Out of ashes comes a bittersweet reckoning - that heart is where the home is.
It was around noon on Valentine's Day last year when I heard the pounding on the door. I smiled thinking it was Michel back from the Co-op, a bouquet of flowers outstretched. It wasn't. A police officer stood on the step, shifting his weight to tap the snow off his boots.
"Your mother's house is gone," he blurted out. "It burned to the ground a few minutes ago. I am sorry to have to tell you this but there is nothing left."
Surely he was mistaken. He said house. Mum lives in a trailer in Pugwash, near her doctor and the shops. Michel and I now own her former house on Wallace Bay, my family's farmhouse. It is closed for the winter, power disconnected, pipes drained, furniture covered; safe.
He stared at me, his brown eyes filled with sympathy.
"Where is she?" I hollered. "Where is Mum? Is she alive?"
He startled at my outburst. "I haven't spoken to her myself but your neighbours were on the way to tell her the news," he replied reassuringly.
It didn't sink in. I said I would get my coat and follow him into the village.
"Why?" he asked.
I was losing patience. "Because if my mother's trailer burned I would want to go there!"
"No," he said gently. "It wasn't the trailer. It was the farmhouse on the Bay. It is gone." Sudden death doesn't dance around the ring jabbing its fist in the air to grab your attention. It sucker punches you in the gut swiftly; painfully. Just like that moment when you wake, sunlight on your face, feeling rested and relieved; the first night's sleep in seven weeks and then it hits you that it is too quiet, too still, too late, and no matter how hard you pray or how desperately you will it, the cradle doesn't move.
This felt like losing my son Nigel all over again. Panic and helplessness washed over me as the officer described the neighbour across the Bay who spotted the smoke through binoculars; the fire trucks and police arriving promptly; the roof already caved in, the neighbours standing around helplessly with nothing to do but watch and wait.
"Do you want me to drive you over there?" he offered kindly. I declined, needing time alone to find the breath that escaped me, along with a sturdy cardboard box with a lid that I would fill with the papers blowing in the yard and the photographs I would extract from broken frames. Towels, I would need towels to wrap around Dad's guitar and Mum's wedding dishes and plastic bags, lots of bags, one for each sibling, parent, grandchild, nephew and niece.
My throat hurts. Mum is whispering one of her British nursery songs about oranges and lemons and you owe me three farthings, pretending we have to hush so we don't wake Jacob, our border collie, sleeping in front of the wood stove. Dad filled the wood box before he left for his shift at the salt mine, telling Mum it was "a jeasley cold night" before she could hush him.
I am not allowed to swear anymore. They don't want me saying "jeasley," "god damn it to hell and back again," "son of a sea dog" or the f word Melanie brought home from school. She said it rhymed with truck. Terry told me what rhymed with meant. Neither one would say it. We were down at the Bito for a swim. That is short for Abitou, the name of the sluice gate first built by the Acadians that drains the Wallace River off the marsh into the salty Northumberland Strait at low tide. You can only swim there at high tide when the gate is shut and the inlet is filled with warm seawater. "Warmest waters north of the Carolinas" the tourism board boasts.
It is not that warm at first getting in though. I like to go slowly, waiting for the goose bumps on my legs to melt before plugging my nose and dunking my head under. Melanie and Terry are old enough to jump off the creosote planks jutting out over the sluice gate. They swarm around me like horse flies saying they are just going to float on their backs and not splash me. They always do though, kicking their scrawny white legs until the water is churned white and I am soaked.
I drove carefully, avoiding potholes; avoiding the clear blue skyline I knew would be marred with billowing clouds of smoke. A fire truck was parked beside the Bito. They were filling the tanker truck.
My hand hurts. A fat blob of wax landed on its back when I blew my candles out, my sister and third grade classmates leaning over the dining room table, blowing too. I try not to cry, seeking comfort from the January sunshine warming the back of my new red-and-white polka-dotted dress. Everything in our dining room is mahogany coloured, and there's a lemony fragrance of polished wood. This gate legged table, the pressback chairs, the corner china cabinet with Mum's wedding dishes, the grandfather clock, Dad's family clock that chimes once on the half hour, oh so briefly, and then bongs loud and persistently on the hour.
I feel the heat of a July sun, remembering how we used to help Dad bring in the hay. We came home exhausted, too tired to eat, too tired to crawl in the cast iron claw-foot tub Mum painted pink - refusing to paint its toenails black - too tired to get washed before bed. Dad would bring out his Gibson guitar and sing Jimmie Rodgers songs while Mum pestered us to take a bath. We were never too tired to join the neighbour's grandchildren for a game of "It," that scary game of tag you played outside at dusk when the bats are diving down from the rafters in the barn and you hid alone, breath held, not sure if you were more scared about being found or not being found.
There was no way that house could be gone. Not after the last two years we spent renovating it. We put in new wiring, a new septic, a new roof and furnace. Plaster and debris covered the floors where the electrician had torn open walls and snaked wires around the halved tree trunks somebody two centuries back had hand hewn for studs. Insulation had to be blown in, gyproc hung, hemlock floors and exposed beams sanded and refinished. Spring, Michel had said confidently, we'll finish in spring. He went to the cellar to drain the water and disconnect the electricity while I moved ornaments and dishes into cupboards and set picture frames face down, anticipating another starling attack - why they kept coming down our chimney I don't know.
I parked on the shoulder of the road behind the fire trucks and police cruisers, remembering the spring day two years earlier. I sat parked in the driveway, the rain beating steadily on the windshield, feeling overwhelmed by the puzzle pieces of roofing shingles scattered on the overgrown lawn. Rusting pits of machinery poked out of the tall grass. Inside the house was just as bleak. The pipes reportedly drained for the winter had burst, the water rising up to the sooty door of the old wood furnace, stopping there mockingly for it had already drowned the motor on the new oil furnace beside it.
Upstairs I could hear the pit pattering of rain hitting the floorboards. There were several leaks in the roof, and I couldn't help chuckling seeing this double bed we once slept in getting soaked again.
The first time was during a hockey game, a penalty shot no less, and there were three of us in this bed that had been moved to the downstairs hall where it was warmer, and we were giggling, loudly, apparently.
"Quiet down you girls," Dad yelled, frustration raising his voice an octave. "Go to sleep" he implored. "Or else," he added, ineffectively. For some reason we found his feigned fury hysterical - that, and the tickling. Being the youngest then and the most tickled I laughed until I wet myself. That took awhile to sink in - four seconds at least. The girls jumped out of the bed, nightgowns held up around their ears, bellowing for Dad to come quick, someone really needed a spanking now.
This house defined us. The kitchen was the room for all seasons, cool in the summer, warm in the winter; the kettle always hot on the stove, the peeling bucket filled with strawberry hulls, apple peels, mushroom stems, corn husks. We lived in the kitchen, celebrated in the dining room, lounged in the living room, huddled in our parents' bedroom, hid in the back pantry, conspired in the upper hallway, fought over the bathroom and cussed in the porch. We dreamed of the day we would have our space and privacy.
And it wasn't just us. The house was filled with reminders of who had lived there before. They left notes under layers of wallpaper and put oilcloth down to cover the burn marks on the wood floor where a stove used to be. They planted oaks and elms and roses.
I was not prepared to see the wide gaping hole that was left in its wake. There were no papers flying around in the wind or contents spilled on the lawn to gather up. There was nothing. Just smoke, pushed northward and across the back pasture, revealing the sandstones and charred timbers scattered like the bones we found in the pasture that summer a calf went missing.
I heard the girls saying, "Stay right here, Joanne, we're going to get Dad." I heard Mum's strained voice whispering that No, she wasn't calling to say they got my card, she was calling to let me know that Dad had passed away in his sleep. The lips of the fire chief moved silently, muted by the thumping of my heart, the same way our doctor's did when he tried explaining to me how my healthy son could just die in his sleep.
The death of this house was not something I could feel. Instead, girls with wet pixie haircuts ran past me where the rose bushes were, giggling because they had swiped the towels their older sisters remembered to bring; the fridge door opened, the glass pitcher of Kool Aid set heavily on the chrome tabletop. Their parched thirst was quenched in loud, burp-filled gulps, their laughter stifled with Mum's reproach to mind their manners. Jacob's tail whacked against the table leg in time with Dad yodelling "T for Texas" across the barnyard. A healthy newborn baby cried.
Those were the sounds I heard when the cold seawater turned into hot steam and the firemen yelled warning for me to get back.
Epilogue: Although our renovations had met our insurance company's safety requirements, there was a clause in the policy that made the insurance null and void if the house was unoccupied for more than 30 consecutive days. So there was no money to rebuild. How the fire started was deemed suspicious and investigated but nothing definite was determined.
Spring came and, tucked in among the greening shoots of the tiger lilies, we found a page from an old scribbler of mine with two essays about my home at age 10. A charred photo album also turned up with some family pictures intact. A tiny leaf poked up through the ashes where the rosebush had grown and by summer's end, the roses were in bloom. I rolled down the window of my car and let the sweet fragrance greet me just like those summers long ago, when the curtains parted, sunlight fell on my face, someone shouted the tide is in full, bare feet ran down the stairs and the screen door slammed.
I discovered that is possible to lose the structure and contents of home without losing home.