"What greater thing is there for human souls than to feel that they are joined for life – to be with each other in silent unspeakable memories." George Eliot
Sometimes bad news comes so raw, so sudden that it shakes the foundation. The call comes, a few words without context or explanation, but clear as a tightly composed tag line, massaged to perfection:
"The house is on fire."
The heart sinks, breath shallows, mind races with worst case scenarios worthy of a disaster flick, but there are no stunt doubles and no Hollywood ending.
The story begins on a perfect fall day in the suburbs of Cincinnati, West Chester Township, with a fit, meticulous man of eighty-one - my father in law, Ray - mowing the lawn, raising the smell of summer in his wake. The machine snicks grass into mulch as it always has, and as he pulls into the garage he might be thinking of anything, or nothing. Mowing clears the mind.
Cleaning up before early dinner at Bob Evans, Ray hears something not right: his solid, well-kept 1980s house is creaking, groaning, as though the earth is opening beneath it. Ray steps into the kitchen and opens the door to the garage, drawing a drafty black billow of smoke, filling the house; this is real, this is happening, the house is on fire.
Five screaming red engines douse the flames, and shadowy objects emerge, including his pride and joy, the once-pristine, once-white Cadillac. Now, it’s a uniform matte black, what the boys at the vintage car drive-up call “murdered out.” The scene looks like an ersatz, oversize Louise Nevelson box.
Ray’s grim, devastated, but uncomplaining. We gather the family together, feeling our way through the aftermath. None of us has been through a fire. Wanting to make one thing right again, I rush the Caddy to the car wash, hoping the black smoke won’t stain the paint job.
Jean, Marty’s mother, surveys the sodden evidence of a successful family life, anxiously searching the entropic mess for Marty’s childhood toys and Morgan’s high school memorabilia. I don’t think she’ll ever forget the loss she feels in this moment.
And then, we see it. In the destruction, the disarray, the raw, disheartening loss of so many precious, memory-filled objects, is the unforgiving gift of this fire: the sure knowledge of what we are, and what really matters. The value in this house is what grew within it, the solid, close-knit, loving family standing side by side, surveying the blackened detritus of a good life.
These are things. We are people, tightly bound by love and memory.
Photos by Aaron Conway