A week before Christmas my husband and I hired professionals to install a wood stove in the fireplace of the 150-year-old house we just bought. All seemed well at the initial inspection, but when they began the job they found a chimney full of rusted nails, crumbling tiles, and a funny flue. They sent a grinder down the middle to shake the tiles loose and the whole house rattled as if the entire foundation was crumbling around us.
The foundation held though, and the wood stove was finished just in time to hang our stockings and tell good-natured fibs about Santa’s gymnastic chimney-navigating skills to children who only half-believe. We opened gifts a few days early enjoying an idyllic pre-holiday by the fire, flickering inside its black metal box, whipping frantically about like a woman’s locks caught in a gale.
A few days later, early on a snowy Christmas morning, we flew to Texas to be with my family for the holidays—our first Christmas since my dad passed away.
At the airport my mom and my sister and her family greeted us, all dressed in Christmas sweaters, flashing Christmas bulb necklaces, and reindeer ears. All determined to inject joy into our gathering.
My sister, with her usual effusive flourishes of light and warmth, created a playroom out of my father’s old office, strung up with every ornament imaginable, like a joy bomb exploding in glitter, snowflake, and jingle bell. It had the desired effect, especially for my kids, who immediately got to work playing hard with their cousins while their moms and grandmother gathered in the kitchen to weep and eat lots of chocolate.
We plowed through the week, visiting children’s museums, eating too many tacos, and celebrating December birthdays and the New Year.
I passed through the rooms in my childhood home where my father lived his life, where he dressed and did his work, where he stored his books, where he drew his last breath. I didn’t miss him in our activities: he was always at the edges of our holidays, entering when he chose and departing when he wanted.
But I missed him the way I always do, wishing he could’ve shared his essential self with us.
When the week was over and we returned to our old house and the new wood stove, I felt the physical disorientation as if after a long nap. This tiredness turned to grief and anxiety and a panic attack. I spent hours warming my bare feet by the wood stove, feeding the fire as if it would keep me alive.
On a cold day my husband shaved a piece of wood off the hearth. It whispered and clunked as he slid his newly purchased hatchet down the length of it, cutting wood that bowed slightly, like a ribbon being curled on a scissors blade. He piled the shavings in the ashes of a cooled fire and instructed our son on how to make a teepee out of kindling over the tinder.
Our son impressed his dad by flicking alight a lighter and together they start the fire. Once it glowed steadily, my husband donned one gray fireproof glove and gave the other to our son. Father opened the handle on the woodstove and paused for the air to settle so that embers didn’t fly out. Son clutched a piece of wood in the glove. It dwarfed him, reaching up toward his elbow, but he was proud to be aiding in such a dangerous and evolutionarily essential task.
On a snow day off from school, my husband took our kids to the park a few blocks away where the pond had frozen over. When I realized his plans, I winced out of sight so the kids won’t see. It seemed too cold to me. It was five degrees outside and my family members were the only people in this small Midwestern town to brave the park.
When they returned home, the kids were red-cheeked and spilling over with a narration of their time outside. In other words, they were fine. They stripped off puffy layers and warmed up by the wood stove telling me all about their adventures on the ice.
We are all longing for the light and the wood stove has become our gathering glow; we congregate more around the fire at night before bed, reading stories, stoking the flames, singing hymns, drinking tea, and occasionally watching The Great British Baking Show.
My husband wants to push our kids, to make them brave. He is present in a way my father never was. And I watch him in awe, trying to quell this instinct to protect them from these mild moments of discomfort, knowing now that protection from suffering hasn’t worked very well for me.
Suffering will come to all of us, and grief has rattled me like our house, hollowed me of the ancient debris, of the rusted nails and tiles, ground down and discarded.
Now, I am drawn to this fire that fills up the newly empty space with warmth, hoping for the light that will penetrate and restore these shaken foundations.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Christiana Peterson
Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative Writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published pieces on death, fairytales, and farm life at Art House America, her.meneutics, and cordella. She lives with her family in the rural Midwest where she is learning the joys and challenges of church and farm life. You can find more of Christiana’s writing on her blog at christiananpeterson.com and follow her on twitter.