I've been a bit edgy ever since the arsonist-set blaze that burned down St. Anne Church in my hometown in the early morning hours of Holy Saturday. It was the church where my Aunt Mimi and Uncle Graham were married; the church where Meelyn and Aisling were baptized; the church were they received their First Holy Communion; the church where my husband and I made old things new again. It was a sorrowful, aching wrench to see it looming against the Easter sky, as blackened and hollow as a burned out stump.
So as I say, I'm a bit nervous.
We live in the historic district of our city, one block off the really snazzy street where mansions stand with their five, six, seven bedrooms and as many fireplaces; houses with kitchens as big as tennis courts and garret rooms for the Irish maids on the third, or even fourth floor. These houses were the showplaces of lumber barons and the men who made millions from the pool of natural gas that lies beneath this area of east central Indiana: stately Queen Annes stand imposingly next to graceful Italianate manors next to solid Colonial Revivals with a few later additions from the Arts & Crafts Movement thrown in for good measure. The extravagant landscaping, the old-fashioned "gaslights" (modern innovations with orange halogen lamps - absolutely hideous...) and wide sidewalks make it all a real pleasure to be near.
Our house is not grand. It is a big old Victorian farmhouse, one of the older homes in the neighborhood, being a creaky but gracious old lady of approximately 150 years. She wears new butter-colored siding and brown shutters to match her roof, much in the same manner that a woman whom the French would politely refer to as une dame d'un certain âge might wear a mini skirt and false eyelashes. I imagine in another time that she humbly wore a coat of white paint, leaving the shutters to her more fashionable neighbors one block north.
The former owner told us that our house started off as a log cabin with a root cellar, with our living room serving as the cabin's living space and our cellar playing the part of the cellar. We can see how that would be true, considering that the wall between the living and dining rooms in over twelve inches thick. It is an interesting place, our cellar, with walls built from jutting limestone rock and numerous shadowy rooms. I have never yet seen or heard of a tornado that could willingly get me down there and the dogs agree with me.
"We'd prefer to stay up here," they say, resisting all attempts to be pulled down the steps by their leashes, planting their paws on the landing. "Up here, away from the Christmas ornaments and the lawn implements and any possible coffins or members of the living dead."
Our neighborhood is close to a fire station, which is a good thing. Most of these houses are not made of brick, seeing as how lumber was such a plentiful and inexpensive thing to come by and it's nice knowing that the fire fighters are only a couple of blocks away.
Especially this afternoon.
Ever since the fire at St. Anne's, I have been smelling smoke. The other night we had some scented candles burning when company came over, and when Meelyn blew them out, I had a moment of utter panic when I smelled that smoky smell coming from the jars. So I keep trying not to second guess myself, and, as my husband so winsomely puts it, "get a grip."
But when I smelled smoke this afternoon, I knew I wasn't imagining things. And when the sirens kicked on a few moments later, I knew something bad was happening. The huge pumper truck rushed by my dining room window, screaming up the street, but then stopped almost immediately.
My husband came in from the back where he was pulling weeds. "Fire," he said sharply. "Do you smell that?" He went out the front door and up the street to see what was happening.
I nodded, praying, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee..." the prayer that the girls and I always say whenever we hear the sirens, praying for the people who are in trouble, praying for their safety and comfort and for the safety of the firefighters. I looked out my front window as I made the sign of the cross, noting that I could actually see the truck and billowing smoke. It looked as if the truck was parked right next to a gracious four story brick apartment building, lovely and symmetrical in its Georgian design, mostly inhabited by young professional people whom we often see coming out to their shiny cars in the mornings we go to Mass, juggling briefcases and shiny non-spill coffee thermos cups and iPods. How awful if so many were driven from their homes, their belongings destroyed by fire, smoke, or water.
I stood, wringing my hands, and Meelyn and Aisling came downstairs saying anxiously, "We smell smoke. We prayed, Mom. Is there a fire here?"
"Yes, right up there. Do you see the truck?" I pointed across the street down our neighbor's driveway where a brief glimpse of the red truck could be seen. I kept thinking about the apartment building and all the lovely wooden homes around it; of a firm of accountants whose "office" is a Victorian gem, everything authentic and perfect, decorated like a fairyland at Christmas time; of a gorgeous Greek Revival that is brick on the outside, but so was St. Anne's. And then there all the houses that might not necessarily be historic jewels in the crown of our neighborhood's historic preservation, but are nevertheless homes of people we know and people we don't.
Whose was it? I continued wringing my hands and praying, thinking about watching the angry red blaze leaping hungrily through of the roof of a beloved church. If fires could be extinguished with tears, surely there were enough at St. Anne's that day to douse all the flames in the world.
My husband came jogging back down the street and up the steps of the front porch. We all spilled out the door -- our beautiful, nine-foot wooden front door with the original doorknob and lock and the original ripply glass that distorts the mailman and the trick-or-treaters in their costumes.
"It's just a van pulled over to the side of the road," he said comfortingly, patting all of us. "Not a house. Just a van."
Oh, God....just as I typed that line, the pumper truck went by again, followed closely by the ladder truck. It's only been three hours since the last time they went by today, the time I've been sitting here writing about, off and on this afternoon. I automatically wonder, now, if the ladder is needed so that the enormous hose can be lifted to pour water on the roof of a church.
Hail Mary, full of grace....
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