Mona’s word of the week is “out,” which reminds me of a Tobias Wolff a short story I love called “Firelight,” where a boy and his struggling single Mom go to visit a pompous professor at a local college. There house is nice, their clothes are nice, they hug each other, the Mom bakes brownies. There is a comforting fire in the fireplace in their living room. The boy yearns to be included in the warmth and glow of the home and the fireplace inside, and pretends this is his house, his family. Ultimately they have to leave, of course. Out of the light and warmth of this seemingly happy home. His Mom puts on a cheap coat that embarrasses him to wear, they walk to the bus stop in the bitter cold.
The story has been much on my mind lately.
There’s a little girl who goes to my kid’s daycare. Shy, overweight, doesn’t appear to have a lot of friends there. Last week my oldest asked her if she wanted to come live at our house, and she apparently said “yes,” because when I went to pick my girls up this other little girl was with them, ready to go home with us. I told her as gently as I could that she had to go with her own Mommy or Daddy, and couldn’t go home with us, but that we could arrange a playdate sometime. She was disappointed but agreed. Next day, the same scenario. Day after that, the same as well, except when I told her she couldn’t go home with us she started crying. So I gave her our number, told her to give it to her Mom, we’d set up a play date.
Fast-forward past the weekend to this week. She hugged me tightly when she saw me. She told me her mom wouldn’t let go on a playdate. She cried when we left. The crying has now stopped, but she still gives me a tight hug every time she sees me, twice a day, morning and evening. The situation has now morphed into fantasy, with my girls telling me she is their “sister” now, and they are all going to live together. Every day when I pick them up, I have to pop the “new sister” bubble as gently as I can.
Now I freely admit I don’t know what the hell I’m doing as a parent. I’m too quick to anger, I often choose reading or writing or baseball or the news over playing with them, and when our days are busy I frequently revert to task-master mode, where I ferry them from one thing to the next as quickly as possible, and rush past all the nuance, the fun, the beauty my girls are such naturals at discovering on their own.
But it breaks my heart to see this girl so clearly scared at the prospect of going home. It angers me that her parents, whoever they are, will not allow her out for a playdate. And I get the sense that tight hug I get every day from her now may be the only hug she receives. I could be wrong about all of this; it could be mere transference, as the shrinks say. I know at least part of my reaction to all this stems from issues with my own adopted children, and their wildly chaotic early childhood. I am angry at their birth parents for putting them in harm’s way. It will take years, decades, for the full ramifications of those early years to reveal themselves, like ripples from a thrown stone. I first met the girls when they were beyond the warmth and light of the hearth, my wife and I have been trying, with mixed success, to keep a nurturing fire burning ever since.
Here’s the end of that wonderful Tobias Wolff story, with slight editing.
I was shivering like crazy. It seemed to me I'd never been so cold, and I blamed my mother for it, for taking me outside again, away from the fire. I knew it wasn't her fault but I blamed her anyway—for this and the wind in my face and for every nameless thing that was not as it should be.
"Come here." She pulled me over and began to rub her hand up and down my arm. When I leaned away she held on and kept rubbing. It felt good. I wasn't really warm, but I was as warm as I was going to get.
I have my own fireplace now. Where we live the winters are long and cold. The wind blows the snow sideways, the house creaks, the windows glaze over with ferns of ice. After dinner I lay the fire, building four walls of logs like a roofless cabin. That's the best way. Only greenhorns use the teepee method. My children wait behind me, jockeying for position, furiously arguing their right to apply the match. I tell them to do it together. Their hands shake with eagerness as they strike the matches and hold them to the crumpled paper, torching as many spots as they can before the kindling starts to crackle. Then they sit back on their heels and watch the flame engulf the cabin walls. Their faces are reverent.
My wife comes in and praises the fire, knowing the pride it gives me. She lies on the couch with her book but doesn't read it. I don't read mine, either. I watch the fire, watch the changing light on the faces of my family. I try to feel at home, and I do, almost entirely. This is the moment I dream of when I am far away; this is my dream of home. But in the very heart of it I catch myself bracing a little, as if in fear of being tricked. As if to really believe in it will somehow make it vanish, like a voice waking me from sleep.
Such graceful writing. You can read the whole story by following the link at the beginning of this post.