WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Burnin’ down the house

Pater in front of the now defunct foothills manse, ca. 1981

It’s a strange feeling to know that a house you’re intimately familiar with has burned to the ground. The one I’m thinking of now just got destroyed by the North Complex fire near Lake Oroville in Northern California. This monster of over 300,000 acres started in mid-August and is currently only 76% contained. Almost three thousand structures have been lost, including the house my father used to live in.

It wasn’t a spectacular building, as you can see from the pic, but it was in a spectacular place, overlooking the Middle Fork of the Feather River. I first visited the site in 1971, when my sibs and I were on a trip to California to see Dad for the first time since the divorce. He and his second wife took us up to the bare-dirt pad where they planned to build their foothills getaway. Circumstances would later make it their full-time residence for a good twenty years.

We spent almost two weeks camping on the site in ‘72, learning our way around that part of California and relearning our father, but things started to fall apart after that and his relationship with my brothers and sister eventually collapsed. He and his wife left the country for a time, working for Uncle Sam in Ankara, Turkey, of all places, and when they got back in 1980 they built the two-bedroom rancher along with a large barn. The house proved too small for all of their stuff, so the barn held a lot of kitschy overflow. Even so, the house was always cramped, giving my visits there over the years the sense, sometimes, of being trapped. Dad was a Rush Limbaugh man. He had a .357 Magnum on the table between the two plush La-Z-Boys, and with politics always coming up in our hours- and days-long conversations, it seemed only a matter of time before it got used. Alcohol flowed like the Feather River too.

But I loved the place for its remoteness, the natural setting, the privacy, the silence, the fun of getting there, and a sense of nostalgia surrounding Dad. The two of us would sit outside at night and watch meteor showers, the darkness was so complete. And this was also the last place I ever saw him, before we too finally became estranged because of the family baggage. The spot just outside the front door, the very place he’s standing above, where I hugged him around the neck and said we’d work through this thing—that spot is now erased, the house is ashes, and the view of the wild green canyon is marred by a thousand black sticks of sorrowful trees. I’ll never lay eyes on it again.

I’ve written before about houses that disappear. It’s probably a common thing, especially in a country where we’d rather demolish and build something new than hang onto the past. Sometimes on hikes my wife and I come upon the foundations of old places and wonder what the structure was like, who lived in it, how life felt to the them so far from anything remotely civilized. And often, lately, I’ve been wondering if our current house, also in the flammable foothills of NorCal, will be able to stand for forty years, given the way things are changing so fast with these fires.

That’s right. Dad’s place lasted only forty years, which—I now know—is the blink of an eye. We cram a lot of living into a house, but when you look back and realize that houses hold more than our things, it’s startling to realize that a significant one of them is gone forever. Do the intangible contents, the memories and conflicts and voices, stay in the environs even though the building is gone? Or does this metaphorical death give us a chance to put certain pains and discontentments to bed at last?

Everything we invest with meaning is here only a while, which is why I try to savor the good stuff every day. And remember, always.

3 comments on “Burnin’ down the house

  1. kingmidget
    October 1, 2020

    Houses, as long as they stand, are one of the repositories of our memories, as you share here with the memories of your father’s home.

    My mother grew up in Sacramento. The house where she lived and where my grandmother lived until a year or two before she died (almost 60 years in one place) still stands. Whenever I’m in the neighborhood I drive by it to reconsider the many memories from my childhood when we would visit her there. It’s a bit of an anchor to my childhood.

    Same to with my parents home. They still live in the house they bought in 1966, when I was one year old. I wonder how I’ll feel when they pass away and the house is sold. It’s a place that has been in my life pretty much forever.

    Thank you for sharing your memories.

    • Kevin Brennan
      October 1, 2020

      It must be reassuring to have your childhood home still in the family. And your grandmother’s house still standing. One thing I’m always amazed by when I visit places where I used to live is how big the trees have gotten!

      • kingmidget
        October 1, 2020

        Every time I visit my parents, I can feel myself being that kid, running around the house, watching TV, reading in my room, fooling around with my siblings.

        Unfortunately, these days it is a bit of a toxic place for me. My parents, while living under the same roof, can’t stand each other. Leaving me in the role of Switzerland, trying to figure out how to survive.

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This entry was posted on October 1, 2020 by in Et alia and tagged , , .
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