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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

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.

Yesterday was another day with hard and soft spots. It was wonderful to have breakfast with dear A, who gave me some lovely art and the good kind of bath salts.

I went to the cozy house in the afternoon as the sun started its lowering behind the mountains, which I can now see clearly since all the trees in town are gone. They had sprayed the ruins with some kind of greenish material to keep the ashes from blowing around in the winds. I knew this was going to happen after the sifting. Maybe I thought they’d let me know when they were going to do so, but they didn’t. Somehow, it made it harder to be there. I reclaimed a few pieces of yard metal and then just sat on the few remaining bricks of the patio by the greenhouse and bawled. I really need to remember to bring a handkerchief. And I really hope the town tells me when they’re going to bulldoze and clear all the debris. I will need to be there for that. It will be a funeral of sorts.

Once again, sitting there, I could see the trees that shaded parts of the yard, see little K running barefoot across the little bridge ex-Pat had built, see my herb garden, my perennial bed, my center bed with the moonflowers that smelled so luscious at night. The circle bed where I tried unsuccessfully to grow honeysuckle but had great luck with Cosmos, California Poppies, Bells of Ireland, and the occasional sunflower and pumpkin before the squirrels had their way with them. The vegetable garden. The new garden with my wonderful hammock. All lost. It’s still so hard. One of those unexpected hairpin curves on the grief road. I’m thinking about just making the space a huge garden until I can figure out this whole rebuilding thing.

Since I got so very sad, I stopped to visit a dear friend for some puppy therapy and delayed returning to the Retreat until this morning. It’s always nice to take the drive at sunrise. It’s lovely and quiet here and the snow is melting. Spring is on its way. It can’t come too soon for me.

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.

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

Fire and I have had a lifelong complicated relationship. Actually, it extends into a past life relationship, but that’s a little too woo-woo for me to get into just now.

Growing up, the fireplace was a focal point in my parent’s house. A cord of wood was dumped in the garage (which was never used as a garage) every year and my dad would stack it and chop it as needed. When it turned cold, we’d stack wood in the basement to avoid having to go outside to get it. Kindling came from the pecan trees, supplemented by newspaper, of which there was no shortage, since my dad took at least six papers. While we had a furnace – a big old scary roaring cast iron thing in the basement – my parents, being depression era children, always kept the house cold, using the fireplace as a major heat source.

We had a fire almost every night from Fall through Spring. Little me learned how to tell if it was smoking into the living room and point that out to my dad. Bigger me learned how to fix it when it was smoking. On cold mornings, I would scrape the ashes looking for some extra warmth from the coals like Cinderella. Scraping through the ashes of the cozy house, even 10 days after the fire, I found warm spots that reminded me of my Cinderella mornings.

E-Bro melted the soles of numerous pairs of shoes reading on the floor in front of the fireplace. One summer morning, when I was very small, my parents tucked him just a tiny bit up the chimney in a Santa Claus costume and surprised me with Santa’s visit. I still remember how thrilled I felt.

The chimney caught fire once and the fire department came to put it out. I was always nervous when we cleaned out the chimney after that. One day, after a night where the fire didn’t draw well, my sixth grade English teacher took me aside and asked me kindly if my home had caught fire because my hair smelled so much like smoke.

In college in Boston, I made the decision to leave as I stood at my window and watched the building across the street from my brownstone dorm go up in violent flames, set alit by an arsonist terrorizing the area. As it burned, I thought, “I am too young for this.”

In college in Boulder, I lived on the top back room of a rooming house that was otherwise occupied by six guys of questionable character in their 30s. One morning, after being awake for 48 hours between work and disasterous midterms, I was finally sleeping when someone pounded on my door. I was charming and cursed at them and told them to go away. This person said, in exactly the tone you would expect, “Well, EXCUSE ME, but your house is on fire and I THOUGHT YOU’D LIKE TO KNOW.” Which it was. I struggled into my red and white striped robe, stumbled barefoot down the stairs past the quickly charring door of the room on fire, just missing the explosion of the front window. Someone gave me a pair of tennis shoes since I was barefoot on this November morning. Turns out one of my fellow tenants went to the Mental Health Center and told them he’d just set his room on fire and there were people sleeping in the house. The Fire Department got the fire under control, though that tenant’s room was completely destroyed. The firefighters had kicked in my unlocked door and checked to be sure the fire hadn’t breached the walls. I didn’t have much, but everything I owned smelled like smoke for weeks. I moved my bed into the empty attic and left my clothes outside in the cold to air them.

After college, still in Boulder, ex-Pat and I watched smoke and ash creep towards our North Boulder apartment over Mt. Sanitas. It was nerve wracking. I went through a small phase of insanity in which I’d chase wildfires when I knew they were burning in the hills. That stopped one day when my truck got stuck and I watched a ridge across from me burn, the fire’s fingers greedily creeping toward me. It was a miracle that I got myself unstuck. I was in the application process to become a wildfire fighter when I broke my foot, dashing that goal.

In the cozy house in Superior, the fireplace took up half of the living room wall. It was romantic at times, comforting at times, frustrating at times. I learned how to build a good fire. I chopped wood without losing any appendages. There was always a fire in the fireplace on Christmas morning, just like we had in my parents’ house. Ironic that the chimney is the only thing left standing. The fireplace felt like the heart of the house.

Living in the Cottage, I watched the Four Mile fire consume familiar hillsides. I watched the Colorado Springs fire on TV in the Bungalow and have never seen anything that more closely resembled what I’d imagine Hell to look like.

Until now. I still can’t visualize what the hell of this fire looked like but I can see the hell it has left behind. The loss and heartbreak that it has created are our own personal little hells.

I worry that the Retreat might be subject to fire. It’s in the woods, in the mountains, almost to be expected. MKL is wise to tell me not to think of it so I don’t draw it to us. But I feel like fire has licked at my heels my whole life. It just hasn’t gotten me yet. I really hope it’s done trying.

I’ll remember something lost and suddenly I’ll remember so much more, so much more that I have to make myself stop thinking about it all. The losses pile up in my head, one atop the other, and I have to turn my brain off.

We had a beautiful burlwood bar that a chef named Frenchie had given to me and ex-Pat as a wedding gift. One of my grandmother’s lamps cast a gentle glow in that corner, the corner where we always put the Christmas tree. The cabinet held my great grandmother’s china. I’ve actually found a few bowls intact. The drawers held pictures of me that ex-Pat had put away, and some childhood wooden alphabet and map puzzles of K’s.

The top of the bar was reserved for special things. Seashells, which I’ve found whole in the ashes, that crumble to dust at the slightest touch. Vintage things: a packet of hairpins from the Victorian era. A pearl-handled straight razor and rough shaving mug. A can of Prince Albert tobacco. Two civil war minie balls, one dug and one undug. My favorite picture of ex-Pat, taken before I met him, with baby Samoyed puppy Sam.

I start remembering more and more things and my heart starts to hurt more and more, so I have to make myself stop. My old heart is awfully tender these days. Stronger day by day, yes, but the ache is still there, even as I take steps to think about rebuilding, about moving forward.

It’s tempting just to throw up my hands and turn my back on it all. Let ex-Pat decide. But I don’t think his decisions are always in the best interest of the other stakeholders (me and K). Often, they’re just the easiest way out. And sometimes, they hurt me. I won’t stand for that anymore.

Yesterday was a tearful day. I slept badly. Had nightmares. Missed my Mother terribly. Sobbed my way back home to MKL and spent the night drinking wine and watching TV. I am better today, though still frustrated with men who say ‘do whatever you want’ in one breath and ‘but do it this way’ in the next.

I will walk my own path and carve my own trail through the ashes.

Replacing things. What an impossible concept. Of course you can go to American Furniture Warehouse and get a new recliner, a new mattress, a new floor lamp. Maybe you even needed a new mattress before yours burned to the springs in the fire. Yes, these things are replaceable. You may miss your old recliner. It fit your body after your years together. It was comfortable. It held the memory of how Dusty would come and snuggle with you when it was cold, and a mere nudge told him you needed to get up for a moment, so he would shift slightly.

You can hold onto that memory of Dusty as you settle into your new recliner, the one that’s not covered in cat and dog hair, that doesn’t sit unevenly because you only use one side of it. The physical recliner can be, will be, replaced. The rest of it, all those memories and physical energies that it held? Those will live on only in your mind.

When lockdown started waaaay back in March 2020 and none of us were leaving our houses for weeks at a time, I went on a shopping spree. Clothes I didn’t need because I wasn’t going anywhere. Books (because books are always needed – they’re my comfort purchases). Kitchen gadgets because I actually did cook more. I realized after a while that I was buying things to try to fill a hole, to try to fill the loneliness I felt during lockdown, to try to do something that made me feel normal. There was something about having things that made me feel secure and safe.

And here we are today. I lost things but they are not things that can be replaced. Perhaps some of the hundreds of books, my childhood favorites, my P.G. Wodehouse collection. Perhaps a few mugs or dishes if I could find identical ones. But much of what I left in the cozy house was one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable things. A T-shirt from the restaurant I worked in at 16. The beautiful warm coat my Mother made for me. The lovely dancing skirt my grandmother sewed for me. Hand painted plates from Germany from my great grandfather. My childhood Winnie the Pooh, half my size when I got him at age 4, who was my constant comfort and companion. (When I had bad dreams, my Mother would help me visualize walking hand in hand with him on a beach, looking for shells, to help me go back to sleep.) Things that held a place in the infinite puzzle of my heart. I left them there because that was the place that felt the most safe, the most secure, the least risky. I was wrong.

Replacements for things with strong sentimental attachments don’t work. They are just the thing, without the sentiment. I could find some vintage hollow stemmed champagne glasses, but they would not be the ones that were one of my Mother’s first grown-up purchases, that were a splurge over her post-war single woman budget, that she proudly offered to her guests the first time she entertained. That held the imprint of those tiny historical events.

I find myself looking for those kinds of things. And I’ll find some of them. I have a gift for finding things that are nearly impossible to find – not lost keys in the house, but maybe a hat that you had 30 years ago that blew off on a ferry ride and that you always wished you’d replaced. But I doubt I’ll acquire the things I find. Because I’m finding that acquisition doesn’t fill the holes. It – or the things tied to it – doesn’t make the loneliness of loss vanish.

The holes created by loss cannot really be filled. Loneliness is loss’ odd partner, the two being tied together by an invisible cord for reasons and in ways that I don’t understand yet. I’m working on unraveling that knot. Those holes though, they are there now, permanent features of the landscape of my soul. These days I see my soul looking very much like the fire-ravaged ruins of my beautiful yard. The holes will fill with snow, with rain, with mud. Some will backfill with dirt over time, untended and natural. Some will be repurposed and replanted, because why not take advantage of an existing hole to create something beautiful?

I’ve written myself into the brambles now, rambled away from whatever the point I originally had was, so I’ll just stop and sit with it all.

Quarantine cat photo.

Y’all come on down to the new blog, because I keep forgetting to cross post here!

To the blonde barista:

Thank you for sharing memories of our mothers, both of whom told us, “Don’t walk in my dirt!” when they were sweeping the floors. My Mother always had a particularly funny, squeaky way of saying it, and I hear her voice in my head every time I sweep a floor with anyone else around. As a mom, you say it to your own kids. Thank you for laughing with me as I instinctively picked my feet up off the floor, sitting in my chair at the green cracked-ice table, so you could sweep under them. It was a sweet interlude on a cold winter’s day.

A photo of my first ever matcha. It grew on me, but the first few sips, sadly, tasted like what I think a dog must taste after he throws up the grass he just ate. Number of stars: questionable. For you vintage furniture lovers, please note the aforementioned green cracked-ice table.

#yearoflove

June 2022
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