What happens after the fire?
My mother told me that some things go back to their memories. She’s right, of course, that some things we do not keep except in memory. Sometimes, those memories arise without being beckoned. A few weeks ago in my writing group, one of the women wrote about cooking as a young girl in her mother’s kitchen. As I listened to her piece, I was startled by a memory of cooking eggs on the farm when I was young.
In the mid-sixties, my parents purchased four adjacent overworked farms, netting a square mile of rolling hills, woods, and wet bottomland ten miles southeast of Iowa City. They named it Redbird Farm. In addition to the various barns and outbuildings on the place, there was a one-room schoolhouse. Last used as a school more than a decade before, it was the perfect building for my father’s studio. They moved it, when I was three, atop a flatbed trailer, up a long hill hill and onto a foundation with a three-hundred sixty-degree view of all four seasons. Craftsmen built a fireplace with a stone chimney and carpenters put in a sleeping loft and remodeled the girls’ cloakroom into a bathroom and the boys’ into a kitchen. I was very small when my father would walk up the hill behind our house, through the woods, and disappear into his studio for his morning’s work.
Circumstances changed, and a few years later my mother and father, my brother and I all lived in and out of our remodeled one-room schoolhouse. Long a fan of helping my mother in the kitchen, I had begun to take cooking into my own hands. The installation of the kitchen had included a small-sized refrigerator, a dishwasher, and a bar. There was no oven, but a Corelle cooktop, the kind that could only be used with Corningware pans. It was here on the front burner where I placed a square white porcelain pan, turned up the heat, and lopped an overly large chunk of butter off of the stick from the half-sized refrigerator. I liked melted butter when the butter started to separate and sizzle, just before it began to brown.
I must have been about eight. I knew already how to scramble eggs, breaking them into a bowl and scuttling whites and yolks together with a fork. But that day I elected to break the eggs directly into the pan, from a great height. I tapped the shell on the edge of the counter and then held the egg as high above the sizzling butter sea as my arms could reach. The egg fell, splat, into the melted butter that splashed the length of my arms. The burns were not severe, but they did hurt and bubble and for a long time scarred the underside of both arms.
The schoolhouse kitchen would be renovated several more times, as each of us for one reason or another came to live there. I was the last, moving in for three years of graduate school at the University of Iowa. I insisted on a stove with an oven, being still wary of the now aged, unpredictable cooktop. In graduate school, I kept alive the gathering space tradition my parents had started in the schoolhouse. It was a place people loved to come, to eat and drink, to dance and walk out into the darkness all around. Living there was never easy—it was poorly insulated and often in winter and the muddy spring impossible to drive to. As often as the evenings were filled with food, laughter and life, I woke up alone in the morning feeling like the only person on the planet. My thesis advisor put the romantic notions so many people held about a life in the woods on that hill into words when he asked me to write an essay about what it was like living there. The answer poured forth in the essay that anchored my thesis, “Rusty Water, Icy Hills.”
The schoolhouse was the face of Redbird Farm. We had other dwellings, for humans and animals, some as eclectic as a geodesic dome, the walls of Styrofoam triangles zip-tied to a tubular base. At various points in time we had a pole barn and a chicken shed, two different farmhouses, and even a hydroponic growing unit. But everyone who came to the farm knew and loved the schoolhouse. When, more than thirty years after moving to the country my mother moved to town, no one wanted to see the schoolhouse come to an end. The state, taking on the property as a nature preserve, grudgingly allowed that it might be useful as a meeting space, and it was allowed to stay.
The next decade witnessed the slow deterioration of the building. The deck became unsafe. A hunter shot into several of the windows. The bats that had always summered in the roof multiplied and left their droppings everywhere.
A parade of solutions for preserving the building dissolved, and we were left with the option of giving the local fire department practice in controlling a burn. It was November 7, 2009. My mother and I made the drive from Des Moines early in the morning, brownies for the firefighters on the back seat of the car. When we arrived, they were already piling lumber from the crumbling deck in the interior of the building. I went inside and took a few last pictures, and then we waited, even after the fire within had been lit, for some time, an hour, maybe more, until the first smoke appeared at the windows. The fire got hotter and hotter—we stepped away but did not look away.
When the roof caved the walls were swift to follow. The firefighters, eating brownies and laughing quietly among themselves, slowly began to filter away. There were other things to do. The DNR supervisor allowed as how the fire would smolder well into the afternoon, but he would be back to check on it. There was no cause for alarm; the fire would not spread on the gorgeous, sunny day as the fall had been damp enough.
Nearly a year later, I stood at the schoolhouse site with my brother, holding a bag of ashes. The cinders from the schoolhouse fire had been replaced by prairie grasses. Rather than return to the location with a stone, as one of the fire watchers had suggested the year before, I stood with my brother; we had brought my father’s ashes. So many of my memories of both the man and the building are intertwined, it felt right to sprinkle his remains on the grounds of the place that had been the seat of his creativity and the center of gravity of our life as a family.
Memory is the most profound and the most bittersweet when it is the only access we have to something or someone that no longer exists in any other way. I continue to mourn and remember them both—the man and the building I once called home.
Remembering, as I commemorate the anniversary of the schoolhouse burning and enjoy the full frosty November moon, Masahide’s wise haiku (1688):
Barn’s burnt down
now I can see
Thank you for being a part of my journey, Namaste, xoR