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Rising From the Ashes, by Skip Blaeser

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 to scream.

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 spirits.

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 be replaced."

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,The House 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:

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