Kent and I burnt the forest down.
Just another day at the Hendrys.
Let me make it very clear here that it was all Kent’s fault.
Mark left town this week to attend a 6-day intensive fine furniture-building course. The school is only about a 1 hour and 45 minute drive, but he knew he would be tired and the traffic is bad in the Atlanta area, so he opted to stay in a hotel. I always miss him when he goes away. I am unsettled. I have this feeling that things just are not right; like when you are grocery shopping and suddenly you start thinking maybe you left the water running in the bathtub at home. You know you are worrying unnecessarily –why would you have done that? Nevertheless, you now have this unease, because it is also remotely possible you might be flooding your entire downstairs while you are going through the mundane drill of purchasing bread and milk.
At the same time, I rather relish my spouse’s absence too, because a partner eats up a certain amount of time and energy. I get a great deal accomplished when he is away, and (dare I admit it) I get to do those things that I wouldn’t necessarily attend to when he is here because they fall under his category of tasks – or they are things he would interfere with one way or another.
Anyway, Mark left, so I kicked into high gear and started attacking all those things that are a high priority to me, but not so important to him. You know, the things a guy pushes aside with an attitude that “he will do it later”. Later had come. First, I took down the Christmas boughing that was hanging on our porch. It is March, for God’s sake. It has been driving me crazy. (When he saw it down when he got home he said, “Aw, now I no longer qualify as an official redneck.).
Next, I cleaned his office. The floor of the room has been filled with boxes, bags, and stacks of whatever, since the day we moved in. I don’t know how he stands it. He is always saying, “I have to clean that office,” but every time he goes in there, he sits at the desk as does other work (which is also important – but I could never think in that kind of clutter.) I pushed the bookshelves that were in the center of the room to the side so I could begin unpacking books and supplies. I threw out bags and boxes filled with trash. (If he had the mind to fill them with trash, why leave them in the room? Why not carry them out to at least make a dent in the mess?) I picked up dozens of rolls of building plans – from the house, the cabin, the FLEX building at Lakewood Ranch – all kinds of plans just scattered on the floor, and put rubber bands on them and stacked them in a box in storage. I swept, hauled, and organized. I did not, however, touch his messy desk. I will clean, but I don’t want to be intrusive or lose something important. There is a method to this man’s mess, and I wouldn’t want to debilitate him by shifting that mess around. But, boy oh boy, did I want to tackle that too.
I took it upon myself to hang the pictures in the workout room and get it officially set up. We have all these dance pictures and articles that have been leaning against the wall in there, so I slapped them up. I knew Mark would hate this, because he is very particular about all things visual. I’ve never hung a picture in our home, set out a pillow, or purchased a vase that he doesn’t move or get rid of it within the week. A month ago, I bought two pillows for the couch that I thought were perfect. They lasted three days before he bought pillows he liked and tossed the ones I had chosen. This kind of thing used to bother the crap out of me, but I’ve learned to live with my lack of input in our environment. It is not as if he doesn’t have lovely taste, so why make an issue of it? Anyway, I bought a clock for the workout room and a small table so we can get our stereo off the floor. I put together his barbell rack. The next day, my new treadmill was delivered (we had purchased it a week or so prior). I must say, I am doubly inspired to spend time in that room now. I have all these wonderful memories around me, and the room “feels right”. It feels like a dance studio- without the work associations. I can log on miles on my spiffy new treadmill (which is my way of beating the Georgia mountains and the three months of icky weather) surrounded by proof of the very fulfilling journey my dance life took. I run towards (but because it is a treadmill, I never reach) my New York teachers and experiences, our FLEX history, and articles written about the programs we designed etc. I have pictures in there of student’s I’ve loved, and chapters of my life I cherish. It is now a great room, representing chapters of life I am most proud of .
I did some other house puttering (while also taking care of the family, of course – just because Mark was gone didn’t mean I wouldn’t invite his mother over for dinner, or workout with his sister, or take on his shifts of driving the kids to school. I also had Neva’s spring soccer practices, Kent’s band festival, Kathy’s lessons, Homework, etc. to schedule into my days. It was a busy week.)
I dared buy some plants and I put them into the ground myself. (OK, I know this is no big deal to other people, but this was a big act of independence for me.) Neva and I planted four good-sized raspberry bushes and some tiny blueberry plants Kent had given me for Valentines Day. I even bought four boxes of strawberries and six grape plants, but they are still waiting for Mark because we need to till the areas they will land. It was fun digging in the dirt with Neva, learning as I go. She was so funny, instructing me about putting plant food into the hole before we dropped the plant into it. She has more gardening experience than I, you see, and she knows it and likes to show off.
I cleaned out the hot tub and filled it. We have had it over a year, but never cranked it up. Finally the electrician came to hook it up. I’m looking forward to using it at long last.
But the big thing I did in Mark’s absence was clean the garage. When we moved here, we just told the moving men to stack boxes and stuff in the garage, knowing we would get to it later. But there was no order to the madness, so each time we went rummaging around to look for something we needed to unpack, things got steadily messier. In the meantime, every time Mark brought packages from Home depot, they tended to land, unopened, somewhere near the door. We also had about twenty pairs of muddy shoes out there, and wayward tools and buckets of paint buried under boxes of trash, luggage and camping stuff that just didn’t make it up to the attic. There were laundry baskets filled with electrical supplies and light bulbs and whatnot. A big piece of plywood that the workers left right in the path to the door was an ominous obstacle we kept tripping over, and yards of torn paper the builders laid to protect the floor when they were finishing up inside which made it impossible to sweep (and thus dirt was forever being tracked inside).
Every time I stumbled through the mess with groceries, or couldn’t open the outside refrigerator door because of clutter, I wanted to scream. So, I determined now was the time to do something about it. I know Mark would get to cleaning the garage eventually, but that might be months from now. And if there is one thing I believe, it is easier (and wiser) to just do something about what you don’t like rather than bitch and expect someone else to attend to your priorities.
I enlisted Kent’s help. He is an amazing worker and thanks to his good humor, a joy to spend the day with, so his participation made the project fun. He must have lifted 80 boxes and carried them to the attic or the craft room or loaded them into the truck to take to the workshop. We lugged and sorted and groaned and made jokes about at the madness of the mess and made speeches about how much this particular thing or that had been annoying us for months, until we had finally made a dent in the clutter. And this inspired us to keep at it, even though by then we were so exhausted we could barely see straight. We had carted stuff into the driveway into categorized stacks, and Kent had filled the truck with trash for the burn pit. We decided to take it down to make room for more stuff in the truck.
We drove down to the pit in the field across from the house and unloaded the wood and a few bags of burnable trash. Kent pulls out a lighter. I tell him not to light the fire because Dad is not here and it’s a windy day.
He says, “Don’t be such a woos, Mom, I do this with Dad all the time.”
I say, “I know, but Dad isn’t here, and I really don’t want to be burning without him.” Meanwhile, my kid lights the fire anyway, making jokes about what a nerdly stiff I am. The fire roars up five feet. Kent blinks and says, “Woops. I’ll stay and watch it.” (Meanwhile, he is stamping out the trash that is flying out and landing on the grass because, as I said, it was a windy day.) I grumble about how dumb boys are about loving fire (it’s a caveman thing) and I return to the garage to reload the car with stuff for the workshop. About fifteen minutes later, Kent returns and tells me the fire has gone down. Not to worry. We load the truck again and decide to drive to the workshop to unload. As I drive down the driveway, I look over and say, “Wow, it almost looks as if the forest is on fire.” I do a double take, then yell, “Kent! The forest is on fire!”
“Oh my God!” he yells, jumping out of the car and running to the fire. I guess he thinks he will stamp it out. But when he gets there he stands there with his hands on his head and says, “Mom! Help. I don’t know what to do! The forest is on fire. Really!”
I assess the situation. Yep. The forest is on fire. Trees are going up in flames and every time a wind comes along another foot of underbrush ignites. I run to the house and call 911. Then I return to the fire, cursing the fact that we don’t have a fire extinguisher and our hose would never reach this far. Meanwhile, Neva is freaking out. She runs to the house to get her blankies (I don’t know if this was because she needed immediate comfort or if in the back of her mind she thought she should rescue the thing she most values from the house just in case the fire makes it that far . . . )
Kent is saying “I’m so sorry. I had no idea. What should I do?”
Now, this was a perfect “I told you so – why don’t you ever listen to me,” moment. But as a parent, my strongest inclination when there is trouble is to put my children’s fears to rest and to protect their sense of security. So I assured him things would be fine and that the fire department was coming, so not to sweat it. Meanwhile, the wind is blowing and every few minutes another tree goes up. Ee-gad. Kent keeps saying, “Dad is going to freak. We burnt the forest down.”
I gently correct Kent. “You burnt the forest down. I told you to wait. But it will all be over soon. These things happen. . . when you don’t listen to your mother.” (OK, so I couldn’t resist the “I told you so moment” for very long.)
Neva is sobbing, asking if we are going to die. Um… no dear. The fire is over there and we are over here. Her eyes open wide and she says, “What if the fire department can’t find our house?”
That might very well be a problem, considering we are a new house – off the map. I tell her that perhaps she should stand at the street corner and point, so she runs off to do just that, clutching her blankets with desperation. I feel better giving her this busy work and removing her from the scene of the fire.
Finally, a truck pulls up and out comes a single guy in camouflage pants with a shovel. Kent says, “God, I think that is our fire department. We are so screwed.”
This strikes me as funny. We do live in a small rural community, and we are forever making jokes about it. It appears my 911 call has resulted in this scruffy fellow’s visit.
I say, “I’m sure he is just here to check it out and he will report in.” But I’m not really so sure. And the idea of a single man showing up with flames beginning to engulf our forest started me laughing. I know I should have been more worried – I mean fire is a serious thing. And Neva is a wreck because she has heard such horror tales in school about fire. But the donkey is watching from the field as if this is the most interesting thing going on in his day and I keep thinking about our good intentions and how hard we worked to make things nice for Mark, but it will all be turned around because he is going to have a cow if we burn a part of his 50 acres down. And I can’t help but see the entire thing as humorous – like my life is a sitcom – the Lucy show – and this is a typical episode. I think about how I will be able to razz Kent about this for the rest of his life, how one day we will laugh about the day we cleaned the garage and burned the forest down. And I just can’t get worried or upset. I keep making jokes (inappropriately).
The fellow walks up, spits some tobacco, and tells me the fire truck is coming. He then walks over and throws a shovel full of dirt onto the roaring flames. Now, Kent and I both start making subtle jokes. We couldn’t help it. I guess the fact that someone with authority was there to handle things alleviated our concerns deep down. And it really was sort of funny, in a “three stooges clean the garage” sort of way.
In a short time, the truck comes. It is a standard red fire truck, but the fellows driving it are in jeans and t-shirts and cowboy hats or baseball caps. They are all carrying shovels. This is our fire department. Apparently, these men don’t stick around the station because fires are rare here. They stay at home and when they get a call, they drive to the station and then the truck rolls out. Under those circumstances, they were mighty expedient, in my opinion.
As they hosed down the forest, a few of the fellows sauntered over and talked to me about our land. They told me they played here when they were kids, before it was at all developed. They said they liked what we were doing, had a nice house, and they thought the horses looked mighty fine. Where did I get the llama? Do I like my donkey? They talked about what a nice guy Jimmy Owen is (the fellow taking out our pine trees at the entrance to the land) and mentioned we were standing in a good place for a garden and since it is spring, I should consider putting one in. (I told them we were.) They heard a rooster and said, “Chickens too? Good for you.”
They told me about their homesteads nearby, and asked how I liked their fair city. They didn’t seem to think the fire was that big a deal, but they did mention that our fire pit was too close to the forest (gee, ya think?) We had a lovely conversation, just like we’d met at a church social.
I asked a few questions about fire and how it spreads and what they do when it gets out of hand. I asked if they liked working for the fire department and what else they did on the side. I always like to learn about people. Meanwhile, I am watching the big circle of black ash that is now in the heart of our forest where moments before, flames ere flickering. I’m thinking it isn’t so bad really. Kind of like a big shadow in the trees.
I apologize for making them come out. They said, “Aw, that’s fine. We like running the truck once in a while, and it gives us a chance to see what ya’ll are up to out here. Looks good.”
They were very, very nice, and in an hour the episode was over. . I’m grateful Kent and I only left for 5 minutes to fill a truck so this fire thing was an “accident” rather than a “catastrophe.” Lord, what if we had gone out to lunch or something? As it was, I met some nice people from our community. The entire 50 acres didn’t burn down. We discovered we can count on our local fire department. I figure Kent learned a valuable lesson. (Mother is always right.) Neva will need months of blanket therapy, but other than that all is well.
Six hours later, Mark comes home. It is dark. I am glad he is home. Sort of.
Proudly, we show off our clean garage. (Meanwhile, Kent is smiling at his dad, but casting a “are we going to pull this off” look at me every time Mark looks away, which makes me snicker. Mark reacts exactly as I expected. He has to act happy that we worked so hard on the garage, but he feels funny about it too, as if our cleaning it was a way of saying “you are a big fat slacker, so we decided to do the work despite you.” Which isn’t the case, but that is the hidden message when you do a task someone else has said they will do over and over again.
He says, “Gee, it looks great.” But then he says, “Where are my drill bits?”
I say, “They were buried under junk . . . “
“On the ottoman. I KNOW. I know where every thing was in this garage, ya know.”
OK, so you knew your way around this shit. They why didn’t you put things where they belonged? Are you implying that I should have left the garage in an upheaval forever, cause I couldn’t’ stand it anymore. I didn’t say this, of course, but I am thinking it – You see, I am getting defensive now too.
He says, “And where are the bulbs I was going to plant?”
“Outside on the porch.”
“How about that box of house stuff. I was going to put that away. I had a place for everything in that box.”
I’m thinking, then you should have brought it in and put it away. What are you waiting for? Lot of good it is to know it is in a box.
Instead, I patiently tell him it is in the attic with another ten boxes of home decor that was left opened, but not unpacked. He need only take a few steps to get whatever he wants.
Then, he starts focusing on the fact that he has this fire wood holder that he had taken out of the original box, and the parts are leaning up in a corner unassembled. He wants to know where the screws are and the cover. I find the screws for him, but I fear I might have thrown out the cover. He gets really annoyed and starts talking about how he has to throw out the entire thing, (and they don’t make them anymore, of course-it can never be replaced) because without the cover it is worthless.
I tell him to put a damn tarp over the wood and make do. Life will not end because he doesn’t have a cover.
He gets argumentative and again says he knew where everything was in the garage before we cleaned it.
I stare him down and say, “Tough. That is the cost of getting the garage clean. You’ve lost a cover. Deal with it. I can’t believe you are going to stand here seeing what is over 8 hours of back breaking work that your family did to save you the trouble, and all you can do is focus on the negative and try to find things to complain about. Can you take a minute to appreciate is done rather than what isn’t?”
He says he does appreciate the work, but . . . where is everything?”
“WHERE IT BELONGS.” I say. Tools are in the workshop. Camping stuff and packed household is in the attic, craft stuff is in the craft room. Jesus, you can just walk up the stairs and get anything from the attic you want. It is only about ten extra steps, but in the meantime we can function. Functioning is good.”
“But, now I have to find it all,” he points out. “And I lost my cover. And you put my ladder outside but it will get rained on. “
I’m getting ready to take that ladder and hit him over the head with it. “So, go bring the fucking ladder in and put it where you want. We’ve done our share of lifting, now you can do some,” I say.
Then, I find his damn cover. This, apparently, was all it took to turn the situation around. It was symbolic cover or something. He suddenly relaxed, and seemed genuinely appreciative of the clean garage. He did a little subtle oohing and ahhing. Nothing major, mind you, but enough to quell our frustration about his lack of enthusiasm for our work.
Nevertheless, Kent and I determined not to tell him we burnt the forest down just yet.
We went inside. He saw his office and said, “That is better.”
Better? Ya think. You have a floor. Who knew?
He saw the workout room and said, “You put up the pictures. . .” His tone made it clear he didn’t think much of their positioning.
I said, “You can change them when you get around to it. I just wanted them off the floor.” Now, you see, I am making excuses and practically apologizing for having done this work. I hated the words as they come out of my mouth, yet I couldn’t stop making excuses.
We go to bed. No discussion about the fire. Mark snores, which ruins my night’s sleep, but I like it. Good proof he is home.
The next day, at breakfast, Mark says (I kid you not), “At least you all didn’t burn the house down.”
I have to tell him about the fire then. He stares at me deadpan as I recount the story. Then he says, “I’m not surprised. I thought you might burn the house down or something.”
This really sets me off. I’m like, “Why would you say that? Are you implying I’m incompetent? That I can’t function without you? For God’s sake, we are living in a house we built from proceeds of a business I founded and helped run for years. I’m NOT some bimbo that can’t accomplish any thing without a man.”
He says, “I didn’t’ say that. It is just that you are sometimes oblivious.”
“Oblivious?!? What the hell are you saying? I don’t screw things up. Hell, I don’t touch things if I don’t know what I’m doing. I planted a few raspberry bushes, but I went on line first and learned about how and where to do it correctly. I cleaned the hot tub and filled it, but because I didn’t know about chemicals I left finishing up to you. I don’t go around messing with anything I don’t understand and I don’t go around wrecking your precious things.” I am furious that he dares suggest I’m incompetent.
He says, “I only mean you choose to be oblivious about certain things. You live in your world of chickens and horses and cooking, but you don’t bother to learn how to set the coo coo clock, or set the house alarm, or test the water in the hot tub. Those are my jobs, and you leave it that way. So when I’m gone, I imagine the clock will stop and stuff. “
“But I CAN do those things if I need to. I just don’t choose to learn about them because I know you will do them. I resent your implication that I am some bubblehead.”
“I didn’t say that. But . . . well . . . you did burn the forest down.”
“No. KENT burned the forest down.”
“But you see, you don’t control the kids like I do. When you are gone, I run a tight ship. So, in a way, this means you burnt the forest down.”
I pointed out that I accomplished a month’s work in the week he was gone. And the kids got attention too, because I was there for their soccer and band. I made family dinners, even though it was just the three of us. And I entertained his mother and sister. I remind him I could have just laid around eating bon bons or doing my homework or blogging, but instead I worked on projects for him. But you can be sure I won’t do that next time he leaves.
He says he appreciated it all. Really. Now, why don’t we go on down and look at the fire site.
“Yea, OK,” I grumble.
So we went down so he could inspect the big circle of ash. He sort of blinked and said. “That must have been a real fire.”
Time to change the subject. I walked him over to see where I planted the raspberry bushes. He gently pointed out that the blueberry bushes will get squished if I don’t stake them so people know where they are. That is fair.
We talked about where to plant the apple trees, our project for this weekend. He told me about his trip and all he learned about furniture building and tools and what he wants for his workshop when we can afford it. He told me about the dinner he had with a friend who happens to be the artist who draws spider man for Marvel comics. (Very cool guy). He’s also is an amazing pool player and he taught Mark some skills. When we get around to buying a pool table, I’m in trouble, because my husband keeps practicing on the sly.
I guess you can say, life slowly returned to its general pace.
I’ve thought about this, about those uncomfortable hours when he first got home. How I knew they were coming. I have a theory.
There is an adjustment period that occurs after a couple is apart. You both have to deal with the reality that your spouse’s life goes on in your absence. You are uncomfortably aware that the other person could actually live without you – or not. And you feel as if you’ve been cheated out of a short segment of life because things are not as you left them. Even if it is something good, like a clean garage, you can’t help but feel as if someone flipped a few pages of your life novel forward. The story goes on uninterrupted, but you will never know the fine details that occurred on those missed pages – the moments missed. I know. I feel this way each time I return from Boston. Married, you are living a life run by what is actually a combined mind and combined efforts. When you wander different directions, even temporarily, with each other’s blessings and full understanding, you are reminded that you are actually separate beings, Perhaps this challenges our secure sense of partnership, or makes us doubt our influence on our other half to do, think, feel and act just as we anticipate they will.
Thankfully, this is just discomfort – nothing that leaves any long-term impact. Before you know it, you are back in your familiar life story again, swept up in the action – more interested in what’s to come than what happened previously.
Anyway, my husband is leaving again next week, going to Florida to do our taxes with our accountant and to take care of some business. I have decided I won’t do anything next time he is away except bury myself in my thesis. It is due in four weeks and needs the attention badly. And I think I’ve made enough single, executive decision, impact around here for a while. It is nice to shake things up once in a while, but it is more comfortable letting the sediment of living settle at the bottom of the jar. Why stir up muck if you don’t need to?
Today, we will plant apple trees. Together. We will discuss where they will go, and after deciding mutually, we will dig the earth as a team, and scatter moss over the plantings before we water them. Later we will complain to each other about our planting aches and pains over a glass of wine at dinner, and we will talk about what is next on our family to-do list. Work like this is not much different than cleaning a garage. Just another day at the Hendry’s. But thanks to the fact that today involves the participation of all family members, you can be sure the potential fires will be kept at bay.