My very first memory is of making miniature pizzas with my friends for my third birthday party. It was a sunny August day in rural Kansas, and the sky above was as blue as the 1-1/2 story farmhouse where we baked our pepperoni-and-olive masterpieces. A creek and a cedar tree shelterbelt and an orchard with the sweetest red cherries surrounded the big blue farmhouse, and I loved that place with all of my heart. The kitchen was originally a rural post office in the late 1800s, and it was expanded over the next century into an eight-room home with red stairs and green carpets. Hidden at the end of a winding dirt road, the farmhouse was so far out in the boondocks that even Google Maps couldn’t properly identify where it was located. Four generations of Bells lived in that farmhouse, and I would give anything to hear the stories those walls could tell.
My family and I made our fair share of memories in the house. We spent hours on the living room floor, playing games and listening to stories, and hours in the kitchen, eating and laughing. We also spent hours in the bathroom trying to get ready without accidentally bumping into someone with a curling iron (no small feat when there were five girls and only one bathroom.) I learned to read and write in the dining-room-turned-schoolroom, sitting day after day at my little blue desk. I talked to Kristen for hours at night in the second-story room we shared, until she would finally grow sleepy and tell me to be quiet. As a teenager, I cooked weekly dinners for my family, likely setting a world record for the number of times I accidentally set off the fire alarm. Each evening, pickup lights flickered down the hill as Dad returned from a long day of feeding cattle or fixing fence. I loved our little farmhouse, so cozy and quaint and secluded.
As a child, I sometimes had nightmares about my family’s house burning down in the middle of the night. That fear played out in real time in my 20s, and it was just as terrible as I imagined it would be. This weekend, my childhood home—where I lived for the first 17 years of my life—burned to the ground in the midst of the worst wildfire in Kansas history.
In Kansas, land isn’t just land. It is your heritage and your legacy. It is what you inherited from your parents and will leave to your children. It is your livelihood and your love. It is a part of your DNA, engrained into your very core. And this weekend, my family’s land and hundred-year-old farmhouse went up in smoke. And like the land, the house wasn’t just a house.
It was the house where I learned to read and lost my first tooth and earned the nickname “Giggle Box” because of my propensity toward laughter. It was the house where I baked homemade goods for the fair and coerced my siblings into acting in my Christmas plays and wrote my first story. It was the house where I learned to walk and practiced gymnastics and became a Christian. It was the house I shared with the people who meant the most to me. It was the house that always made me feel grounded, even when life was uncertain. It was the house where I learned how much I was loved.
Losing the house wasn’t as scary as I imagined it would be as a child, but it was much sadder than I anticipated. I feel a sense of loss, not only of my home, but also of the carefree innocence that imbued my childhood—the belief that even though there were bad things in the world, they couldn’t quite touch me and my loved ones. That simplistic belief isn’t true, and I know it now more than ever. Dad and Andrew did everything they could to save the house, spraying water from their 30-gallon tank to put out fires around the base of the house, but they didn’t have enough equipment and resources. I will always be heartsick when I think about how long it took fire trucks to arrive on the scene despite several 911 calls.
Losing a house is a strange thing. You lose your past and your future all at once. Although houses are only structures, they represent priceless memories--and losing your only home feels like losing a part of yourself.
I feel panicky and sick to my stomach, the same way I felt when I was 10 and found out my grandpa had died unexpectedly of a heart attack while I was at summer camp. That afternoon, I sat on one of the bunk beds in the camp room, sandwiched between the Kristens—my older sister and my best friend—and tried to make sense of my first encounter with death. A few days earlier, I had burst through the silver gate leading to my grandparents’ house and leapt up the stairs two at a time to meet my grandpa on the front porch. “Ree-bek-ah Ann,” he intoned, all whiskers and peppermint as he engulfed me in a hug. He was chipper and cheery, like always, and then a few days later he was gone.
I haven’t lived in the blue big farmhouse for nine years, but it is what still comes to mind when I think of home. And now that it is gone, I feel a little lost. I’ll never again be able to climb onto the roof outside my childhood bedroom and watch the moon bathe the golden wheat fields with silver rays. I’ll never be able to take my husband and children to the house that first taught me what home really means.
It is gone, all of it: the house and the garage and the playhouse Andrew built near the orchard and the giant leaning cedar trees in the backyard. Somehow the barn survived, weathered as it ever was but none the worse for the wear. When we were growing up, Dad and Mom would tell us we should all meet under the light pole by the barn if the house ever caught on fire, since it was far enough away that we would be safe. So maybe it’s only fitting that the barn survived.
The only part that’s left of the house is the chimney and fireplace. We used to sit by the fireplace and watch Christmas movies and drink hot chocolate in the dead of winter. We used to gather in front of the fireplace for sibling photos. Once, when a snowstorm caused the power to go out, Mom even tried to cook a turkey over the fireplace. The fireplace still stands tall in the midst of the charred trees and blackened grass, a reminder of the love and memories shared in the farmhouse on Union Chapel road. One hundred years from now, random passerby will not know how special the house built around that fireplace was, but I will never forget all the laughter and love shared there.
My best friend Kristen was visiting me in California this week, and after I told her about the house I burst into tears. Sometimes a place is just a place, but other times you couldn’t be who you are without the experiences you had in a certain place. So it is with the big blue farmhouse at the end of the red dirt road. I learned the importance of imagination and creativity as I explored the wooded area behind our house and discovered tree-encased hiding spots near our creek and rode horses along the ruby red hills. I learned the beauty of creating things with my own two hands when I planted zinnias in my little garden patch and filled hundreds of notebooks with stories. And I learned the importance of family thanks to camping trips atop the Big Hill and Dad’s Sunday morning cinnamon rolls and baseball games in the space between our house and barn.
Kristen held me until the tears subsided, and then we reminisced about the adventures we had there, little girls wading in the creek and riding bikes and playing pioneers on the prairie, all ponytails and tan legs underneath the Kansas sun. Immediately after hearing the news, my friend Lara texted that she was on her way over, and she showed up soon after with Chickfila and Dr. Pepper in hand. I think I will always carry a little sadness over the loss of my family’s home, but I am thankful for the reminder that home is all around us in the form of the people who love us best.
Home is in the people who hold us when we cry and show up with our favorite food when tragedy strikes. Home is in the people who sit with us in the sadness-permeated silence and help us pick up the broken pieces, bit by bit. Home is in the hundreds of Kansans who rally in the face of tragedy, helping farmers move cattle out of harm’s way and donating hay bales and setting up shelters in local churches to offer food and water to weary firefighters. Home is my family.
But home will always be the big blue farmhouse too, even if all that remains of it is the red brick fireplace and the stone that sat on our front porch, carved with the word “Bell.”