IN OHIO, on a clear Saturday morning in May, I load the getaway car and drive east toward a writing workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. Car Talk and Brené Brown fill my head as the miles accumulate between my home and body.
Since having a child, my husband and I have each stolen solo writing time. Reprieve from the dance marathon of parenthood helps us survive. This is normal, this is important, this is okay. Still, as I leave for a whole week, the word abandon skulks in. Other words too, phrases and protests like: unfair gender pressure! and self-care is acceptable! Driving east toward the serene and blessed woods feels like getting away with a crime.
There’s relief in fleeing the driveway, aiming toward the interstate. The tank and tires are full; the car is mine. Each decision — which music, how much junk food, when to stop, how far I go, all of it — is mine. In this small capsule dashing down the road, I’m DJ, chef, timekeeper, verb performer of everything.
For weeks, I had fantasized about the escape, listed what to pack, itemized small luxuries: nail polish because I’d have time, Fritos, chocolate. Filling the suitcase gave an illicit thrill, even mixed with the guilt, guilt for leaving home to do what seems indulgent — but feels necessary.
I’ve made this trip before: drive 450 miles east to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and stop at a hotel; after dinner and a glass of wine and a hot bath, sleep in a numbered, quiet, tidy room. Alone.
When my husband was very young, his mother played viola and traveled with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Much later, she referred to her professional touring time — her job — as, “when I abandoned you.” She was a master of self-deprecation. While her baby was left in the loving care of his father and grandmother, the musician went to work. This was not necessary for income, although maybe necessary to her existence. But in the early 1960s, for a woman, a devoted mother, to leave home for any amount of time might have seemed unusual, neglectful.
As I packed to leave, I asked my gut, Fundamentally, what has changed?
I’m driving to Rhinebeck to work on a memoir about the house where I lived until I was 16. When the small-town government wanted to expand the park next door, they bought the property and 100-year-old structures from our landlord, and kicked us out. To clear the land, the local fire department burned it all down in a training exercise.
The house, the memory of it, that false shell of protection, has haunted my dreams ever since it was torched.
The house is still there, real as a phantom limb.
I have to leave home so I can write about the other home I had to leave.
Ten miles before the Lewisburg exit, the world is obscured by unrelenting rain. The driver in front of me turns on hazard lights, maybe saving me — I could barely see anything up ahead.
The torrent subsides; the rain slows to drizzle as I approach the hotel. In the parking lot, a man with two giant plastic shopping bags crosses in front of me, apparently oblivious to my car. Everyone is so distracted. I brake, let him cross. It’s rainy, whatever. On this self-indulgent adventure, I remind myself that yes, I’m tired, but I can still be patient.
I park, check in, and go get Thai food. Back at the hotel, near the entrance I see a lacy pattern of small, wet footprints. In the lobby, a girl, barefoot, stands at the front desk with a woman, I assume her mother. (The rain became paint beneath her small feet.) I get on the elevator. The doors close, and then open again. Mother and child step in. As if in apology, the mother says, “My daughter is barefoot—” and before she finishes her sentence, in my head I draft reassuring chatter, My daughter loves being barefoot! It’s her natural state! but before I can speak she says, “because our house just burned down.”
Her sentence didn’t end as I expected. Her sentence, a slippery fish, has shimmied from my hand, conversation lacing like wet footprints toward bewilderment. My daughter’s scorn for shoes has become irrelevant. This conversation has gone elsewhere. I listen and try to think of what to say.
The barefoot child, her voice a melody, says what burned in the fire. “Everything, even my birth certificate!”
Everything burned, even my birth certificate, the child says. She must be mimicking the adults. Why would a child think about her birth certificate? She’s small, maybe six, maybe older and merely short. I can’t tell and won’t ask. All I know is she’s a child, full of shine and that uncanny wisdom children house, with such ease, inside their bones. The child and the mother are staying here because their house burned down. The mother — who also looks young, mid-20s? — wears sweatpants and flip-flops, hair up in a hasty bun. The mother says they had been renting out an apartment upstairs … the tenant wasn’t home, but the mother thinks his girlfriend must have been straightening her hair and forgot to turn off her flat iron.
(Packing for the trip, I chose not to bring my own hair-straightening gadget to the woods. Who cares if my hair goes wild, I thought. I’ll just be myself.)
Everything, even my birth certificate.
I notice the mother’s exquisite, apparently unchipped pale blue fingernail polish. The girl is spritely, exhilarated. Three people in a six-by-six-foot box, lifting us two stories closer to the sky. The child eats a Rice Krispies treat. Says her shoes are gone, her clothing. She bites into her treat and tells me: she has nothing. Quickly, her mother corrects her, says she has some things. A mother’s primal wish to protect the child. Her mother repeats herself, reassuring, says she has some things, or will — then tells me, “The Red Cross has been wonderful.” She says they have insurance, they’ll rebuild.
The girl says, “We have nothing, but we’re going to work our way back up!” With her hand, she gestures, as if she can see the staircase right there, the way to up.
I say I’m so glad you got out okay. The mother says Yes. Says she has an infant, too, and she got the infant out safely. (Exhale. Feel the relief.) I ask the mother if they have family nearby, and she says Yes, and I say Good.
Everything could be worse.
The elevator arrives at the third floor; we’re all getting off here. I’ve been assigned room 316. Not quite 318, the address of my burned-down house, but close.
In the hallway the girl says, “Look, I want to show you something. A cartwheel!” She puts her treat on the carpet, says, “It’s okay.” Reassuring me. (Her house burned. She has already survived worse than dirt or lint on a sticky sweet, but she can’t possibly be thinking this, and how can I?) Rice Krispies treat on the floor, unorthodox, but who in this hallway would tell her not to, would care about dirt, or lint?
The girl does her trick, and then to clarify, says, “That’s a roundoff. Here’s a cartwheel!” She does one.
I praise the child, say, Nice balancing! And You’re so strong! I watch her and think about trauma. She’s releasing what happened. Releasing it so her body doesn’t store it. I turn to the mother, tell her what she must know because it’s so obvious — she has a resilient little person there. What people always say to parents when a child survives catastrophe yet retains her spark. Immediately I wish I had better words, or could explain what I’ve lived, tell this young mother what I know. As we part, I say I’ll be thinking about them. Amazing, humanity, how we survive. I watch them open a door down the hall and disappear inside.
I say the things people say: I’m glad you made it out; resilient child; I’ll be thinking about you. I don’t say that I’m writing about my own burning house. I don’t say what else is on my mind, because it’s all still occurring to me — that the child will lead them through the messy brambles of working their way back up.
Bessel van der Kolk, in his book, The Body Keeps The Score, describes a drawing five-year-old Noam Saul made on September 12, 2001 (24 hours after the child escaped “the rubble, ash and smoke of lower Manhattan,” after the twin towers were decimated):
The drawing depicted what he had seen the day before: an airplane slamming into the tower, a ball of fire, firefighters, and people jumping from the tower’s windows. But at the bottom of the picture he had drawn something else: a black circle at the foot of the buildings. I had no idea what it was, so I asked him. “A trampoline,” he replied. What was a trampoline doing there? Noam explained, “So that the next time when people have to jump they will be safe.” I was stunned: This five-year-old boy, a witness to unspeakable mayhem and disaster just twenty-four hours before he made that drawing, had used his imagination to process what he had seen and begin to go on with his life.
In the hotel, to chill a miniature bottle of prosecco, I go down the hall for ice. Part of the ritual, a drink before submerging myself in Omega’s clear-headed, alcohol-free hideaway in the woods. I pass their room. Beside the door leans a pile of bulging shopping bags full of discarded toy-packaging.
Toys. Why don’t I have an extra stuffed animal to give that girl? My child frequently offloads toys she’s finished loving. In my luggage are two still-cherished stuffies, to keep me company on the Abandonment tour: a floppy gray wolf, and a small brown puppy who curls into my palm. And — surprise, Mama — a stowaway! My daughter’s brown owl, which was her winter solstice gift. They have names. I can’t give them away. They must return home with me.
Seeing the bags outside the family’s door … rewind … that man in the parking lot with the bags who crossed in front of me without looking. At the time, he was insignificant. Proof: You never know what some inconvenient stranger may be enduring. The shopping bags he hauled across the parking lot are now outside their door. Brimming with the residue of replacement stuff.
I call home, tell my husband and child about the family, the fire. Say I wish I had an extra stuffed animal to give the girl.
After finishing our call, I wonder if I was passively asking permission to give the barefoot child one of my daughter’s toys. Why didn’t I just ask? If the plush census were smaller upon my return from this greedy journey, how would that feel? Through half-buried guilt, I wasn’t brave enough to ask. With me gone, would she have been clingy or generous? The guilt-forged funhouse mirrors in my head make me speculate, imagine her speaking my punishment: You’re gone, Mama. You left me! Why would you give some random kid one of our stuffies? I will imagine that another, better mother might have simply given the barefoot child a toy, and apologized later. I will feel like a coward because rather than asking, to avoid controversy, I go shopping.
Wine on ice, waiting, I drive to the sprawl pharmacy near the highway. In the seasonal section, there’s a blue gingham bag with red handles and a zipper. It’s insulated, meant for a picnic. A bag that, had I gotten when my child was younger, would have been stolen from me immediately.
The urge to do something tangible for the girl in the hotel. Remember how my child loved all manner of bags, anything she could shove full of stuff. Clothing, books, supplies. Always packing, always heading somewhere, leaving home, even across the house to a make-believe campsite, some wonderland she had staged. No concern about what she might be abandoning in her wake. This barefoot cartwheeler in Lewisburg might like something to carry while she works her way back up.
Browsing further, I find the stuffed animals. Most are cartoonish or maudlin. A sullen cat, a worried pig. I choose the friendliest — a raccoon named Rusty, and a storybook about bedtime for baby animals. The book trods through the menagerie, using repetition to make its point: now the cat, now the duck, now the pony, all the babies. All the baby animals are going to sleep, dear human baby animal, and so should you. A goodnight hug for my dear. Don’t worry, I’m here, and I’ll greet you when you wake. You’re safe. The book depicts how hugging someone you love can help you go to sleep. As a parent, I know the labor of getting a child to sleep anywhere, never mind in a hotel. Never mind in a hotel after your house has burned down. I read the book twice, trying to gauge its potential effect, say I’m a child and my house just burned down.
And there’s the card aisle, cards for Mother’s Day, which is tomorrow, but nothing will suit this occasion. Variations on Thank you, Mother, for all your love and care. Thanks for everything I’ve/you’ve done/been. Until now, I had forgotten that tomorrow is Mother’s Day, and I have abandoned my post, my child, to run to the woods without her … When I Abandoned You, I hear my mother-in-law saying, so matter-of-fact, as if it were printed on a calendar, the name of a 13th month. Near the display for Mom, I find gift cards for food and gasoline, and consider giving the family something sensible, but remind myself I am only employed part-time and the Red Cross has been wonderful and my gift is not about that type of support.
Later, I’ll wish I had bought markers and paper for the child. But at the store, decisions about art supplies seem too complex — which size of markers, washable or not, etc. — and I think only of immediate comfort, a bag, a book, a friend.
Back in my hotel room, I nestle Rusty and the book in the gingham bag. With stuff I brought for the workshop, I make a card for the mother, decorate with spirals of purple and orange highlighter, and fold copier paper to make an envelope. Awkward, impossible writing; I search for syllables to touch this stage of the disaster. How to explain my offering. Eventually I write I’m glad you’ve made it through what you already have done. I write I wish you peace and comfort as you navigate this rough water, aware of the cliché. I write We met in the elevator, and I thought your child might like a little friend.
The reason for my road trip, the reason this family’s house fire resonates is that I’m headed to the woods in Rhinebeck to exhume more of my missing home.
Reaching toward memory, I stand on Jell-O. Things evaporate as I write. Memory itself, like the end of that young mother’s first sentence, is a slippery fish. Somehow, I have to write before I can catch anything, and even as I check and recheck facts, I feel certain of nothing.
What’s odd about this encounter is that the house, my house, my burned 318, isn’t where I’m getting an emotional charge — there’s just the similarity, fire. Unlike this child, when I was 16, I vacated 318 18 days before they lit the fire. My body didn’t need to break free from a burning house in order to survive. Our house at 318 was burned, passive voice; it’s a ghost, absence as presence. But here, with a child involved, my feelings are stirred by another incident, the one with my daughter and her hand. When she was three and a half, she had a traumatic injury, and lost part of each of the four fingers on her left hand.
I wish I could tell the mother: I know you’re in shock, this is the early part, but things will be okay, and your child will guide you. Because that’s what happened after our child’s hand was hurt so badly we became Never the Same.
We were never the same. But our child led our healing, and her hand mended, and somehow we all made it through.
Why do I feel such need to do something, save everyone? Why isn’t a friendly conversation on the elevator enough? There’s ego involved. I aim to be kind and helpful to others. It’s part of my identity. I have been accused of being overly giving. Like a reflex, I make granola for whoever is struggling. I am not selfless, and sometimes the act of helping others feels like a type of selfishness. When I help, I feel good, even noble sometimes. Ego. Does my self-regard hinge on generosity? Why am I helping these people? I know my intention is to be generous, even if clumsy, and maybe too intimate.
Others helped us through our family’s trauma. Does my experience with trauma push me to insert myself here? Is this how empathy works? Maybe I’m too eager because trauma is one of my obsessions. How, when trauma isn’t released, it can amass in the body.
Did I project my own story, my own needs onto theirs? Who do I think I am?
I know it’s impossible for me to fix this family’s life, but I’m glad to have witnessed the cartwheels.
I take the gingham bag down the hall, and hang it on the doorknob by the discarded toy packaging. I feel awkward. I hope they won’t mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about all her toys, books, whatever she had, all her everything that is now rubble and ash.
Later, when I go out for more ice, the bag is gone.
A little bag of her own might mean something, especially now. The bag has a zipper. My child, her packed bags, like mine, always moving. I tell myself a story, that these gifts from a stranger will become important to this child whose everything burned. And a finer story, beyond my role, beyond anything material: that she will survive and thrive and lead her family through the wild loss, as children often do.
As my child did.
Because that’s one genius of the child, of being a child. The child sees and belongs to the future, and pulls us toward it.
And I hope to see them at breakfast.
That night, drinking wine before bed, I write about these people, write more in the morning. I write about the pale blue nail polish, the half-eaten Rice Krispies treat on the floor, the cartwheels. The details, all of it.
These people are in the hotel for a different reason than me. I am here because I abandoned home. They are here because they had to flee.
When I abandoned you, I might write to my child, now, I met another child.
In Lewisburg, I met a child whose house had just burned.
Maybe this fire will be the worst of her hardship. Maybe the ashes of her old life will purify what’s to come. Maybe it will be like a movie. Of course that’s not how things go. Life is not orchestrated. There’s only chaos, no narrative until you reach the end, after what happens happens. There’s only sitting in the ashes, sifting and sense-making.
If I see them at breakfast, if it feels right, maybe I’ll try to help them unwind the disaster a little. I’m no expert, but I have experienced the release of trauma. After my daughter’s accident, others who knew the darkness, the path, helped us. What would I say to this family? You’re here now. You made it through the fire. You’re safe here now. Let your body know you’re safe. But instead, my role in this story might be curator. Noticer. As a writer, I catch images. See the unchipped pale blue nail polish, the night before Mother’s Day, on the fingernails of a mother whose barefoot child rests her sticky snack on the carpet so she can cartwheel down the hotel hallway, who shows what her body can do, whose house has just burned. Tell humanity’s stories with as much respect and compassion and specificity as possible.
In the morning, hauling stuff to my car, I pass the breakfast lounge and see the girl with two men. One of them must be the parking lot bag-carrier. Maybe her mother is upstairs with the infant. Maybe she’s sleeping, or sobbing. I speculate and write stories in my head. I don’t think the girl sees me. For a moment, I watch from the lobby, watch her optimism flit around the dispensers of orange, apple, and cranberry juice, the small cereal boxes. I hear the windchime of her voice. I will never know her name.
Inside my Lewisburg memories, I curl around how, on the elevator, the child said what had burned (with glee), everything, even my birth certificate! I curl around her small wet footprints, around my urge, even while writing this, to explain that my child loves being barefoot. (Like my daughter, I was frequently barefoot as a child. I had enough shoes, but not as many and varied as my daughter has. Would my child love barefoot as much if all her shoes had burned?) Living is so layered. To step into the elevator, into a brief conversation, a moment of humans telling a true story. Telling their life. To notice and make sense of being human, through writing, through this tethering of memories and words.
I don’t have to fix their life. That child will do her own fixing. Maybe the cartwheels are not only release, but also a trampoline: So that the next time when people have to jump they will be safe.
I don’t insert myself.
But I notice and record what feels magic: the timing — abandoning home, enduring those last 10 miles of highway rain, stopping at this hotel on this night, returning from dinner at that precise moment to see the wet footprints, to meet these people, to witness small, specific cartwheels (and a roundoff) while I’m headed to write more of the story of my own house burning, all that excavation and echo still waiting, up ahead.
All of us, working our way back up.
Banner image: “Smoke from the Unity House fire obscures the burning building.” by Kheel Center is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.