My Father’s Compass

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A few priorities: the newspaper, a snack, and a view of the lake.

When my father would visit, he had a knack for hunkering in with the MacNeil News Hour while my kids fussed and cried. I was usually busy burning something on the stove, entertaining telemarketers, arranging carpools, or hunting for very important lost items. I didn’t have a lot of time to chat. After wrestling the girls into bed, I would slump down the stairs, and Dad would glance up from his mountain of New York Times. “Say, have you read this editorial about inner city schools?”

I never had.

How I wish I had been able to stay awake then, to engage in conversation about something other than logistics and rashes. Later, when he couldn’t talk much at all, I felt such a tremendous loss. What I would have given–then, and now–to hear his thoughtful analysis, his historical anecdotes, even a little about the book he was reading. I have so many questions that remain, so many gaps which I long to fill with stories from his rich life.

But one cannot render a portrait of a man or a relationship with a macro lens, focusing on a single moment, of which there were two and a half trillion in his 84 years. Examining just one of these does neither of us justice.

Thankfully, there are other moments to cling to–moments that are easier to carry: the theologian on all fours, mooing, while my small girls shrieked and giggled. The tiny, illegible notes my father squeezed into the margins of mom’s chatty letters–notes full of the gratitude and humility with which he approached life. The time I called him on Fathers’ Day a couple of years ago. After a discussion of his day, the weather, Sunday dinner, he paused and I awaited his goodbye. He said, instead, “I wanted you to know: you are a blessing.”

I have been surprised and relieved to discover that my relationship with my father endures–grows, even–as I hear stories from friends, family, and strangers. They share glimpses I couldn’t see from my age or perspective. I am reminded that though his body has betrayed him, he has not been diminished by mortality. Instead, these stories add flesh to the bones I have known over the years.

Still, I will not pretend that I can see him in full. Who could? Yet here is what I know for sure. My father asked a single question repeatedly during his sojourn on earth: How then shall we live?

This was the question that guided his thoughts, his decisions, his direction. He believed we should take a look at what we believe to be good, right, or best, and use that as we go gently forth into the world. He forged a compass from his heart and faith, and as I try to follow in his footsteps, I find he is walking with me. He is alive in my struggles, my questions, and my actions. He is here, helping me as I choose what I think is best; helping me to set my own compass.

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Let’s put that in the closet with the rest of the skeletons

Taken from the website for Wausau Fire Department home page
Found on the Wausau Fire Department homepage: http://www.wausaufire.com/

My family’s summer home burned to the ground in front of our eyes. We stood across the road in our pajamas, in what should have been the dark.

It had been an airy old farmhouse, with a screened-in porch and a breezeway connecting it to the barn. Dubbed “Viking Villa,” our friends had painted a Nordic vessel on the front of it, complete with red and white striped sail. A long gravel drive curved up and away from the house, making a gentle u through the surrounding meadow. I can still see it so clearly, though only from one side, one vantage point, and in one sort of weather, because the memories I have are not my own. They are borrowed from my parents, my older siblings, and from the single surviving photograph.

I was only six months old when it burned.

The cabin of my childhood still stands strong, tucked into the woods about a mile away. Shortly after the fire, my folks scraped together $400 to buy that little hunters’ cottage, in which they have slowly replaced each board and nail, leaving only a few great beams and the original fieldstone fireplace. It was here that we gathered, summer after summer, to hike, and work, and canoe; it was here that we reminisced about Viking Villa.

We would all troop down to “the old cellar hole,” picking the wildflowers that grew in the ruins, and looking for smoky bits of melted glass. Sometimes we would return at night, too, and lie on our camping tarp in the middle of the meadow there, watching for shooting stars.

My oldest brother would spend hours reconstructing the house and the surrounding tree forts with graph paper and a neatly sharpened pencil. Everyone would pore over his drawings, offering suggestions and admiring his impeccable memory–so precise despite the years that yawned between now and then.

And in August, as the evenings grew cool, and we huddled around the stone fireplace to warm and to read, someone would inevitably launch into the story of the fire. We relived the event, detail by detail, lovingly recounted.

No one knows how or why my mother awakened that night, though credit has been wordlessly given to divine intervention. Despite the fury and speed of the approaching flames, she hustled everyone out safely, telling my sister, “Now is not the time for crying. We can cry later.”

As far as I know, nobody ever did.

A friend had gotten up to use the bathroom at that time, on that night, and happened to glance out the window in our particular direction. It was a series of coincidences for which the whole township was grateful. Seeing the flames and great plume of smoke miles away, he alerted the volunteer fire department, and though it was too late to save the house, they managed to salvage the chicken coop, the surrounding woods, and distant neighbors. Who knows how much of the landscape would have been devoured that night had he slept soundly.

No one mourns the clothing and possessions that went up in smoke, or the pile of cars that our friends had left in the barn for safekeeping. No one even says much about our cat, Smoky, who was never seen again. The only items that were ever mentioned were the hand-typed thesis my father went back to retrieve, and the stuffed dog of my sister’s that he did not.

But the house. How everyone longs for the house.

The clumps of melted glass sit on the windowsill of our porch, where one of us might finger them gingerly, like jewels.

The chicken coop was moved next door to our ‘new’ cabin. We had never had chickens–to my knowledge, we had never used the coop at all–but now it was lovingly cleaned and aired and repainted. A desk was made out of an old door and some table legs, put out there for my father and his friend to finish their doctoral theses. And when they did, the coop was renamed the Institute for Advanced Study.

Meanwhile, we painted and rebuilt and added on to the little hunting cabin, but it always paled in comparison. As if to compensate, we arranged the flowers from the old cellar hole in a bright yellow pitcher, and set it by the fireplace.

After twenty or twenty five years, the cabin finally earned its own name–“Oesterheim”–and a compliment or two about the way the sun threaded through the tall trees, landing in tiny warm pools on the wood floors. Around then, I heard my mother say for the very first time, “You know, I think I like this house.” I guess we were finally coming round.

Even so, we continued to relive the fire at Viking Villa, time and again. It gave me such an odd feeling, as if the house were a sibling I never knew. Sometimes I envied the rest of the family their experience, because it wasn’t my story to tell; my role was to listen quietly in the background.

One night, not too many years ago, we went to one of our annual summer get togethers. The evening was in full swing when, as usual, the conversation turned to the fire.

There was a comfortable familiarity with the discussion, and I found my mind drifting a little, sneaking peeks at the sunset over the lake.

Then, out of nowhere, one family member cleared their throat and spoke very, very quietly.

“I’m pretty sure I started the fire,” they said.

And that is the last time we reminisced about the house.