All burned houses look alike, a jumble of ashes, blackened metal, and charred wood. If you know the house that burned, however, you see ghosts. Just before Thanksgiving, my sister called—Grandmother’s home had burned to the ground. A flood of memories washed over me, like a time-lapse film where clouds stream overhead, dreamy and surreal.
Ironic that it burned two days before Thanksgiving for that’s when my better holiday memories took form. So, the afternoon of Turkey Day I drove to see it. I barely recognized the house where I spent many boyhood days and nights. Room by room, I visited the house I loved as a boy. When I spotted the tub, I had a reference point, a way to rebuild the home in my mind. I spotted the charred doorframe where Grandmom Poland measured my height with a No. 2 Phoenix Oil lead pencil.
Understand, reader, we’re going back to the 1950s here. There’s the kitchen where Grandmom kept a jar of water in the refrigerator come summer. There’s the corner where she churned butter. Come mornings she’d toast “white bread” and slather it with homemade butter and strawberry jam. The sink once held channel cats and blue cats Granddad caught in then-young Clarks Hill Lake. Fallen kings, their tails hung to the floor. Beyond the kitchen was the storage area where Granddad stacked dark-green zigzagged watermelons.
Especially memorable was the dining room where Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were feasts. We had turkey, roast beef, fried chicken, and ham. The table groaned beneath those meats, surrounded by about twenty side dishes. I especially remember melted marshmallows over creamy sweet potatoes. Sweet potato soufflé? I’m not sure a chef would agree. Grandmom made two kinds of dressing: traditional and oyster. Ambrosia, pies, cakes, and Neapolitan ice cream were staples.
In the living room I saw my first artificial Christmas tree, a glittering silver tree that changed colors as a translucent red, blue, yellow, and green disc revolved before a spotlight. Out back along the roofline hung amber cane poles we fished with in Granddad’s ponds. There stood the chimney where a stove burned cherry red when Granddad stoked it with sour-smelling oak. There’s the small bath where cakes of Ivory Soap floated in the tub, a miracle! I recall the powder Grandmom kept there, and once in a rare while I inhale a similar fragrance on a woman and am transported to that bathroom. Seeing that old tub, twisted and split by fire, hurt. There’s the bedroom where Grandmom broke my fever by piling quilts on top of me. These memories and more came to me amidst cinders and plumes of smoke. I walked through the ashes, leaving footprints. Last visit. I could go on but it would only sadden me. Now a forklift and a truck will cart my childhood farm home off to the landfill.
I have a ritual. Each year I drive to my mother’s home place. It burned in 1964. I retrace steps I took in the 1950s and early 1960s and do my best to remember forgotten times and people. Last Friday I found the exact spot where the smokehouse stood. For a shimmering moment I saw the geraniums, yucca plants, and sandy yard in a burst of boyhood sunshine. I saw Mom and Dad, just kids then, and my cousins and me getting into mischief.
Now I have another ruin to add to my ritual.
Our grandparents, uncles, aunts, and parents pass on and all we can cling to are their gravesites, memories, photographs, and possessions. When a house burns, all you have left are air and space, and you can’t cling to those. Now I know what I’m writing won’t interest young folks. They’re more concerned about movies, songs, and fashions. Besides, they intend to live forever. Grow older, however, and you see how time and change conspire to do us in. When a house burns to the ground, it makes a statement: “The day is coming when no one will know that, once upon a time, I stood here.” Nor will anyone know that you made memories in that house. And more than that, they won’t give a rip cause you’ll be gone, too. Time will erase your footprints, and the ashes will wash into the sea, and the landfill will swallow what’s left, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is how we end up banished to the Land of the Forgotten. For now, however, we remember. It’s all that’s left.