Our Lives: Winter brings an excuse for playing with fire

John Valentine.
John Valentine.

We all think we are the masters of the flame, that it burns freely and dances only for us. Such folly.

I’m not slinging poetry or even launching metaphors; I’m talking about wood heat and bonfires. The season of the hearth is upon us; frosts and families rule.

In our younger days, a few short decades past, we cranked up the stove with whatever was in the front yard. Close calls were many. A boxy, yard sale Ashley Automatic heated our four uninsulated rooms.

Maybe it was watching our ’50s fathers soak their outdoor grills in lighter fluid for a good blaze, but we thought nothing of tossing a cup of kerosene on kindling on a cold night. Don’t try that at home, kids.

There is no shutoff switch on a raging wood stove fire. You have to cut off the air draft and smother it. We learned a good lesson when a guest saw the gallon of kerosene by the door and thinking it was water, lit the whole stove ablaze.

Years later in a new house, built with the dream of a family and romantic experiences around fires, we left plenty of air space around the wood stove. We respected its turf of concrete and bricks. Everything around it held the heat. We burned the stove hot enough to keep the creosote and particulates down.

Seven or eight months out of the year, the wood stove hibernates, covered in plants and colorful gourds. We still use the side warming shelves and hangers as drying racks as if the mere idea of wood heat will take the moisture away. The hearth collects muddy footwear year round.

This week the stove and hearth become center stage for a house full of family. As our neighbor says, “It’s go time.” The chimney’s swept, the flue is clear, the wood piles await. Our trusty red wheelbarrow is ready to carve new tracks through the twisting trails. I know where the driest hardwoods are stacked. Pillows and quilts are piled up where the bricks meet the floor. Very inviting.

The wood stove captures a critical essence of the season’s change. The plumes of smoke spiraling into the sky smell delicious, wisps of gray and off-white contrasting with the winter clouds. The neighborhood is tucked in.

As the resident literate Luddite and keeper of the recycling, I “supervise” the weekly bushels of newsprint. We take three print papers a day and a bunch of magazines. The rule: What comes into the house must leave the house. Breaking news one day, nutrient-rich ashes for the garden a few days later.

Sometimes it takes awhile to part with all the papers at the fire’s edge. My family jokes about the pauses they hear when Dad builds a fire, leaning forward on the bench, absorbed in an overlooked story from last week.

They’re all on their phones anyway while I am turning newsprint pages looking for the next paragraph. We’re centuries apart, but in just a few moments we’ll be toasty, curtains shut tight.

The rustling of newsprint, the snapping of small twigs, the creaks and groans of the iron stove panels heating up, the whistling and bubbling of the Dutch oven are the soundtrack to countless winter evenings.

I know my job is to keep family safe and warm, but I do have a guilty pleasure. I like it when the power goes out. That’s when we really get together. The flashlights and candles come out, we streamline the wood loading. The most favorite quilts and pillows appear.

The dogs come inside for this living room sleepover. We tell stories of other times. And we listen through the woods for the Piedmont Electric trucks that always come.

We move our coffee and breakfast routine to the wood stove and hope we can find the crank radio and the sturdy kitchen pots. We keep better track of the batteries, matches and water.

Be careful what you wish for you say? You’ve got a point. Let’s wait until after the cranberry bread and turkey are out of the oven.