We’re just easing into fall so forgive this Christmas imagery. I’m sitting in front of a roaring fire, little kids playing on the floor in matching holiday pajamas. Norman Rockwell has nothing on me when it comes to imagining warm New England scenes. My childhood had plenty of cozy Christmases. But no cozy fire. We thought the public television channel that displayed a crackling fire-log was pretty cool. And it was. I also accepted my mom’s assurance that Santa didn’t have to come down a chimney, the front door was just fine.
I always wanted one. A fireplace to sit in front of. To read. To nap. To talk with friends. To just gaze. An apartment I once shared in my 20s with a roommate had a working one and I spent plenty of time staring into it. “What do you see in there?” a friend asked gently after trying in vain to get my attention. I didn’t answer. What did I see besides flames?
The house we moved into 25-plus years ago has a fireplace, a real beauty, in the kitchen which used to be the living room. Ten kids were raised in this house before we bought it, and I don’t know, but I like to think of them gathered around the fire with hot cocoa. See what I mean about Rockwell? We’ve gathered around it plenty, too. Most fall and winter days I have it lit. One of my favorite pictures of my children is taken of them from behind, sitting on the floor side by side on a fall day, roasting marshmallows for after-school s’mores.
I remember borrowing a bean bag from one of their rooms the day my father died. I lay on it in front of the fire for hours. I know what I saw in the flames then. Him.
David, a true romantic, likes to read poems to me sometimes before sleep. A favorite is “When you are old” by Yeats.
“When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.”
Can you see me old and gray, lying on a bean bag in front of the fire? Me either.
And now I won’t have to. Part of our recent renovation includes a new fireplace that I can sit in front of. The first chance I got after the hurricane blew out of town, I lit it. I’ve lit it almost every night since.
There’s psychology with some anthropology and cognitive evolution thrown into the reasons why I, and most humans, are drawn to fire.
A University of Alabama study by anthropologist Christopher Lynn noted, “Fires are multisensory experiences that have numerous unexplored dimensions when considering human evolution. For ancient hominins, it would have provided the following: light to extend the day and illuminate otherwise uninhabitable dark places; heat for cooking previously inedible food, warming bodies at night and enabling migration into colder climates; a weapon to facilitate mass hunting and stave off predators; and, according to several scholars, social connection.”
Other scholars have written that gazing into a fire actually trained ancient brains to think through complexity. “By regulating attention, our ancestors were able to make contingency plans — in which alternative responses to problems were planned in advance. These attributes gave us a marked advantage in the face of competition from archaic humans such as Neanderthals; they also underpin our ability to cope with the huge variety of tasks required by modern life. The most enduring tool that fire ever made might just be the human mind.”
Perhaps it was the evolution sparked by fire that enabled Yeats to craft his poetry with stunning turns of phrase like this:
“How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”
Someday, God willing, you will find me in a comfy chair in front of the fire with David beside me reading those words.
You know that saying, “If you are lucky enough to live by the beach you are lucky enough?” Throw in living by the beach and having a fireplace to sit in front of and, wow, lucky, lucky us.
Virginia Buckingham is the president of the Current’s board of directors. Her column appears weekly.
A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.”