When Christopher asked me to do something for him recently, I promised to try to get around to it as soon as possible, but I told him that my main preoccupation at the moment is trying to keep the fire burning. Christopher responded, “Hahahaha”, but then a few minutes later: “That’s not a metaphor, is it?”
No, it is not a metaphor. It seems that my primary preoccupation since early November has been literally trying to keep the fire in my estufa, my little wood-burning stove burning. After it took most of October to get it ready, my lovely little estufa finally went into operation on 7 November. On the same day, my wonderful neighbor, who has really become my guardian angel (but not only mine apparently), found the perfect gas oven for me on a website for buying and selling used things (the Spanish equivalent of willhaben in Austria), and another generous neighbor drove with me to the outskirts of Barcelona to pick it up. My kitchen is now complete.
When I started using my estufa, at first it seemed a bit difficult to get a fire going, but that eventually worked using pine cones and twigs and starting with smaller pieces of wood. Another neighbor kindly explained to me in detail (but in such beautifully eloquent English that I almost forgot to pay attention to what he was saying) how to start the fire and then turn it down, once it is burning well. I tried that, but within five minutes first the glass window went black and then the fire went out. Then another neighbor came in to check that the pipes were working correctly and showed me how to turn it down once the fire is burning well. I tried that, but within five minutes the glass window went black and the fire went out. Then another neighbor explained to me (also in English) how to turn it down once the fire is burning well, so I tried that, but within five minutes the glass window went black and the fire went out …
In other words, it was becoming increasingly apparent that there was a certain discrepancy between the way my estufa was supposed to work and the way it actually did work. This did not really surprise me, since I figured there was probably a reason why I found it in the back of a collection point for scrap metal under a broken birdcage. I expected that it would be necessary to enter into a more intense relationship with my estufa, in order to convince it that it is loved again, and I was happy to choose each and every piece of wood carefully and personally, in order to find exactly the right wood to feed it. It was beginning to feel a bit frustrating, though, that no matter what I fed it, my estufa still seemed too weak to be able to burn even slightly bigger pieces of wood.
Then my guardian angel invited me for lunch one day, and when I explained the situation to him, he immediately identified the problem as being in the way the pipe was inserted into the chimney. He said that if it is too close to the back wall, then the air doesn’t circulate enough for the fire to get stronger, and promptly announced that his husband would come up later to fix it for me. And that is exactly what happened, so now everything is perfect. In fact, I now have the warmest flat in the building, which makes my place a popular place to meet. What more could I wish for?
In the meantime, the neighbor below me has also started heating with a similar estufa, so my cats are quite content with new warm spots on the floor. When I saw that Ginevra had discovered the first one, she looked so unusually relaxed that I even checked to make sure she was still breathing. As winter approaches, we share the warmth and all is good.
With all the material preparations for winter, November caught me emotionally unprepared this year. When I found myself feeling increasingly miserable about being such a negligent surrogate granny this year, because I haven’t even managed to obtain postcards for Amy’s granddaughters, let alone find and mail a present for Evelyn’s sixth birthday, the loneliness of Amy’s birthday felt even more oppressive. I still remember the day of her birth so well, and I told her that story every year for forty years, from her first to her forty-first birthday. Since she died two months before her forty-second birthday, though, I have been alone with that story ever since.
I don’t know why the loss of Amy suddenly felt so much closer, so much heavier here this year, but at some point I saw messages starting to appear about doing some kind of ritual the first weekend in November. Despite missing most, if not all, of the details, I stated my interest in taking part, thinking that I know enough about rituals in general that I should be able to figure it out.
Many people were away that weekend, but those still here gathered outside around a bonfire in the evening. Two pieces of our newly chopped wood were placed under a tree, and then candles, pictures and mementos started appearing there. When I saw that, I ran back upstairs to get three candles, one for Amy, one for Peter, one for everyone else to share, and grabbed the bottle of Amaretto that I had brought with me from Linz, even though I had no idea why. As people shared food and stories about their loved ones, someone asked me my sister’s name. And suddenly everyone was drinking a sip of Amaretto “To Amy!” Sitting there among these wonderful people, sharing food and drink and stories, I felt my heavy heart growing lighter and lighter.
Ten days after Amy’s birthday is the anniversary of Peter’s death. Following the unexpected experience of the first weekend of November, I thought it would probably be a better idea to prepare myself somehow for 13 November. I didn’t really want to announce the significance of the date to anyone or call too much attention to it. I thought about taking a walk in the forest, taking a candle and maybe the picture of Peter with me, but I didn’t really feel like getting lost in the forest by myself (regardless of how fitting that would be for remembering someone from the Hütmannsberger family). Finally, I realized that all I really wanted to do was simply talk about Peter: story-telling as an act of remembrance. In the end, another kind person came by that evening just to sit here and listen to me talk about Peter. The stories I needed to tell were not just amusing anecdotes, although there are certainly plenty of those, but also about so many of the ups and downs of our life together, why it was important for us to be together, even though we both had doubts sometimes. Simply being able to tell stories about Peter to remember him felt healing, calming.
When Amy was included in the circle of remembered loved ones, I think perhaps something finally shifted for me. Those who were remembered that evening all died in different ways, whether of old age, illness, or suicide like Amy, but the details of how they died are not what matters. All that matters is that they are remembered now with love. Perhaps in a similar way, remembering Peter reminded me that we were never an ideal romantic couple, that our relationship was never just about the two of us, but about the space we were able to make together, the way we could gather people together. Once upon a time I had a partner in life, now I don’t. But what really matters remains the same.
Many, many years ago, November was my favorite month, but now it has been so hard for so long. Being in a different place, being as completely happy as I am now didn’t change that as I had hoped at some level. The feeling that remains now at the end of November, however, is a sense of generosity. The fact that it is now beautifully warm in my flat and that I can start baking again is due to the practical generosity of so many people who have shared so many different skills and knowledges with me to make that possible. The sense of peace that I feel now at the end of this sad month is due to the emotional generosity of so many people who have shared food and drink and celebrations and work and stories and laughter.
Keep the fire burning and share the warmth.