A Little Memoire: Family Time or the Towering Inferno

When I was growing up, I recognized that my father had a keen sense of family proprietorship where it concerned our house and its land.  Several times a year, he would make a pronouncement on Saturday morning: “Today we clear land” or “Today we shovel the driveway” or “Today we burn the lawn.” These statements would be made from the pulpit of the breakfast table, in between bites whatever breakfast he had made that morning, with all the imperiousness of a New England preacher. If it weren’t for the fact that the driveway was a quarter mile long, the land was about five acres, and my father had an addiction to kerosene, my brother and I might have laughed ourselves silly.

Our house was three stories, with weathered gray siding, dark green shutters, and three brick chimneys. It had been built in the mid 1800s by a sea captain named Hornblower, and its many windows stared out blankly at the water of Massachusetts Bay. There were five terraces that led up to the house from the main road, wild and full of brambles and wild blackberries, and some had even been other sites for the house. My father told me he had seen pictures of the house, raised up on a huge platform, being dragged down the hill, to be repositioned wherever the owners wanted it. The foundations of those other sites were still visible in some places, and there had once been a round extension on one side of the house, but it had fallen off in a move.

The lowest terrace was next to the main road, and it and the next one up had ancient apple trees that bore fruit sporadically. My brother Jay and I had once tried the apples, but decided that the small, tart fruits weren’t worth the briar scratches on our legs and the burrs in our socks. The third terrace up was half-full of day lilies, which bloomed spectacularly in summer, painting the terrace in a brilliant shade of orange, and which spread a little each year. The fourth and fifth terraces had the thickest bushes and brambles and were in a perpetual state of being cleared; on the fifth, Dad had established a beachhead for brush burning. While no one in the family doubted that he was determined to clear those terraces, the fact the job simply couldn’t be done in one or two weekends meant the brush never was truly removed. It just grew back to be cleared again. But he was undaunted, and as a result the entire family suffered together in true pioneer fashion.

Clearing was always done in late spring and early fall, when it was warm and humid and the poison ivy in full bloom. Dad would get a burning permit from the town and start bushwhacking early Saturday morning with his machete and a scythe. My mother, Jay and I would pull on old gloves, whose insides smelled and frequently contained small bits of yuck, and follow behind Dad, grabbing the cut brush and dragging it to the towering inferno he would create with a liberal splash of kerosene.

In the early days, when no one was particularly good at recognizing poison ivy, Jay and I usually came down with a good dose of it and would be wearing pink calamine lotion for the next week or so. Burning poison ivy was also unsafe, because good dose of the smoke, when mixed with sweat, also required a dose of calamine. It didn’t help my regard of this shiny green weed when my mother told me that years before, some crazy relative had died after eating poison ivy on a dare. Jay and I thereafter carefully inspected every load of brush we dragged to the fire and tried to stay upwind of the smoke. My father was immune to poison ivy and was never subject to the humiliation of sitting in a classroom with a pink-coated face, being driven crazy with the itching.

My mother was the smartest one in the family, which was evident the very first time we bush-whacked the terraces. She would haul brush for about 30 minutes and then engage my Dad in a short discussion.

“John, I think we’ve about cleared this area.” That would be followed by a grunt from Dad, who was dripping sweat into his eyes and trying not to slash himself with the machete.

“Would you like something to drink? You must be getting thirsty.”

“Sounds good.”

“OK, I’m going to head in and I’ll bring you all out some lemonade after I have started lunch.”   Then Mom would retreat to the house and wouldn’t appear until she called us for lunch. The lemonade would be on the table when we slogged inside. I never knew exactly why ham sandwiches took the entire morning to make, but whatever Mom was doing, I would have been only too happy to help her.

“The family will shovel” days in the winter usually occurred after a several foot snowfall, which inevitably blocked the back door. In that case, the easiest way out of the house was through the cellar, since Dad hermetically sealed all the other doors each winter to keep out the cold. We would assemble on the stairs leading up from the cellar to its double doors and with might grunts, would heave upward, dislodging a pile of snow which would rain down inside our clothes. While most of the day would be spent clearing the large parking area in the back of the house and making two straight lines the width of the car axle down the driveway, there were also a lot of snowball fights and general mayhem.

Dad also believed that burning a lawn made it come back rich and green. So with another burning permit, on one Saturday morning each spring he would set fire to the lawn by sprinkling it with his favorite flammable material, kerosene, and dropping a match. Before he did, however, there were a lot of preparations. Buckets had to be filled with water and lugged to each of the four sides of the lawn, with two on the side adjacent to the house’s long front porch. Then Mom would assemble as many old towels as she could find and several would be soaked and placed by each bucket. A hose would be attached to the spigot on the north side of the house and left coiled, waiting for disaster.

I was always positioned at one end of the lawn, Jay at the other and Mom on the porch to watch the progress of the fire. Dad would stand next to the flag pole on the edge of the lawn, just above aforementioned site of the twice annual towering inferno, and ceremoniously drop the match. As the fire spread, Jay and I would mind its movement, using the wet towels to beat out any errant flames. It never failed that the wind would rise and the flames would march on the house or the flag pole or Mom’s rock garden, and everyone would beat wildly with their towels and sling water on the flames and each other in an attempt to control the burn. The house never did burn and her mother never used a wet towel. She used the hose. And while the flag pole was occasionally scorched, a cleaning and a new coat of white paint fixed it.

Our neighbors found the whole process amusing, and it was quite normal to have two or three of them watching from the side of the lawn where I was stationed, yelling “Go Noelle! Watch those flames off to the left! Don’t let it get near the fence!” and chuckling as I flailed with the towel. For some reason, they had absolute confidence the fire would never spread to their property.

Since the day following the big burn was a Sunday, and our family trekked to church together, I noticed right away that other parishioners gave us a wide berth. Why would anyone want to sit next to someone reeking of smoke and kerosene? Dad got as far as the church with us, but wisely stayed in the car with the window open and read the newspaper.



9 thoughts on “A Little Memoire: Family Time or the Towering Inferno”

  1. I love this! So different from my life – and yet… I’m sure I can make something out of bonfires of leaves in the autumn. Thanks for a wonderful insight into your childhood!

  2. Lovely post. What beautiful memories you have!
    Your house was built by a sea captian called Hornblower! Amazing! Horatio Hornblower is one of my favourite fictional characters by C. S. Forester! What a coincidence…. It also brought to my mind ‘The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.’ Did you ever see him wandering around the house 🙂

    1. Thank you! I loved the Ghost and Mrs. Muir, one of my favorites. We did have someone in the house, but they were very polite and not often evident. A house like that had to have some ghosts still there!

  3. What a wonderful picture you paint of your childhood home and garden. It sounds like a garden any child would enjoy being in (apart from the days where the order “Today we…..”. I can see that terrace of day lilies – one of my favourite flowers, and an old three story house built by a sea captain. The stuff that dreams are made of and you lived in it. Thanks for sharing so vividly a part of your childhood. 🙂

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I did have a wonderful childhood in Plymouth, and I love that house. I’ve been back several times to visit it. As I was writing this piece it occurred to me how often the situations my family found itself in were humorous.

  4. Noelle, I really enjoyed reading your memories of your dad clearing the land – very amusing and vividly written. The house you lived in sounds wonderful! Just the sort of house to spark the imagination with all kinds of ideas for wonderful stories. I read the comments of one of your posters and loved the remark about ‘The Ghost & Mrs. Muir.’ How fitting!

    1. It is a wonderful house, still standing, although much in need of repair the last time I visited. It was one of three built along a ridge to the north of the original Hornblower mansion for the three children of Captain Hornblower. The old Hornblower mansion was torn down when Plimoth Plantation was constructed.

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