Eleven years ago, the house we owned in Grand Marais, Michigan, caught fire and blew up. It was the dead of winter, in the middle of a terrific storm, at the end of a day when the power had gone off and on a dozen times. Deciding we’d better hightail it, we’d cut short our skiing trip and headed for Milwaukee, where six hours later, I listened to the phone message from a neighbor telling me, “I’m watching your house burn down.”
And did it burn. Fueled by high winds coming off Lake Superior, the fire got so hot, the house exploded. I know this because the local newspaper man braved the weather to stand on our beach and take time series photos which he sent to us later. I looked at them once and put them in the attic.
It was two months before we came back. After having been told by the fire marshal that there was nothing left to see, we figured that the heartache could wait a while. Our dream place, the summer home we’d hoped our kids would grow up in and bring their own kids to was just plain gone.
We wandered around in the March rain and called out to each other when we found things in the rubble – pieces of dishes, clothes pins, the embroidered edge of a bedsheet, the metal ladle we used to toss water on the hot stones in the sauna, and chunks of carpeting – like the piece I found today half buried in the sand.
Wherever we went, there was the question. What caused the fire? There was never an answer. No one to blame. No one to sue. Could’ve been this or that, wiring, creosote in the chimney, downdrafts, or human error. We decided it was an act of God. And we left it at that. This was a decision I never regretted and a lesson we as a family never forgot. Sometimes you just can’t figure it all out, find out who did what when and why, who’s to blame, who should pay. Sometimes you just have to bulldoze the rubble of your heart and your mind or, in our case, a big, flimsy box of a beach house, and start over.
The capacity to start over is a great big gift. And I mean starting over without assurances, without resolution of past wrongs, without people changing to be the people we wished and planned for them to be. Another word would probably be forgiveness. Either way, you end up with a stronger, better house.