Friday, May 30, 2014

Is It the Things, or the Memories?

A week ago, my mom's little house burned.

She called and I could hear the desolation in her voice. I was sure someone had died. It was my mother who called the police and found my son dead and then called to notify me. Eight years earlier, she had called to tell me my beloved Ma had died. I hate these calls from my mom, yet she's the only one of my nearby Virginia family branch that ever calls, so who else would do it?

When I was a child, a big farmhouse stood where her little house had been. She was born in the farmhouse, which was built early in the 1900s by my great-grandfather and his father and at times housed four generations of her family. During a period in the late 80s, I lived in the drafty old house and loved it. Except for when the breaker to the well pump would kick off during the middle of a shower. But after I moved out, the combination of a leaky tin roof and determined termites meant the house soon became unlivable and was torn down.

In its place, she and my dad had constructed a small vinyl sided house where she stored her plethora of books (she's a retired English teacher), antiques from auctions and our family estates, vintage clothing and hats, and more recently old photo albums that she had taken to the house to try to organize and divide among various family members.

The house had a bathroom, living area, kitchen and a small eating area. There was no bedroom. That area was storage for her items. There were glass doors looking out over the field and pond and a rebuilt fireplace where the old chimney once stood. The closet was paneled in cedar boards and the bulk of the house in wormy chestnut taken from an old barn that had stood on the property. There was a beam between the kitchen and living area that had come from the barn and was hand hewn from a chestnut log. A bar in the kitchen was one huge chestnut board.

I had spent a little time in the house wallpapering the kitchen years ago, and had been there when we held family get-togethers on what used to be the front porch of the old farmhouse, but survived as a stand-alone picnic shelter of sorts. Trees and flowers I had planted when I lived there had been joined by many additions over the years, although early this year she was lamenting the hack job that had been done on the weeping cherry I planted 20 some years ago.

I could not have described what the house was like inside, or what was lost when the fire swept through it. But to my mother, it was another terrible loss piled on top of her only grandson's untimely death. It was irreplaceable treasures, gone forever; faces she would never be able to recall as though the flames had taken not only the photos, but her memories.

I wept with her on the phone for her pain, but felt nothing myself.

Anything short of losing a life fails to touch me these days, although even a pet's life still rates, as I cried when reading a Facebook post about a dog I had groomed only the day before wandering into the road and being killed. Having lost both, I can honestly say that losing a pet I cared deeply for has been the closest thing in the immediate pain to losing a child. Our four-legged family members often become surrogate children, and while the loss doesn't hurt as long, when they die an untimely death it may be initially as deep.

On the other hand, things don't mean a lot to me any more, which I guess is easy to say when I've not lost things. Still, I've said that if my dogs were with me, if I came home to find my house burned, it would mean less to worry about. I would hate to lose everything, but I've often imagined how it would be to just start fresh without the history and burden of stuff that our homes often have.

Of course, my mom didn't lose her home, but instead many of the items she would have chosen to save had her home been burning. Later she was able to recover several photo albums that were in an unburned section of the house, but many of her memory keys were lost and whatever memory they might have contained was swept away with them.

I visited her this week and walked through the remains of the house as a crew worked at pulling down the metal roofing so the remainder of the debris could be cleared. There were singed photographs scattered on the floor, burned wooden toys, shelves full of books with their spines burned away, and beneath our feet a layer of still soggy ash. Looking at the burned beam and the remains of Ma's stove, I felt more of her pain -- the connection more tenuous because I didn't see the items as often. There were still things there that could be recovered, but she said she was tired and had lost her enthusiasm for trying. We picked up a little metal bench and walked away.

After we finished our visit, I took her home and she said there was one thing she thought I'd want. She handed me a singed envelope with Pa's familiar handwriting describing its contents. Without opening it, inside I could see the soft looping curls cut from Ethan's head when he was a preschooler.

At that moment I understood her grief for those things a bit more.

Because then I cried.


  1. So moving. Even you brief description let's me know the pain of two related souls. Hugs to you both.

    1. Thank you for the hugs. Even those virtual ones help because sometimes that's the best I can get at any particular moment.

  2. It's only stuff, but what it represents is so much. What a moving post. Blessings to you all.

  3. I'm so very sorry for your losses - and in awe of your strength.