The Great Campbell Fire of 2013

I hadn’t planned on setting fire to my husband’s vestments on Christmas Eve. I didn’t know a major housewife faux pas could be a wonderful thing. After the midnight mass, my husband, his children, and I returned home to the rectory. We gathered in the den. In my cheerful holiday state, I lit candles without paying attention to the distance between fabric and flame. I stepped away to the kitchen, and as I ladled hot cider into mugs, the words “Holy Shit!” rang through the house.


You need to know that my husband’s children were in their 20s. I was newly married and unsure of my role in this new family. I struggled, uncertain of what they needed or wanted from me. Winging It is my most scientific explanation. I don’t see myself as a stepmom, but I’m definitely more than a friend. I care about them. I worry about them. I love hanging out and visiting with them. I’ve felt stretched and tested at times, and while my challenges in this role pale against a parent who raises someone from birth to adulthood, I’ve learned lessons about my own blind spots that I wouldn’t have learned any other way. I love them.


Being a good host is one of my core values. I enjoy creating a warm and inviting environment, especially during the holidays. Sure, hospitality is a kind of ministry, but other motivations accompany this vocation. When I was a little, my mother showed me a Dick and Jane book from her childhood. The birthday party scene etched itself into memory – a linen tablecloth likely scented by a spring breeze, crystal bowls full of jellybeans, English crackers (I don’t think I’m inventing this), streamers, tiers of miniature cakes and sandwiches, confetti, and a skipping puppy. Each holiday is a quest to recreate a 1940s children’s illustration. Or, a Lifetime movie. You know what I mean. I’m talking about the films depicting a middle class family living in a dust free house adorned with twinkle lights. The interior décor looks like an ad for Pottery Barn – mercury glass candleholders, hurricane lanterns, evergreen sprigs, and woodland creature-themed tableware. I want to create a dream, if only for an evening. So, when I accidentally set fire to my husband’s vestments in the den, I thought, Should an award exist, I would qualify for Worst Host Ever.


My husband appeared calm, but I was in shock. I had just ruined something precious that belonged to him. A dear friend and fellow priest had given my husband the vestments. Since this friend died not long afterward, this article of clothing was even more treasured. While I worried about the effect on my husband, I was truthfully more concerned about the impression I made on his children. I felt vain and vulnerable like the time I lived alone, and lightening struck my house – I fixated on how firefighters would perceive my dirty dishes in the sink. I wanted my husband’s children to like me. I already knew their father loved me unconditionally.


Within seconds, the children flew into action. Michael, a chef undeterred by the threat of burns, grabbed the flaming vestments and threw them on the carpet. Hannah patted out remaining wisps. Caden carried the smoldering pile to the back yard and hosed them down for good measure. If Larnie had been there, she would have mixed cocktails for everyone.


An uncomfortable synthetic odor hung in the air. The kids, however, looked like they had just toasted each other with champagne. Evidently, my effort to look like a calm flight attendant was not convincing. Each of them spoke to their father, smiling and patting him on the back. “Don’t be hard on Joanna about this,” they each chimed in, “It could’ve happened to any of us.”


Until then, I didn’t appreciate how good messing up can be. I felt gobsmacked, realizing I don’t need to create a dream or be the perfect host or have all the answers to be in relationship with my husband’s adult children. They taught me that it’s okay to be myself. Looking like a fool can become a holy and beautiful mess. Unearned, unplanned, messy, and marvelous.

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