At first glance, I wondered if it was just an enormous burn pile.
My first memories place me under the tree in the yard of my early childhood home on Varano Drive in St. Louis, where I spent so many hours picking at the grass and digging in the dirt. I longed to go with my big sister as she boarded the bus to school. When she returned from kindergarten, we would wait together for the ice cream truck. She would always be first to proclaim that she could hear the magical music…probably, I figured, because she was the big sister. I wanted to do “big girl” things, just like she did.
I started to wonder if it was more than just burning leaves.
At four years old, I clearly remember sitting between my preschool peers at Virginia James Dance Academy. It was snack time. I wanted the ice milk that Vicky, who had some kind of food sensitivity, had gotten, instead of the paperboard cup of ice cream before me. As I scraped a tiny vanilla mound onto my little wooden stick-spoon, I secretly wished that I, too, had been special enough for ice milk.
The cloud of smoke rose and widened.
At six, I wanted so badly to swing high enough to wrap the chains around the support bars, even while I held fast to my seat.
We stepped outside. The fire was audible from our front porch.
As a third-grader, I really admired Mary Ellen’s new shoes. They were shiny black patent-looking vinyl with a grosgrain ribbon glued across the top. I asked her where she had gotten them. My mom took me to Kmart after my successful pleading, and soon I had my very own pair. I felt fancy, indeed! By the time my toes crowded against the front of the shoes, I was ready to trade the once highly-coveted ribbon shoes for a pair of canvas Keds which seemed better suited, anyway, for making potions in the backyard from baby powder and food coloring.
Under the rolling smoke, we could see flames coming toward us.
In sixth grade, my dad took me to a Cubs game. I got my first baseball mitt, and, at the end of that season when my love of the great game began, I learned of the dreaded baseball depression that begins with the last out of the World Series and, thankfully, lifts as the first pitch is tossed in the springtime.
Just in case, I called for help even as the sirens could be heard in the distance.
I wanted to ride the highest roller coasters and the fastest spinning rides with my friend, Sheila, because she was really funny and good, and I knew she wouldn’t throw up on me.
The flames, topped with billowing smoke, continued to roll furiously toward the farm.
I wanted to know what those girls who sat along the wall were laughing about in my eighth grade classroom. I hoped very hard that it wasn’t me.
We could see flashes through the smoky clouds, far across the burning field.
In high school, I wanted to belong. I could never, though, really find my way in a crowd. My message was awkward and quiet, though my inner voice roared. I joined service clubs that worked to clean the convent adjacent to our school, packed harvest boxes for the holidays, and volunteered at a summer camp for preschoolers with autism. I wanted to “help people” because I thought that was what I was supposed to do, perhaps because I though it would somehow make me a better person.
Fear was rising.
At twenty, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of friends, I walked along Clark and Belmont, hunting for vintage treasures at Flashy Trash and scouring the record bins at Second Hand Tunes. I waited long hours for entry to concert venues, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of friends. I studied hard. I wanted to travel, listen to music, and, perhaps one day, still, have a little part in saving the world…or, at least, the children.
Fire trucks and rescue vehicles arrived with flashing lights, strength, and fire hoses. The helpers had come.
The days turned quickly to years, love, babies, home keeping, and gardening. I wanted to stay right where I was, alongside my dear friends as we pushed strollers to the coffee shop or sat on the bench outside the conservatory. The simple days were numbered, though, as the children grew.
The sky had transitioned to an eerie, unsettling yellow. The air swirled with remnants of harvest, brittle and broken.
Time presented years of fostering and subsequent adoptions, years so different from my early days of parenting. I wanted to fix what I never quite could. The words just never seemed right. I hoped to be the one that could make a difference…but I wasn’t enough. The strength…even wisdom…that I had once felt gave way to the anger, the trauma, and the tragedy of what we had signed up for. What I wanted, upon this slow realization that I would never be enough, was uncertain.
It was so hot. The smoke had fallen heavy, permeating our beings. The wind shifted, and with it came new fears of the flames reaching the forest or the chicken coop.
Soon it will be sunset, a mystery of nature’s paint box; one day’s stunning show that leads to an unimpressive tomorrow. Maybe that’s enough.
A tractor circled the fiery field, turning up the soil to aid in combating the flames.
What I want now is to sit next to my aging parents, to hear my mother’s voice of reassurance, quelling my uncertainties about whether the turkey is done or if I should use bleach in the laundry; and to catch a Cubs game on TV with my dad, always faithful as my biggest fan.
The billowy smoke began to give way to sun. The worst, for certain, was behind us.
Sitting under a tree, picking at the grass and digging in the dirt seems nearly enough for me, now, and certainly more desirable and manageable than trying to save the world.
I checked the freezer, but there wasn’t enough chocolate chip banana bread to offer to all those helpers. I called to them, but the noise echoed so loudly in my head that nobody heard me.
I hope that my daughter might stop by on her lunch hour to pick up her mail, or that my son will take a little break from his work day to eat a piece of bread while it is still warm enough for the butter to melt. I think of the faraway boys…now men…and hope that their days find them happy.
The last fire truck was pulling away as I returned from the chicken coop, where a few hens perched inside, seemingly doing their regular chicken things. I waved to the driver and he, to me, as we both went about the rest of our days.
I wish they could all be home, taking their places around the table as the day fades to dusk. They are what I have always wanted, and now, with my grown children in their various stages of adventure, after the smoke has mostly lifted, it has finally come clear.
The November sun was particularly bright in the aftermath, reflecting hope and relief. Though I could not discern the colors, I know they were there.
As the fire, we ignite, rage, succumb to help from others, and fade to quiet.
“And at once I knew, I was not magnificent.”
–from Holocene, Bon Iver