I know what fire does.
It takes away the places where memories are made. It ensures that those places are forever changed.
I know this because my house burned to the ground when I was 7 years old. I was in that house when the fire started. A bolt of lightning from a storm destined to break a midsummer heat wave split the ancient oak tree in the front yard, toppling it onto the house and sparking an old, poorly wired window air conditioner. I survived because a family friend ran up burning stairs, grabbed me from my bed and carried me kicking and screaming, flung over his shoulder, to safety.
A fluke confluence of events and the three-story, two-family home in historic Oak Park, Ill., became a torch illuminating the night sky. By the time the firefighters arrived, all they could do was hose down the adjacent houses to prevent the fire from spreading. I stood on the street in pajamas watching my house burn.
It took me awhile to realize that the sense of profound loss I felt watching Notre Dame Cathedral burn was really for what I lost as a child that night.
I first set foot in Notre Dame as a high school junior on a school trip, eager to exercise my fledgling French. I would visit again, more than a decade later, with my husband on one of those pack-your-dufflebag, we-have-Eurail-passes trips that are so enticing to young marrieds in the pre-children days. I last set foot in Notre Dame in October 2015, on a visit to meet up with my college-age son who was doing a semester abroad in Europe. We trekked to Notre Dame on a spectacular late-fall day, and we sat on a bench in the gardens, under the shadow of the majestic flying buttresses. It was a moment that enticed us to be in another time while being fully present in the moment.
Fire destroys history.
Other school-age girls, newly married women, mothers with their sons will one day walk the grounds around Notre Dame. But it will not be the same Notre Dame. They will talk about the parts of it that were reconstructed, the parts that were salvaged. The fire will forever be part of the story. For what it claimed and never for what it added. Notre Dame will be rebuilt. It will never be the same.
The house in Oak Park was rebuilt, but we never lived in it. I don’t think of that house as my childhood home. I think of it just as the house that burned down. But there is an aching loss for what can never be revisited. For a stuffed dog toy and a Cinderella watch destroyed. The totems that mattered so much to my 7-year-old self.
But amid all the devastation of that night in Oak Park, there was a whisper of a miracle. We had lived on the second floor of the house, and much of the second and third floors collapsed, pancaking onto the first floor. As firefighters dug through the rubble for anything salvageable, they found standing alone and erect a small wooden cabinet in which my mother had displayed her cherished Waterford crystal. It had fallen a story when the floor collapsed. The wood was lightly scorched, but the crystal still stood on the shelves, covered in soot and ash but unbroken. The cabinet to this day stands in my mother’s house. A testament to what fire cannot do.
Tonight, as I look at the shell of Notre Dame, I pray that the people of France will be blessed with a similar miracle. That for all the history that the fire has taken from them, there will be a sign, something that future generations can point to as a way of saying, “That survived the fire, and so did we.”