It’s taken me until aged fifty, to build and light a fire for the first time. Curiously, until now, it’s just so happened that the men in my life did this task. Whether it was Dad’s big, brick barbecue in the backyard (built by one of Nonno Anni’s Italian mates). The guys among friends building a bonfire on the beach. Or Roger taking care of the fire if we stayed somewhere cold that had a lovely fireplace. For whatever reasons, including living mostly in a subtropical climate, it just didn’t come about to light a fire myself.
So recently, when we were at a place with a fire pit one weekend, I said to Roger that I’d take care of the fire this time. (I think a look of doubt crossed his face but he agreed.) I told him not to give me any pointers or say one word. That the fire’s success or failure needed to be all mine. I thought of the ‘focara’ fire I’d written about in The Proxy Bride. Of the fire festivals in Abruzzo and Calabria of my ancestors.
Most of all I thought of my bisnonni, Great-Granny Maddalena who’d collected wood and lit fires in her kitchen fireplace of the Fossa house for decades to cook and warm water, to live. I thought of Bisnonna Francesca and her mum, Saveria who’d been the baker in their Palmi neighbourhood. All the fires she must have set and managed to bake the loaves of bread local women brought to her with their individual identifying marks in each dough, before everyone had an oven. It was about time I set a fire, even if I wasn’t sure how.
I decided to stack the bigger pieces of wood like a teepee. Beneath it, I threaded smaller twigs and branches and added scrunched wands of newspaper in the gaps. I lit a match. We sat down around it. It was just a small fire but my first and it was glorious, so different to have set it myself rather than someone else. Roger smiled and agreed it was a good fire. Still – ever competitive – we debated who could do so best. (I think mine burned slightly longer.) 😄
Seriously though, it was so great sharing that connection of fire with my Italian great-grandmothers even if my efforts would’ve been very humble compared to theirs! By chance, the part of Abruzzo my ancestors are from was inhabited by the Vestini tribe in ancient times, their name from Vesta, goddess of hearth, home and family, she being represented by fire. Vesta was also honoured by bakers, the animal linked with her, the donkey, as it was used to turn the millstones to grind grain for flour. I mention this because, while we sat around the fire, by chance, the peaceful braying of a donkey from a neighbouring farm drifted in the night. It couldn’t have made the fire any better! 💛 Zoe xx