“A rotting log, or snag, provides food and shelter for many animals and plants,” reads Colin, deliberately. I’ve been working with Colin for a few weeks as his after-school homework helper, one of the several part-time jobs with the elementary set I’ve taken since leaving my full-time teaching position to attend graduate school. “Some plants and animals eat the decaying materials and dead organisms in snags.” He circles the information in the text needed to answer question one: What do rotting logs provide that plants and animals can eat? b. decaying materials and dead organisms. Colin and I both excel at multiple-choice questions.
I know snags pretty well, having spent many hours in my mother’s yard cutting them down. Dead from fire, lightning strikes, disease, or age, these rotted-out trees beg to be severed from their roots and stacked elsewhere. They’re wormy. Unbecoming. Sometimes they’re so rotten you can tug lightly and the whole tree comes loose. A snag makes you feel stronger than usual, while the tree acts weaker than it looks. Mom often asks me to drag the branches and trunks into the woods behind the house, piling them by the stream where their musky odor mingles with the wet dirt and the skunk cabbage growing along the banks. I used to believe that most trees were transferred to such a setting after they died, that even when burned or killed by drought, trees ultimately met a wet end.
But standing snags, according to Colin’s science book, provide a home and food source to a great number of living things in the ecosystem. Woodpeckers, chickadees, bats, beetles, frogs, moss, fungi—they all love a good, dead tree. Better to leave the trees to their afterlife, sticking up among the lush pachysandra. At least the dead trees in Mom’s yard have never been sentenced to the chipper. Piles of branches become complexes of soft, secret little houses. The wood decays and nourishes the dirt, which in turn nourishes the pungent bouquets of skunk cabbage, one of the greenest plants I’ve ever seen.
Colin finishes for the day. I ride the bus home, straight down Second but still a long, halting trip due to rush hour, and think about trees. Connecticut, hilly and woodsy, always draws leaf-peeping crowds in autumn. Some years, when the nights turn cold early enough, the leaves reveal their fiery hearts of orange, yellow, and red in September. Other years, even in late September, green lingers.
When my three older sisters and I were kids, a typical Thursday afternoon (they tell me) included record-breaking swing-set marathons or roller-skating down the driveway that must have seemed like a precipitous slope given my fear of speed and heights. But one Thursday afternoon in late September, when I was eight years old, we spent our time calculating how close to the house certain trees were leaning, triple-checking battery-operated lamps, crisscrossing the windows with masking tape, and taking inventory of the canned food stored in the basement. My mother stockpiled hundreds of cans, along with jars of pickles from my grandmother’s recipe, and scores of bottles—mostly ketchup, soda, and salad dressing. The basement was a playground for us, especially when we gave in to trouble-making impulses. Someone unscrewed soda caps and took just a sip from each bottle, letting them leak out their gas. (I’m told that I was the alleged culprit.) Someone cracked the basement fridge and stole one of the hard-boiled eggs intended for potato salad or Easter coloring. (No one has yet confessed to that crime.) Our basement antics infuriated my mother, and saddened her too, since her basement was her own haven, not for tricks, but for her beloved things. Fabric, mostly. And the piano, a significant purchase she and my father made after I as their youngest was out of diapers, officially making us a family of four lesson-ready kids. The basement held Daddy’s effects, too. His workbenches laden with tools and his model trains. Mom’s basement hideaway, shelter from the bomb-bright world, hadn’t changed a bit since Daddy was alive.
That Thursday in late September, our basement trips were restricted to fetching supplies. Hurricane Gloria was rushing up the East Coast, and as the radio blared the song by the same name, the sky darkened, the wind picked up, the electricity flickered, then failed. We lit candles.
Throughout the following day, as the Hurricane overwhelmed our small state, my mother stood at the kitchen window, peering through its taped-off triangles at the back yard. The black tarp over our shallow, aboveground swimming pool collected rainwater and leaves, sinking deeper and deeper into the pool water below. A branch swung out over the pool and back into the shelter of the tree again. Out and in with the wind, as if to taunt Mom: I’m going to drop. I’m going to drop right here on this pool and send its thousands of gallons of chlorinated water into that basement of yours. The branch did fall, but straight down, crashing against the tree’s base. My mother sighed deeply and unfolded her hands. But she didn’t remove her gaze from the wind-torn yard. One of us must have dragged that tree branch into the woods the next day. It had been so pretty before it turned malicious and then rotten.
Late afternoon, the eye passed over us, and the neighborhood’s modest houses emptied of curious people picking through sticks. We ventured out to the driveway and discovered that a sizable limb had fallen onto our cardinal red AMC Matador station wagon. The branch had snapped in two, leaving just scratches on the roof. Maybe Mom felt proud that she’d been driving her family around in an indestructible red box.
Nightfall brought the wind back, and we slept fitfully in our pink lacy rooms.
My mother and father had purchased a lot, on a short, hook-shaped street in a quiet hilltop neighborhood, in 1972. They were offered an add-on—the lot next door—for two thousand dollars, but they didn’t have the money. For the house, they chose a saltbox design, the kind of house that makes you think you could lift its steeply slanted roof and find baked goods inside. Every day my mother drove from the apartment where they were living to watch it go up. She and my dad painted it a dusky orange, called “burnt sienna” in paint stores, not unlike the copper orange of fall foliage. The house sat on a slight rise, its front yard an English garden overrun by tiger lilies and hydrangeas.
Mom, a seamstress and craftsperson, quickly wallpapered all the rooms. When bedrooms were later occupied by her growing daughters, Mom asked us what kind of curtains and bedspreads we wanted, but only showed us a few selections from the J.C. Penney catalog, only the kinds of curtains and bedspreads that matched the feminine wallpaper now permanently pasted. Our rooms were called “Monet” and “country garden” and they came complete in one boxed set.
The first-floor bathroom provided Mom a unique design opportunity. Just off the kitchen, the bathroom had no window, and Mom wanted to brighten it up. She covered its walls with scraps of fabric, leftovers from this project or that, and slathered on polyurethane, a common product for home use at the time, until the scraps stayed flat and shined. The bathroom, an explosion of colors and textures, revealed Mom’s talents as an installation artist.
The house served as a vessel holding the best years of Mom’s life: marriage to my father, the birth of her daughters, an energetic environment loaded with craft materials and little girl things. Mom lost one baby—her second—at birth. The house held that tragedy for her, too, the only tragedy it would need to contain for a decade.
When we awoke on Saturday morning, Hurricane Gloria’s song had ended. What remained of the storm made its way up to Maine, where the winds would take, much too early, the fall foliage from the trees. The local weatherman reported that the storm was the strongest on record to hit so far north. He said that for some neighborhoods along the Connecticut shore, it had been “a few hours of terror.”
As the story goes, we girls rallied. After a quick breakfast, we zipped outside for raking and hauling branches and scooping up clumps of wet, green leaves. We skipped, jubilant, through chores. With downed trees and power lines everywhere, school would be closed on Monday. Excitement trumped the tedium of yard work, for we had experienced an event we considered big, and only darted in and out of the house to get drinks of water or to use the bathroom. Mom, my sisters tell me, remained somber. “We lost six trees,” she said, as if she’d forgotten those trees had threatened the car and pool. The trees had fallen when they were still tough and dense. A neighbor would need to cut them apart with a chainsaw, keeping the logs as payment.
While raking up a pile in the small square patch of grass behind the garage, I heard sounds from inside the house. My memory of the event begins:
Clang, clank, bang.
Someone was dropping things, throwing them around. But we were all outdoors. Mom asked, “What are the cats doing?”
That’s when the smoke alarm screamed. We froze.
“Is someone cooking something?” my mother asked. “Where’s Debbie? Is Debbie making something?”
There was a new scream—this one human—that pulled me taut like a rubber band. How bizarre it seems now, the fear that freezes the body in a full stop but electrifies the mind with a charge that’s as thrilling as it is terrifying. My sister Debbie yelled from the top of the driveway, “Fire!” She bolted. I moved then, too, running to the garage door where she had been standing, and saw yellow. My mother shouted at us to get to the mailbox, the spot she and my father had chosen long before as our safe zone in times of danger.
Mom saw three daughters hovering round the mailbox, but lost track of Debbie, who had run to the neighbor’s house to call 911 though we didn’t know it at the time. My mother, whose knees were just beginning to stiffen with arthritis and who would lose the ability to bend them in a few years’ time due to Lyme disease, dropped to her knees and crawled into the house, through the front door, now just a blotch of gray smoke, looking for Debbie. She disappeared in blackness, into the house that looked normal from the outside save for the smoking front door and the fiery throat of the garage.
The man from next door brought Debbie to our mailbox at last. His wife, fearing for my sister’s safety, hadn’t let her leave the house, despite my sister’s insistence that she needed to get to our mailbox. We three sisters knew, then, that she was fine. But my mother was still inside our burning home. Did it cross my mind, then, that Mom could be dead, too? Did I know what an orphan was? I don’t remember.
When she finally emerged, sobbing and choking, my mother was hoarse and the front of her dress was blackened.
The Volunteer Fire Service of Gales Ferry had just two trucks in the garage along Route 12. They were rarely used. It should have taken five minutes to reach our neighborhood. But on this day, the roads were blocked because Hurricane Gloria had ripped down the tree branches and chucked them onto swimming pools and station wagons, over power lines, and across roads.
For many minutes, from behind the curtain of my mother’s handmade dress, I heard the sirens, but no one came. Our house looked peaceful even as it groaned and smoked. We listened to what we now know were pots and pictures falling off the walls as brass hooks melted. There was a sudden absence of the smoke alarm as it melted, too.
My sister Tammy remembers crying and screaming, “I hate you, God,” and when the neighbor told her, “You don’t mean that,” she said, “I do, and I hate you, too.” How hopeless it must have all seemed. The world outside our home had swallowed up our father, and now the interior of the home, with its innumerable and invaluable marks of our family’s past, was being destroyed.
The volunteer firefighters finally arrived and doused our home until it sizzled. Even when burned, it met a wet end.
Months later, investigators closed the case as an accident. The fire had begun in the windowless first-floor bathroom. A candle, still necessary in the absence of electricity that morning, had been set on the sink, close to the wall. One of us, the last to use the bathroom, had closed the door, creating a tiny gust, a hush that blew the candlelight into the wall like a kiss. A tiny spot, the size of a quarter, had started to burn. Eventually the wall, covered in fabric and glazed with polyurethane, had exploded in fire. Since we were all outdoors, we didn’t know until it was too late.
Before that moment, the candle had emitted minimal light. As we came inside from the bright outdoors, we must have had to adjust our eyes to the dimly lit interior of the bathroom. Yet that single flame, simply by flickering, initiated an event of such magnitude it converted definable objects—with edges, curves, textures, and colors—into alien shapes, molten, shrunken, desiccated. Like a small bomb, a single candle wielded extraordinary power over the surrounding objects, causing them to collapse into themselves, and over the family that lived in the house, causing it, too, to collapse into itself.
The contents of the first floor were irretrievable. But only because they could no longer serve their original function. I wonder what happened to them, if the pieces were trucked to the incinerator about ten miles away. Or could they still exist, buried deep in a landfill? Our bedrooms on the second floor were shrouded in smoke. The basement had been flooded with water from the hoses, and much of what my mother had stored there was damaged beyond repair, except for the canned food, which remained intact and went with us to the rental house.
The den next to the bathroom bore the brunt of the damage. Books that were lost: If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, Thirty Stories to Remember, Trees of North America. Two hundred in total. My mother meticulously listed everything that had been destroyed. By hand, she filled in fourteen lines per page of insurance company forms, over two hundred pages. Three thousand itemized lines. One receipt from an electrician reads, “Description of work: House had fire. Turned on three circuits that were not in the fire so they could see. No charge.”
But the frame of our house stood as it always had, preserved. Our house was like a body struck by lightning, organs fried but shell unscathed, not even marked by an exit wound.
I remember this well: From my spot at the mailbox, the house looked perfect. But I knew that its central light source had been snuffed out.
A few hours after the fire, Mom was allowed to re-enter the house to survey the damage. Once more we watched her, erect this time, walk into the home she had painted and wallpapered with my father. At some point during the fire, Twinkle, the younger of our two cats, had escaped through a broken window and was rescued in the woods. But Spookee, our oldest, the cat my uncle had given to my mother two months before my father died, was still missing. For the second time that day, my mother crossed the ruined threshold to search for someone. She called Spookee’s name and our skinny black cat, now dull with soot, emerged from the flooded basement that had served as her haven during the fire. My mother picked her up and laid her over her shoulder. Spookee mewed but my mother stayed quiet.
After crackling, after alarms, after the sirens: silence. My memory of the event ends.
It took several months for the cleaners, carpenters, and electricians to rebuild the house. When we returned, we moved back into a different world, all white walls and bare floors.