In the aftermath of terrible upheaval, these three women took a fresh look at their priorities and found a more meaningful way to live.

"A fire helped me regain my focus on family" -Stephanie Ayers, 43, Toccoa, Ga.

Our home in Hartwell, Ga., burned down December 1, 2001, leaving me, my husband and our six children homeless, with no material belongings, before Christmas. Shortly after I’d put William, our special-needs son, then 8, down for a nap, I heard one loud beep from our smoke detector. When I discovered dark smoke pouring from under his door, I screamed his name—he was in the bathroom, thank goodness. The smoke was pitch black, and very quickly I couldn’t even see my own hands. I threw William to the floor, and we crawled toward the front door. The windows exploded just as we made it out. My husband, Christopher, and our other kids drove up just in time to watch our house burn to the ground.

Until that point, I’d focused on being the ideal hostess with a beautiful house and smartly dressed kids. My most valued possessions were my antique teacups. I was trying to maintain an image and keep up with a group of “friends” who seemed flawless. And although I’m vocal and strong-willed by nature, I was so obsessed with being the perfect wife that I’d become submissive to the point of disappearing in my marriage. Christopher and I were no longer partners.

While I watched the last of our possessions go up in flames, something surprising happened. The emotion that surged through my veins wasn’t fear, but gratitude. I felt blessed to be with my family. We all could have died so easily if the fire had broken out just four hours later, after bedtime. That realization made me suddenly not care about striving for perfection. In that moment, what was really important to me became crystal clear: All I wanted was to take pleasure in my children and reconnect with my husband.

Nothing changed for us overnight, but I remained focused on my family as we struggled in the following months. Neighbors brought blankets, clothes and food, and the American Red Cross gave us two days at a hotel and a $100 credit for each of us at the local Walmart. We had been living in a rent-to-own home, and we used the renters insurance payout as a down payment to buy the land we’d been living on, intending to rebuild the house. For the first month, we camped on the land in a 250-square-foot shed with no electricity or running water, in 20- to 30-degree weather. We slept in sleeping bags on concrete floors and used lanterns. Christopher warmed water over a campfire so we could wash up, and our toilet was a bucket and a shovel. Christopher ran a cleaning service, and the YMCA—one of his clients—let us use its showers. All the children had nightmares for a while; the fire had traumatized them, but they never complained. It helped that their favorite books were the Little House on the Prairie series.

After a month, we were able to buy an old Winnebago to put on the land, so we had a bed and heat for the kids; Christopher and I stayed in the shed until we bought a trailer in August. During that time, I expressed opinions and engaged in family decisions as I hadn’t in years. Unsurprisingly, I also gained back my self-worth and the respect of my husband, too. As a mother I was appreciating the little things more, and the kids picked up on my example. A year after the fire, instead of rebuilding, Christopher and I decided to start fresh by buying a house closer to the mountains.

Our new home might not be picture-perfect, but we’re happy. I think we all slowly realized that material things are just, well, immaterial. We’ve also added to our family. As a former foster child, I always wanted to give extra love to kids without a family, particularly those with special needs, which is how William came into our lives. We now have 10 children in all—five adopted—and our family is complete. My focus these days is on homeschooling and enjoying my kids.

It’s funny—people ask me about the fire and want to know if I grabbed any of the teacups that meant the world to me. I simply answer, “No, I grabbed my child.”

 

NEXT: LEARNING TO PAY IT FORWARD

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