Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Barn

I spent a heart-wrenching New Year's Eve of the Millennium at my home only a few miles from the capital of the free world, Washington, D.C. But for reasons I couldn't have anticipated.

My husband was staying downtown, part of some emergency contingency planning in case the "worst" happened. An old friend, L., had come up from Alabama to, well, face the end with me and my 5-year-old in suburban Virginia. I'm being dramatic, but like many, we weren't sure what waited for us. We just wanted to pass the big milestone together.

My son was in a celebratory mood. L. bought him sparklers, party hats and balloons. So he decided we must be having a big party. We heard from neighbors that he was inviting them over to the big gala. "Come over at midnight," he cajoled. We had no such plans, takeout for three and TV being on the menu. And the little party planner, wound to hysteria by his prep, passed out on the sofa at 6 p.m., down for the night.

It was then, I got the first telephone call. But it wasn't from my husband, who was in or near "the bunker" or something concocted by people who get paid to think of these things. The call was from my mother, speaking urgently from my hometown. The news was dramatic, far more so than the anything I was hearing from my husband in D.C.

"Your brother-in-law was out burning some brush. It was windy and it got away from him. It's threatening the barn. I have to go back over there and see what's happening," was the gist of my mother's report. And then she was off.

Oh. My. God. Not the barn. That beautiful piece of art, really, behind my sister's big white columned house, the place she wanted her entire life, the one her friends call "Tara." And the barn was not just another picturesque rural structure in the countryside. Home to horses, beside a pond and a sweet rope swing, surrounded by towering oaks on all sides, it also housed a fully lit, regulation-size basketball court on the second floor, installed by the farmer who previously owned the place.

And on Y2's Eve, it was all threatened.

A second call came in about 20 minutes after the first. My mother again. "It's caught fire, the barn. Your sister is so upset. She's out there with him and they're fighting the fire the best they can, with hoses. It doesn't look good. I have to get back."

I was holding the phone to my chest, I remember. Picturing my mother, then a young-for-her-age 80, rushing down the back steps, pushing through the path kept clear through the cotton field to my sister's house. Running to the aid of her youngest child. The one she was helpless to save from grief. But in my mind's eye, I could see Mother standing near, silently, wringing her hands. Just in case.

I was upset too, for my sister, who poured her very self into that property, bought for a song at auction. She studied magazines, talked to carpenters, suppliers. She worked for the federal government to help pay for it. Without architects or decorators, she redid that compound pretty much from a down-at-the-heels rental house to a homesite that rates a Southern Living spread. To me, the farm's metamorphosis reflected my sister's own development, from a somewhat awkward, painfully shy little girl to the very graceful, beautiful woman she became.

I shouldn't have been surprised that my brother-in-law was burning brush on New Year's Eve, he's a worker bee, hyper, runs marathons to relax -- attributes that fuel his considerable business success. But I fretted about it to my friend anyway. "Why?" I asked her, emphasizing the scariness of this particular New Year's Eve. There was no one else for me to rail to about the situation. But L. was not impressed with my concern for a barn. A political junkie, one-time news media veteran like me, L. is a city girl, from a place she could easily take or leave. The place and the people are not burned deep inside her like a brand.

I answered the phone on the first new blast. "It's out of control now, the fire department is there but it's too late. They're just trying to make sure it doesn't get to the house now," said my mother, or something like that.

And these words I remember specifically, I can hear them echo clearly through the years: "Your sister told him off worse than I've ever heard her tell off anybody. Then she went inside. She went to bed with a headache." She hung up again, to rush back. For a second I wondered why she did not use the phone at my sister's house, but I knew. She didn't want my sister to know she was phoning in updates to me. And the rushing around gave my mother something to do with her manic energy.

My husband finally called. The minutes were ticking by, closer to midnight. But I was monitoring a real crisis, not a made up one. I explained quickly, trying to brush him off. "I NEED TO KEEP THE LINE OPEN HE HAS BURNED DOWN THE BARN THE WIND WAS TOO HIGH FOR BRUSH BURNING SHE'S TOLD HIM OFF AND NOW IS DOWN WITH A BAD HEADACHE." And my husband was saying "What, who, what ARE you talking about?"

Finally, the line was free. And it was ringing. My mother, of course, and again this was the gist of what she said: "You won't believe it, cars are lining the road, all up and down. People are getting out of their cars watching."


But of course they came. This is the deep south, a very small town, still. And this was big news. "They're reminiscing, about the barn," my mother said. And my sister? "She came out for a little while. But then she went back to bed. She is so upset. This is the most upset I've ever seen her, I don't know if she'll ever get over it."

I was worried the onlookers would be put out about the barn's destruction, that their sense of ownership would make them act a little nutty, seeing a part of their youths go up senselessly in embers and smoke. But my mother said the mood was festive almost, that the crowd was telling one story after another about the midnight basketball games, volunteer firefighters too. The firemen had fought hard to contain the damage and had saved the house, the three-car garage and apartment above it, the other buildings. No one was hurt, none of the animals. It could have been worse. A lot worse.

So, like good southerners, they held a wake in the little village that once had more farm animals than people. For the barn and their young selves and a place where everyone knew each other and the names of the family pets, the number of cows in the field, before the space race brought so many people to Huntsville to the south, spilling over, expanding the town and changing it forever. Cars streamed up and down the road, slowly, some stopping and watching, others getting out and coming closer -- men, women and children.

And they listened to men well into middle age talk about jump shots and dunks, yelling matches, growing younger with each sentence, Mother said. They stayed late into the night, growing quieter as the flames died down. Everyone was kind to my brother-in-law, too.

My sister recovered from her headache and regained her gracious ways. And she quickly forgave the man she has loved since they were teenagers. Insurance paid for a new barn.

And I had my own wake that night, sitting only minutes from the most powerful city in the world, clutching a phone with steadily whitening knuckles, rapt with attention waiting for any word from down south. With a friend who had no idea what I was going on about.

At that point, I had been living many states away from Alabama for 20 years. When I moved away, I thought I was saying goodbye forever. But I never really left that little town. And the night the barn burned, I could see the very notion disintegrating like the embers pulled into the sky by the wind from the flames, a stream of carlights in the distance.

I understood, finally, that my heart was the biggest part of me. And it had never really left at all.


  1. You are such a wonderful storyteller!

  2. I just have to sit still with the quiet and these stories tell themselves. Although I was listening to my ipod when I wrote this, a recording by someone I know. A man from Decatur, AL, playing Bach on classical guitar. The music was perfect.

  3. Wow... that was a great story! I don't blame your sister, I would have tied him up in bed sheets later and worked him over with a baseball bat!

  4. What a wonderfully told story. I'm so glad your sister was able to forgive her husband - I wonder, did he ever forgive himself?

  5. Andrea: Yes he did! He is a character, adult ADHD (my diagnosis -- ha ha!). Very successful business owner in spite of or because of it. Started out as a child who did not say one word in first grade, teachers wanted him tested etc., but was just one of those people who came into his own later, as an adult.

    He is amazing. Deserves a separate blog post, at least. Thank you for giving me a very excellent idea!

  6. Thanks for posting a comment on my blog. I'm in Alabama now which is probably how you got to my blog. I remember Y2K...My husband and I were in Nepal, removed from the world.

  7. Great story. I'm glad things worked out.

  8. The image of people lining up to watch the fire and share a memory or two about the barn. I can just hear them as they roll off those though telling them relives them of the awe and sadness of the fire. Thank God the house didn't burn down!!!! What a memory of that year...burned in your memory I would say....

  9. I loved those phone calls that night. It made it all come all alive for me. My mother is a natural story teller and has no idea.