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One of the many benefits of being the proud descendant of generations of in-bred people (and I say this with the utmost love) is that the hilarity never ends. There’s always another story to make your head spin, some long-ago relative with a serious case of WTFs, and the knowledge that these are the people who ultimately gave you life and thus the onus is now upon you to make what you can of it.
This particular story started innocuously enough with a long drive and the inevitable lull in conversation.
“Hey,” I said, for want of anything better to say. “Where’s Grandpa’s ancestral home?”
For a bit of background, you should know I grew up listening to a number of stories about my paternal grandmother’s ancestral home, the House of V, now a heritage building lovingly preserved by my father’s cousins even though it’s too old, too big, too remote and too expensive to actually live in.
Over the past quarter century or so, this practice of turning our older homes into quasi museums has developed into something of a tradition amongst the extended clans of my father’s people. It’s as good a way of honoring the past as any and lets people live in whatever comfy house or apartment they choose. Given the intra-family competition to puff themselves off, I had to wonder at some point about the House of K, Grandpa’s ancestral home, which nobody’d ever invited me to visit. Thanks to boredom, some point was now.
That side of my family was traditionally matrilineal until the British unilaterally decreed patrilineage to be the better option for everybody. Daddy’s generation was the first to identify themselves with their father’s name but the old ways don’t die so easy, so he’d still been brought up to regard his father’s maternal uncle as the patriarch of his father’s family and often talked about his visits to the House of K (which tale is whole lot of crazy unto itself). But never once was its exact location mentioned, nor did he ever take any of us to visit. This was strange because Daddy really likes his family history.
“Oh, there isn’t one,” Ma said matter-of-factly. “The house burned down in a fire and took the poor old grandpa who lived there at the time – your grandfather’s uncle’s uncle – with it.”
“What?” I said, shocked. “I never heard that before.”
“Oh yes,” Daddy affirmed. “The Fire-Cooked Grandpa. His portrait hung in our home.”
Surely I’d misheard.
“The what Grandpa whose portrait hung in your home?” I asked carefully.
“The Fire-Cooked Grandpa,” said Daddy, helpfully enunciating the words. “My father’s maternal uncle’s maternal uncle.”
You’d think I’d be used to this stuff by now. The murders, the polygamy, the court cases, the robberies, the suicides, the elopements… my family lives an interesting life. The depressingly Vivaah-like story goes like this:
Once, at the House of K, a general need for firecrackers was expressed. I can’t precisely remember the reason as it was explained to me but no doubt it was a festival of some kind. In the fashion of all disasters of this kind, a considerable amount of primitive ammo was found, enough to thrill all the inhabitants and workers of an estate whose people famously never felt the need to cross its borders except once a year to sell the harvest (sounds like bunkum to me, but we’re talking old-timey people here when the preferred transport was stuff like bullock carts which are hellishly uncomfortable so I’m not going to judge them. I’d sit my ass at home too if I had to travel everywhere on a bullock cart).
All of this firepower was then placed into a back room of the main house to await the event for which it had been purchased. I’ll give you three guesses what happened next. Of course a fire broke out and the whole house threatened to blow. Grandpa came running with the rest of the household and realized matters were dire.
This is where things take a turn for the bizarre.
Apparently, Grandpa looked around and then got a couple of his men to grab one of the enormous copper vessels usually used to cook lunch (this meal was apparently something of an event at the house because it was the custom to provide the midday meal to all workers on the estate, so you can imagine the size of this thing). By the time they’d dragged it to the room, the whole place was spitting and exploding and they barely managed to shove it upside down over the bulk of the firecrackers that were yet to explode. Then Grandpa yelled at the workers to get out and take the rest of the household with them – and jumped on top of the copper vessel.
Yeah. I don’t know what to make of that either. He was either a hero or suicidal or an egomaniac who thought he could literally keep a lid on things by sheer willpower. Maybe smoke inhalation turned him insane. Or the in-breeding got to him first. I guess we’ll never know.
The house burned down, God knows what happened to the copper vessel and Grandpa ended up as a portrait on the walls of my grandparents’ home, thereafter known as The Fire-Cooked Grandpa.
The family never built another house upon the remains of the earlier one, choosing instead to convert the two guesthouses on the property into the main residence. After the land reforms came into effect and the family disputes amongst the many scattered descendants were finally settled, my father’s cousin chose to use that part of her inheritance to revive the old temple on the estate that had fallen into disuse and neglect as the world changed around it.
Nothing remains of the house that the Fire-Cooked Grandpa died to protect but the house of God.