This morning, I awoke to the smell of smoke. Yesterday, it had been a bright, clear-blue sky day. This morning, Calgary’s sky was dark and orange at 8am, much like the sky on Mars. Smoke and ash from wildfires had enveloped the city, even though the closest wildfire is 200 kilometres to the northwest.
I learned last week that three of my childhood homes may have been lost in a wildfire. Two of those homes were built by my dad.
The loss has yet to be confirmed because the town is still evacuated and no one is allowed back. I have to wonder what else has been destroyed or lost that no one yet knows.
The oil and gas economy was good in the 1970s. My parents were doing well. My dad bought some land. We moved to the outskirts of our small town when I was two years old.
A couple years later, my dad bought a house kit. The house arrived in packages — I remember the truck trying to drive up our steep laneway in the mud and rain. My dad then put it together over several months. We moved in before the carpets were installed. I’m pretty sure my barbie sailboat got locked in between wall studs when my dad finished drywallling the rec room. This is when I first experienced what a new house smells like: fresh paint, lumber. And I began to truly experience life in a big house and in the country.
My dad started his woodworking business out of a truck, then later, he quit is oil and gas job and did his woodworking business full-time. My dad worked in a quonset about a hundred yards south of our house. I grew up under the table saw, in the sawdust, and to the sound of hammering. I almost always had a piece of wood in my hand. My barbies had weird robust furniture and infrastructure built with leftover scraps of wood I’d plucked from the shop floor. My dad was building and I was learning to build along side him.
A couple years after that, my dad designed and built another house within walking distance. It shared that steep laneway across the ravine with our other house. I learned to roller skate on the basement floor and remember looking through the floor joists of the main floor and thinking this was like science-fiction. I watched as my dad tiled the mud room floor, and crawled under the hot tub before he finished closing in the surrounding supports.
Like the previous house, he also built a quonset near the house where he continued his woodworking business. He was always nearby and I was always welcome in his shop. I had a corner up on an empty second level where I’d play with my barbies and emerge when I needed more wood.
Eventually, the oil and gas economy busted. My dad’s business partner stole some tools and money. Things were no longer in our favour and we had to give up the house and the land. We moved when I was 11.
It was crushing to walk away from that life of freedom and adventure. There was a security then that I’d never felt since. The economy was good, my parents had financial stability, I was safe and was allowed to embrace my imagination however it showed up.
From then on, we rented our home. Money was tight. I was forced to view things differently. The world was full of scarcity and I discovered how scary the world could be.
Those two houses to me were symbols of abundance, warmth of safety, and unbridled imagination. Now they’re gone. Forever.
Grief hits in weird and unexpected ways. When it hits. It can lay hidden and lash out at the most unpredictable times.
My dad died in 2018. I’m glad he wasn’t here to witness the loss of those houses. I don’t know how he felt about them. I imagine he felt a sense of pride. He wasn’t a reader, like me, but he taught himself from books about electricity and plumbing and did it all himself on the second house. I was proud of him. Not everyone can say they built a house. All of it, from the cement foundation through to the kitchen cabinets. My dad was resourceful, innovative, and, in a lot of ways, fearless. He just dove in and did something, learning as he went. These houses were part of my dad’s legacy and a reminder of how he shaped my life. Now he’s gone and the houses are gone too. The world is a lesser place without them.
When my dad died, I was his executrix. It was a tough job. I shoved aside my grief to do it. Shoving aside my grief was also a tough job. It was so tough that I didn’t want to do it. At one point, I burned a bunch of old paperwork. I threw in photos of my childhood and reminders of my parents divorce, and called it a Fire Ceremony. It felt good at the time. Clearing. Now I have no photos of those houses, that time, no tangible reminder of that period of my life.
I know people who have voluntarily minimized their lives by selling or giving away all their possessions or destroying personal artifacts. I can say that you gotta be ready for it. I thought I was, but now I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the grief talking.
Other people have had their lives minimized by external forces, like fire. My heart goes out to those people who had called these houses their homes. They didn’t sign on for this.
We attempt to seek solace in the fact that we are still alive. We still breath. Our heart still beats. The reality is, however, that every breath hurts, every heartbeat is a reminder of the loss.
We carry on living because we have to. Because we don’t know what else to do. Our memories fade, daily tasks push the emotions aside, and we attempt to build a callus over the pain. But the emotions remain and live in our bodies and resurface despite the calluses and our avoidance. The emotions let us remember what it was like to feel, to live, and to love.
It’s been +20 years since I moved away from my small hometown. It’s been almost 40 years since I was in one of the houses my dad built. But the emotions are real and raw and they remind me of the beauty and gifts of life. The memories live in me and I hope that is enough.
Wildfires are a nasty part of our lives. Canada is going through a tough time right now with more wildfires than usual and earlier than usual. Should you want to support those whose lives have been affected by wildfires, consider donating to the Red Cross.
(This is not an affiliate link, and I do not get compensated for your donation. Only the people in need get your support.)
Beautiful, honest words of loss.
To be truthful, I put off reading this blog post for fear of what it might bring up for me. Fire is an alluring yet destructive force.
Yet our memories can keep the love, safety, and abundance alive, if even in another realm. The secret place in our heart that filled with Barbie Dolls and their chunky furniture.
Thank you for this post Yvonne.
As always, thank you for reading.