I dug the fire pit out in our yard five years ago, the week we moved into the old red cottage on our New Hampshire hilltop.
It was sweltering hot, and no one was happy. The tiny, uninsulated upstairs bedrooms were unbearable. We plugged fans into every available 1923 wall outlet, then crossed our fingers and prayed we wouldn’t blow out the ancient wiring. But it didn’t help; the effect was more convection oven than cross breeze.
Desperation inspired us to have our first party in our new house–we needed something to distract us from the mold, the carpenter ants, the bats, the heat, the sleepless nights, and our overwhelming sense of buyer’s remorse. It didn’t make much sense to sit around in the small airless house; the view across the field to the mountains was the real draw anyway. And so I picked a spot out there, dug a little clearing and rimmed it with rocks, and stacked a few logs in the center.
That night there were just a handful of us–Steve and the boys and me, three of our friends–sitting by the fire, watching the sparks spiral up into the darkness as fireflies danced through the tall grass beyond. It was nothing short of magical, a peaceful moment of deliverance after a long, sweaty, terrible week when every member of my family wished nothing more than to roll back the clock, do it all over again, and stay put — in our old suburban life in our familiar, comfortable, well-ventilated house.
What I remember most clearly about sitting by the fire that early summer night was the feeling–well, perhaps it was really just more of a hope–that at long last we were taking the first step into what we would come to love in our NEW life. Surely, I believed then, we would have many more such evenings – bonfires on the hilltop, easy, impromptu parties, countless reasons to gather our friends together to share food and laughter and to celebrate life’s simple pleasures. In short order that summer, we pulled together a solstice party, a Father’s Day brunch, a birthday, a cookout on the 4th of July, a few pre-theatre suppers in honor of our new proximity to the summer stock playhouse a mile up the road, various other spontaneous get-togethers.
And then, reality set in. Summer came to an end, cold weather arrived, and we began the long, exhausting, and expensive project of moving out of the cottage, tearing it down, designing a new house, getting it built, choosing paint and fixtures, moving again, unpacking, settling in. It all took so much longer than we ever imagined it would. Meanwhile, the kids grew up and life got complicated. The party we meant to have when the house was finally finished, months later than anticipated, never happened. I think we were just too wiped out to think about one more project.
Five years passed before we had another party on that hilltop, Steve’s 60th birthday last June. I was so out of practice that I planned and obsessed for weeks, wondering where people would sit, how many bottles of wine to buy and how many chairs to borrow, whether we should rearrange all the furniture, rent a table, get a new grill. It rained for days before, it rained on the day of, and it rained for a week after. That night, people stood up to eat. We squeezed into the kitchen, clustered in the living room, managed to have a fine time despite the weather. But the idea of heading outside, or trying to get a fire going, never entered my mind.
This year, the Fourth of July fireworks were scheduled for Monday night, at the high school just down the hill and across the valley from us–which means that the best view in town is from our hilltop. It’s been months since we’ve had more than four people at our dinner table, and more than a year since that rainy birthday celebration. The fire pit that I was certain would be the center of countless memorable gatherings hasn’t been used, not even once, since our very first summer here, when it seemed– for a few weeks anyway– to be at the very center of our life.
Clearly, it was time. So, last week I fired off a few e-mails and made a few calls: Come over for a potluck dinner and fireworks. It used to be that such an invitation would always include the line “Bring the kids.” These days, of course, the kids drive themselves and whether they’ll actually show up is by no means a given.
But the word went out, and I wrote a to-do list, went food shopping, and hoped for a crowd. Jack and a friend spent a sweaty couple of hours digging out the old, overgrown fire pit, making it bigger and better than ever. They laid an ambitious fire, stacked enough wood for a long night of revelry, and arranged all the benches and chairs we have into a semicircle. They set up the badminton net, at my insistence. Just in case.
And as it happened, we lucked out. Teenagers, parents, old friends and new ones–they all came. The table filled with food–salads and watermelon and pasta. Steaks and chicken and hamburgers and hot dogs arrived for the grill. Coolers were carried in to the kitchen and deposited. “Thank you,” Jack said to me in passing, “for having some normal food here.” (He meant the Coke and ginger ale and corn chips and bottled salsa that I usually refuse to buy. But at a certain point, well, what you really want is for everyone present to feel happy and well fed.)
There was a moment, a kind of Mrs. Dalloway moment, when I just stopped, stock still, and looked around at the loveliness of the scene. The men were in the kitchen, drinking beer. The women were outside, chatting. The boys were juggling–a skill they all learned together in sixth and seventh grade and suddenly, spontaneously, decided to revive at ages seventeen and eighteen. Clubs flew through the air. A fiercely competitive badminton game was in progress. A group of girls sat at the picnic table, deep in conversation. Just a few minutes later, of course, this evanescent bubble would pop and vanish forever. Steve would carry the first platters in from the grill, the teenagers would troop in to fill their plates, and one tableau would transform itself into another, and another after that. Dinner served and eaten, talk and laughter, dishes loaded into the dishwasher, cake sliced onto paper plates, darkness falling.
Jack touched a match to the fire. The fireworks lit up the sky. We passed the bug spray around and sprawled out across the grass. Marshmallows were set aflame, s’mores made and devoured. The last time we did this, my children were still children. I don’t know why we waited so long to find our way back here, to this ritual we created, loved, and yet abandoned all too easily — for what? Lack of time? Lack of energy? Lack of belief in the enduring magic of a campfire and friends with whom to share it?
Today, I promise myself this: More time for fun. More intergenerational parties, before it’s too late and the younger generation is up and out and gone for good. More fires outside, more s’mores, more reasons to celebrate the joy of being alive, of raising children to young adulthood, of spending time with those young adults–who, after all, are still learning from us, each and every day, what it means to live a good life.