My Turn: The call of our first house

The writer’s daughter, Beth, in 1979 in their

The writer’s daughter, Beth, in 1979 in their beloved first house. They felt the house didn’t want them to move. (Credit: Handout)

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Our first house always felt as if it was alive, as if it was a member of our family. When we were home, the walls surrounded us like a womb, keeping us safe and warm. My kitchen fed us. In the three bedrooms, we rested our minds and bodies. If our house was alive, its heart most certainly would have been the living room's free-standing fireplace. The steady, glowing energy of its winter fires had a soothing, pulsing rhythm. A heavy metal grate lay in its center, its curved arms so strong, ready to hold the many branches we had gathered from the woods at the end of the block.

My husband, George, would strike a match, the crumpled newspaper underneath would catch, and the first sighs of orange flames seemed in unison with our own as we snuggled on the couch.

Fireplace memories from the 1970s are soothing. I can still hear the bellows' swoosh as our son, Sean, coaxed the brightening coals. I recall sitting on the rug with my young daughter, Beth, fresh from her bath. The warmth from the embers lulled us as I brush-dried her long, honey-colored hair.

In 1994, when our children got older and Hampton Bays' beckoning became louder, we decided it was time to move the 40 miles east. We loved our first house as much as it loved us. I fantasized that we could somehow take it with us. What happened next seemed to be proof that our house was indeed alive. As soon as the decision to move was made, the house appeared to be upset. Rarely giving us any problems in the past, home repairs were needed.

First, the water pipes under our slate foyer broke, and we needed a new hall floor. Then a slow leak necessitated replacement of a wall and the living room carpeting. One morning as I stood in the kitchen talking on the phone, a still-unexplained trickle leaked from under the molding, forming a tiny puddle on the floor. I was suddenly stunned to realize that all these repair issues were water-related. Was our house sad that we were leaving? Was it crying?

The moving van arrived in May. Workers carried out our packed cartons and furniture. It was time to go. I walked alone through the empty house, breathing in the unique fragrance of each room. My memory heard the 24 years of our past lives. Pausing in the frame of our front door, I pressed my lips to the wood and kissed the house goodbye. Although we didn't particularly care for the new owners, I blessed the house and wished them all happiness.

Since I still worked as a secretary at Chippewa Elementary School in Holtsville, my lunch hour now had new fun. I was able to shop in favorite stores and visit familiar neighborhoods. Driving past our old house in Farmingville became routine. I began to notice, though, that the house never looked happy. One of the first things the new owners did was to chop down the six tall arborvitae bushes that offered shade, privacy and the aroma of pine to our screened-in porch. Go figure.

It was now not as much fun to look at the house, so I passed it less often. However, with nothing else better to do one autumn day, I steered the car down our former block. My eyebrows raised in surprise as I saw on the curb in front of the house a large dark pile of what looked like broken sheet metal. As I got closer, my mouth hung open in horror, and I gasped. Piled in the street, waiting for the garbage collector to take it, were the remains of our beloved fireplace. They had destroyed it! My body ached with deep longing, as if for a dead loved one who was forever gone. Then something wondrous happened. There, at the end of the pile, was the fireplace's grate! Its black, sooty arms curved toward me like a child's. The plea I heard was loud and clear: "Save me!"

If I had any inhibitions, they quickly dissolved. I pulled the car over, walked down the concrete driveway, and knocked on the door. The new owner recognized me, and it crossed my mind that she could have been friendlier. I asked if it would be OK for me to take the grate. She waved in dismissal at the pile of debris, saying, "Take anything you want." The grate was heavy, my hands turned black, but I swear I felt gratitude flow up my arms as I slowly lowered it into the trunk of my car, closed the lid and quickly drove away.

What happened that evening is one joyous memory. After hearing of my rescue adventure, George was thrilled with the idea of having such a vital part of our old home in our new one. He replaced the builder's smaller grate with this sturdier one in our stone fireplace. The weather wasn't cold enough for a blazing fire, so we lit a Duraflame log. We noticed how this grate was not only wider, but taller than the builder's grate, and how its long hand elevated the flames.

It was now time to sleep. The log still burned, so we closed the glass doors of the fireplace, shut off the lights, climbed the stairs, and went to bed. Dozing, I sensed that something was different about our darkened bedroom. I opened my eyes and saw quivering ribbons of light. Rays from the still-smoldering fire downstairs had passed upward, through the slats of the staircase, and were dancing on the ceiling just for me!

I smiled and my heart overflowed with love. I whispered, "Welcome home," rolled over, and went to sleep.

--Carol Hitchcock, Hampton Bays

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