Just Thinking

Memories lit as house goes up in flames


My husband stood outside his childhood home on a recent Saturday, remembering a Christmas Eve when he was perhaps 9 years old. It was about midnight when he and his older brother left their beds to crouch by their second-story window, looking down on the scene below: their parents quietly wheeling two new bicycles from the garage to the house.

Now flames were shooting from that bedroom window. Several firefighters stood watching.

My husband started the process of donating the house to the local career center's firefighter training program months ago. The date of the burn was set weeks in advance. Still, it was disconcerting to see a fire roaring inside the room where he had once slept.

I'd slept there myself, in fact. Years ago, during the now-legendary blizzard of 1978, we'd been rescued from our cold, dark house by a neighbor who arrived in an enormous tractor that was invisible in the swirling snow until its red and white nose was practically touching our back steps. We spent several days with the neighbors, then moved to my husband's parents' place to sleep in my husband's little-boy bed until power returned and frozen pipes were repaired.

Now that childhood bedroom had become a classroom for student firefighters, who went in, one team at a time, to almost extinguish the fire the instructors had set with straw and wooden pallets.

I say "almost" because they didn't completely douse the fire. Each team merely reduced the blaze to campfire size -- manageable, but capable of roaring back with the application of more pallets and straw. Those students played each fire like a piano, building it up and knocking it down half a dozen times before moving from that upstairs room to another, then coming downstairs to repeat the exercise in several more rooms.

If my husband's sharpest moments of nostalgia and sorrow for the irretrievable past came while he watched his boyhood bedroom burn, mine were when I saw flames shooting from my in-laws' bedroom window. When my mother-in-law, then a widow, was recovering from a stroke, family members took turns spending the night at her house. She'd ring a bell when she needed to get up, and whoever was sleeping on the rollaway bed in the living room would come to help. When I did that duty, my mother-in-law and I both laughed -- a little -- at life's way of snatching a person's dignity like someone whipping a tablecloth out from under the plates and glasses. It's impossible to maintain emotional distance when it all comes down to physical need versus physical impairment, and only the most stubborn would try. Neither she nor I was as stubborn as all that.

"I never thought it would come to this," she murmured one night, but not as if it really mattered. Small mortifications mean little when a person has bigger fish to fry.

I recalled those oddly companionable late-night moments as I watched fire consuming the room my father-in-law had built. Next would come the kitchen, where so many family meals had been prepared and eaten. As usual, I remembered the dinner at which my mother-in-law absent-mindedly turned to her left and cut up my husband's meat for him. What always makes me howl with mirth is the memory of how she laughed at herself when she realized what she was doing.

You might assume the decision to burn the house pretty much broke our hearts, but in fact it lightened them. For a million reasons, the house wasn't rentable, and nobody in the family wanted to live there. Donating it to the training program was a brilliant idea on my husband's part, and every single person involved with the program thanked him, most of them many times.

You'd think he'd donated a kidney, and perhaps, to people who teach students how to fight fires, he almost had. Firefighting is like surgery: A lot of it can be taught in a classroom, but sooner or later students must pick up a hose or a scalpel and put action to their lecture notes. Without access to unwanted buildings, fire-training students risk being hired as real-world firefighters without ever having fought an actual fire.

My mother- and father-in-law were practical people. They grew vegetables, not flowers. They spent their summers canning those vegetables, not vacationing. I'm sure they would have heartily approved of the last use to which their home was put. And had they witnessed the gratitude and courtesy of the students and instructors, they'd have been wowed. Then my mother-in-law would have brought out cookies.

Instead, I brought the cookies, in her honor.

Write to ThisWeek's Margo Bartlett at mbartlett@thisweek news.com.