A sea breeze rustles the leaves of the trees as I sit on the porch of our friends' beach house, so kindly lent to us this week. This is a wonderful back yard: all the things that make me never want to leave my home are here, also -- they have hummingbirds, too, as well as all the other birds I love to watch back in our own garden. From the deck on the top floor we can see Massachusetts Bay, deep blue in the waning light of early evening. Last night the stars leaned down on us, so numerous and seeming so close that it seemed I might be able to reach up and pluck one from the sky.
The houses on this tiny neighborhood cluster closely together on lots that are mostly narrow but long, ending in an easy footpath to the sea. The roadway is narrow, too, and the people who live here see a lot of each other. Adults chat easily across the backyard fences, children whoop and chase each other in the street, teenagers shoot baskets, lounge against parked cars. It is late summer: flowers spill luxuriantly out of the window boxes, eager to spend themselves before the cold comes. The hostas' bloom is over, and so is the lavender's. The basil bolts to bloom every day, desperate to seed itself for next year. The grass has slowed its growth. Another summer is coming to an end. The suntanned children feel it, the closing in of school upon them as September nears. It has been a wonderful summer. They must have grown a foot, their parents tell each other.
What a good place to bring children, year after year. How lazy and sweet life can be out here, far from the city. from towns of any consequence, far from the schedules that rule our lives all year. Here we can relax and enjoy each other, at last. Talk. Ride bikes. Read. Do jigsaw puzzles. Sit on the beach all afternoon and have nothing at all to show for it.
The house next door has an elegant playground: platforms upon which to climb, from which to jump, a blue slide that curves excitingly around, swings, a couple of chinning bars and an intriguing playhouse. Next to it, a stack of child-sized lawn chairs in bright primary colors, ready for action. Nobody plays on it, though, and nobody sits in the little chairs. No little voices come from the little house. No children chase each other across the yard. Because the house has been burned almost to the ground.
The back half of it is gone. The blackened studs of vanished walls reach crazily into the air, connecting with nothing. The roof has collapsed, a corner of it folded back on itself, testifying wordlessly to heat intense enough to melt it. The remains of a dishwasher sit in what was the kitchen, rusted from sitting out in the open air and the rain. The tool shed is black, and an expensive gas grill sits outside it, scorched and useless. A fire pit sits on the patio, where Queen Anne's Lace has seized the opportunity to come up in between the tiles. Yellow crime scene tape warns trespassers away from the ruins -- the gossip is that the couple whose house it is was unravelling, and that the husband set fire to the place. I don't know; I don't know them.
I do know that the saddest thing about the house next door is the playground. And that the loss of the swings, the playhouse, the inviting stack of little chairs is nothing to the children who lived there compared to the loss of the matrix of their lives. Something terrible has happened. Somebody they love was angry enough to burn their house down. If I can't have this, you're not going to have it either.
Let's get a summer place. Let's get one by the sea. Let's take time to enjoy each other. Let's go clamming and roast marshmallows. Let's go out and play in the swings. Let's sit and chat with the neighbors. Let's build sweet memories to leave behind us when we leave this world. They can bring their children here, too, and their children's children. Our great grandchildren.
Eventually somebody will buy the lot next door and raze the ruined house; valuable land like this won't stay vacant for long. Husband and wife and their attorneys will sort through the shards of their ruined compact and find ways to walk separately into the rest of their lives -- if it really was arson, somebody will do time. The children will grow: school will start in September and somehow they will manage to be there, the ache in their hearts as invisible as they can make it to those from whom they strive to hide it, which is probably almost everybody they know. It will be a secret hard lump of hurt in their hearts.
Ah, me. Bless them, Lord. Bless them. Send them people to help them heal. Show them the kernels of love you manage to bury in the ash heaps of our pain. Give them the courage they will need. This sorrow came to them early in life, but it will not be the last sorrow they ever know. Show them your face so they can know that, no matter what happens, they are never alone -- for whatever we may lose, we can never lose you.