My relationship with fire could be characterized as skittishly awestruck. I grew up in a home with an electric stove, my parents didn’t smoke, my dad usually lit the fireplace, and my older sister trumped me when it came to lighting the holiday candles. The fire-starting opportunities presented to me were few and far between. Even while camping I preferred gathering wood and kindling over mastering the lighting of the camp stove. It seemed explosive and unpredictable to me. Was my tentative approach to fire due to my gender? Are boys naturally more compelled to look fire in the eye as equals? Since the Curtis house is 75% male I don’t have a balanced poll, but I’m inclined to rely on my observations and say that when it comes to fire, boys are like fishermen caught by a mermaid’s charm. I’m going to go out on a limb and make a general claim that the lure of flames is irresistible and wonderful in the eyes of men worldwide. My limb is flammable, though, and could be used as kindling to fuel a great debate.
I believe regardless of my gender I was to be raised with an attitude of extreme caution toward fire due to my mother’s horrific experiences, both in her childhood and again when I was a teenager. My mother was the third youngest of thirteen children, and the Wisconsin farmhouse she grew up in burned down, tragically killing her littlest sister who was five years old at the time. Decades later when I was a teen, a Southern California wildfire threatened our home, forcing my mother to face the nightmare all over again. While my sister and I were secured at a school shelter, my mother spent a vigilant and frightening night drenching every inch of our property with the garden hose. The firefighters were spread thin throughout the Ojai Valley, and even though they demanded the evacuation of all residents, they were not able to offer services to every neighborhood that bordered the foothills. Thankfully, history did not repeat itself, and our home (and mother) remained out of reach of the destructive flames. Let’s just say, however, that the powerfully destructive force of fire was burned into me from a young age.
While raising the boys it’s become obvious that we look upon the elemental force of fire with…um…different perspectives. When I have a match in hand ready to light the BBQ – dinner on my mind — the boys come running, their sixth-sense firing on all cylinders. “Light it!” they demand, obviously under the spell of Pele, Vulcan, and Hephaestus. When I open a bag of marshmallows, I see dessert. They see fire. When I set the table with candles for a special occasion, I see ambiance. The boys ask, their eyes ablaze, “Can we light them?” When the gas stove refuses to light despite the puffs of air I provide, the boys whip out the matches, ready to ignite the clicking gas. Let’s just say that if my family were suddenly thrown back into pioneer days equipped with a couple of lighters, we’d be quite warm and would not be eating raw meat. If I were thrown back in time by myself, however, the scene might resemble Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”. Bleak, desperate, cold.
The motivation that yanks me out of any fire-starting inadequacies is when I stumble upon those mind-numbing disclaimers on commercial products that warn the general public of various fire hazards. Some warning labels I understand, such as hairspray. I remember the high school tête-à-tête I orchestrated between my aerosol can and the fragrant bathroom candle. I had to buy mom a new hand towel after I discarded the charred remains of the hanging floral one. This week I rolled out of my chair in disbelief when Highlands resident Karl Leigh shared a photo of the warning label he took of the back of a fire-log he purchased – as in, the kind that ignites quickly without lighter fluid or kindling. On the log package, in bold red letters, the following sage advice was offered: “CAUTION – RISK OF FIRE”. Yeah, I would sure hope so!
With chin up and long matches in hand, I locate a HIGHLY FLAMMABLE fire-log, and march it out to the backyard fire pit where I confidently and adeptly light it on fire. Take that, gender roles and skittish fears! I can light fires too!