At 9:00 AM on November 28, 1992, the phone rang at my sister’s place in Calgary while I was visiting family over Thanksgiving break. My companion (now my husband) Michael was calling from California, the day before I was scheduled to return there. It was odd to hear from him in the morning. He usually called at night, before we went to bed.
He said, “I’m at your neighbors’. There’s been an accident.”
His voice sounded strained, tight.
I asked, “What happened?”
“There’s been a fire at your place.”
“Very bad. Everything’s gone.”
The fire suddenly was there, on that long-distance line, roaring out of control, eating up everything in its way, rushing on ahead. Like a wild animal that’s been contained for too long, it was on the loose.
“Did Spook get out?” Spook was my introverted black cat; we had developed a deep bond.
“No. But the firemen say he would have died of smoke inhalation and not suffered. We’ve already buried him.”
For ten years I had rented that eighty year-old white, one-bedroom cottage in San Rafael, the longest I’ve lived anywhere. It sat under a canopy of trees in a quiet neighborhood of older houses, and from every window I saw green foliage. I could forget I lived a fifteen-minute walk from downtown San Rafael. I could forget I was in an urban area at all.
Entering the cottage took me back in time. It once was a guesthouse for one of the larger homes in the neighborhood. I spent many nights in front of the fireplace, built-in bookshelves on either side of it overflowing with books. I watched blue and yellow flames chase each other, my eyes flicking over the well-used books I kept there, the subjects close to my heart: meditation, mythology, religion, Jungian psychology, dreams, poetry, art, fiction.
I’d found many of them in used bookstores, a habit I’d learned as a child from my grandpa, Murdoch MacKenzie. He took me to Jaffe’s Used Books in Calgary when I was barely tall enough to see over the tables holding comic books and old manuscripts. I remember the moldy smell of the place, mixed with oil they used on the floors. Books forever became associated for me with mildew, something decaying. But since I’d lived on a farm, decay wasn’t a bad thing to me or necessarily negative. I knew that rot could lead to new growth, that decay was part of a process, not the end of one.
Not long before he died, Grandpa came to me for help. He was living in a little room in East Calgary; he had no contact with his sons or my mother, who wasn’t living in Calgary at the time. Unable to speak because of a growth in his throat, he wrote me notes in perfect Pitman shorthand (he’d been a schoolmaster in Scotland until he moved to Canada in his early 40s), asking for help. I called other family members and we had him hospitalized.
Before he left, he gave me a book he was carrying in his hip pocket, The Vicar of Wakefield. He wrote notes to himself in it, my last link to him, something I treasured. It had been on one of my bookshelves.
Over the years, I spent many uplifting hours in that cottage— reading, reflecting, writing. Taking time to prepare and eat good meals, to visit with friends, to have deep conversations. To paint, sculpt, play the piano and guitar—to sing. It was my sanctuary, and it had become Michael’s as well. (Recently out of a divorce, he had two children, a girl aged seven and a boy who was twelve. They lived with him half of the time.)
When I first moved into the cottage, I had a dream welcoming me to the neighborhood. Neighbors brought me gifts, people I’d never seen before, and the feeling in the dream was very positive, as if I were part of a community. Even the trees welcomed me, leaves along the tree-lined street whispering, especially after dark.
For the first month, I sat up every night until after midnight, making floral curtains for the windows, for the French doors, decorating the house to fit its European country ambiance. Before moving in, I’d painted the kitchen and bathroom and cleaned every corner, claiming it as my own, and Tony, my new neighbor (his grandmother had lived there before me), had put new linoleum on the kitchen floor.
A huge bay window gave me a view of the junipers, Hawthorne, creeping baby roses, and hydrangeas growing in the front yard. And from there I could watch my neighbors working outside, learning their habits, their rhythms. They became part of mine.
I finished my first masters in the humanities while living there, leading to my teaching career. I made a deeper commitment to writing by almost completing a second masters in creative writing before the fire happened (I still managed to finish it the following spring). But most important, I met Michael while I was living in that house.
Over the years, I filled the cottage with my own artwork and my family’s. From one wall hung my brother John’s relief of a horse pressing to be free of its frame. On another my own answering images hung, in dialogue with the gifts my sister Marina had sent from Greece, Egypt, and other travels—an ancient cross with a place for candles, a hand-crafted kitchen witch that oversaw my cooking, a holder for fireplace matches. My mother’s colorful striped hand-knitted tea cozies kept my teapot warm, and the things she made at the senior citizen center (decoupage and heads of Beethoven and two children) made her a palpable presence.
I reconstructed my past in that place, reshaping an earlier time in my life in the things I kept around me. Of course, we all do this to a certain extent; I’m not suggesting that my impulse to do so was extraordinary. But I think a child from a broken home may need more reminders of family and friends. Consequently, I kept things over the years that could help me rebuild a life. I was the family historian, aware of the importance of letters, photos, and other keepsakes.
I had lived some distance from my Canadian home since leaving Calgary at fifteen—a high-school dropout and on my own. With family members so far away, I treasured the things I’d collected that reminded me of them. One time I returned from a trip to Calgary with a lamp that had been in my room as a child. Not much else had survived from that time or place, so the lamp was even more precious. It had a black marble base and bronze stem and still appeared solid, though that home had long ago disintegrated. (When I was fourteen, my mother had left my stepfather to run off with one of our boarders, leaving me to care for my two younger brothers, aged six and ten.)
Another time, Duncan, a favorite uncle, had insisted I take an old oil painting I admired that he’d brought with him from the Isle of Skye—my mother’s birthplace. It was a still life, painted by an amateur but filled with character. The somber browns and blacks and umbers captured something of Duncan, a dour but lovable Scot who often seemed dark and brooding, longing for his homeland.
In a way, he’d never left Scotland and represented that place for me.
Actually, when I say “home” and “family,” I see how the impulse to construct one goes deep—deeper than I’d realized or understood until now. I not only had packed that house with memories (scrapbooks of my son’s achievements and artwork, letters to and from family and close friends that went back to when I first left home, daily journals that I’d written in for years), but I’d tried in some way to reconstruct a family.
Unconsciously, I also had been recreating the gracious living that once filled the house I walked into at four years of age, the year Mother married my stepfather Chester and we moved to his farm. My inherited grandmother, my stepfather’s mother, had taste and a developed sensibility. I’d never met her; I only had photographs, letters, her collections of china doll dishes and fine keepsakes, and Chester’s stories to feed my imagination, to help me build a past that lived on in my cottage. But her spirit had somehow entered her belongings, and she became real to me—alive.
Alice Munro claims that a woman is her home. If it’s destroyed, more has been lost than just a few objects money can replace; there’s a life gone that can’t be restored.