Monday, October 13, 2014

Fireplace memories warm the heart ~ my column from Sunday's paper

It’s funny what you remember from childhood. Some memories are fuzzy, but others are as vivid as an Imax movie that comes rushing back at a sound or smell.

This morning was chilly, so slipping on a sweater seemed the wise thing to do as I stepped down for the morning paper.

I involuntarily shivered for the first time this fall. On the wind was a wisp of wood smoke from our neighbor’s fireplace, which brought back the memory of the fireplace in our living room, and the Warm Morning heater in the corner of the kitchen.

We weren’t into the aesthetics of crackling logs or the aroma of burning hardwood; we were into heat on cold mornings, and so we burned coal. We used oak and hickory chips to get the coals started, but once it began burning, we mostly smelled a hint of sulfur.

Mom sent dad off to work at 5:30 a.m. each morning and by the time we rolled out of bed at six, she’d have that Warm Morning fired up so hot the stove pipe glowed orange halfway up to the ceiling.

I’m guessing if that stove were sold these days, it would come with a safety pamphlet as thick as a Bible with ominous warnings about the risk of fire, serious injury or death.

I’m sure one of the warnings would tell you that if your stove pipe ever glows the color of the setting sun, to close the dampers, turn off the vents and have the fire department on standby. But it felt great when it was cold outside.

I do remember a hazard that probably would not have been documented in the safety booklet.

One frosty winter morning, ice crystals had formed around the edges of the panes in our windows over the sink. I’d stumbled into the kitchen sleepy-eyed and backed up to the old heater. The expanding pipe ticked as the glow inched upward.

My brother Neil walked up and grabbed the front crease of my jeans, pulling the denim tight against the back of my legs. I howled in pain. The hot denim seared the hair from the back of my leg. Neil snorted with laughter.

Mama thought it was funny too but whacked him playfully on the side of the head with the palm of her hand.

Behind the heater was a length of clothesline that was about head-high to my dad and ran from one corner wall to the other.

Hanging from one side was a blue bed sheet. About three evenings a week, the sheet was pressed into service as a privacy curtain. Behind the curtain was a #3 washtub filled with water heated on the stove. That’s where we bathed.

One of my chores was hauling ash out and toting coal inside to feed the home fires.

We had two old scuttles, which were metal buckets with spouts on one side. Ours were blackened from years of dumping coal into the fireplace.

Most young folks look at me as if I were pulling their leg when I tell them we didn’t have an indoor bathroom until the year I graduated from high school, and that we heated our house with coal.

These days we have a fireplace, but it’s fueled by gas logs. No hauling coal on frosty evenings for me. With the flip of a switch, fire glows softly from imitation logs. The only coal I have is a lump I saved, so that I always remember where I came from.


  1. I remember those days, Rick. Ours was an old wood stove that we used for heat and I remember the glow of that pipe that fed into the wall. I had not thought of that in years. There was a delicate dance in being near that stove...too close and you burned and a step too far away and the temp dropped a good 20 degrees. Great old memory here tonight- xo Diana

  2. I can practically feel the warmth from the pipe as I read. You sure portray the mood of your memories.

  3. I've always been lucky enough to have indoor plumbing... although my grandmother lived in a place without a tub or shower and it had an oil stove... so grateful for my easily heated place here ;-)

  4. Evocative article Rick, well written!!

  5. I fondly remember those days. We didn't have to insure our house. It's a good thing because we would probably would have froze to death as our winters were so very cold. We had a big cook stove with an oven and a warmer compartment on the top. There was also a water tank at the end that was always full of hot water. It had to be refilled every day.

    I also remember the old square washtub. It was used to do laundry and also for bathing. We were so happy and didn't take much for granted and I think it shaped who we are today.

    I enjoyed reading your post.

    Cool looking piano.

  6. Folks gonna love this one. You have a way of yanking up the past in a soothing way. THANKS. Always enjoy the catchy phrases, i.e. 'Thick as a Bible'. Love it.

  7. Anonymous12:13 PM

    You ALWAYS make me feel as if I were there!!

  8. Don't you feel as if you've landed in Heaven when something is so much easier than it used to be?


  9. I got lost in the post, it was a great read posts that make you feel you are there are wonderful

  10. Rick, This was so good and a real life story! Those are the best. We all have come a long way from those days for most of us here in America. But there still are a few that have no plumbing and are cold even in their homes. We all need to remember our roots and a bit of our family history and some great memories. And really you sounded like your family was really rich in love!

  11. I'm visiting thanks to Hilary at The Smitten Image. You're a talented writer and I've joined your blog so I can enjoy reading more of your work. I hope you'll visit me sometime at Chubby Chatterbox. Take care.

  12. Excellent post, I don't miss those days because we always had gas heat. During Sandy we had no power for 9 days. We did still have gas for cooking and a gas fireplace for some heat.

    A well deserved POTW.

    Oh, you really should visit The Chubby Chatterbox.

  13. We have a fireplace, but it's wood or gas burning! I love a wood burning fire in the winter, so I don't really use the gas. We had central heat growing up, but no fireplace, so I love the fireplace and have had one in every home I've ever owned. That's not to say that money wasn't tight. My father worked three jobs for a while and mom worked as well. I remember those days well. Nothing came easy for anyone back then it seems, but we were happy.


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