Named for a Narragansett word meaning “abounding in bats,” Pausacaco (pronounced paw-sah-KAW-ko) is a wooden lodge with a wide, inviting porch overlooking a small lake. My grandfather’s two brothers and five other men built the lodge in 1906. In the early twentieth century, Rhode Island was dotted with dozens of lodges like Pausacaco, built and maintained by professional men from Providence. The lodge had no electricity and no running water, relying on a well system accessed by an old hand pump in the kitchen.
1922. My mother’s earliest memory—a blackened chimney over smoking embers. She and her father step out of their Model A to see the wreckage of the house his family built, the house where she was conceived, the place where he poured all his spare energy. The chimney rises against the sky, pale in early morning, and beyond it the lake laps blue, oblivious. All that water, just feet from the lodge, useless in the face of a raging oil stove. No one got hurt, but Paul is responsible—his guests lit the stove.
Ellen, at 3, knows only that Pausacaco, the place where she and Sally play, where her family retreats from the hubbub of Cambridge, lies before her, a pile of smoking timbers. The woods look the same, with their two paths in opposite directions from the house, and she wonders if the outhouses have burned at the end of each path. The lake looks the same, inviting her, though it is too cold to swim. But the house is simply gone.
The morning of the fire, Paul had risen early with some departing guests. He had let someone else start up the stove, and with the guests on their way, he and another friend take a canoe out onto the lake. When they get to the middle of the lake, they hear odd crackling sounds. They turn back to the lodge and see leaping flames. In seconds, the outlines of the house disappear. By the time they paddle back, furiously, futilely, most of the house has fallen in on itself. Guests in their pajamas stand far back from the flames. Someone has driven to town to summon the fire department, but when the engines arrive, there is nothing to save, just a few large beams, which the firemen don’t bother with, the same beams Ellen sees smoking the next day when her father brings her down from Cambridge in the Model A.
Paul, frantic with guilt, throws himself into remaking the lodge in every loving detail. The Pausacaco founders raise the money to rebuild in short order, appealing to the lodge’s many loyal visitors. Expert craftsmen donate their time to recreate beveled cabinet doors and locking window frames. In a little over four months, a new structure rises up, identical to the one that disappeared. Ellen sometimes doubts her memory of that moment with her father, driving down to the lodge at first daylight. But someone took a photograph, and there it is: the charred chimney, alone against a blank space of sky. The photo hangs on the landing of the rebuilt house, next to the framed 1922 newspaper story with photos of the familiar fireplace, and the headline, “The Fire That Built a House.” She cannot tell which of her memories of the house come from before the fire and which after, so she chooses the dividing line of the black chimney as her first one.