I cannot remember when I first began playing with fire. Flame has always been a part of my life. Before learning to read, surely, I was poking sticks into fire to see what would happen. When we were camping, my mother was always made the fire for the evening meal. I'd watch her putting on oak twigs or bits of bark, and soon I was gathering dry sticks, adding them to the fire. Eventually, I was old enough to fan the fire or shift the logs so that the flames could breathe.
At camp now, most fires are still built and tended by mother or me, although I have a brother-in-law who does most of the cooking over the fires we build. On an overcast day of misty rain, I will start a fire in the morning and keep it going all day. You don't feel the rain that much under the thick canopy of oak leaves. And a hot fire will burn bright even through a rain if you keep fanning it. A fire on a rainy day will lure family members out of tents, cars, and cabins, where they have been reading books or playing cards.
On a clear night when the dark sky above the bay is filled with stars, everyone gathers around the fire pit. During our July vacation, we had 21 people most nights, all family members. Well, actually, Red-haired Sister brought Russian Girl, a child with a lovely accent, a beautiful smile, and a tragic life story. But in our family, extras are counted in.
When the whole family is at camp, we fight over choice spots at the campfire, with little kids claiming laps and Shaggy Hair Boy complaining loudly that wherever he sits, the smoke is always in his eyes. Usually about ten conversations are going on at once. The women in my family talk fast, with wild hand gestures, swishing hair, and raised voices, adding drama to the simplest tale. When Blonde Sister's three girls get going - these are the nieces with the gorgeous silky hair - everyone just stops and stares at them, unable to compete.
The men in the family, including my own dark-haired sons dressed in black, tend to be quiet and reserved, sort of blending into the background of night until their voices are needed for song. Eventually, someone will suggest a game. My favourite game is the one in which I get to yell out a word, and each team has to sing eight words of a song that includes that word. I usually get picked to yell out the words because I am, sadly, the only person in the family who cannot carry a tune.
Whatever game we play involves all kinds of arguing about the rules. We all shout at each other, passionately arguing about points, even when it is pretty obvious that no one is even keeping track of the points. The arguments include bouts of laughter when someone gets in a particularly good jab. And eventually, we all quiet down, the youngest kids nodding off to sleep, and the teenagers rummage through cars to see what treats we have not eaten yet. The fire burns down to a pile of glowing red logs. My parents are the first to head off to bed, and I am the last. Before I leave for my tent, I pour a bucket of water over the fire and watch the steam rise to the oak branches above.