A Warm Morning

TALKING TO MYSELF: 26 January 2013 Last week in my News-Herald column, Georgia: On My Mind, I rambled about my love-hate affair with January. (If you missed it, it's still up on my website http://www.georgiagreenstamper.com/page9/page9.html.) In spite of my back-handed compliments, I think I offended her. She slapped my driveway and windshields with a sheet of ice as soon as the piece hit the paper, and turned Kentucky's thermostat down to single digits. Then, just for spite, she tossed in a health crisis for my husband. He's going to be fine, but I thought it awful hateful on January's part.  Still, she's managed to hush my voice for a little while. Forgive me, then, for offering up old words on the blog this week. Wherever you are, I hope you're warm.

A Warm Morning

It isn’t that I don’t love the planet earth.  I pick up trash on the side of the road and recycle glass, aluminum, paper and plastic with the best of them.  I gave up aerosol deodorant twenty-five years ago.   But when it comes to lowering the thermostat, I’m not  made of the right stuff.  

The truth is I have a Freudian fear of freezing to death that can be traced to the trauma of my early childhood.  Born in the waning months of World War II, I came home from the hospital to Gran Hudson’s Kentucky farmhouse. Although he owned over 800 acres of land and was considered well-to-do by local standards, he thought central heating was an extravagant luxury for town folks.  He was not alone in that opinion. Looking back to the first dozen years of my life, I can’t remember any home in our rural community that did not rely on a coal or wood-burning stove for winter warmth.  Even the New Columbus School I attended through the sixth grade was heated by giant stoves towering in each of its three large classrooms. Despite the jumping and running that’s inevitable when young children are cooped up inside in the wintertime with no place else to play, I don’t recall any of my classmates ever falling against the stove and getting burned. From infancy, we had learned to behave when we got close to the fire that blazed, literally, in the middle of our living rooms.

At our house, a popular model incongruously called the “Warm Morning,” dominated our lives. Tall and stout, this black creature met the dawn with a chilly stare unless it was fed and caressed like a colicky baby throughout the night. The plan, always, was to stoke the fire well enough before bedtime so that it would smolder until morning. But often it would die out before daybreak despite Daddy’s efforts.  On those cold mornings, Daddy would have to reach into the bowels of the beast, seeking a hidden lever with one hand to shake down the ashes while gouging at its gut with a poker in his other hand. For reasons I did not understand, the ashes had to be vanquished before he could attempt to get a new fire up and going. 

The ruins of yesterday’s flames whirled through the early morning like a dust storm, choking the air and light out of the house, settling on the furniture, stifling our nostrils and our spirits.  To me, it is the taste and smell of poverty. When I read of despair anywhere, the dry memories of those ashes settle in the back of my throat.

To escape, I would wrap myself, head and all, in Cousin Debbie Jones’ hand sewn quilt – a housewarming gift to Mother after the old house burned down – and will Daddy to hurry, hurry, and get the nasty business done. But he couldn’t rush the process, he said. It had to be done right, or the fire would falter again later in the day.

Closing off rooms to save on fuel is not a new idea, either.  In my childhood home, and most everyone I knew did the same, we only attempted to heat three small rooms.  The result was uneven.  The living room, where the Warm Morning stood, was toasty warm, even blistering if you sat on the end of the sofa closest to the stove.  The kitchen wasn’t bad either because it got a boost from the electric range.  The downstairs bedroom where my parents slept, however, was on the chilly side.  The rest of the house – that would be the company dining room, a small hall that connected to the stairwell plus the entire upstairs  -- was shut off by a series of doors.  Siberia could not have been colder.

Theoretically, my upstairs bedroom was warmer than the other closed off rooms because the chimney rose through it to escape through the roof.  This made my parents feel better about my sleeping up there, I suppose, but only an Eskimo could have discerned any heat in the room.  I would dress for bed downstairs, then open the door that sealed off the stairwell and sprint like an Olympic runner up to my room under the eaves.   I stopped for nothing until I reached the sanctuary beneath the bedcovers. 

There I would lie, still, on the linen tundra, barely breathing. Inch by inch, I would claim more territory, sliding a toe, then a foot, then a leg across the frozen sheet. In the morning, the process would start over in reverse.   It built character, I guess, to push my nose out from under the covers in a room where my breath hung in the air like smoke, but that was scant consolation.

The stove was a necessary evil, but Mother loathed it. She lived for the day in early spring when the sooty old thing could be taken down for the warm weather season and the doors to the rest of the house thrown open.  The ugly, flowered linoleum, put down to protect the pretty wood floors from hot embers, would be rolled into storage too.  It was like getting a new house. 

But invariably Mother would take the stove down too early, and a Berry-Winter of some ilk would slam us.   Then Daddy would grouse, “Are you trying to give us pneumonia?”  

When I was thirteen, Mother returned to teaching. With the influence of her paycheck, she convinced Daddy to have Minch’s Hardware in Owenton install an oil-burning furnace in our house.  I viewed the new thermostat on the wall with the same awe that early man must have felt when he discovered fire.  With the flick of a finger, I could have heat, all I wanted, even in my upstairs bedroom.  I have lived joyfully in a hot house ever since.

Now, earnest and serious people I admire, chastise me at every turn for my extravagant wintertime consumption of fossil fuels, and my old joy is smudged with guilt. Some are frantic about global warming and the future of mankind, and I’m willing to listen, I’m receptive to alternative options – as long as I can stay really warm. Others, like my dear son-in-law Alex who prefers to keep their thermostat on 60, are concerned about the cost of their monthly heating bill. I once pointed out to him that the Humane Society legally requires that the temperature in animal shelters be kept at 65. We have reached an unspoken agreement. When I visit, he pretends not to notice that I inch the thermostat upward when no one is looking. 

Still others, young and unfrozen, have re-discovered fuel-efficient stoves, and are as excited as if they’d invented the wheel. And heating only two or three rooms is a great idea, too, they add. I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. How can I explain to them that I’m still thawing out from my childhood? How do I describe the emotions that a cold house evokes in me? Because they’re not logical, I know that. You can’t explain dry memories of ashes in the back of your throat.



Butter in the Morning is available from Amazon.com and other online booksellers; Wind Publications; and from your local independent bookstore.