The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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When I got out of the Marine Corps, I stopped shaving and getting haircuts. I wanted to leave that regimented world as far behind as possible. I found a job as a postal worker and bought my first home. My beard and shoulder-length hair didn’t make my mother happy when I visited her and Dad, but they pleased me.
On one visit, the week of my mother’s birthday, I decided to surprise her with a homemade cake. After she left for work, I turned on the oven and started to mix the batter. The cake was soon ready for baking, but the oven was still cold. I wondered what was wrong: the oven at my house always lit immediately. I turned the control off and on again. When that didn’t work, I lit a match.
What happened next seemed to occur in slow motion: I saw the spark from the match shoot into the oven, and then a wall of flame came back at me. I had just enough time to close my eyes.
After the explosion, there was a terrible smell of burnt hair, and I couldn’t see: my eyelashes were melted together. I had no choice but to yank them out. In the bathroom mirror I saw that my beard and hair had been badly singed and my eyebrows were gone. (Later I would realize that most of my chest hair was missing, too, because I hadn’t been wearing a shirt. I was glad I had put on pants.)
I heard a noise from the kitchen and went back to find the curtains on fire. I jerked them down and doused them in the sink. There was plenty of smoke damage, but nothing else was burning, so I put the cake in to bake — the oven, at least, was now lit — while I tried to wash the soot off the walls. When the paint started to come off, too, I gave up.
I was frosting the cake when Mom came in the front door and smelled smoke. She was in shock at the state of the kitchen and my scorched hair. I told her it wasn’t as bad as it looked, that I could clean myself up with some scissors and a razor, and I was going to repaint the kitchen for her.
As it turned out, she had been trying to get Dad to let her remodel the kitchen for years. She called their insurance agent, and he came over that day and wrote up a claim estimate. Then we all sat down and had a piece of birthday cake.
Years later I overhead Mom telling her friends it was the best birthday present she’d ever received: “I got a new stove and remodeled the kitchen — and Doug had to get his hair cut!”
If my father hadn’t become a New York City fireman, he might have been an arsonist. The man loved fire. When I was six years old, I came home from school to discover that he had nearly set our kitchen ablaze trying to soften a tin of shoe polish on the stove.
One of his greatest pleasures was to build bonfires with the Christmas trees discarded at the curb in our Brooklyn neighborhood. All the kids would roast marshmallows and hot dogs on sticks. When the fire started to go out, my father and his friends would throw on mops and brooms and wooden boxes from the grocers.
Some of the toys my father gave me had been retrieved from fires in retail stores. I was the only girl on my block with dolls that walked, talked, and smelled of smoke. I was never able to get rid of the odor, but I didn’t mind. It reminded me of my father’s masculine world: the booming voices in the firehouse, the shining engines, the scents of gas and rubber and industrial soap.
In his eighties my father began to display symptoms of severe dementia. My stepmother, who had never so much as written a check, asked for my help organizing their finances. She said my father would trust no one but me, even though he often couldn’t remember my name.
When I arrived at their home in Massachusetts, there were papers, bills, coupons, and receipts everywhere. My stepmother wouldn’t throw anything away for fear of angering my confused father.
They were barely getting by. Every few weeks my stepmother would take a taxi to the grocery store to replenish their supply of frozen dinners: she didn’t have the energy to cook, and my father didn’t care what he ate. To heat their meals, Dad would turn on the gas in their oven, stand back, and throw in a lit match. The contained explosion that resulted seemed to please him immensely. That part of his personality, at least, hadn’t changed.
The highlight of my father’s week was burning their trash in an old oil drum out back. He would add dry brush and branches, along with a squirt of gasoline.
It took me a week to restore some semblance of order to the house and to show my stepmother how to manage their finances. I enrolled them in Meals on Wheels and arranged for a van service to take my stepmother shopping. Before I left, I purchased a self-lighting gas range and some fire extinguishers — all over my father’s protests.
“We were doing just fine,” he said, shaking his head.
A year later Dad died in his sleep, and my stepmother moved into a nursing home. On the bureau in her room was a picture of my father at his peak, in his full-dress fireman’s uniform, a mischievous smile on his face.
Santa Rosa, California
I hated going to church as a child. The Mass was dull and uninspiring, the building dark and ominous. I never sensed the presence of God there. I wanted to stay at home with my father, read the Sunday comics, and play outdoors, which was where I felt closest to God. My mother, however, was determined to give her children a proper Catholic upbringing.
One Sunday morning when I was nine, after a particularly heated argument with my mother, I prayed to God to give me a sign that I could stay home from church from then on and build a relationship with Him on my own terms. The next week when we went to Mass, we found a heap of smoldering rubble where the church had been. The only part of the building left standing was the bell tower.
Terrified by the power of my prayer, I shied away from God. Though I have since rekindled my relationship with Him, to this day I feel responsible for burning down the church.
He was the boldest, most energetic man I had ever met. He swam naked in Puget Sound in the middle of winter, hiked through thick underbrush as if it weren’t there, and wrestled a plaster cast off his broken wrist when it got in his way. It was as if he had fire rather than blood in his veins. So when he invited me to move into his little cabin with him, I accepted.
The cabin’s only source of heat was a woodstove. I never got good at building fires in it and would sometimes spend more than half an hour on my knees, blowing on the glowing embers. In contrast, he could make a roaring fire in minutes, often starting a flame with some twigs in his hand and then setting it inside the stove, where it would quickly ignite the logs within.
I wanted to keep the stove burning all the time, because I was small and sedentary and always cold. I would beg him to make a fire — it was so easy for him — but he often refused. “Just move around!” he’d say. Rather than try and fail yet again to get a blaze going, I’d sit and shiver and read my books. Meanwhile he’d take a bath and then step naked into the icy February wind to dry.
We eventually got married and had kids, then divorced. Once, I went to the cabin with my daughter to pick up my young son, and we found ice on the inside of the windows. No fire burned in the stove. My son stood in his overcoat, trembling, while his father moved happily about the kitchen.
A few years later my children went camping at some hot springs with their dad. The kids told me they were in the water when he, naked as usual, had an accident trying to light the camp stove. Somehow the burning fuel got on his skin. “Dad, you’re on fire!” our son shouted. Their father then turned and did a perfect dive into the water to put himself out.
Some other boys and I had gotten hold of a box of matches, so of course we had to light them. We found an old kitchen pot and picked some crab apples, then built a fire beside a hedge to cook them. I was seven; the others were slightly younger. We heated the apples over the flames until we got bored. Then we went to roam the fields.
When we got back several hours later, another kid’s dad and the schoolteacher’s teenage son were busy putting out the fire. Maybe fifteen feet of the hedge had burned. They cussed at us a bit, but they never told my parents, because they knew the kind of hell I would catch from my father.
Later on, the farmer whose hedge it was came over to repair a fence that had been damaged by the flames. He just looked at us and said, “You really shouldn’t play with matches.” That was it. His reaction was the complete opposite of what my dad’s would have been.
My dad died a couple of years ago, when I was sixty. In retrospect I know that he had a much worse childhood than I did, and he raised me as best he could. But the moment with the farmer has stayed with me. That near stranger had more love to give me than my father ever did.
The forecast for day one of our hike was twenty-seven degrees below zero. We were six people on cross-country skis with heavy backpacks, pockets full of jerky, and as many layers of clothing as we could tolerate, about to trek seven miles into the Montana backcountry. An alpine yurt awaited our arrival.
My husband was used to such trips, but I was new to extreme outdoor adventures. The first six miles were actually tolerable. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were painless, but they were hard in a good way. With every step upward, I thought: Breathe in. Breathe out. Ignore the heavy weight. Ignore the frozen eyelashes and the burning lungs.
By mile seven the sun had set behind a peak, and the temperature had suddenly dropped twenty degrees. My fingers and toes went from freezing to frozen. The trail banter stopped. I began to understand how people who froze to death could just give up and not take another step. The thought I’ll just stop here and finish tomorrow entered my mind. My husband tried to give me encouragement — “I think we’re almost there!” — but I forbade him to speak until the yurt was in sight.
Right before I curled into a fetal position in the snow, the scent of wood smoke filled my nostrils: A fire! The yurt was near. I’d made it.
My father lay snoring on the love seat in our living room. I was six years old and standing calmly by the front door of our duplex, holding my older sister’s hand, while our mother squirted lighter fluid around where my father slept. Then she tossed the empty bottle into the corner of the room, wiped her hands on her jeans, and struck a match.
In seconds the love seat was engulfed in flames. My mother scooped me up in her arms and grabbed my sister’s hand, and we raced out the door. I watched over her shoulder as the fire rose, almost hiding my father from sight.
Hours earlier my father had come home drunk once again. An argument had started, and he’d slapped my mother viciously across the face with a sound like bone hitting bone. With a horrific welt on her cheek, my mother had retreated into the bedroom crying, and my father had passed out.
Now we quickly followed the train tracks to my paternal grandmother’s house, where my mother told Grandma that she could no longer live with her son. The abuse had become too much. She didn’t mention setting the fire.
Grandma fed my sister and me dinner and put us to bed on the couch. A while later a loud banging at the door startled me from sleep. It was the police, there to place my mother under arrest for arson. My sister and I were allowed to remain with our grandmother until our father came to pick us up.
That’s the part of the story I know firsthand. Years later I read a copy of the police report, and it told the story from the perspective of my father and the neighbors:
My father awoke surrounded by flames and smoke. After searching each room of our small house for his family — and getting burned in the process — he left through the front door, hoping that the three of us had already made it out.
Outside we were nowhere to be found, and my father suddenly remembered that a young couple with a newborn child lived in the other half of our duplex. He kicked open the neighbors’ door and charged into the fire, which had already spread to their unit. My father located the couple, scooped the baby up in his arms, and led them out as the firetrucks were arriving.
The medical records stated that my father had burns on his upper arms and that his hair had been badly singed. The investigators’ first theory was that he had fallen asleep with a lit cigarette, but once it was discovered that an accelerant had been used to start the fire, it was ruled an arson.
The judge granted my mother leniency due to the abuse she’d suffered. She spent a short time in jail and then in a halfway house on probation. That was the end of the marriage.
The night of the fire was an example of my parents’ dual natures: My father both brutally hit my mother and courageously rescued our neighbors. My mother was both a victim of abuse and someone who’d thoughtlessly threatened the lives of an innocent family. Neither of them was blameless. I remember many other violent incidents, some of which sent one or both of my parents to the hospital. All I could ever do was stand to the side, holding my sister’s hand, and watch.
The Santa Ana winds blew hot and angry the summer after my seventh-grade year. My six siblings and I stood barefoot in our yard, staring at the streak of red on the horizon. To us the wildfire seemed thousands of miles away. We couldn’t imagine that it would ever reach our canyon.
But soon enough evacuation orders spread through our mountain hamlet. As the sky darkened and ash began to fall like gray snow, our mother shouted for us to pack some clothes and meet in the driveway. We crammed jeans, socks, and underpants into empty pillowcases — and a few dolls and stuffed animals, too. The three youngest were crying.
While Mom searched frantically for the cat, Dad showed up in his blue Lincoln Continental. He’d driven around the barriers on the roads to reach us, he later said. I could hear him overhead on the roof, doing some last-minute fireproofing, his boots crunching on the asphalt shingles. From my bedroom window I watched Mom toss blankets and food into our Volkswagen bus, then place Monique, our poodle, inside and slide the doors shut. My mother went back to calling for the cat in the smoky haze.
That’s when I saw her, slouched in the passenger seat of Dad’s car: that woman. I remembered Dad introducing his new bride to us, as if we were dumb enough to accept this tight-lipped, high-heeled woman into our lives. She was not our friend and never would be. We were fearless and played outdoors despite rattlesnakes, scorpions, and the cougar that stalked our canyon. We didn’t need our father to save us, and we especially didn’t need her. I swooped the youngest onto my hip and dragged a full pillowcase down the long hall and out the front door. We left without the cat.
Mom tried to follow Dad along the curving mountain road out of the canyon, but she couldn’t keep up. He would disappear ahead, stop and wait for us, then speed off again.
We stayed at the preschool where Mom worked as an aide. I don’t know how many nights we were there, but I do remember the drive back over the mountain. I’d never spent such a quiet half-hour in the car with my brothers and sisters. Nothing was recognizable. The sage was all burnt, and the air smelled like soot. Our mother rubbed her eyes as if it might erase the blackness all around. Maybe she was trying not to cry. If anyone thought about our father, they didn’t say.
We turned up our road. At the top of the rise I held my breath. Then we saw our house standing alone in a charred field, the big spruce out front like a lone sentinel, and our screams of joy filled the Volkswagen. It was as if our home had been lifted from its foundation, then set back down after the fire had retreated.
The cat had been hiding in the closet with her new litter of kittens. The foliage eventually grew back. The coyotes returned, their yips and howls interrupting our sleep. Fancy new homes were built around us, and the fire became a story people told, like reports of the cougar that stalked the canyon. My siblings and I refused to stay in the yard where it was “safe,” returning to our secret haunts, but our eyes were always on the lookout for a feline curve in the shadows, a hint of red on the horizon.
As boys Randy and I had grown up about nine miles apart in the mountains of Maryland. We’d known one another casually in high school but had never hung out together. Then we ran into each other in the autumn of our junior year in college and became fast friends.
Over winter break Randy’s parents dropped him off at my family’s farm, and we spent the day together. When evening came, I invited him to stay the night. At the edge of our property was a cabin with a small Franklin stove for heat. I lit a fire, and we sat up talking until one in the morning. Then we dragged the mattresses over by the stove and slept curled against each other for warmth. Every hour or two, as the fire died, I would wake shivering and rekindle it. I didn’t mind. I was proud that I knew how to start a fire and happy to keep Randy warm.
In the morning we had breakfast and took a walk in the woods. Along the way I showed Randy my favorite spots: the waterfall, the cave, the rock with a view of the valley. After a few hours we realized we were closer to his house than to mine, so we decided to walk the rest of the way.
By then I’d realized that I was falling in love with Randy. Though I was pretty sure he was straight, I made up my mind to tell him how I felt. I kept putting the conversation off, though, because I wanted to enjoy our closeness a little longer.
As we were saying goodbye at his house, I finally told Randy about my feelings. To my surprise he said it didn’t bother him, and we could still be friends. Then he went inside.
I walked the nine miles back home, feeling the fire inside me rise and cool and rise up again.
Mom lit a fire in the fireplace at 4:30 every weekday afternoon so that our small house would be filled with light and warmth when Dad arrived home at precisely 4:45.
At the sound of the back door creaking open, signaling Dad’s arrival, my brother and I would come running. In the kitchen we’d find our father kissing our mother. Their kiss probably lasted only a few seconds, but it seemed longer to my curious little-girl eyes. Then Dad would pull us into an embrace, his polyester trousers brushing against my cheek.
Next Mom would pour my brother and me each a soda, and we’d scurry to the dining-room table to drink it. Meanwhile Dad made his way to their bedroom to change, and Mom poured two glasses of sparkling wine and eased into her navy recliner by the crackling fire to wait for him. She wouldn’t take her first sip until he returned.
Dad would come back in bright slacks and a plaid shirt, and he’d stop at my chair and say, “Better head downstairs. It’s our time now.”
I’d nod but stay a moment longer to watch as he lowered himself into his own recliner. Then he and my mother would talk while my brother and I went back to the shag-carpeted basement until we were called for dinner at 5:30.
Mom and Dad treasured those forty-five minutes and guarded them carefully. We were allowed to interrupt only if the house was on fire. I don’t know what they talked about week after week, month after month, but somehow they always had something to say to each other for twenty-five years.
Until my own married life became crowded by the demands of work and babies, I never understood what it took for my parents to set aside that time for themselves. My home lacks a fireplace, and with seven children and our ever-changing schedules, my husband and I can’t create the daily consistency I thrived on as a child, but we are trying. We sneak in moments before the sun and the baby are up. We steal minutes in the kitchen while the soup heats. And on warm summer nights we slip outside with our wineglasses to sit in our wicker porch chairs and drink Syrah by the light of flickering candles. The kids know we are to be interrupted only if the house is on fire.
I once had a friend named Fire. He was my first student at a small college in Chongqing, China, where I had gotten a job teaching English. (In Chinese the word for “fire” is also a boy’s name.) Although many of my young students were shy and reluctant to practice their limited English, Fire was not. Sadly he couldn’t get a handle on pronunciation, and the words came out sounding strangled, but Fire was brazen. He acquired a motorbike and took me for a spin one early spring day, careening through traffic. Once, he ran a red light.
“Fire!” I screamed. “Don’t you stop for red lights?”
“Are you worried about the police?” he asked.
“No, I’m worried about dying.”
He only laughed.
For Spring Festival — also known as Chinese New Year — Fire took me to his village in the northern province of Inner Mongolia. Looking over the barren, flat, wintry landscape, I was happy to have escaped from Chongqing, where it was rare to see a clear sky — partly because of the pollution and partly because of the humid, foggy weather.
Then, on my first night there, I tripped on the way to the outhouse and broke my arm. At the sound of my screams, Fire and his family came running. I cried as we waited an hour for the only family member with a car to come and take me to the nearest doctor.
A balding man in his early sixties, the doctor showed me his certificates and pictures of his med-school graduating class to convince me of his credentials while I tried to keep from crying out in pain. His office was open to the street, and a small crowd began to gather — a policeman, a hairdresser, some passersby. I had my shirt off for the examination, but I was in too much pain to care.
The doctor took an X-ray with an ancient-looking machine, then proclaimed that the arm was broken in four places. He carefully set it in plaster, which at last relieved some of my agony. I was sent on my way with copious amounts of large and mysterious pills.
Back at Fire’s home, his parents propped me up on the kang — a heated platform used as a communal bed in that part of China — and his father went outside to prepare a bonfire for the holiday. I watched him drizzle gasoline over a wire basket loaded with coal and wood. Then he took a cigarette from his mouth and dropped it on the pile. There was a whoosh as the flames climbed into the clear night sky.
Last week my father turned ninety, and family members gathered in his hospital room to celebrate, bringing cupcakes and balloons. The one token candle burned brightly as Dad slowly picked up the cupcake, brought it close to his face, and blew it out. Each time we are together, I wonder if it will be the last. We spend hours retelling our favorite family stories, and I am reminded of the Gypsy Fire.
When I was five years old, my parents bought a tiny vacation house in Connecticut and called it “Pinecroft,” after the road it was on. The months we spent at Pinecroft were fun and carefree, with none of the formality of our life in Manhattan. We could jump on the furniture and go “sleigh riding” down the seemingly endless driveway with Daddy on his belly on the Flexible Flyer, me on top of him, and my little sister on top of me. We would invariably crash into a big heap at the bottom, with cries of “Let’s do it again!”
At night there would be cocktails and records on the phonograph and games of Parcheesi. But best of all was the Gypsy Fire — a can of something that my father would shake into the fireplace, turning the flames gorgeous hues of green, purple, and blue.
One winter night at Pinecroft I awoke not sure where I was. For some reason we were all sleeping on the floor in the living room in front of the blazing fire. I sat up, and my father whispered that everything was all right; the furnace had just gone out. Then he brought out the can of Gypsy Fire, and while my mother and sister slept, we watched the magical, dancing flames together.
My parents were heavy smokers, and as a child I swore to myself that I would never take up the habit. By the time I was seventeen, however, cigarettes had become cool. After all, the Beatles smoked, and so did all my friends. Knowing my parents would be disappointed in me, I kept my smoking a secret and mostly did it while driving. (I later learned that the next-door neighbors were amused each day to see me back out of our long driveway and light up, as regular as clockwork, as soon as I was out of view of the living-room windows.)
One summer afternoon my friend Margaret and I were cruising in my parents’ car, smoking and singing along with the Supremes’ hit “Stop! In the Name of Love.” As I thrust my right hand out in front of me to make the “Stop!” gesture, my cigarette hit the rearview mirror and went flying into the crevice of the seat cushion, where it began burning a hole in the upholstery. Even after I had recovered the cigarette, the hole continued to smolder, emitting a noxious odor. Margaret and I stopped and knocked on a stranger’s door to ask for a glass of water. As we carefully doused the dime-sized hole, I fabricated the story I would tell my parents: Margaret had dropped her cigarette by accident, and she felt awful about the damage. My mother and father liked Margaret and valued their reputation as cool parents, so I knew they wouldn’t be too angry with her.
That evening, while my family was eating dinner, my mother looked out the screen door and screamed. An enormous cloud of smoke was billowing from the car. We all rushed outside to find that the entire front seat had burned down to the metal frame. The stench was horrible. By then I had told my parents the story about how Margaret had dropped the cigarette, and I lacked the courage to set the record straight.
Fortunately the car was insured, and the seat was replaced. The next time my mother saw Margaret, she joked with her about being more careful in the car with cigarettes. Margaret, to her credit, said not a word to contradict my mother, but she was miffed at me for framing her. It was many years before I finally confessed and cleared my friend’s name. By then I was openly bumming cigarettes from my parents, and we could all laugh at the story of how I’d once set fire to the family car.
Grass Valley, California
© Daniel Limmer
When my wife and I were still newlyweds, in the wee hours of New Year’s Eve I found myself restlessly walking the winter streets alone. I wandered into a pine grove in a city park and became enchanted by the silence and the snow on the boughs. The next morning, at my suggestion, my wife, Sharen, and I returned to the same spot in the woods for a picnic. We gathered some branches to make a small fire and sat on a fallen log, roasting hot dogs and welcoming the new year.
The following New Year’s Eve, after a night of celebrating, we decided on a whim to drive three hundred miles to my parents’ house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We arrived in the morning and promptly dragged my brother and his wife down to a Lake Michigan beach for a picnic around a driftwood blaze. Realizing this was the second year in a row that we’d done this, we decided to make it a tradition. The only rule was that we would find a new location every year.
Last January Sharen and I held our forty-first New Year’s Day picnic. I would be hard-pressed to remember how we spent most of our anniversaries, but I can remember in detail any one of our New Year’s Day celebrations. There were cheerful outings and sullen ones. There was good-natured — and sometimes ill-tempered — grumbling about having to drag ourselves into the cold woods yet again. There was the fire we built after the ice storm, and the one beside our dog’s grave. There was the picnic when I limped because of a torn quad tendon. A Massachusetts blizzard almost kept us out of the woods one year, but we managed to get there and roast some chestnuts. Then there was the year Sharen got so irritated that she drove off and left my son and me to walk three miles home.
There were a few years when it wasn’t possible to build a fire due to rain or location, but for more than four decades we’ve welcomed almost every new year the same way. Someday we’ll light our last New Year’s Day fire, not knowing that it’s the last, and that our tradition has come to an end in the embers.
The campfire’s heavy smoke would sometimes sweep over us, and we’d shriek and cover our faces until the wind carried the thick gray cloud away. We were a group of teenage girls heating foil-wrapped burritos on the coals for dinner while our basketball coach and science teacher, Mr. Stein, strummed his guitar. He’d orchestrated this overnight school trip to Calistoga, California. Under the night sky we sang “Brown-Eyed Girl” and braided each other’s hair and whispered secrets, delaying bedtime for as long as we could.
For me that year had been one of extreme loneliness despite a busy social schedule. I played sports after school and hung out at friends’ houses on the weekends — usually whichever one had no parents at home. We watched television or met boys in the park to talk and maybe kiss. I had a family who loved me and a life rich with friends, but I was too anxious about my parents’ frequent arguments to appreciate any of it. I also couldn’t share my fears with anyone. The pain of my home life had set in so deep it was hard to express it to myself, let alone someone else.
Sometimes I would try to confide in my older brother, who escaped into the world of computers.
“They’re going to get a divorce,” I would say.
“They are not,” he’d mumble, intent on the glowing screen. “They’re just arguing.” From above our heads the shouting would grow louder. In my gut I knew there was a limit to what my mother would endure.
I’d been looking forward to this camping trip for weeks. I had hoped for some alone time — perhaps a walk in the woods on a cool morning so I could sort out the anger and worry I felt. But so far I’d found none.
That night, after the fire had died down and we’d crawled into our sleeping bags, Mr. Stein came around to everyone’s tent, asking for volunteers to watch the fire during the night and make sure it didn’t spread. I said I would.
Hours later I sat wrapped in my red sleeping bag beside the fire pit. Mr. Stein was stretched out in his hammock a few feet away, seemingly asleep. I poked the low flames with a long stick. Soon my tears began to flow, and with them came words. I told Mr. Stein, who was awake after all, about my loneliness, and he soothed my fears simply by listening to my shaky voice while curls of smoke reached high into the night sky.
San Francisco, California
I remember walking into the woods with newspapers shoved under my winter jacket and a book of matches in my pocket. I’d keep my head down in case someone noticed me, but no one ever paid attention to an unattended third-grader in the mid-1960s.
Once I’d reached my “fort,” I’d stack up the newspapers and burn them. My best friend, David, whose buckteeth kept his lips perpetually parted, would join me. He had a crew cut so short he looked bald except for the tuft of hair in the front. One time he leaned so close to the flame that the tuft got singed. He knew then he’d be found out by his parents: when you had so little hair, there was no way a missing patch would go unnoticed.
When the woods caught on fire, David got blamed. I got in trouble only for hanging out with him.
By my early teens I’d limited my love of fire to burning incense and candles, along with the occasional note from school announcing a bad grade or excessive absences. In ninth grade I went to school with a kid who had been in a car accident. One side of Tommy’s face looked like a melted candle — drooping mouth, half a nose, no eyebrow, only part of an ear — but the other side was perfect. Tommy wore a black cowboy hat every day to school. When it came time to have our pictures taken for the yearbook, the photographer asked him to take off his hat. Tommy obliged. Then the photographer asked him to turn his uninjured side toward the camera. Tommy wouldn’t do it.
The photo was never printed in the yearbook. A “Gone Fishin’ ” graphic appeared instead, as if Tommy hadn’t shown up.
One Ash Wednesday my friend Karen wanted to go to church to have the priest mark her forehead with the sign of the cross, so she could be like all her friends, but her mother thought it was a waste of time to drive across town for some empty religious ritual. So Karen’s mom burned a napkin in an ashtray in the kitchen, then dipped her thumb in the ashes and made a cross on Karen’s forehead. It wasn’t the same. Karen knew that a kitchen is not a church, and a mother is not a priest. She told me she felt sad for her mother, who might burn in hell for what she’d done.
The woman I sit next to in AA has burn marks on her arm. They look like cigarette burns, but I am afraid to ask her.
David’s tuft of hair, Tommy’s face, the smudges of ash on Karen’s forehead — all fire starts with a flicker, and sometimes it turns into something terrible, or maybe just sad.
The year I turned eleven, the fire department sent a crew of firemen in their shiny red truck to our elementary school to teach us about fire safety. They poured gasoline on the schoolyard and lit it to demonstrate the danger. Afterward we had to write an essay on fire prevention, and mine won first prize.
My parents had separated the year before. One night my father dropped me off at my mother’s after a camping trip, and I went straight to her room to tell her about my weekend. She was in bed, sleepy but not asleep. Then I smelled something burning. Holding my breath, I followed the odor to the den. Two candles atop the television had burned down to puddles of wax, and flames were racing down the TV cord to the carpet. I ran back to my mother and shouted for her to wake my sister and call the fire department, but she just sat there, immobilized.
Remembering what the firemen had taught us — that electrical fires have to be put out with baking soda, not water — I covered my face and ran through the smoke to the kitchen, where I opened the cabinets. No baking soda. Then I saw the large green bin of flour on the counter. I poured its entire contents on the flames, and within minutes they began to die down. The fire was out by the time the fire department arrived.
It took weeks to repair the smoke damage. We had to launder the drapes, repaint the walls, and replace the carpeting. What had scared me most, though, was not the fire but my mother’s reaction. Lately she would either move around the house with frantic energy, as if there were a fire raging inside her, or she’d retreat into herself. She might stay up until all hours one night, cleaning and singing so loud I couldn’t sleep, and the next night she’d be gone — there but not there.
Within a year my mother had a breakdown, and my sister and I went to live with our father. I would eventually learn the name for my mother’s condition: manic depression. But in losing her so profoundly, I found something unexpected: a mysterious source of inner strength that grounds me to this day.
I work as a guide for a wilderness-therapy company in the northern Appalachians. Wilderness therapy is based on the daily routines of waking with the sun, cooking over an open fire, and filtering stream water to drink. In the wilderness there’s less to distract us from ourselves, or from each other. The students I teach struggle with low self-esteem, attention-deficit disorder, eating disorders, autism-spectrum disorders, addiction, depression, and anxiety. Many of them come to us with little or no outdoor experience — a summer at sleep-away camp, at most. After spending three months in the woods, they are inevitably changed.
My students must each learn to make a fire by hitting a quartz rock against a steel striker. They catch the spark on a piece of cotton to form a “cherry,” which is then placed in a nest of shredded birch bark. They must blow long, steady breaths on the nest to ignite the cherry into flame. It’s a tedious process, but a triumph every time it works.
Guides must master this skill, too. My knuckles are marked with small cuts and scabs from where the quartz has struck my skin. We like to say that the “fire gods” demand a blood tribute. Nothing worth creating comes without some sacrifice.
Lately I’ve been in need of therapy myself. In the past year I have endured a breakup and two surgeries for skin cancer, and I’ve consistently found myself battling melancholia, anxiety, and self-doubt. I got a tattoo on my arm of the Latin phrase ad lucem: “to the light.”
The process of bringing fire into existence from a spark and keeping it alive all day to cook food, heat water, and warm your body changes you. You come to see that you are simply the vehicle through which the flame moves. It was there the whole time: in the rock, in the air, in the bark, in our hands. It’s only when all the elements come together in the correct sequence that the fire can offer us its light, a gift for which I am willing to endure a few cuts and burns.
Megan K. Shea
When I arrived home from a holiday performance of The Nutcracker, the house was dark and silent. The garage wouldn’t open, so I entered by the side door to see my yellow Labrador staggering around as if dazed. I heard a whoosh sound from upstairs and immediately took the dog outside and called the fire department.
When they got there, the only sign of fire was a thin trail of smoke snaking from under the gutters. Then a window exploded, and flames leapt into the night sky. A fireman explained to me about “backdraft”: when a fire consumes all the available oxygen in a space, and the pressure builds until something gives. He said the temperature in the house may have exceeded 2,400 degrees. My possessions were more melted than burned. I lost pictures, souvenirs, and awards. My files were all destroyed, ending the business I’d run from home.
We all cherish our special mementos and ask them to carry meaning for us: a smooth stone, a dried flower, an antique teacup, a perfect seashell. When we are forced to carry all that meaning ourselves, it’s painful but also liberating.
The next summer I took a trip I’d always wanted to take, through the Yukon to the farthest tip of Alaska. I was out of work, so why wait? Driving across the frozen tundra, I wept at the sight of small pink flowers covering hundreds of acres. I stopped to ask a local what the blooms were. They were called “fireweed,” he told me. A wildfire had come through there a year earlier, destroying everything.
“They’re always the first thing to show up afterward,” he said. “New life, you know?”
Winston-Salem, North Carolina