Tuesday, March 6, 2012

wood burning stoves and cold toes

Have you ever been going about your day and suddenly something triggers a memory from your childhood? That happens to me a lot, and it has gotten me thinking. But first, in case you don’t know what I mean, I will explain my most recent episode of “life déjà vu.”  
The other day we trekked to our school room to start school. (I home school my kids. Well, the two that are old enough. Faith is in 4th grade and Clay is in 1st.) The bonus room over our garage has been transformed into our very own school house, complete with alphabet cards on the wall, a bulletin board for hanging A+ papers on, and a dry erase board for teaching new math concepts. (No, there is no chalkboard. Just saying the word chalk makes me shiver.) The door to our school house had been closed all night so the cats wouldn’t go in there and use the bathroom or chew on books, and when we entered the next morning it was FREEZING! Now, mind you, we have central heat, and the vents in the school room were opened, but for some reason it was dang cold. Maybe it’s because the attic access door is in that room, maybe it’s something about air circulation…I don’t know. All I know is- BRRR!!!
So, after shivering a few times, we sat down to start school anyway, and I had a flashback.
I was home schooled as a kid. There are five children in my family, of which I am the eldest. (that sentence structure is courtesy of my dad, since it sounds exactly like something he would say) My mom homeschooled all five of us from kindergarten through 12th grade, 21 years in all. (High five Mom, you are amazing) We always had a school room in our house, with the exception of my first year when it was just me in school and there was no need for a whole room. We lived a lot of places, moving around the country with my dad’s job, but we always had a school room. We even lived in one house where 3 of us had to share one tiny room in order to have a room to BE a school room, but we ALWAYS had a school room. Most of the houses we lived in were OLD too. For some reason my parents were drawn to the really ancient houses. You know the ones I’m talking about. Where the wind whistles through the windows, and the floor is slanted, and the builders thought that dirt between the cracks of the walls counted as insulation, and if not, the mice would certainly keep things warm for the people living inside. Where there was originally one bathroom, with a big tub but no shower, and over the years some other sucker lived in the house and added a bathroom with a shower, but there was no good place in the floor plan so they stuck it off the dining room. The houses where if it were going to dip below 32 degrees, you had to leave all the faucets dripping (in the kitchen, the old bathroom, and the tack on bathroom) so the pipes didn’t freeze solid. Somehow my parents always ended up moving us into one of those houses. Maybe it was their love of historical things, maybe it was that the old windy houses were always on lots of property and they loved the wide open space, maybe it was that the old windy wide open space houses were so darn cheap, I don’t know. All I know is, if there is a big old drafty house on some land 20 minutes or more from a gas station or convenience store, we probably lived there once.
You see where I’m going with this. Our school rooms that we always had in the old houses that we always lived in…our school rooms were ALWAYS FREEZING. A converted bedroom, a closed in sun room, a den, wherever we set up our desks and books, hung up our alphabets and bulletin boards and (shiver) chalkboards, that room was always cold.
The school room in the last house we lived in, where we finally settled after many years of moving around, had an old (of course) unused fireplace in it. It had once been a den…actually, it had once been nothing, and was added onto the original house to be a den…but the fireplace had been closed off for some reason. Well, since there was no insulation in the walls, except for the dirt and the mice, no matter how high we ran the heat it never got warm in the house. To try and keep us all alive the first winter, my dad had a wood burning stove installed in the den/school room, in the old fireplace. He would stoke it at night, and the fire would burn almost totally out by morning. So we went to bed warm…sort of…but we woke up cold. I mean, puff and you can see your breath, freezing. Mom or Dad (or me or Daniel) would stoke the fire first thing in the morning, and we would close all the doors to any room we wouldn’t need to use that day (the living room and dining room (they had French doors separating them from the rest of the house) , the bedrooms, and the bathrooms.) to keep the main part of the house warmer. (Don’t get me started about how cold it was in the bathroom when you needed to use it. We kept a little space heater in there, but it took a while to warm it up. You would have to stand there dancing around from cold and from the need to pee, and it was never certain which urge was more pressing, the need to use the ICE COLD toilet or the need to keep as many layers of clothing as possible between your body and the 40 degree air)
Where was I? Oh, yeah, stoking the stove. So, after all the doors had been closed off to the unneeded rooms of the house, we would huddle in front of the wood burning stove and let the heat keep us warm until it finally started to spread into the rest of the room. Sometimes we ate our breakfast standing there, listening to Mom read the Bible, shivering. Eventually we would have to start our school work and we would venture into the cold room to sit at our desks. We were wearing socks and slippers, but the floor was always cold (no mice living in the floorboards, I guess) and so sometimes Mom would let us slide our desks closer to the stove and prop our feet against the side of it, where it wasn’t too hot, but would keep our toes from getting frostbite.
This is what I recalled with perfect clarity in my own cold school house the other morning. Sitting in front of an old wood burning stove, in an old room of an old house, reading my math lesson, or listening to one of my little sisters read sentences like “See Jane run,” with my fluffy sock-clad feet propped up against the side of the only heat source we had.
The memory made me smile and wish I had an old wood burning stove in my bonus room/school room that I could drag my chair over to and prop my feet up on. (Which is impossible, my husband would say, and against fire code, I’m sure, and anyway, we have insulation (not dirt and mice…or not only them) and a good furnace.)
This recollection got me thinking, as I said before. Why is it that the thought of that stove sparks warm, happy childhood memories in me? There was NOTHING warm about that actual event in my childhood.
I think it’s because time has a way of sanding off the rough edges of our memories, and letting us see them in a different light. As a kid, I am sure there was shoving, and arguing, and wishing for warmth while we stood beside that stove, but as an adult, I remember my cold feet as an opportunity to snuggle next to my siblings in front of a fire. Weird how that happens.
Some days I see my kids, and my house, and my hair, as an absolute mess with zero chance of recovering, and so I don’t even try. Instead we curl up to watch a movie and eat popcorn. (The dirt in the house adds to the insulation, after all, and the popcorn crumbs will attract the mice…and there’s more insulation for us! My childhood proves this to be true.) As I am sitting there in the mess with the rats nest hair (please God, don’t let there be rats nests anywhere else in the house), feeding my kids popcorn (followed by cookies) for lunch, I usually feel like a failure.
But I don’t have any memories of a messy house from my childhood, even though I am sure it probably was messy sometimes. And I don’t ever remember looking at my mom and thinking “Whoa, she needs to do something about her hair.” I remember reading books together, and cooking together, and watching old movies together, in a perfectly clean house with a perfectly groomed mother.
When my husband gets home late from work, I wonder if he will get to spend enough time with the kids…but I never remember my dad  getting home late from work, even though I am sure he did sometimes. I remember him playing games with us, or working puzzles with us, or talking to us about the Bible, and about geography, and about the kind of people he hoped we would grow up to be. I have no recollection at all of feeling like he didn’t spend enough time with us.
Here is what I have decided. My childhood was perfect. (even though it really wasn’t, no one’s is) Someday, hopefully, my kids will feel the same. They will see their childhood through the rose colored glasses that only time can give. They won’t care that we eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches almost every day for lunch. Instead, they will smile that we always had homemade strawberry jam. (I say this from experience because I have this exact same reaction to this exact same memory) They will no longer be irritated that I made them do chores. Instead they will feel blessed that someone taught them how to run a dishwasher and a washing machine. They won’t complain about us MAKING them sit and listen while their daddy reads the Bible out loud. Instead, they will feel grateful that their dad took the time to instill the importance of the Word in their hearts.
So on the days I feel like a failure (which is at some point nearly every day) I am going to go sit in my school room with the attic access door open until my feet get really cold. Then I am going to smile and remember the wood burning stove, and forget all the rest. Because someday, Lord willing, my kids will do the same.


  1. Girl, you're blog is like a great movie - "I laughed, I cried". You are a treasure!

  2. I've tried to comment before, but for some reason it's never let me. I love your blog, you have a way of describing those small moments of life that are really the big ones...and I love reading about your childhood memories because they are connected to mine. Those red & pink roses, the wood stove, the freezing cold house - even though those belong to your childhood, they make me feel nostalgic, too!

  3. Thanks Kim! Thats so nice! Tara, I am glad you are a part of my childhood memories. ;)

  4. I so remember rolling things down your slanted floor when we would come to visit in SC. I also love how both of our mom's instilled so many memories in us that we WANT to do the same for our kids. . . I don't think I could EVER bring myself to buy store bought strawberry jam... and every time I think of chicken and dumplings, I think of your mom and of all of us kids sitting around various tables eating them.