Granny’s house burned down back in ’62. Great licks of fire swallowed the back bedroom and spit out glowing chars that spread to the outhouse and briefly touched the old pines that split the property from the Poulson’s. Bright orange-red embers floated onto the front porch like snow and started in on the old dry wicker chairs. Soon, the whole front of the house bloomed a rose of fire. I saw Grandpa Watson evacuate the outhouse with a newspaper in one hand and shit dribbling down his haunches. His mouth was a perfect “O”, toothless and baby-pink. He hitched up his drawers and ran to the back, helpless and hopeless. Granny didn’t rise until 10, and it was only half-past eight. The whole place roared open and we stood a safe distance away on the scraped-earth driveway, waiting for either firemen or the rest of the world fire-up.
There wasn’t any wind that morning, so nothing else burned. The old wooden floorboards caught like onion paper, and everything inside – clothes, rugs, suitcases – were swallowed entire. Granny never woke up (or I hope) because everything went up so fast. And when the fire truck did show, there was nothing the men could do but damp down the trees around the property and keep everyone back a safe distance. Everything we brought for our visit was gone, but Grandpa Watson lost everything. Everything he built his life upon was a smoldering ruin. He didn’t cry or yell when he saw how it was, and I still remember the perfect “O” of his mouth and that look of surprise that took up his whole face. My folks let him live with us for the remainder of his time, but he didn’t talk much when I was in the room, and his eyes always looked like they were obscured by smoke and the reflection of flames.
Mom’s youngest cousin moved in with us three months after the fire, because Mom told her that Grandpa was getting to be handful. Agitated, bad dreams, restless. He was in his 80’s and didn’t know what to do with himself, or know what was expected of him. His skin was a mottled gray and he sometimes talked to himself when we sat down to watch television. The man before and after the fire were two different creatures. I felt bad for him, scared of him, and fascinated by the transition. It’s like his whole life was rewritten after he stepped out of that outhouse.
Cousin Ruth stayed with us for three months, and then disappeared back into her own life. There were a lot of changes while she was with us, most of them for me. And, maybe, for her, too.
Note: I inadvertently entitled this “Family Biology: The fire”, when, in fact, its proper title is “Family Anatomy: The fire”. It is part of a work-in-progress, and it is a work of fiction. My apologies for any confusion.