by Tomi L. Wiley
I never wrote a poem about the night my father’s home lifted to the stars in sparks.
At that time I wasn’t writing much of anything; my son was six weeks old, born premature, and my hands were busy cupping his tangerine skull, trembling against the curve of his spine, cupped in one palm. My mind was smoky and thick, feedings every two hours, prickling worry, realizing my body was once again my own, though now my heart beat inside this bright-eyed mouse of a child.
The call came much as they do in movies, just without the nudging, ominous soundtrack: my mother’s hand in the bend of my elbow to gently wake me, her words crackling in the dark, “He’s okay. Your father is okay, but their house burned down tonight.”
Night still pressed against my bedroom windows, and I immediately reached for my newborn child. His body was hot, and when I untangled him from his blanket his arms burst out, glowing face and bright eyes, mouth open in silent protest. He had been to the home of my father, step-mother and step-sister once in his day-sliced life, he had slept on their couch and breathed in those smells unique to each home, to my father’s home: vanilla and wood polish, limes and the warm, woodsy smell of a small happy dog.
My family lost everything that night except their pets, their cars and their lives, thank god. Although the volunteer fire station was minutes away, they sat on the curb and watched their home glow, then rage, lifting to the sky in papery ash as it splintered, cracked and crumbled, smoldering and sullen. Days after, in an attempt to find anything left of my own – for I had lived with them after a disastrous hot stint in Florida, burning for a man who never really loved me – I climbed what remained of the house, the front brick steps. I shielded my eyes against the sun, surveyed the grainy debris that caught currents of breezes, and I breathed in lingering soot and ash, a sharp smoky tinge on the back of my tongue.
All I found in the dirty grit that remained of most of my earthly possessions was a cracked white porcelain owl. I struggled to remember where, and how, I’d gotten it as I brushed away dirt, smearing ash into the carved curve of its wings. It would take days to get my fingernails clean.
Because I could no longer stand the smell, I sat in my car and stared at the empty swath of sky that had once been the outline of a home. Because his doctor recommended he stay inside for at least six weeks, I had left my newborn son with my mother and made the trip alone. My fingers followed the lines of the dirty white owl as I thought of how my child would never know this place, never remember this house with its wall of ceramic collectible houses gathered into villages and towns on bookshelves that my stepmother decorated for the seasons. The pool in the backyard where I spent a scorched, torturous month after moving home from Florida, my life in ashes, my heart seared and sealed, burning on a pink plastic float and reading The Great Gatsby, Atonement, Bel Canto, and the Harry Potter series.
I leaned my forehead against the steering wheel, felt it burn a hot swath across my skin, like a fever. It was just a structure, I kept telling myself. The memories are inside us, within us, and my family escaped unscathed.
“Such bullshit,” I answered aloud.
My father, step-mother, step-sister and pets lived with family for the next year and a half as they gathered strength, went through the motions and built a new home on top of a scenic, windy hill. Though much like the old one in design, the floor plan is flipped, reversed, the opposite of what once was. The loss of their home took a lot out of them, but humans (and Southerners) are resilient, and the strong rise from the ashes and move on.
There was a framed photo taken of our family on the hearth of the old house. It was a spontaneous, casual photo: me in pajama pants and an old college T-shirt, hair tied back and sun-bleached, face red and impossibly young, holding Caesar, our Chihuahua, who was craning to look at my father. My step-sisters tan and happy, the youngest with pig-tails. That photo burned, but I still see it as clearly as if I were standing on the hearth, touching the glass, studying our faces. Losing the house and generations of memories from two blended families changed us, forced us to start over, assess, blaze our own path and choose our next quest. Those girls grew up, our parents grow older, we’ve charted our own journeys and lit our way.
I’d like to say that losing the house and everything in it was a purging, a way to start over, to start new. I know that’s the mature, philosophical way to consider it, but that’s not true for me. I miss what I lost, for I had most of my “stuff” from childhood to age 21 in that house. My father had an entire trunk of family photos dating back to the turn of the century, priceless artwork crafted by friends and famous artists, his collection of Cessna airplanes and the tail of his shirt, signed by the supervising pilot and friend, from when he flew solo and received his private pilot’s license for the second time, late in life. The material objects, these “things,” are not family or even memories, but we have come to cherish them, to need them, to use them as talisman and reminders of who we are and how far we’ve come.
We started over, because that’s what survivors do. We have each other, and we’ve grown as a family and individuals. But there will always be parts of us that went up in flames, that crisped in the chill November night air, that we will miss. We will cherish. We will reflect back upon, like the framed photo of us on the hearth after a morning swim, and say “Oh yes, I remember that. It burned. It burned.”