It was the unproclaimed center of our family home. Some days, it lit proudly, but most days it contained a soft, quiet glow.
Yes, there were other rooms in our family home but that one, single place encompassed and measured our growing-up years. We sat next to it and listened to the crackles when it was a full blaze. As the years wore on, it provided a soundless flicker that always reminded the five of us that it was still working.
That’s five plus two counting our parents. It was the family fireplace in the kitchen. Why we called it a “family fireplace” escapes me other than to remind the seven of us that it belonged to us all, never one. It was added on when they bought the house to expand the kitchen. A lounge chair was permanently placed parallel to it, and it became designated for our Dad. Nothing territorial about that chair. We’d sit in until he came, but he’d always say, “Stay there, it’s okay.” We gladly got up to provide him his throne, I mean his chair.
Unlike a royal throne no edicts were given or heads lost. The fireplace and his chair was the quiet sanctuary for our cigar smoking Dad. He sat there to let his flavorful smoke rise up the chimney and away from the kitchen. (I still can smell his cigar exhale, sorry Dad.) When sitting there, his words were few. His eyes and smiles spoke his many feelings. Married late, our friends thought we lived with our grandparents so raising five children must have been a challenge.
Us grade school children would share our report cards in front of him, and the fire. Our adolescents years compelled honesty even if we had a different version of the story to tell him. He’d listen. He would listen. (Did I mention, “listening?”) Then, entering adulthood with forming opinions about life and religion, his careful eyes would absorb but not understand our testing beliefs. In religion, his sad eyes would always win about some abandoning the Catholic Church. Around its glowing light was conversations, or more accurately a defense attorney’s opening agrument, with contrite confessions about divorce, wrong jobs, “The love of my life boyfriend doesn’t like me,” the lost religious vocation, the found religious vocation.
Since being an accountant for his professional career the real wood was economically replaced by compressed, synthetic faux wood. Cut into six pieces instead of the whole log, he figured this was a better use of the fireplace. What didn’t change or alter was the quiet presence of this man, holding a cigar and staring out the kitchen window. An affirming smile for the grades, a perplexing look for the pending divorce or wrong job and a downward heartbroken posture for the Church that he truly loved.
Mother was the spokesperson for those two, and we heeded her every word or tried too. His was harder to read because of his silence, but it’s that damn fireplace that captured our attention, every single time. The chair across from him served as both confessional, celebration and just, “How are you, Dad?”
In now my later years, I can picture him staring outside and praying for our benefit without us ever knowing about it. I’m confident that he did. I find myself staring out my window and praying for all those entrusted to my care. I can’t afford a fireplace and don’t smoke cigars, but I suspect that his tree did not fall far from this apple.
To Walter. Thank you for the quiet of your demeanor, thank you for never judging or weighing the five of us. You may have mistaken me for the name of our family cat, but I will never, ever forget the fireplace that placed you, always, within the center of our lives.