By the time they reached the entrance to Lee Road, my parents knew.
There were too many fire trucks, far too many. The only other
houses on lonely Lee Road were cottages or mobile homes.
"What's your name?" The policeman peered into the driver's side window
of the rental car.
"Rubin," my stepfather replied, already knowing what his answer meant.
The policeman stood up and flagged down a fireman at that point.
"We've got them," he called out. It was only then that my mother began
Like many Manhattan dwellers, my parents lived in the necessarily small
quarters that urban rental prices demand. In the early 80's, therefore,
when they were in mid-life, they were proud to know they had finally
saved up enough for that brass ring all Manhattanites yearn for - the
purchase of a small place in the country. After much thought and travel,
they finally settled upon a small, not very impressive, slightly
dilapidated hunting shack. The unimposing structure was, however,
situated on a much nicer tract of land located in Shohola Township,
Pennsylvania, about two and a half hours west of New York City. The
land was the important thing, they decided. With a lot of elbow grease,
they could always fix up the house over the years.
The land was indeed beautiful. The house itself was situated at the
very end of Lee Road, at that time a rugged little unmarked dirt turn-
off just after the second of Shohola township's Twin Lakes. In fact,
the road is still unpaved today. To get to the house one first drove
all the way to the end of the road (in the last decade risking your
car's shocks to do so), and then through a set of rusty, padlocked iron
gates at the dead end of the road, carefully down a very steep
embankment, and finally around a hairpin bend which led to a second
set of old gates.
Finally the small cottage would loom into view, snuggled into a valley
so deep that radio or television reception was impossible. A rambling,
rushing brook banked the back of the house at the deepest part of the
valley. Several hundred yards downstream of the house was an honest-
to-goodness waterfall. The woods were deep and thick, and in the early
years when my parents owned the house, they had a number of problems
with bears breaking into the screen doors to steal garbage and racoons
burrowing under the house. Deer migrated through the property right
outside the house every evening, usually just at dusk. Signs posted
everywhere clearly indicated that no hunting was allowed anywhere on
the Rubin property.
Over the years as they prospered in their careers, my parents poured
nearly every extra ounce of income and energy into improving the
"Country House", as it came to be fondly known. They often toyed with
the idea of renaming the house - some of the more amusing choices were
"The Double J Ranch" and "Lee's End", which my stepfather said did
nothing for him but conjure up the image of a man's behind, but nothing
really came of the effort. We all ended up simply calling it "the
Country House", and have really never called it anything else since.
Early on, they took the two room cabin and paneled the interior with
finished split rails, log cabin style. Next they built on a small front
room with a window to look up on the driveway and hilltops above. Then
came a deck, the wholesale replacement of the existing master bedroom,
and then another bedroom off beyond the big stone fireplace that was
original to the house. The most impressive addition of all was a huge
sunken living room with great windows overlooking the stream, which
they lit up with flood lights in the evenings. The roar of the foamy
water in springtime, when the stream swelled with the runoff from the
mountains, filled the house with a lovely white noise.
My parents were so proud of that house. They were there every single
weekend, cleaning this up, building that, fixing some- thing else. My
stepfather took five years to pile up a rock wall lining the driveway,
stone by stone, picking through the ruins of another old stone wall a
short distance away. When I graduated from college in New Jersey, my
parents invited a dozen of my friends to come out to the house and
spend a day in the country to celebrate. Those family members who
could make the trip always congregated there each November for a real
country Thanksgiving, the highlight of the year.
My parents eventually came to keep nearly everything dear to them in
that house. Having no space in the city, this was a logical decision.
My stepfather's photographs were there. Cherished antiques. Prized
items hauled home from world travel. Everything unique or important
eventually found its way west into the Country House. Among them I
remember a priceless model train (a wedding gift to my parents) and
an antique sled, as well as two live green parakeets who flew around
in an immense antique Victorian bamboo cage hanging amongst the ferns
in my parents' bathroom.
I particularly remember those birds because my parents would also
always bring their beloved cats, Molly and Squeaker, out to the country
every weekend. Molly, the more adventurous of the two, loved to hunt
everything from crickets to mice, which were in the country in
abundance. She also never ceased, Sylvester-style, to try to figure out
how to get at those tasty little birds suspended from the bathroom
ceiling. In one amusing incident, my mother once heard a terrible
squawking coming from the bathroom. Investigating, she found Molly
spread-eagled over the swinging, suspended cage, hanging on for dear
life while pandemonium ensued inside the cage. Molly had leapt six
feet from the bathroom sink to find that particular purchase.
The last addition to the house came about early in 1993, a staircase
descending from the kitchen and the hall leading to the newly-
constructed master bedroom leading to a new downstairs, where two more
bedrooms would be located. They were done by the time I last visited
the house in February of that year, and I slept in one of the bedrooms,
while my brother took the other. We were not to know that this latest
addition would be the last.
My parents had a guest with them that weekend, who was staying in the
upstairs bedroom. They had gone out for dinner early that Saturday
evening, to one of the local haunts in the nearby town of Milford. My
parents and their guest had a leisurely dinner and were in the best of
They now say the fire started in a faulty light switch in the stairway
that led to the latest downstairs addition. The fire inspectors guessed
it had been smoldering for hours, possibly an entire day, before it
finally burst into a pocket of oxygen and ignited while my parents were
dining twenty miles away. The fire roared up the staircase that led
into the kitchen and down the hall into the master bedroom. It readily
ate through the stairwell wall into the living room addition that
looked down upon the brook. Entirely lined in stained logs originally
cured with kerosene (commonly used to kill worm eggs in unmilled wood),
the house was engulfed in minutes. Ironically, it was a trespassing
hunter on the property who first saw the flames shooting through one
of the house's skylights, fifty feet high, he said. He had to run for
ten minutes before he even reached another house with a telephone to
call the local volunteer fire department.
By the time the fire department eventually arrived, the house was
absolutely, utterly gone. Even had my parents been home when the fire
started, the house was so remotely situated there was little chance
anything could have been saved.
I got the call late Saturday night from my stepfather. My mother was
in a local hospital in Pennsylvania, hysterical. When I was finally
allowed to talk to her, I learned first that the house was gone.
"Just gone," she repeated, over and over. And then, the worst part of
it, for her. She had left both Molly and Squeaker asleep on the bed as
she had gone out. The cats and the birds had all burned in the blaze.
I immediately took a week off of work and caught the next bus down to
Pennsylvania. My mother was in a state of shock, wandering around
aimlessly. Her makeup was running. Her hair was uncombed. My step-
father looked blank and bereft. I helped them comb through the ruins
of the house, my first experience with a tragedy of this magnitude.
Everything was indeed gone. The house was a shell, a skeleton. The
floors were covered with glass, soot and other unidentifiable debris.
Cans of food were exploded all over what had once been a pantry. The
refrigerator had melted. The model train had melded into its track;
the antique sled was nothing more than a pair of burnt runners.
Here and there we picked out what we could. A tiny storage closet at
the very corner of the downstairs wing had been somewhat spared. My
mother and I carefully rolled out a few ragged quilts and carpets from
that closet on the grassy hillside to see if anything could be salvaged.
A single packaged telephone in the closet was strangely unscathed.
Else where in the house there was the occasional intact plate or teacup
that had neither been burnt nor crushed by firemen. A fork here. A
quarter there. We collected what we could.
I have heard it said that only when you think you have lost everything
do you really know what you have in life that matters. Now I know it
is true. Of course, we never experienced a tragedy on the scale of what
others around the world endure. And tornadoes and hurricanes and floods
destroy thousands of other families' homes just as thoroughly as the
fire took my parents' house. But it was enough of a tragedy to teach
the lesson of a lifetime, one that the rest of us can only hope to
never experience ourselves, with our own homes.
It took my parents several weeks to absorb the enormity of their loss.
And after that, the rest of their lives to realize how little they had
actually lost, and how much they still had. In the end, though it
seemed traumatic at the time, it didn't matter very much at all what
had burned in the fire. "Stuff," my mother would later call it all,
with a sigh - even her wedding rings, which had been left on a nightstand just before the fire erupted. In fact, to this day the only loss
she has never quite recovered from was the loss of her beloved cats,
whose pictures are still scattered about in silver frames. "Actual
living things," said my mother, "are the only things that really can't
And although, as Mom said, living things can't ever be replaced, we can
always move on to the new when we're ready. Today my mother has four
other cats whom she pampers as much as she used to baby Molly and
Squeaker. One of them, Oliver, a perky little stray male, was actually
a gift from the Shohola Fire Department.
Over the summer of 1993 the remains of the old Country House were burnt
the rest of the way down by the Fire Department, and then bulldozed into
a pit dug for the ashes. Construction of the new Country House, which
my mother and stepfather now could design themselves from scratch, began
that same year. Four years later, just as the old place, the new
Country House is continually under construction. A new room here, a new
door there. Piles of workmen's boards dot the landscape just as I
remember they had surrounded the old place.
I have no doubt that in ten years they will still be adding on to the
house - after all, in its own way, the old Country House, for them was
a living entity. It was constantly changing and growing, an extension
of my parents' hopes and dreams. The new house is just as much a focus
of their attention as the old one ever was, and we all trek to the new
Country House every few months, and certainly every November for Thanksgiving, with the same anticipation and delight we ever had.
Skip Blaeser is a former attorney who, in addition to being a wife
and mother of two small boys, is currently pursuing her longtime
passion for writing historical fiction. She received her A.B. from
Princeton University, and her J.D. from the Boston University
School of Law. Skip and her family live in New England.
E-mail Skip at: