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By Caroline Praderio
It was going to rain but we decided to build a fire anyway. My brother Tom said he could make one strong enough to survive the storm, so I got the camping lantern from the garage and held it up shoulder-high while we walked through the backyard to the woodpile. The backyard at my childhood home is thick with young maples—more like a forest than a lawn in suburban Massachusetts. I had always loved how secretive it felt, to live surrounded by them. In the summer, when their leaves grew bigger than my face, it felt like the whole house floated inside a cloud of bright, yellowy, brand-new green. Like it was shielded from whatever happened out on the street.
It early August, and it was the only night besides Christmas that all three of the siblings would be back home together. Tom, the oldest, had moved out to L.A. Rocco, the youngest, was in college in upstate New York. And I was newly living in New York City, sweating through my work dresses on subway platforms, swatting at the mosquitoes that drifted into my apartment through the holes in the screens. I honestly hadn’t thought there’d be mosquitoes in Manhattan, and it was those little bugs—or maybe hearing that shrill whine when they hovered right by my ear—that got me thinking about being outside, really outside, where you can see the stars without squinting. And then I got thinking about having a fire: the orange glow painting everyone’s faces the color of grapefruits, the sparks shooting up hot and confident then fizzling out just the second before they touch the pale undersides of the maple leaves. Suddenly I felt I needed one. For years, we’d pulled a little tent trailer into the Vermont woods each summer to eat the burned skin off of marshmallows and stay up late by the crackling, glowing coals. For years, fires were a requisite activity of summer vacation. Now I couldn’t remember the last time I smelled wood smoke.
Back home in Massachusetts, I asked Tom if he’d build that fire I was craving, as soon as the sun went down. He agreed despite that heavy, troubled look in the clouds. After dinner he got to work scooping leaves and debris from the fire pit we’d dug in the yard, now misshapen by the rise and fall of winter frost heaves. I scavenged small sticks for kindling. Rocco came down with a lighter from the kitchen.
That’s when the wind picked up—big gusts that flattened out the grass the way helicopter entrances do in movies. My lantern swung on its wire handle; tree branches thrashed. Storms like this are typical of New England summer: The days get hot, humid, like someone’s draped a wet towel over everything; the nights bring thunder, cool wind, pale blue lightning. It’s the angels at the bowling alley in heaven, my mother used to tell me, back when I was young enough to let it scare me.
By the time the first raindrops fell, Tom had already stacked the wood log-cabin style, igniting a lump of kindling at the base. The first layer of logs caught, crackling, then the second. The rain fell harder now, saturating our shirts. Tom eyed the fire for a minute, gauged the rate of rainfall, quietly admitted defeat. Let’s go up to the porch, he ruled. This thing will last for at least a little while.
We hurried to the screened-in porch on the back of the house, where we could watch it burn from a distance. The storm was right on top of us now. Every few minutes a sheet of rain blew through the screens, coating our faces with mist. When the lightning flashed the trees became silhouettes against a bruise-blue sky—just for second—before it all faded to black again. But the fire still roared, now three feet high, belching sparks into the wet air as if to taunt the thunder.
I don’t remember much of what we talked about out there on the porch—conversation between my brothers and me has always come easily, even when it’s been a while. But I did watch the fire closely, silently daring it to keep burning, willing it to survive despite the wind and wetness.
Then, slowly, as the storm crawled through the sky, the fire shrunk lower. Soon I could only see the tips of orange flames. Then it was just the sparks. Then it was just the smoke.
That’s when we went back inside: My brothers to their shared childhood bedroom, and me to mine. My parents had recently redone the room—the first of many renovation projects scheduled now that the nest was empty. When I was younger I’d taken great care in covering every inch of the bland beige walls with posters and pennants and torn out magazine pages. But a year or two ago my parents took the posters down, replaced the beige with avocado green, and put in a real, matching furniture set. Not against my will, though—what was I going to do in there now? I had no reason to hold back progress. I’d already left home.
When I did come back—for holidays, birthdays, weddings—I was still getting used to flipping the light switch and seeing all that smooth, empty green.
I stepped into the room, feeling sleepy, smelling of smoke. Suddenly I felt spurred to walk its perimeter, running my hands over all the childhood belongings still left there: books with cracked spines, bracelets, bleached sand dollars at the bottom of my jewelry box, a shell casing from the 21-gun salute at town parade years ago. I remember scrambling to pick it up off the sidewalk, because kids at school said shell casings were a cool thing to have. Now it feels cold. Hard. Heavier somehow.
I pulled a book from the shelf—Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul—and scanned a few paragraphs from the chapter on puberty, which I used to read with equal parts interest and paralyzing fear. I closed my eyes and pictured exactly where each poster and ticket stub and deflated Mylar balloon used to hang, as if to convince myself that I really am the same person as the girl who used to sleep here, in this room. That I am the same person who dog-eared pages of Chicken Soup and penciled in answers to math questions and fell asleep dreaming of kissing boys because it had not yet happened in real life. Apparently it was me doing all those things, underneath this exact ceiling. Apparently I was the girl who measured herself against the wall wearing shoes, because it was her room and no one would know she was cheating. The one who stayed up late dreaming of all the wonderful adventures sure to come her way, just as soon as she was old enough, far enough away from suburban Massachusetts.
Each time I come back to my childhood home that girl feels less like me and more like her—like we’re carbon copies and someone finally tore off the top sheet, filing us in separate cabinets. Partly it’s because of the little things: The green walls, the new mat on the front step, having to ask where my mother where we keep the scissors now. Mostly I’m just dogged by the distance between the kind of extraordinary life that girl used to imagine for herself and the real one I currently live—the one with work and bills and boredom and fear. Mostly I’m afraid she wouldn’t recognize me.
So I walk the perimeter of my old room, touching the picture frames, smelling the book spines, conjuring her, raging against that distance between us like flames against water and wind. I know I can’t go back. But I rage anyway.
Each time I return to my life in New York I take a piece of her with me. Or maybe it’s more like she’s a ghost, trailing me. She watches me rub my eyes on the subway, get home, unhitch the deadbolt. She’s there when I drop my bag, open the mail. She sees me grit my teeth falling asleep, worrying about the groceries and about work tomorrow and about whether I am doing anything right at all. When I sit down with the checkbook to pay the next month’s rent, I feel her there, tugging on my sleeve, asking when is it all going to start?
#Real #SummerNostalgia #Distance #Childhood #FormerLife #Together
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