For years, just moments before I expected Chris to walk in the door each evening I would set to work perfecting our woodstove fire. I would stack the firebox, sweep the hearth, fill the red ceramic steamer with water. I would read year-old articles from the pile of newspapers while waiting for the new logs to catch and when they did, I would close the damper and watch for a moment to make sure that the flames continued to dance. I did all this because I wanted Chris to come home and see that the fire was taken care of and needed nothing from her so she would be free to focus on helping me wrestle the children to the table, to the bathtub, to their beds. But every night without fail she would walk in the door, kiss me and the girls, and go to the fire. Check the steamer, open and close the damper, sweep a few grains of ash. And for years this enraged me — why was that sooty pile of logs more deserving of attention than her children, her wife? But I know now why Chris goes to the fire. All day she has been away from home, away from me and from her children and all day she has been tending to us in the most abstract way. She has worked — she has talked on the phone, typed on the computer, negotiated around conference tables — to make money so that we can have a good life. Now she is home and she wants to do something straightforward, something elemental. For years I wanted her to go from the abstraction of legal work right into the tedium of bedtime negotiations and she wanted, just for a moment, a physical expression of her devotion to us and our home. She wanted to tend the fire.
This is our eighth winter with woodstoves. I can tell the story of the winters with our fires: the first weekend we lived in the house we stacked wood all afternoon while snowflakes fell and melted on our sleeves and gloves. A neighbor came down with a plate of blueberry scones and we ate them for lunch. The second winter was our first with the fancy Norwegian stove, black cast iron with the rimmed and vaulted windows of an old church. Two stout men wheeled that stove off a truck and into our house on a hot July afternoon when I was eight months pregnant. When they left I sat for a long time just looking at the stove, imagining the coming baby and the coming winter and somehow wanting and dreading both. And then a blur of winters: fire after fire after fire, the ash pan always full, the wood cribs always close to empty. Wood to be split and stacked and carried, split and stacked again. Jobs that were not mine but Chris’s; jobs that kept her from the house, kept her in the yard and in the shed. Jobs that kept me alone responsible for the baby (and then babies), just as I had been all week long. Jobs that I didn’t want to do but also didn’t want her to do. But she loved them. She loved to be outside using her hands to transform a mountain of wood in the driveway into a orderly stack on the porch, and then to transform those logs once again into heat, into quiet naps and peaceful afternoons spent playing in bare feet and t-shirts while the wind tore across the meadow and the icicles hung from every eave.
But I wanted Chris inside. I wanted her playing with Grace, and later with Grace and June. I wanted her spooning applesauce and braiding doll hair. She spent so little time at home, I wanted her to be at home, with us. I wanted her to engage, whatever that meant. What would I have done, I have to wonder now, if she hadn’t stacked all that wood? Would I have done it, a baby strapped to my back? Would I have given up the naptimes I spent writing and cooking to stack wood? And what would I have been thinking about her then? At the woodpile Chris had found a home in this new world of living with children. She had found a way to care for her children with her own hands, and to do it quietly, to do it alone.
When the girls are grown they will remember countless things about living with Chris. They will remember her affection and her laughter, the funny bubble-shaped man with the big feet she drew over and over on their sketch pads. They will remember her drinking beer and doing the crossword puzzle, they way they sat with her while she filled the boxes with letters and doodled love notes around the edges of the newspaper page. And of course they will remember the fires. They will remember the wood-stacking and the splitting, the rhythm of the awl separating wood in the thin November air. For a long time I wanted them to remember something else. For a long time I wanted her to show her love for them and for me in a louder, breathier way. But that wasn’t the sort of love she was offering, at least not all the time. She had something else for us: old apple crates full of kindling on the back porch; the early morning sound of newspaper crumpling and the stove door squeaking open and closed. She had next year’s wood stacked waist high between two trees by the meadow, a string of prayer flags hung above, blowing nearly sideways in the winter wind.