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My coffee and I sit at our round table with our unconventional breakfast, looking through cookbooks to plan our week’s meals. My own handwritten notes are familiar even though they were written 20 years ago. Books being sacred objects, I was aghast the first time ex-Pat made notes in a cookbook. Over the years, he convinced me to do so, but only in pencil, and as minimally as possible, to convey the changes I’d made.

Those notes from 20 years ago….they transport me back to the Cozy House, to my slope-floored kitchen with its knotty pine cabinets. To the Mother-in-Law’s tongue that my co-worker Sandy gave me decades ago, thriving in a pot in the corner. The dogs’ and cats’ food and water dishes slightly underfoot on the lavender linoleum. The Asian blue patterned containers holding the cooking utensils on the counter next to the little one cup coffee maker. The bottom drawer where the casserole dishes lived, the one that always went cattywampus when I tried to close it. My beloved Norge stove.

We never ate dinner at the kitchen table, only breakfast on weekdays, just as it had been at my parents’ house growing up. I tried to get us to do so once and only once. It was disastrous and all three of us wound be miserable.

Doing dishes, by hand as we never had a dishwasher, standing at the sink looking out into the backyard from the white-framed casement the window. My view was beneath the arch of a tree that was slowly growing its way into the house, bending the gutter a little more each year. Ex-Pat and I talked about one day remodeling the kitchen, making it bigger, though it was a good size already. We would have built out the kitchen around the tree, leaving it free to grow as tall and as strong as it wanted.

That view from the window had grown over the decades from a dirt yard with giant wooden spools as tables in various places, to a bower of beauty, with the greenhouse that ex-Pat had built by hand as its centerpiece. Beautifully cold in winter but always warm with memory of summer. Sparkling with promise in spring. Glowing with trailing golden cottonwood leaves in fall. And raging and singing in its glory on the warmest days and nights of summer,

It all lives only in my memory now, as I sit at a different table in a different life, the wind swishing the pine boughs outside the door, the blue sky shy beneath sheer white clouds, the Stellar’s Jay keeping silent company, my coffee now grown cold.

Today’s gratitudes:

  • That I’m alive
  • Cats
  • Music
  • Driving
  • Sweatshirts

It feels like my whole life was kindling. An exaggeration, I know, but yesterday, I saw a picture of an old fence, like one that surrounded graves 120 years ago. And I remembered that I had had a piece of fencing like that, something ex-Pat and I found on a trip to Leadville, that had been waiting for years to become an integral piece of art. That became nothing more than kindling.

My giant, ancient, solid, five-inch thick wooden door, resting on iron rods, a much-desired, terribly weathered birthday present that I used as a potting table, now reduced to just those pieces of iron. Nothing more than kindling.

The K Tree, an ornamental pear that we planted when K was born, that was split by a heavy spring snow and yet still survived to bloom each spring, now a charred shadow of its former self. Nothing more than kindling.

When the Texas Baptist Men were sifting through the ashes, one said, “You must have had a lot of combustible stuff in here.” I suppose I did. Waist high stacks of pages of ashes marked where my bookshelves were, where K’s bookshelves were, all disintegrating at the slightest touch of my finger. Dust in the wind. Nothing more than kindling.

And another fire, in Boulder yesterday, burning trails my feet know well. Mercifully, the winds were not what they were on December 30, so other communities were spared the fate of mine. But it raised the specter of that day. K knew about this fire before I did – she had friends who were evacuated – but didn’t want to stress me out by telling me.

I’m maudlin today, despite the warm weather, as we’re having troubles with our well at the Retreat and I feel like I’ve moved into the house in that ‘80s movie, The Money Pit. I’m sullen and sulky and cannot even take a bath for comfort. I’m feeling like it’s all somewhat pointless. Because in the long run, after all, I’m really nothing more than kindling.

A spider braving the melting snow.
Compulsory cat photo.

Today’s gratitudes:

  • MKL, today and every day
  • Blankets
  • Lots of birdsong
  • The road to the Final Four

And his name is Pharaoh. Maybe I should say there’s a new cat god in town. This is our late son’s Maine Coon, who’s been living with MKL. Yesterday, we shifted him up to the Retreat. He’s settling in well. He’s very attached to MKL though, so as much as he likes me, I’m a little nervous about how we’ll do when MKL goes back to civilization tomorrow. He’s super smart, can open most closed doors, and lives up to his breed’s reputation as “the dog of cats”. But it sure was nice to have him snuggle in my lap for a couple of hours. It’s been too long.

Today’s gratitudes:

  • A lovely day
  • Successfully cooking dinner
  • Cats
  • Coach K’s 100th tournament win

I’ve driven hundreds and hundreds of miles already this year. My drives have been from The Retreat to MKL or to the ruins of the cozy house. Of course, it’s wonderful to have time with MKL, but most of my trips north have involved my sifting or just sitting in the ashes or managing some detail of recovery. In other words, these drives have been taken with a heavy heart.

Yesterday, though, my drive was different. Instead of turning north, I turned south on the highway and headed for New Mexico to meet up with K for one night in a town about midway between us. As soon as I hit the unfamiliar blacktop of I-25 South, I felt free. The sky opened up to a vast blue and I felt tearfully excited that I was going to see my girl.

It was a lovely, easy drive, with Truck most eager to hit illegal speeds. It was warm and sunny and I had Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers as musical accompaniment. I blew kisses to the many herds and singleton antelope I saw along the way, they being my comfort and shamanic power animal, so often appearing in my travels.

While I’m not choosy, particularly when it comes to New Mexico skies, I prefer a few clouds to add some extra drama, but the clarity of the day, with a three-quarter moon resting in the crook between the mesas, made for a liberating trip. I love how, heading south from the Retreat, the Spanish Peaks appear suddenly before me, welcoming and enticing. Across the border, after Raton Pass, a New Mexico snow-capped mountain range peeks out from the west horizon, dipping behind the brown hills and reappearing unexpectedly in a slightly different place a few miles down the road.

Once, years ago, when K was in high school, she was having a rough patch and she said, “I just want to get out of this state.” And I said okay. So we got in the truck and drove to Wyoming, thrift shopping, exploring, and stopping at the hoodoos at sunset to clamber around. That change of scene, that change of state, was just what she needed. A day with her in another state was just what I needed right now. I’ll share pictures in the coming days.

In the cozy house was a little wooden two drawer filing cabinet. In this little two drawer filing cabinet were words. So many words.

I had files of letters from my Mother and Father. They’ve been dead for 16 and 17 years, respectively. It was tough losing them within 21 months of each other. The loss from the fire is the only loss that’s been anywhere near similar to my heart. And I suppose the loss of my pets before Roscoe and Dusty.

My Father in particular was a prolific writer. He sent me newspaper clippings about my hometown or other stories he thought I’d be interested in, along with a little one or two page note, usually on his Duke University notepaper. I kept them all. And now they’re gone.

K has a letter that her grandfather sent to her. I think that may be the only letter left. I don’t know how or why I took that one with me when I left, but I’m glad I did. I have some old files in my basement that may have copies of letters he’d written to others, but none to me. My heart tears just a little as I write that, one more tear that will need to heal over time.

My Mother did not write letters to me often, but those she did are gone. However, she, like me, kept journals. I took all of them that I could find with me. That’s a blessing. I have a lot of her words, her history, her thoughts, even documentation of some of our nightly phone calls. I haven’t been able to see what years are missing yet. I don’t want to know, because knowing won’t change anything and it will just magnify what’s lost instead of what’s left. I don’t need that right now.

I hadn’t thought about the letters and my parents’ handwriting until today, when, while leafing through a cookbook that I took with me when I left the cozy house, I found one of my Mother’s recipes. She always used little yellow lined notepads. Then I remembered. Another memory of what’s been lost.

I’ve written about losing my journals, my words, those memories. But as a photographer, I’ve lost thousands of images that were taken in a pre-digital era. And that really hurts. I’m not alone in this. The images that I’ve shared of the cozy house were sent to me by a professional photographer from town who also lost decades of her beautiful work.

Believe me, I continue to beat myself up with “Why didn’t I transfer all those images to a digital platform?” Because it took time and money and resources that I didn’t have. “Why didn’t I take those photo albums on the top shelf of the bookcase – there were at least 15 – with me?” Because I didn’t have space for them yet. “Why didn’t I at least take the notebooks of negatives?” Because, and so much of it comes down to this, I thought the cozy house was a safe place. I thought it was invincible. I was wrong.

Perhaps I should have known better.

In 2013, the cozy house was hit by the 100 (or 10 or 1,000 or 10,000) year flood. The root cellar filled with water and the kitchen and two rooms had about four inches of muddy water, but the cozy house stood firm. Some boxes of photos were close to the floor of the cat room at the time. Much later, Ex-Pat brought them to the Bungalow, damaged as they were and I tucked them away to sadly deal with later. I guess today is later.

I brought some up from the basement today. Decades of photos stuck together. So I’ve spent some time meticulously pulling them apart. The mud has acted like glue in some cases, so if I can get a fingernail inserted into a stack, I can flex them a little, then a little more, and then still a little more, until I can gently separate them. Sometimes I lose a little backing. Sometimes some of the photo tears off. But overall, I’m making some progress.

These are mostly images from my travels, and that’s nice but what I was hoping to find are images from K’s childhood. There are some – of her and her best friend at the Renaissance Festival, of her time at Calwood – but not what I’m looking for. And none as yet of the house. I’ve lost my pictures of Scotland from when I was pregnant, and that’s a tough one. That was a very happy time. And the picture of K and ex-Pat taken right after she was born. You’ve never seen any newborn look more like she was saying, “WTH. PUT ME BACK.” She wasn’t even crying, just glaring at the camera from under her tiny knitted hat that hospital staff put on her little head.

On one bright note, I have one box of albums from my Mother (another was lost to the flames). When K was born, my mother asked me to get duplicates of the pictures I took and send them to her. It gives my heart a flare of hope that I have some of those. Now I just have to find the box in our Indiana Jones movie warehouse of a cellar filled with boxes.

A rescued favorite. Tortola, 2004.

MKL and I went back to the cozy house today. We dug and sifted through ash, snow, and mud. We focused on the area by K’s bed, part of the kitchen, and a continued fruitless quest for the hardware from the antique family rifles. We found very little. The brass bull boot puller. Another mystery ring in terrible shape. A couple of things that might be K’s Ultimate medals. A whetstone. Not much.

Today, I am asking, when is it enough? When am I done digging, done searching, done trying? I called K and she said not to keep digging for her. In her wisdom, she said that there’s nothing I will find that will bring back the cozy house. What we want is for this never to have happened. That’s something we will never have. I will never have the cozy house back ever again. It is gone. Period.

Those who know me know that I don’t give up. Not on people, not on things, not on goals. I could have sifted every inch of ash on the property since the fire, given the opportunity. I could go back today and sift forever. But at some point, I have to stop. I think that point is now.

Searching hurts more than it helps. My attempts at discussing rebuilding with ex-Pat have been met with nonchalant hostility. For him, that part of his life is over. It sucks that he has zero sentimentality about our family. It really sucks. But there we are. I can’t afford to rebuild on my own. I can’t afford to buy him out. Maybe I’ll just come down from the Wet Mountains with a tent and camp on my land and plant flowers to recreate my amazing gardens. I don’t know. I’m sad. I’m at sea. But I’m moving forward, even though I don’t know what’s up ahead.

I was born only a few miles from the house I grew up in, the house my parents lived in my whole adult life, the house in which my Father died. As I’ve said, it’s what I truly thought of as home. My Mother sold it about 10 months before she died, about 5 months after my Father died.

I wanted that sense of security for K. I could see the cozy house’s lights from the room in hospital where K was born. It was always her home, even after I moved to the Cottage and then to the Bungalow. Even after she went 1,000 miles away to college, and then 500 miles away to start her grown-up life.

I have often talked with her about the concept of home. Now my heart breaks that she has suffered this loss of home as a place, a concept, and a heart, just as I have now done twice. She’s too young for this loss.

Several sisters of my heart were raised differently from me, being from military families. They moved often and far. One has wondered why I left so many things I treasured in the cozy house. She was not attached to much and was ready to pick up and move when the family needed to, never leaving anything behind. Another has found herself more attached to things since she had to pick up stakes so often.

My Mother was the child of a somewhat nomadic father, and she loved moving. She loved the new towns, new schools, new people. Her lack of attachment to things, as I discussed yesterday, was also most obvious to me by the fact that she sold her wedding dress. She didn’t think about the daughter she might have someday who might want it. She did save a silk chiffon scarf that she wore on her wedding day, that I wore on mine, that is now ashes.

My Father moved, but most of it was for education. Kentucky, Connecticut, New York, Illinois, and finally, North Carolina, where my childhood house was the first and only house he bought. But despite all those moves, he had a family home to go back to in West Virginia, where his Mother was born and lived until she could no longer live alone, which was in her mid-80s. While we never discussed it, I think he had the same concept of home that I did.

Of course, all of this is completely contradictory to the me that I know that wants to travel until the end of my days and beyond. Or is it? Does my wandering soul just need to know that there is a home, a sanctuary to return to? I welcome your comments here. They help deepen my thoughts about this topic that has been a lifelong wonderment.

A house that was a half-time home two decades ago.

Something odd is happening. In my reaction to the fire and the loss of things precious to me, I am doing two things: trying to find my lost treasures out there in the universe and wanting to get rid of everything I own.

I talked briefly with K about this and she understands and has had similar feelings. Thinking about lost things takes her down a rabbit hole of emotions. Writing about the memories I have about the house, to keep it alive, makes me cry. When K asked me if it was helpful for me, I said that at least she would have this journal with my memories of the house for her future. And then I said, “Unless it burns up,” and she said, “I just thought the same thing.”

I don’t trust the universe right now. I don’t trust that there’s not another giant Monty Python introduction foot just waiting poised to fall and crush me again. Dreams reflect this. Dreams where I can’t find my hotel or my hotel room. Yes, in my dreams, I’m back to living in hotels, a sign that I don’t know where I belong. Dreams about the beach house, which right now feels like the only home I have left, but in dreams, it has changed or moved or the beach has altered, the town has altered, the sea itself has altered, with huge, consuming waves.

I expect to lose all things now. It’s how this works. In my traumatized brain, I think that if I eliminate all extraneous things, which translates into almost everything, it won’t hurt so much when I lose “it all” again. There may be some validity in this instinctual Konmari impulse, but it’s very unlike me. When I feel empty from loss, I have a tendency to become acquisitive. Which is why I’m on the hunt of specific items that I lost in the fire.

I’ve always been attached to my “stuff”, been extremely sentimental, the opposite of my Mother. She was very cognizant of this and guarded against me myself, cleaning out my childhood home and not even offering me too much stuff. She knew I’d take anything and everything, the house included, if I’d been given the opportunity. I’m still a mix of miffed and grateful that she approached it that way.

So now I’m in a bit of a limbo. To acquire or to dispose? I think clarity will come when MKL finally joins me at the Retreat. I trust that then, we will get the things we have organized, decide what we really want to incorporate into what will be our home together, and move forward. Maybe then, I will calm down. Maybe then, I will be able to find peace in emptiness. Maybe then, I will move out of the hotels in my dreams.

How many times have I sat with grief before? I have lost count. But before, it has been grief for people, for relationships, and for the futures that are lost along with them. The number of people that I have lost is severely disproportionate to my years. Unfortunately and mysteriously, K seems to be following a similar pattern in her quarter-century life.

But I’ve never lost something so tangible and with so many intricacies and layers. Something that was primarily composed of things, and that was a thing itself. I’ve lost gloves and iPods and earrings. I’ve broken favorite coffee mugs and Christmas ornaments. I’ve lost fuzzy pink sweaters and high heeled booties. Reading glasses and birth control pills (!). But this loss and the grief of it is so very different. While, yes, we have lost things (I cannot think of the loss of Roscoe and Dusty right now), we have lost more than that. I am grieving the loss of what my heart felt was a surety, a safe place, a place that would always be there if I needed it. The very definition of home.

Having a place become home takes a long time. For me, it takes a very long time. I was in the Bungalow for ten years. It felt much like home, like the place I yearned for after a long day, but my feelings were more centered around attachment than safety. I’m not sure that makes sense, yet I know it to be so. The cozy house was mine for 30 years. It had earned its place as home.

When I’ve longed for home, I’ve longed for the house I grew up in, which my Mother sold before she passed. I know it’s not the house itself that I yearn for as much as the feeling of safety and being cared for, of someone making everything better so I didn’t have to do or think about hard, sad, bad things. The longing for being a child again. I’m still salty about my mom selling the house, and saltier still about the buyer who cut down all the beautiful old pecan trees in the front and backyards. This loss — my loss — of the cozy house has forced me to confront the feelings of losing my childhood sanctuary. I have now lost yet another sanctuary. Perhaps sanctuaries are temporary. Perhaps they are illusions.

So I hole up in the Retreat, beneath blankets and blue skies. I tell the cozy house’s story to the man who comes to plow the driveway. I bake brownies because no Southerner allows a loss to go unmarked by home-baked goods. I sit side by side with my grief, watching it turn and transform in the changing light behind my eyes. My friend, my enemy, my companion.

The cozy house.
Photo credit: Megan Williams
October 2022
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