some item from the past – happens to me a lot too. I loved, loved, loved reading your story about your imaginative circus. That’s what we did back then – used our imaginations and the limited amount of toys we had to create something so fun! Your photos from that era just made me smile as they reminded me of my own childhood as well as you and I are of the same ‘vintage.’ And that big ol’ bear – your Inter-hoochin-bokken-bikken-bokken – looks very similar to the one I had. Coincidentally, my father won Mr. Big, as I named him, for me at a county fair and if I recall correctly, Dad was playing Bingo when he won it.

    • December 5, 2019 4:27 pm

      Those bears were probably standard “bingo” prizes. My grandmother was an avid bingo player!

  2. December 4, 2019 7:46 pm

    You are right about memories! Sometimes, when our family talks about past times – we each remember bits that no one else recalls.
    Like you, I still have a couple of my most cherished stuffed animals! When I was a kid, they were lined up against the wall on my bed. Each night, the one at the end of the bed was moved to the top of the bed, and they each moved down one position. My version of equality…

    • December 5, 2019 8:43 am

      I kept my four favourties (all bears) on my bed for years; they’re the ones I still have. My granddaughter and I counted her “stuffies” one day and she had over 120 (and has added to the collection since)! She does have a few favourites that go everywhere with her, but I can’t imagine my mother allowing us to have that many (we just couldn’t afford it, either!) I do admit to having a collection of about 25 stuffed donkeys now (since I don’t have the space for REAL ones on this property!)

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