writing by firelight

Lightning did not start the fire that killed my aunt; the storm had no lightning. There was no rain to put out the fire that killed my aunt; the storm had no rain. The storm was all wind.

The air was uncomfortably heavy and still, smothered under a thick blanket of late August heat. Blink. The sky ripped open and was dark gray with sixty mile per hour dust and dirt. The tomato plants in our garden bent and snapped across their cages. Leaves tore from branches. Branches tore from trees.

The wind threw one branch on a power line. A surge went back through the line, towards a distribution substation below the Oregon Trail subdivision, all the way across town. This was by design. The surge caused an aluminum clamp on the line just outside the substation to heat up and melt. The clamp was hot enough that the molten metal, after falling thirty-five feet, was still hot enough to ignite the sagebrush and cheatgrass below. This was not by design.

Then the wind hit the fire.


Blink. At my house the air was still again, but it was no longer hot. Fall had come early, suddenly, violently.

I walked around my yard, looked at the roof, checked the lid on the turtle sandbox. I saw no major damage, although I had my doubts about the tomatoes. Power was on, satellite was working. I went in and settled in front of the television to wait for the DNC to start.

The end of “Deal or No Deal” was on. An exuberant woman had gone all the way down to two cases. One contained a million dollars and the other contained effectively zero. Nobody ever goes all the way, she said, so she was going to. I could not deal: the banker’s offer to settle for a half a million before opening the final case would have been plenty for me. A half a million dollars would change my life nearly as much as a million dollars, but a few thousand dollars would not change my life at all. Of course, her winning or losing wouldn’t change my life at all. But I couldn’t look away.

They reached to open the case and see how the gamble went, and the screen cut to a “breaking story” card and then shaky footage of the homes on the ridge above the substation. From the ignition point to the ridge was a little more than a half mile of scrub, and with that wind at its back, the fire crossed the distance in seconds. Four or five houses in a row were completely engulfed in flames. I unfolded my mental map and thought my aunt and uncle’s house was probably one or two thousand feet to the left of the fire, but my wife had lived over there and within ten seconds or so said “call Mary Ellen.”

My aunt’s cell went right to voicemail. The house line brought a “the line is busy” recording that I remembered hearing before. In 1994. In the Northridge earthquake. Shit. I called my mom and asked if she was talking to her sister. No, she replied, why? Nothing, I’ll call later. I got my uncle’s cell number off the emergency contact sheet on the fridge. (When I made that list, I thought it was people to call if we were having an emergency. I didn’t realize it could go both ways.) He answered. I can’t remember my exact question, but I remember his answer.

They had been watching Monday Night Football. They saw smoke, and he went out onto the deck to see where it was from, and was instantly surrounded by flames. Later he would say it was like facing a fifty-foot-wide blowtorch. He couldn’t get back in the house. He couldn’t get to the deck stairs. He dove off the end of the deck into a juniper bush, and ran around to the front. In an instant, the house was fully engulfed.

And Mary Ellen hadn’t come out.


The next five hours went about how you’d expect if you’ve ever dealt with the aftermath of something sudden that is sort of over by the time you’re in motion: an earthquake, a car accident, a heart attack. The bullet has hit you, and simply: you do what is next. You find your uncle on the street in his neighborhood. You try to stay out of the the smoke of nineteen houses burning; out of the way of homeowners on their roofs with garden hoses trying not to be number twenty. You track down anyone who can tell you if anyone has been transported who was not conscious. You discover the city has a crime victim witness coordinator, or some title like that, and you wonder if there was a crime and you’re a victim. A young social worker says helpful things like “Boy, this wind is really something, isn’t it?”

My uncle is not a talker, so we sat mostly quietly on the opened tailgate of a pickup at the fire command center (a parking lot at a nearby baseball field) wrapped against the wind’s chill in blankets from the Red Cross. The flames had gotten close enough to my uncle that he had small burns on his nose and forehead, but he refused treatment, wanting instead only an answer we knew but didn’t know. While we waited, someone brought us a half a box of parmesan-flavored crackers.


It was getting late on the east coast, and my mother was about to go to sleep, then go to work, then sleep again, then come to visit her grandchildren, visit her sister, stay in her sister’s house.

It was not a pleasant phone call.


Mary Ellen was my aunt, was a friend and former professor of my wife (my aunt introduced us) but most times she came over, it was to play with her five year old grand-niece. My daughter’s room is full of books from Mary Ellen, clothes from Mary Ellen, a giant dollhouse from Mary Ellen that I now feel guilty for thinking is obnoxiously big. When I got home from the fire, I looked in on my girl, horrified that in the morning we’d have to forever pop her one balloon.

I quickly asked advice of many friends, parents or not, but of course I pretty much knew the answer: just tell her. (And make sure her teacher and principal know.) I was stalling, hoping there were more steps to slow down the process, but there are no more steps.

We pretended the world was normal through breakfast, and then unable keep lying, had to open our mouths and hurt her. She cried and cried and bawled, but when asked if she wanted to go to school – just her second day of kindergarten – she wailed again: now you’re going to take school away from me too? So she went to school. And was fine that day. But like a rock dropped into still water, the ripples would be back.


One of the broken and battered tomato plants in our garden belonged to Mary Ellen, and even after the terrible wind, it was heavy with fruit. The plant seemed to radiate perhaps overblown questions of respect and symbolism. Do we pick it? Do we give it away? Do we give it to our uncle or would that be an unwelcome reminder? While we struggled with this, our girl emailed her pre-school teacher from the year before:

I’m Very Sad Beacose My Great Aunt Marry Ellen Died In A¬†Fire. We Have Tomatos For Her But I Guess We Have To Share With Other¬†People. Mabe We Can Share With You.


Two days after the fire I went with my mother and my uncle to the house. There was no house. Instead of the house, there was a three foot deep pile of black ash and charred items in the exact footprint of the house. Smoke and steam still rose out of a few places. On top of the pile were the fireproof tiles they’d had put on the roof a few years ago, to protect against flying embers. Two concrete walls of the daylight basement remained, but the tremendous heat of the inferno cracked them and soon, even they won’t be there.

Mary Ellen had already bought Christmas presents for our children, two seasons early, including a castle for our son to go with the doll house for our daughter. She always was overly generous with the children on holidays, and it bothered me. Now it bothered me that it bothered me. It bothered me to know Christmas was in the rubble, it was here and gone, that photos of our children were here and gone. I would not bring my children to see this, but they were here anyway.

Here was the shell of a bathtub. There was the skeleton of a piano. This is a fork and spoon, lying together. That was a waffle iron. This is the box spring, now twisted like a pretzel, that had been the guest room bed, where I stayed when I first came to Boise, where my mom would have been staying. My wife had rented that room for a while. It was in the front of the house, and from the caution tape and the dug out crater next to where the bed was, you could tell they’d found Mary Ellen in that room, about ten feet from the front door.

My aunt was a linguist, and linguists like books. She might have had forty or fifty thousand books, and partially burned pages where everywhere. Covers. Interior pages. Prose. Charts. Diagrams. Books in English, in French, in German, in Spanish. Books on linguistics, on England, on history. There was a page from near the end of a book about Babar the elephant, with his family holding hands, walking into the distance. A few weeks later, under the rubble, someone would find perhaps the only complete book: a wet but essentially intact wedding album.

Before going into linguistics, my aunt explored being an archaeologist. So of course that meant books about it. Face up at the edge of the house, readable looking into the house pile, was a title page: A Guide to Field Methods in Archaeology: Approaches to the Anthropology of the Dead.

You can make yourself crazy looking for answers. Why did she not get out? Did she take ten or fifteen seconds to look for her husband? Was she trying to grab a cat on her way out? Did she not quite comprehend the reality of it? (I can understand that.) Was it simply that hot and fast? If it had been two days later, would my mom have been in the house too on a previously scheduled visit, or would everyone have been out at dinner?

Mary Ellen had just discovered she had cancer for a third time, and was waiting on test results about how bad, how treatable or not. The results were not expected to be good. Did this cloud her thinking? Is it why she was home and not at the coffee joint where she usually is? You quickly look for the silver lining: maybe those results were going to be horrible, more horrible than what had happened. She had written to her sister and to an old friend, preparing for the worst. She said in that letter that if this was the end, she would have no regrets: life had gone better than she could possibly have imagined.

To which I think: except, perhaps, for the sudden stop at the end. Unless… perhaps between a sudden stop or an aggressive, untreatable cancer… then you again think about what happened. Then you realize you can make yourself crazy not only looking for answers, but with just the questions.

In the driveway, both cars were burned out. The paint was gone to the metal; the tires were piles of the steel threads that had been inside the burned-off rubber. People had left flowers on both cars. On the ground behind her car was Mary Ellen’s personalized license plate, the paint gone and half melted but readable in relief: FLW ON.


It was a public death. Mary Ellen was a popular professor at Boise State; at least half the English majors there in the last twenty years had taken a course from her, and she’d held annual Christmas parties for department students at her house. She was very free with her time for students – if you needed help, she’d meet you at a Moxie Java, for hours if that’s what was needed, or for hours even if it wasn’t: you became a friend just like that.

This often turned post-fire conversations around: everyone I’d talk to knew about the fire, and half the time the person I was talking to had been a student of Mary Ellen’s, and they shared their memories of parties and coffees, saving me from telling my story again. It’s said around here that Boise is not a small big city but a really big small town, and I’ve long agreed, but now I actually understand. Community is not a word I have a lot of experience with.

My wife’s sister saw a story about the fire on her local news. That news report had a photo of Mary Ellen holding our daughter, taken by someone at a wedding a few years ago. That news report was halfway around the planet, across the dateline, in another hemisphere. We are all in one really big small town.

The university held the memorial service. Former students and friends came from sometimes thousands of miles away, filling most of a ballroom in the student union. The mayor was there. Three local news channels. The newspaper. From my work I know every photographer at the paper (the whole department sent a very nice card) and the paper had no problem captioning a photo I was in. So there I was in the paper, in clothes I had only worn twice before, at weddings, including the wedding Mary Ellen was at, holding our daughter for a photograph.


Before Boise State’s first home football game they showed a picture of Mary Ellen on TV and had a moment of silence. My son pointed excitedly at the screen and said “Look! Mary Ellen at football game!” It was the clearest he’d ever said her name, and she’d have been proud. Told recently we were going to have dinner with my uncle for his birthday, my son said “And Mary Ellen.” No, we told him, we won’t see her again. “Oh right, Mary Ellen dead.” At two and a half he is old enough to state facts but too young to understand them. It makes me appreciate his company even more, because I know that even in the back of his mind, the fire is not on his mind. But I wonder now if he’ll ever mention her again, and I wonder not so much if his memories of her will fade, but when.

Some afternoon around the memorial service, I was out back with my son, sitting in the dappled shade of the ash tree. The ash tree unapologetically blooms so late you wonder if it’s died, and at the first hint of winter freaks out and drops every leaf it has within what seems like forty-five minutes. It is my favorite tree. My son was busy in his turtle sandbox, and I simply watched him play for play’s sake. The temperature of the early autumn air matched the temperature of my skin to the point where I could not easily tell where I ended and the outside world started. It was not a big moment, but against the recent darkness, its ordinariness was magnificent.


Six weeks after the fire we had the earliest snow on record. For the first time ever I had to take a broom to the satellite dish to remove wet, heavy snow. Trees still with full leaves strained under the weight. (The snow even caught my ash tree by surprise.) Limbs broke again, but there were no fires this time. Winter was not here yet, but it let us know it is coming.

The DVR was full of news recordings from the fire and the memorial service, and when there was nobody home to see, I recorded it all to a DVD. My aunt and uncle’s house had a very unique roofline, and there was no questioning which shots on the news were of their own inferno. The newscasts from the first night showed their house while also saying how great it was that nobody had been hurt, keeping what I was watching both real and not real. It was both a deeply disturbing movie and just a movie.

There was other fire-related news in the broadcasts. The fire uncovered wagon ruts from the Oregon Trail that hadn’t been seen in many years, a much earlier permanent scar in the ridge. I thought about the scar on my leg and pins in my bones from being hit by a car: eleven years and still there. I thought about scars and tattoos, permanent marks on the outside. I thought about standing in the ICU just after my father died: ten years and still there. I thought about when I was eight, and my father told me my grandmother had died, a moment I’d not thought about in a while but has never gone away. I thought about how permanent marks can also be on the inside.

The woman who went all the way on Deal or No Deal didn’t win: she’d bet it all on that one case, and it was effectively empty. I know this because on one news recording they told viewers how to see the TV shows they missed due to the fire coverage, and mentioned the Deal or No Deal results. I guess there had been complaints.

I wonder where the satellite dish had been installed at my aunt and uncle’s house, and if in the snow they could have reached it.


My daughter has always been a bit high strung but for a while she became deeply anxious. She would tell us she loves us twenty times in a day. She asked lots of questions about fire safety, which is probably a good idea anyway. We went to the cheap theater to see “Wall-E” and at the cartoon windstorms and fires in the movie she hid under her seat. When her kindergarten teacher was unexpectedly absent one day, she did not handle her teacher being missing well. At all. Then one day she played a “game” with her brother where she yelled she was on fire and dying.

I already had the happy, uplifting worldview that often life is about discovering loss. Sure, a week or so after the fire there were moments of feeling more ‘everything’: someone being gone reminds you that you are alive, and you should act like it. But day to day life took the edge back off, and I’m back to the same grumpy insomniac full up on darkness and anxiety I was before summer ended so suddenly. I am my ash tree.

I sure don’t want my daughter feeling like this; there’s plenty of time for it later. I worry there is no choice: five is too young to learn life has an unavoidable end, but at five or eight or twenty-five, the lesson is coming. I am thirty-six and I still don’t know how to process the sudden, near-total erasure of both a life and its occupant – I’ve still got a friend in my cell phone who died well over a year ago. While looking for someone professional for my daughter to talk to, she had a long talk with her mother about how she never wanted to think about Mary Ellen, but did so all the time. Assured this was normal, the anxiety and bad behavior has all but stopped. It was like the rock dropped in the still water had broken a dam: you don’t want it to happen, but now that it has, the stress is gone, and the river flows free again. Maybe you don’t have to talk to someone professional. Maybe you just have to talk. Maybe I just have to write.

The other day she did a series of drawings on index cards. It was autobiographical: her at age 3 with Mary Ellen, playing. At age 4, getting presents and books from Mary Ellen. At age 4, holding hands with Mary Ellen. At age 5 there were multiple frames: Mary Ellen lying dead but smiling and my daughter crying in the background. The memorial service. Eating the cookies at the memorial service. (Cookies are important.) The last drawing had my daughter, still sad-faced, and Mary Ellen, still smiling, on something sort of squiggly, with a lot of small round dots. My daughter explained:

Mary Ellen is on a cloud in heaven, and it’s fluffy, and she’s surrounded by tomatoes.


This was published on 02 Jan 2009.
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