LONG BOTTOM — I’ve been writing articles for a long time — articles about robberies and crime, articles about city commission meetings and family events in the park, and articles about tragedies and the victims and heroes of those events. Most of the time, when I write these articles, I don’t know the individuals affected personally. I call for an interview or meet over coffee, and I write what I learn with compassion, but in strict AP style.
Last weekend, however, as I was skimming through Facebook in the wee hours of the morning, I came across an unexpected notation. Jean Sloter (or Hardin-Cleek, as I knew her), the mother of my dearest high school girl friend, along with her companion Bruce Bissell, had lost their house and 10-year-old cat in a fire the day before. My heart broke for them as all the memories of my teen years — many spent in Jean’s old house on Morning Star Road with her daughter, Jenny, listening to Jean play the Wurlitzer baby grand late at night or riding go carts dangerously around the dirt track on the hill — came rushing back.
Here I was, faced with a story with memories and personal feelings attached to the names. I struggled with how to adhere to my strict AP style, how to write about someone close to my heart without detracting from other families with similar, horrible circumstances. The truth is: there is nothing more special about this fire than any other fire that devastates a family, only that I happen to know this family. My hope is that by telling Jean and Bruce’s story, readers will stop to think about others impacted by similar events … and perhaps take the time to offer a little help.
I’ve known Jean, a fiery redhead, since I was a small child. She is one of Meigs County’s best seamstresses, and she fitted me for nearly every dress I ever wore. When I was in eighth grade, I started spending a great deal of time with her daughter, Jenny Cleek, and what seems like millions of shared slumber parties and buckets of tomatoes followed. (I grew up on a vegetable farm in Meigs County, and my friends had no choice but to share in the ‘fun’.) If Jenny wasn’t at my house, I was at her’s. At that time, Jean lived in a modest home, and much like my own mother, worked nearly all of the time. I remember her always being in motion.
Fast forward several years. Jenny and I went to different colleges and lost touch. Jean sold the old house and moved. Then, Facebook was invented.
I caught up with Jenny and hope to see her soon. I also caught up with Jean and her syrupy sweet ‘Tuesday flowers’ … and that’s where this story really begins.
Jean Sloter actually met Bruce Bissell when they were both six years old when Jean’s mother babysat Bruce and his brothers. Of course, neither Bruce nor Jean remember this meeting clearly. After a fire that destroyed her childhood home, Jean’s family moved, and Bruce’s mother had to find a new babysitter. That was in 1962.
Strangely, over time, Bruce and Jean crossed paths a thousand times, but never again met … until Facebook struck again in 2010 when Bruce asked his mother if Jean was related to some people he recalled from childhood. Indeed, she was the baby sister of the boys in question, and Bruce decided to ask her to catch up over lunch.
“From that first lunch date, we’ve been together ever since,” said Sloter.
On Tuesday, February 14, 2011, Bruce hesitated over whether to get Jean pink or red roses.
“I wasn’t sure if we were really a couple,” said Bissell, laughing.
That day marked the beginning of the tradition of Jean’s ‘Tuesday flowers’. Much to the chagrin of husbands and boyfriends all across the Ohio Valley, Bruce has brought Jean fresh flowers every Tuesday for nearly two years — and I’ve secretly smiled and cheered every Tuesday for her good fortune in finding such kindness in a companion, as she posted each new picture of flowers from her “sweet Bruce”.
That is, until I read about the fire.
Bruce bought the house in Long Bottom 14 years ago on approximately seven serene and quiet acres, and the couple had spent the past year and a half renovating it and making it theirs. They had already moved almost all of their combined belongings into the home and had completed a new roof on the structure when the fire struck.
Russ Carson, an official with the Olive Township Volunteer Fire Department, met with the state fire marshal and told the couple the fire appears to have been electrical in nature — an accident that claimed Jean’s longtime feline companion, Precious a.k.a. ‘Fat Cat’, and nearly all their earthly belongings. It destroyed the couple’s car. It burned their laptops, Jean’s sewing room and equipment and all their furniture, including Bruce’s grandfather’s clock.
“He used to carefully set the chimes,” said Sloter. “It just made the home. People who came to visit would always say that they felt at home there, that they couldn’t wait to come back and just visit with us. I always considered that one of the greatest compliments. We had taken a house and turned it into a home.”
A neighbor, Adam Young, heard an explosion Friday, December 21, and ran outside to find the home engulfed in flames. By the time Bruce and Jean learned of the fire and arrived on site, the ranch-style house was shrouded in black smoke and was clearly a total loss. There were firefighters everywhere.
“It was just a shock,” said Jean. “It was unreal.”
Still, the couple understand exactly how lucky they are, and how bad the outcome could have been.
“There is a great level of comfort,” said Sloter. “There isn’t a word to adequately describe the comfort of knowing that we’re in this together, that we still have each other. We, like the phoenix, will rise out of the ashes — quite literally — and rebirth. Right now, though, it’s just one day at a time.”
In my long chat with Jean in preparation for this article, she spoke of the kindness bestowed on them by the Red Cross, and how they were buying things like undergarments and shampoo.
“It’s just unbelievable when all your basics are just wiped out,” said Sloter.
Still, they realize that they are not the first or last to face such devastation. Fires strike in every county every year causing loss of property, and worse yet, loss of life. Jean and Bruce know it could have been much worse.
“Everybody suffers trauma and devastation on some level in their lives. It either pulls you apart, or it pulls you together,” said Sloter. “We are both just so determined that nothing is going to destroy us. We like to say we ‘sustained’ rather than ‘suffered’ this.
“When there is nothing else in this life, there is always hope,” added Sloter.
When I asked Jean how people could help if they wanted to, her usual gregarious personality turned inward and quiet, and I realized in that moment that I would write this article in the first person instead of from a detached journalistic point of view. Bruce and Jean would never ask for help … but I would on their behalf … or on behalf of anyone in our communities who have faced such an unnerving tragedy.
In my usual fashion, I am writing this article in the wee hours of the morning when all the banks and businesses are closed, but come Monday morning, I’ll be setting up a fund to benefit Bruce and Jean, and I will publish that information as soon as it is available. In the meantime, if you would like more information on how you can help these or other victims of fire in our close-knit communities, you may contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line ‘Fire Help’.
I’ve been writing articles for a long time — articles about tragedies and the victims and heroes of those events. This one is about a couple who, to me, are both.