36: Lighting Fires

36: Lighting Fires

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Lighting Fires

You simply have to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Put blinders on and plow right ahead.

~George Lucas

“It’s getting cold in here. Let’s have a fire,” I suggested. The late-afternoon gloom accentuated the penetrating dampness that is winter in Lima, Peru. My visitor, like me an expat American married to a Peruvian, had been my friend since the day we met as teachers at the American School. As young mothers, we shared beach towels, recipes, kitchens, and the disquieting news of simultaneous unplanned pregnancies. She dropped by often to comfort me with her friendship, to listen and offer moral support. A year had passed since the evening my husband doubled over with pain after dinner, and I rushed him to the clinic with acute pancreatitis. Even though enough time had passed to dull the ache of his passing, I cherished the constancy of her presence.

She settled into the low chair near the open fireplace, stretching her long legs and tucking her hands into her sleeves.

“All by yourself?” she said.

“Of course. Why do you even ask?”

“Well, I couldn’t. I’d have no idea how to start. Carlos takes care of things like that. I have other talents.” Her smile said it all. Secure. Protected. Safe.

I felt the familiar tightening in my chest. I was thirty-five, the mother of four children under thirteen, and a widow. Even though I felt proud of the way I was coping with my new life of Total Responsibility, there were these conversations with my women friends — so ordinary, so natural, so guileless — that brought the contrast in our lives into focus like a blast of cold air when I least expected it.

There was the pain of absence, too. We were sitting in the living room of the spacious home my husband and I had built — every tile, every window, every plumbing fixture the result of our mutual decisions, before all the decisions became mine alone.

This small fireplace we had designed was open on three sides. If the logs were not placed exactly in the center, the house filled with smoke — as we found out the first time we lit it, moments before our guests were to arrive. Over time, we worked out how to lay the fire so the chimney would draw properly — the tight newspaper balls, just the right kind of kindling, just the right length of logs.

“Really? If you want a fire, you wait for him?”

She nodded, without a trace of guilt.

“Is this an ideological stance? You think there is something primal about men and fire?” I couldn’t keep the edge out of my voice.

I knelt to the basket of newspapers so she wouldn’t see my face.

“I guess I could if I had to. I’ve just never bothered to learn.” She snuggled farther down in the chair and stretched her arms out wide.

I know. He’s always there to do it for you. I heard her unspoken reality, so different from mine.

“I see.”

Suddenly serious, she inspected her fingernails (with some embarrassment?) as I turned and fiercely began to make balls of newspaper, then selected the pieces of kindling. My hands trembled as I arranged the newspaper balls, the kindling and the short logs just so on the wrought iron grate. I lit the match.

All the things I wanted to say to her formed in my mind and stayed there. It wasn’t her fault. Her husband was still alive. But…

Some day, it will happen to you! We don’t get a warning! Don’t take your time together for granted. Learn, learn everything you’ll need to know now! Ask him! Light your fires together while you can!

“You’re really good at that,” she commented as the flames caught, and the welcome warmth reached us.

“Well, yes,” I murmured, dusting off my hands on the back of my skirt. I sat next to her and smiled. “I’ve learned to light my own fires.”

~Nancy G. Villalobos

More stories from our partners