Where there’s Smoke…

During my first year of marriage, anxiety was paramount. I lived in fear, afraid of the most mundane occurrences. Everything felt as though it was out of my control and at any moment might spontaneously combust into a catastrophic and painful apocalypse.

One of my recurring fears, for which I sought reassurance from my husband on a regular basis, was that the electric wiring behind the walls might catch fire. My fear was a fire like this would sizzle and smoulder undetected for a long time. And when it finally burst through a mouse hole or an outlet it would be out of control, inextinguishable.

My husband looked at me as though I was crazy, laughed, and carelessly tamped out his cigarette in the already full ashtray.

When I emptied the ashtrays, which I did often, I felt the bottoms of them repeatedly to make sure they were cold. No warm ashes in the trash in my kitchen, no sir!

I drank; and once inebriated I forgot about fear. I became too lazy to care about the inferno smouldering in the wiring.

I found a therapist. Of course, I told her my irrational fears: how the whiff of a barbecue or bonfire ignited my imagination and set off a four-alarm response in the fire engines of my brain. At the same time, we did what is known as family-of-origin work.

I was the youngest of four daughters. Had something occurred in my young life to rattle me loose from the foundations of sanity?

There was one year, one year of big changes. Enough changes to warrant a top rating on the stress scale. And I was only eight years old. What happened that year? A big secret. Something worth silence.

We moved. That’s a big stressor. A family of four school-aged girls yanked from their friends and neighbourhood just one month before the end of the school year. I was the new kid in June!

The same summer we moved to a new cottage on the family compound, not an enormous change but a change nonetheless. Our new cottage was the beachfront building of our family’s summer resort; the other hotel buildings were sold.

A shift.

The hotel had been an integral part of each of my previous seven summers. First, as my grandparents’ hotel, my dad keeping the books, we ran around, before the guests arrived, investigating every drawer and cabinet, lying on bare mattresses. Then my uncle’s hotel, a little more posh after a red carpet renovation, a new direction for the hotel, rented for a month at a time to a ballet school. We became “ballet girls”.

Then the hotel was no longer ours, sold out of the family. And then the fire, in which the new owners appeared guilty of arson. The old main building burnt to the ground. The blackened stone fireplace stood among the charred rafters now fallen into the foundation. We poked around with our grandfather after the blaze, before the clean up. He took photographs, and probably cried.

Wait. A fire?

A catastrophic fire punctuated my year of traumatic change. Yes. But the hotel was not ours at the time, the blaze should not count.

No matter how far we distance ourselves from people or property, their images are seared into our brains. My eighth year was singed by a secret and unspoken grief. I was oblivious, a child desperate to hang on to a world which turned too fast, faithfully grasping the writhing hose that was my parents’ protection. Uncertain, but determined to keep my eyes and mouth shut. Still, the smoke got up my nose.

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