There are times in my family’s life that are never spoken of. Hard times, rough patches. Every family with any substance, especially families that have taken on the challenge of growing by adoption, has had these times. I don’t trust families who’ve had just smooth sailing and can’t manage their way around a police station or an inpatient unit. I joke. Somewhat.
When there is a hard time or, say, a great disappointment, it can be an estranging thing. One generally doesn’t want to be around people who disappoint them or anger them or, maybe the worst of all, puzzle and confound them. So we withdraw and protect ourselves. It’s a reflex more than a strategy. This can happen even while the two people are in the same house, but it’s easy as pie when they’re under separate roofs, when you have to go out of your way to see the other person. Estrangement is an ivy that can cover a building overnight.
Many years ago, our beloved house on the shore of Lake Superior burned to the ground. The fire, which became visible to the townspeople several hours after we’d left to come back to Milwaukee, destroyed everything despite the best efforts of the volunteer fire department and many others to get fire equipment through high snowdrifts amid strong winds coming off the lake. At one point, the house exploded, I think because of Coleman canisters for our camp stove. The progress of the fire was caught in a series of photos taken by town’s lone newspaper reporter; I looked at them once and put them back in the manila envelope. They’re somewhere in this house but I don’t know where.
The fire occurred during a particularly hard time in our family’s life. And in some ways, the rubble that was left became the metaphor for how our discouraged we were about our ability to be good parents to three special needs adopted children. Our children were fighting with each other, we were frustrated and trying to manage their conflicts and, in the process, having a lot of trouble presenting a united front. Everything about us, now including our dream house on the beach, was flattened, burned, and ugly.
And then my husband found the fish.
We marveled over it. Other than shreds of carpet, little pieces of dishes, and lace from a pillowcase, this was our one souvenir from inside the house.
He right away found a place for it. Outside, on a post of our woodshed which had been untouched by the fire because of northwest wind. He insisted on putting it up despite my protests; it seemed crazy to put a burned thing on display. Better to put it in a closet somewhere, out of sight. But soon every time I saw it on the side of the woodshed, it made me happy. It seemed cheerful, not depressing.
It was a little thing that he did, hanging up the fish, but it meant a lot to me. It meant that we would keep going. We would have a future. We would be ok.
I never thanked him for doing that, for giving us hope. For knowing, somehow, that it’s ok to remember hard times, perhaps even honor them.
Maybe today’s the day I thank him for that.