Reading Time: ~6 minutes
This essay originally appeared in Issue 20 of Tahoma Literary Review. As a young girl, the author didn't have words at her disposal to process the world. So when her neighbor began demolishing her barn as a process to grieve her husband, seven- or eight-year-old Wynn was all in. Wynn uses reflection so beautifully, depicts setting with such sharp and memorable detail, and uses language so elegantly to evoke emotion.
One summer, when I was seven or maybe eight years old, our neighbor Sue’s husband died, and she began demolishing a small barn next to her house. I crouched low in our field across the road, amid the bristly stems of black-eyed Susans and busy whine of mosquito wings, and watched as Sue pried board after board from her barn’s sagging frame. She had the look of an elementary school teacher nearing retirement—halo of limp, gray curls; tight-lipped scowl—but she handled a crowbar, hammer, mallets of all sizes, rope, and even a tractor with skill. The clapboard cried when it snapped, a final ghostly wail from trees over a century dead. She piled the broken planks in a dirt pit, blessed them with accelerant, and struck a match.
Something about Sue’s destructive project attracted me. I stood up, brushed beetles and wild grass seed from my sundress, wandered over, and offered my help. I was shy, painfully shy was how my mother described me to strangers when I darted behind her legs to escape their attention. Her phrase was accurate. Nausea gripped my stomach whenever adults other than my parents noticed me. Before he died, Sue's husband, Pete, would crane his kindly if somewhat yellow-toothed smile down close to my face when he talked to me. I felt like a worm in a robin’s beak.
I say I offered Sue my help, but really, without speaking a word, I crossed the road between our homes, started gathering scraps of wood that had fallen at her feet, hauled armload after armload to the firepit, and heaved the wood into the flames. Larger planks I dragged to the pit through trailing dirt and flipped them in, head over foot, with a bang.
I remember Sue looking at me and me looking at her. I remember a silent exchange: an understanding. Sue didn't lean over me the way grown-ups usually did or ask me well-meaning questions about school, which always seemed harder for me than other kids. Questions like, Are you reading yet? No, I wasn’t. I was still struggling to form letters, erasing holes through alphabet worksheets. Or, What grade will you be starting in the fall? For me, the answer wasn’t always a given; the threat of being “held back a year” loomed. At the barn, Sue did her work breaking things apart, and I did mine setting fire to them.
I returned every day for a week or two, and we labored through the heat of afternoons into evenings, wordlessly, devotedly, turning something into nothing. Before long, tools found their way into my hands, and I started demolishing the barn alongside Sue. Gray planks moaned as I dug the tail of a hammer behind them, rocked the handle back and forth, wedging loose square, rusted nails. Sometimes Sue would pummel boards until they shattered, then pry stubborn splinters free: an approach I also found satisfying. But the best part for me was carrying wood over to the fire pit. The best part was dodging firefly bursts of embers cracking skyward as I heaved my burden into the flames. The best part was watching something massive, foreboding, disappear.
Though only seven or eight years old, I wondered about Sue’s grief project and the unknowable feelings of grown-ups. What was wrong with her barn? I didn’t ask. Nothing immediately fatal, I suspected, but often with aging farm structures you think they'll be there forever, then suddenly they collapse. Maybe she wanted to head-off disaster. Or she harbored a grudge against post and beam architecture. Or maybe she, like I, just needed to tear something down.
I guess Pete's health had been failing for some time—cancer if I remember correctly—because a couple of summers prior my parents had taken Sue and Pete’s sheep off their hands. I still have a photo marking the day we herded the flock across the road from their field to ours. I wondered then if the sheep felt disoriented, being fed by new hands with their familiar field and owners nearby but inaccessible, the way I felt meeting new teachers in school each year. In the photo, my father is wearing his customary T-shirt and cutoffs. I'm wearing my customary uniform too: a sundress and knee-high winter boots—boots I insisted on wearing year-round because I liked their soft inner lining and didn’t care how my feet sweat. I'm holding a crooked stick like I'd seen shepherds do. Behind me, Sue’s husband and barn are still standing.
I think both Sue and I faced intractable realities. Her children were grown and had all moved away. Her husband was dead. Her life was too big for her alone, so parts of her life had to go also. The sheep, the barn, Pete’s flannels, his tractor: tokens of the world she’d shepherded as a wife and mother, now sold, torn down, sent up in smoke, scattered. Eventually, Sue surrendered the whole property to a young, married couple starting a family. They still live there today—they’ve tilled new vegetable gardens, painted, and installed solar panels on the roof—though now I imagine they're counting down the years to retirement, too.
What intractable reality did I face? A world full of grown people—walking mysteries—who seemed to expect more of me than I could deliver. In school, sometimes my teachers asked me questions from the chalkboard, in front of everyone—like what’s thirty-six divided by six, or how do you spell m-o-u-n-t-a-i-n. Most days, I managed to answer, though animal fear gnawed my stomach. But somedays, as my class fell silent waiting for me to speak, I’d erupt in tears. Even the customary adult-to-child greeting—hands on knees, face craning low toward mine—felt intolerable. Yet, tolerate it I had to, long day after long day, between fleeting summers. What I wanted was wild time, walking alone through July fields of black-eyed Susans in my soft, warm snow boots, time sitting in the evening shade of apple trees studiously listening for American toads to sing around me, time silently razing a barn with a sad woman whose grief made her as strange as me.
When the sun dipped low in the sky, Sue and I would sit down at the fire. I remember she’d say something like, "You hungry? I’ll find something to eat," and then disappear inside her farmhouse. She’d return with unzipped deli bags of cold-cuts and cheese, or jars of sweet pickles and sliced white bread. One time she found a package of turkey hot dogs in the back of her fridge. She handed me a long, supple stick and demonstrated how to skewer the dog, lengthwise, so it wouldn't fall off into the pit. I copied her form, piercing the dog through and through until I got it just right. Decades have passed since I've eaten meat, but that dinner remains one of my all-time favorite meals. The sun setting behind the giant arborvitae by my home across the street, the fire’s orange heat warming my hands as I crisped up my turkey dog until it was encrusted with black char, the crickets chirruping in the fields encircling us while the barnwood hissed and sizzled and popped.
Eventually, we got to talking. I don't remember how it started, but I do remember that Sue was the first adult outside of my family with whom I felt comfortable speaking. We talked about the work we’d accomplished that day and what was left for us to do. We talked about the characteristics of excellent fire-poking sticks. Sue remarked on the stars winking into view. In time, we even got around to school. It was hard, I said. I couldn’t really read yet, and my letters were too messy. Sometimes I’d cry during math. I hated the special ed teacher and that she made me count how many mistakes I’d made on each worksheet. “People are smart in different ways and good at different things,” Sue said, or something like that. “You’re smart with a hammer, and you’re good being a friend. Though, your turkey dog roasting needs improvement.” I like them burnt, I said. “Well, that's fine then,” she said. “I guess you know what you're doing.”
Three decades have passed since Sue and I shared that meal, so I wonder if I’ve misremembered our conversation. Or maybe I've gotten the timeline wrong—I might have been nine, we might have been razing that barn for three days or three weeks. Maybe Pete died of kidney disease or congestive heart failure. The barn is so long gone now, I wonder if anyone else remembers it ever existed. I wonder if Sue still lives in Florida or wherever it was that she moved. Do her children remember the smoky curl of their mother’s hair that summer? Or the particular scent of her grief: sweat, charred meat, and rusted nails as hot as embers. Years later, did Sue recall our easy conversations those evenings around the fire, when all other time—time not spent razing, breaking, reducing things to ash—felt both foreboding and overabundant?
Sometimes now, when I drive by Sue’s old farm, I search below humming clouds of mosquitos and sunward-leaning black-eyed Susans for the footprint of that barn. In the same way, when I sit down to write, I look for the footprint of what Sue did for me and what she said. I believe that affinities are forged through our strangest inclinations, not despite them. I trust our human need for warmth and periodic immolation. Mostly, I remember Sue, that barn, and Pete too, by the flowers that have bloomed in their stead.
Reprinted with permission of the author
Wynn had this to say about her piece:
Last February, early COVID, I decided to clean house. I emptied the attic and basement and brought loads of outgrown clothes, kitsch, and furniture to Goodwill. Then I scoured the kitchen, living room, and office for any item I considered non-essential. Everything I could easily shed was donated. It felt good—soothing—so I kept going. I got rid of things I knew I’d miss, useful and sentimental items. I realized I was using little losses to feel a measure of control and prepare for a period of greater loss. Then I remembered Sue, her husband Pete, and their barn.
Rosanna (she/her) lives in Maine with her family and the perfect number of dogs (six, in case you were wondering), and is the Editor of The Maine Review.