The Hearth

Hold on while I get another cup of coffee so I can be in the proper, cozy, warm-fuzzy frame of mind for this post…

At the corner of the house where the kitchen counter separates the two rooms on the opposite wall from the front door, my father built a small hearth. He used stones from the rock slide areas nearby, ones carefully chosen for their size, color, and flat surface area. The stone placed down in front was the largest, giving a nice, flat surface for chopping wood chunks into kindling with the hatchet. The hearth extended along the backside of the counter all the way to the end, giving room for firewood to be stacked up neatly.

The stove was a pedestal stove, with clear glass in the door for watching the flames, and the chimney went straight up and out a hole my father cut in the roof. The chimney itself did not make any turns or angles, but because of the vaulted ceiling it looked as if it did. Yes, that’s right, a single wide with a vaulted ceiling.

One year at Christmastime I set a stuffed animal on top of the stove as I was singing and dancing around the room to Christmas songs. It was a Kermit the Frog with a holiday vest and Santa hat, one of McDonald’s holiday Happy Meal prizes from 1988. I loved that frog. His seat was singed to nothing, and stuffing fell out here and there, but I still kept Kermit for many years after the stove incident.

At night, in the winter when the Christmas tree was up, I would sometimes sneak into the living room, lay down under the tree, and watch the flames dance through the window. When I’d get cold, I’d lay in front of the hearth listening to the fire crackle and watch the Christmas tree lights. Those were the most magical, dream-inspiring, perfection-achieved moments to me. I would lay there, particularly during the ages of 10-13, and dream of my life someday, in a cabin in the woods of Alaska, with a husband and a house full of kids, living off the land, homeschooling, gardening, guitar music, being snowed in….

In the summer the push for firewood would begin in earnest. Sundays took us to the woods, piled into the truck whether we fit or not, lunch packed in a bag, chainsaw in the back, work gloves in the form of knit winter gloves if we were lucky. We’d usually go to a landing site where Dad knew the leftover logs were set aside to be left to rot and we’d spend the day cutting and splitting, filling the truck, stopping to eat, pulling splinters (for knit gloves did a poor job of preventing them), and sweating in the summer sun.

I was the youngest. And a girl. I hardly lifted a finger at that job until my brothers left home. Then sometimes it was just my dad and I, silently working side by side. Those were quiet years.

The house was, of course, also equipped with an electric heat system. When my dad was home it was always, always turned off. But my mom sometimes turned it up if the rest of the house was chilly.  To her the stove was a means of comfort, not survival.

To her, survival was when a 7 year old, 8 year old, and 11 year old were left to fend for themselves while their father worked in the mine and their mother was absent, having gone off to find work somewhere else and taken the older children to live with other relatives. Survival was eating the only thing available day after day after day after day: oatmeal.  Survival was never, ever, ever getting warm no matter how hard you tried to get mossy, green wood to burn.

My mom was the 7 year old.

While we lived at the trailer park and I was about 6 years old, one of the neighbor ladies died early in the winter. She left behind four children, ages 9, 8, 6 and 3. My mother would watch as the children would get off the bus after school and walk to their trailer 4 spaces down from us. Sometimes their father would wake up from his drunken stupor and let them in. Sometimes he wouldn’t. Then the children would come in out of the snow, stand in front of our stove, and get warm. My mother found hats and gloves for them, mended their coats, and made sure they had hot food in their tummies before walking them home and pounding on the door till they were let in. Some days she would walk over with a pot of soup just so she could see for herself whether the three year old was still alive.

Seeing a child cold has always been something horrible to her, and at times I think brings genuine pain, physically, for her to see.

25 years later, my mom is the caretaker for the 5 daughters of one of those children. Sharing love with someone else’s children seems to leave a deep impression of kindness and caring that never leaves a soul. Sometimes it is the parents who could not provide that feel that gratitude. Sometimes it is the child looking back on a bright spot in a dark space of their life.

 

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