By flood, by fire

Home Fire

Linda Parsons Marion

Whether on the boulevard or gravel backroad,
I do not easily raise my hand to those who toss
up theirs in anonymous hello, merely to say
“I’m passing this way.” Once out of shyness, now
reluctance to tip my hand, I admire the shrubbery
instead. I’ve learned where the lines are drawn
and keep the privet well trimmed. I left one house
with toys on the floor for another with quiet rugs
and a bed where the moon comes in. I’ve thrown
myself at men in black turtlenecks only to find
that home is best after all. Home where I sit
in the glider, knowing it needs oil, like my own
rusty joints. Where I coax blackberry to dogwood
and winter to harvest, where my table is clothed
in light. Home where I walk out on the thin page
of night, without waving or giving myself away,
and return with my words burning like fire in the grate.

(Here.)

***

The weekend before last, I hosted two aunts and an uncle of mine for lunch. When A. and I first decided to move to this city, we accepted that it would mean living provinces away from our extended families. We were not wholly disappointed by this fact. Our families are large and fractious, and it is sometimes better to be at a remove from their politics. A.’s twin brother lives six hours away by car. But an aunt and uncle of mine – family I actually like, and who are fairly sane, relative to the rest of them – live not two hours from here, and in four years we have somehow never managed to pay them a visit (nor they, us). Another aunt flew in to visit them, and all three came to see us, but especially wee N., who – let’s be honest – is the real draw.

It was a pleasant afternoon. N. is becoming a total ham, and performed all her best parlour tricks. The visiting aunt, my mother’s elder sister, spent almost the entire time on the floor with her, playing and teasing. This aunt and my mother were the eldest in a family of fifteen children, and helped to parent the younger children from the age of five. They just knew how to manage babies and toddlers. It’s an uncanny thing to see. Babies responded to my mother in a way that I’ve seldom seen with other people. All she needed to do was walk in a room, and they would turn towards her voice with curiosity and relief, like, Finally, someone who speaks my language. Watching my aunt play with N. was the closest I’ll get to seeing my mother interact with her. It was sweet to watch.

I’m now as caught up with family gossip as it’s possible to be. Cousins are marrying; eccentrics continue to mystify. But the real treat of speaking with these people who know me so broadly (if not deeply, at this point in my life) was the acknowledgment of elements of our collective past that I would be saddened to forget. Sometimes I feel that the adult life I have chosen for myself is too unmoored, detached from the realities of my growing up. I exist so separately from my life then that it seems like it happened to someone else. I suppose this is a natural part of ageing for those of us who do not live in the same place for our whole lives, surrounded by familiar people who have experienced the same events. But to hear my aunt mention even the name of a toy store in her neighbourhood, where as a kid I spent birthday money on dollhouse furnishings, reminds me that my life has stretched farther than what it was then, or is now.

Perhaps it’s melancholic, but I dwell sometimes on what will remain when the older generation of the family is gone. I feel a sense of responsibility towards the safekeeping of the history I share with these people, and others – my father, my sister. Especially now that the two buildings in which so many of these shared experiences took place are now gone. Two springs ago, my late grandfather’s lake cottage was swept off its footings by floodwaters urged inland by high winds. It cracked messily asunder down the middle. It was no longer owned by anyone in the family, but it was a gathering place for thirty-five years, and its physical absence – as far as I know, the rubble has been bulldozed and hauled away – is troubling. Not ten days that, the farmhouse I grew up in caught fire and burned to the ground. It was a hundred-year-old house; my dad commented that the wooden walls would have been dry as kindling. The owners survived, but lost everything.

When I got this news, I was just beginning to enjoy sleeping longer stretches at night. Baby N. had entered a period of blissful, almost uninterrupted nighttime slumbering that would continue until the move to Germany. I remember taking her out in the sling to a music festival in our old neighbourhood, where little folk ensembles were playing on the old Victorian porches. What do I need to remember? I thought with clarity, watching the spectators admire the music and the architecture. And, What is already lost to me?

For Poetry Wednesday.

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