Fire by night in a Village by Adam Colonia via Rijksmuseum

Disaster ruins everything, leaving everything intact.
—Maurice Blanchot

On a clear day in Faulbach, you can hear the discordant bells from the Saint-Nicolas church in Rodemack and the Saint-Sébastien church in Fixem — just the faint echo of them, drifting across the fields of the Moselle, over the furrows of churned-up clay rich with ammonites, faceted pieces of flint, chunks of glazed pottery, and rusted curves of barbed wire. “Every age has its scenography,” hauntology’s founding father, Jacques Derrida, phrased it. “We have our ghosts.”

Alsace-Lorraine’s hauntings run deep. A stone’s throw from France’s easternmost (and most recent) border, the house at 32 rue des jardins seems both an immutable presence and a mirror of history’s little shifts and scars. The curlicued iron of the front door, peeling with rust. The kitchen that was once a pigsty. The laundry room that was once the stables. The barn where a German army deserter once cowered, and was given bread by his sister’s children, and survived. The rusted iron hoops by the front door for tying up your horses, next to the décrottoir for scraping the mud from your boots.

Ghosts flicker through the cold spring wind, cling like firelight to the windows of this house I grew up in. A Napoleonic soldier on leave; a farmer shaking flea powder over a mewling kitten; a schoolgirl named Marie-Thérèse squinting over new textbooks in a language she cannot read; a grandfather named Kaiser or Reiter or Klein, braiding tender shoots of wisteria, fourth finger a polished stump from a run-in with a landmine or a circular saw. And my mother is there too: an American tumbling out of our little red Volkswagen Golf in 1993, clutching diaper bags and pencil sketches, paint swatches and conjugation tables. My mother with her graceful, ambitious vision for this crumbling wreck that was to be our home.

* * *

A spark, they say. A cigarette. All it takes to bring down a cathedral.

My dad and I are sitting on the edge of a hotel bed in Thionville, France, staring at the television as Notre-Dame de Paris burns in aerial panorama, flames billowing, smoke obscuring the destruction. We read about the fire’s terrible aftereffects: blackened stained glass, shattered thirteenth-century wooden rafters. We think, People have died. We think, The cathedral is gone. It won’t last the night. It’s gone forever. Outside, it is springtime 2019, the street-cleaners hosing bird shit from the café terraces, the sound of doves and sparrows in the air.

It’s strange to be back in France that day, to be in the bars that night as people who were once our neighbors mutter about the cataclysm over bière panachée and glasses of pinot noir, even as we drink to soften our own numbness and sorrow, still only half-grasped, half-understood. That morning, nearly twelve years after my mother passed away, we’d signed away the deed to our family home, and this spectacle of total destruction hits close to the bone.

* * *

My parents were in no way equipped to renovate the ruin that they bought when I was four years old. And yet they did, getting plaster dust in my little sister’s baby-basket or leaving her sleeping under the walnut tree while they drilled and jackhammered and poured a chappe, while the electricians plastered the wiring directly into the rough crépi plaster of the walls.

The house was built in the mid-eighteenth century; for the past forty or fifty years it had sat empty, waiting for new life — ghosts of horses in the barn; ghosts of redstarts nesting in the honeysuckle. Looking back through photographs, I’m always awestruck by the scope of my parents’ ambition. The roof is a wreck; the beams are cracked and rotten; everything is filthy, not just with dust and cobwebs, but with loamy dirt and mud. In the early stages of renovation the place looks like an archaeological dig. What will become the kitchen is a dirt-floored pigsty. What will become my mother’s office is a dank dirt-floored cellar.

But my mother — writer, erstwhile history student, woman sensitive to the echoes of time and place — loved the house with her whole heart. Somehow, standing in that crooked dusty place, she saw the beauty it would come to hold: December evenings reading the Herald Tribune by a roaring fireplace, her vocal ensemble drinking good French wine and eating cheese after rehearsals, a rose garden blooming outside the kitchen windows. She must have dreamed for us, too; her children running down the creaky oak stairs on Christmas morning, pitting buckets of plums from the orchard while listening to Sondheim musicals, tucked into our bunk beds with Newbery Medal–winning paperbacks. A vision part-American and part-French; part-1950s and part-1990s; and entirely, wholeheartedly hers.

Invigorated by nostalgia, she had the utmost disdain for anyone knocking down walls, stripping out worm-eaten floorboards, building a conservatory behind the barn. Having grown up in Michigan dreaming of French elegance and culture, and then followed my father and his orchestral job to Europe in her early thirties, she wanted our family’s life here to be grounded. Rooted. Authentic. She wanted the worms, the oak, the stone, the light. But authenticity is complicated.

For one thing, a lot of people who were actually raised here — the Gen-X Kaisers and Kleins — would plaster over the stone, tear out the old wisteria, put in wide PVC windows; or better yet, knock it all down and build a neat bungalow painted blistering white, with true right angles for their spirit levels and doors that swung neatly, silently, over shining granite-grey tiles. For another, restoration by necessity involves getting rid of the old and rotten — sanding, scrubbing, scraping paint and woodworm sawdust from solid oak beams — and bringing in new material. New oak stained to mimic the old, varnished parquet lain in an old-fashioned pattern, a sandstone fireplace built from scratch. The house, a ship of Theseus, is and isn’t from the 1750s. Like the entirety of the Moselle, it is and isn’t French. There are turn-of-the-century Prussian tiles in the front hallway. Beneath the plasterwork, there is insulation made of old German newspapers. Tacked inside my mother’s stationery closet, there is a nuclear-warning leaflet from the 1980s.

Part of the work of renovation is stripping all that away.

* * *

It is 11:00 at night, the day before the signing, and Dad and I are still finding things to burn, sticking sheaves of bank statements and family photographs and old newspaper clippings into the fireplace until the wood glows copper and coral and the pages fan out. We catch a glimpse of typescript, the faint purple of a dittograph, an advertisement for cold cream on a stiff and crumbling page.

It’s difficult to articulate just how much stuff was in that house by the time we were ready to leave; symbolic flotsam, blurry dreams that did and didn’t come true. Enormous blue plastic jugs for gathering plums for eau-de-vie (country dream). Hangers full of vintage flea-market clothes (city dream). And so many things that aren’t meant to last this long: baby clothes, bank statements, schoolwork — a decrepit Pampers box filled up for every one of our school years, chewed up and pooped on by generations and generations of pine martens. The neighbors laugh when we hire a nine-by-three-meter skip, permanently gouging 300-year-old stone as it drags across the cobbles. But we fill it to the brim, empty it, and fill it again.

Part of this is bad record-keeping; part of it is grief. My mother’s ghost has lived here since June 2007, in her folded sweaters and tacked-up postcards and empty lipsticks. She is as much a part of the makeup of the house as the kitchen she studiously designed on lined paper, the traditional black-and-white tiling she chose for the front hall, the ivy leaves we painted together onto the moldings upstairs. The bookshelves in her office remain untouched. Her Aigle rubber boots still stand by the barn door. Maybe it was the suddenness of her passing, melanoma returning after a long and peaceful period of remission: a mere week before she died, she was singing Mahler in Saint-Nicolas church. Maybe it was a simple lack of courage. We have kept her memory living here for more than ten years, and now that we are selling the shell of the house, it feels right to exorcise her from the foundations.

Yet the physical parts of this act are not clear-cut. Some are too stripped of symbolism (packing away kitchen knives, boxing up DVDs); some are too steeped in it (taking down framed photographs, sorting her jewelry). All of it feels on some profound level like undoing my mother’s lifelong work of making that house into a home, as if we are stripping away layers and layers of work and dreams. On one of our last trips back to empty the house, I catch myself dreaming of some kind of tabula rasa, that the house would vanish overnight, freeing us from the responsibility of leaving it right, extricating ourselves cleanly, leaving no trace.

I worry, too, that the same question hangs over our family. What will happen to the three of us without the touchstone of a mother, without the structure of a home?

* * *

Homes, like cathedrals, are inhabited by a theory — by an ideal — that weighs heavily on their timber, glass, and stone. Such places are made to hold meaning — to distill it, like something whittled towards perfection over years, towards linear if asymptotic completion, or a dream come to life: an architect’s sketch, sweat and turpentine, a stonemason’s mark. A home’s kitchen is remodeled. A new boxwood hedge is planted. Wood is polished. Candles are lit. Crochet blankets are hung on our childhood walls. Our bookshelves are filled. Flourishes are added to a cathedral, like new flying buttresses in the twelfth century, new gargoyles in the 1860s.

But the crucial moments of the history of a place are forged, too, in destruction, transformation, modernization. I think of Louis XIV removing Notre-Dame’s medieval stained glass, tearing down pillars to make room for carriages to process through; Huguenots decapitating statuary; Revolutionaries destroying the icons of the Ancien Régime, lead melted down to make bullets. I think of my parents cutting in skylights at 32 rue des jardins or sledgehammering out the turn-of-the-century floral tiles in the front hall, which had been cemented directly into the dirt, so they could put in modern plumbing. The arc of dreaming–building–destroying is less linear than we intuit.

How, then, to acknowledge the essence of that process? As in Dresden, it has been a popular trend for reconstructions to explicitly integrate and make visible the damage — for reparation, in other words, to mark itself out from repair. For renovation to gesture at absence and the irrevocability of destruction, as much as it enshrines survival. You see it all over Lorraine, where I grew up: Renaissance sandstone buttressed with Plexiglas, ragged edges filled in and yet not — an echo of a wall. Within weeks of the Notre-Dame fire, President Macron set up a wildly successful, hugely controversial fundraising campaign, and started looking at new designs for a spire, many of them explicitly reflective: glass, greenhouses, a mirrored kaleidoscope. Making space for what has been lost.

* * *

I learned from our series of bonfires that thick stacks of paper do not burn well; they become a different material, one without enough oxygen. You have to layer in air, patiently, holding the layers apart with a poker, in order for them to go up suddenly. So many drafts of my mother’s novels. Boxes of recipe cards. Stacks of photocopied choral sheet music. Her neat, architectural sketches for the rose garden, and the box hedges, and the tiles above the kitchen sink. It’s too much for the fire to handle; too much for me, too. From her letters, I keep learning things my mother never shared with me. They sit uneasily with me as archivist, as daughter, as a woman the age my mother was when she wrote these intimate things down. An archive is useless without a referencing system, or a narrator, or curator — not just to make sense of the material, but to sort, to select, to discard. When you are gone, and your children come across a box you have kept for them, will they understand it?

The value of some things is clear — family photographs from the 1880s; letters from ancestors in France and Switzerland; my parents’ hospital baby bracelets from Michigan, tiny circlets of pink and aqua blue. In the face of others — wartime Christmas cards from people I could just about place on a family tree, a painstakingly assembled scrapbook of dogs cut out of magazines (1961), my mother’s letters from unknown trips with unremembered ex-boyfriends — I am helpless. Sorting through the weight of this material, unguided, I cannot shake the fear that I am going to miss some crucial spark of insight, some important gem.

But sometimes it is the very act of trying to be good at record-keeping that makes you so terrible at it. On some level, I wish I’d been able to keep every tiny scrap of her, of the house, of our life — even the ones I barely remember or don’t understand. I hesitate, holding a picture of a dog she painted when she was seven or eight years old, then consign it gently to the flames. Good archiving, like a good renovation, means having the strength — the clarity of vision — to throw all but the essential away.

* * *

For months after the sale, I’ll wake, sweating, from variants of the same dream: finding a new stack of unopened boxes just as we’re getting in the car, pawing through endless quantities of once-precious paper/knickknacks/jewelry, and once — scraping at the barn floor, getting clay under my nails — recovering chipped Lunéville china where it had been buried. The fear is always the same: that we have failed at this task, that we have betrayed the house and our family, that we have somehow disrespected the past.

Yet you cannot carry the whole of the past with you into the future. Unboxed, ghosts turn to dust in your hands. The authenticity of our house, of our life, is an illusion on some level, carefully constructed from flea markets in Belgium and sales at Galeries Lafayette. A theatre backdrop. A mood board. Precious, yes, but only as simulacra of our lives, of what we believed and aspired to and loved. These things mean everything and nothing at once. An oil painting of a loaf of bread; dark, polished oak constellated with woodworm tracks, stinking of beeswax; cheap Toile-de-Jouy printed plates in burgundy and cream, delicate made-in-China pixelation visible if you squint.

Even in just conjuring their images, I feel a sense of desperation — something I miss, or something I’m missing. The sand pouring out from between the stones in the wall, a lightbulb popping in another badly wired antique lamp, the sound of a door scraping waxed terra cotta. They’re just things, some of them cheap things. Things that are gone now. So why do they matter so much?

The truth is, ghosts and visions don’t live in terra cotta or oil paint, no matter how authentic, no matter how beloved. Brought to life, the vision sometimes weighed my mother down. She dreamed of moving to town, of going to the opera, of sitting in cafés, shoulders light, in flux, in the world.

Yet none of this takes away from the truth of our relationship to that house, our anchored and illuminating love. Every trip to Laura Ashley; the lion’s head fountain planted with geraniums; the cobbles; the willows; the box tree hedges; our mirabelle-plum-printed dresses; the nineteenth-century oak clogs by the fireplace; the oven door swinging open to reveal the golden crust of a tourte Lorraine, aspirational, authentic, the real thing.

* * *

This act of memory feels a lot like grief, and of course I am grieving: for my childhood, for a geographically rooted nuclear family, for this house which is so tangled up with my memories of my mother. For the idea of belonging somewhere, the idea of home.

I remember how proud my mother was when we got our French nationality — the little gold medal in a little plastic box, the idea of it. How she sang an old American World War I song, “My Beautiful Alsace-Lorraine” — heart of France / part of France — and I played the piano part from disintegrating sheet music on the piano we moved into the kitchen for a concert and never moved back out.

The hardest I cried for my mother was sitting at that piano, with her on the phone in the next room, months and months before she died, with her still able to come back and stroke my hair and hold me in her arms. Which is to say, sometimes you do some of your worst and most useful mourning now, together, before you hand over the key. Holding on to things is, in and of itself, intended as an act of grace; why shouldn’t letting go feel the same?

* * *

We scattered half of my mother’s ashes on the hilltop on a cold April morning, dandelions in the fields frozen as if they’d been dipped in ice. I’ve read so many stories of this going wrong that it took me by surprise when it was unambiguously beautiful — the ash arcing gracefully through the air, vanishing into the grass. A part of my mother fitting into life’s cycle, her atoms a part of this land.

Our family learned how to be just us three. We held onto some objects, some rituals. Others changed. Some disappeared. We sorted through the material. We made what sense we could of it all. Fire, archiving, metamorphosis — all a part of love, in the end.

My deepest instinct is to remember as much as possible, to write as much as possible, to shore up images and ideas and junk as a barricade against forgetting. Yet on the fourth or fifth trip up to tidy, and empty, and box the past up, I looked around the house in Faulbach — stripped of its ornaments, its layers and layers of trinkets and papers and junk — and I saw it so clearly, in the polished oak and sandstone, in the clean terracotta gleaming in the sunlight: this house was here long before us, and it will endure long after we are gone.

More than three years after the Notre-Dame fire, the burned cathedral still stands, its spireless presence undiminished. On a trip to Paris last spring, I found myself stuck in traffic and looking up at it through an open taxi window, listening to the chirp of sparrows, the early-morning warble of collared doves. When the wind blows through the holes in the walls, it makes a whistling sound, like distant church bells. The vaulted stone ceiling, impaled by the falling arrow of the spire, survived. The altar, the pipe organs, the rose windows — the stained glass! — survived. A reliquary had been held for close to a hundred years within the body of the metal rooster weathervane at the very tip of the flèche: it too plummeted to earth, but survived, alongside the saintly bone dust, and the fragment (the idea) of the crown of thorns it encases. The idea of Notre-Dame survived unscathed.

In my creaky two-room apartment in the Swiss town of La Chaux-de-Fonds, I occasionally dust my mother’s books, and drink Campari out of her antique French glassware. We have our ghosts.

Every once in a while — when my sister and I talk late on the phone, when my father and I cook up steaks in my tiny kitchen, when I share a meal with someone I love — I catch a fleeting glimpse of the feeling the house in Faulbach used to inspire in me. It feels like nostalgia. It feels like home.

Elodie Olson-Coons

Elodie Olson-Coons is a writer, editor, and bookseller based in Switzerland. Her work has previously appeared in 3:AM Magazine, [PANK], and Music & Literature.

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