Most of my childhood was spent in Texas where, contrary to popular opinion, it can get cold. Most of the time, an electric blanket was enough to keep us warm, but when the coldest part of winter hit, we relied on a woodburning stove in our living room for heat. It was so cold for a few days one winter that my mom nailed quilts to the doors of the living room to keep the heat in that room. My brother, parents, and I put our mattresses on the floor and slept near that woodburning stove.
Oh, that stove—it was a source of both comfort and pain. Coming in on a cold day to its warmth was so nice but stand near it too long and the searing heat of your skirt against your legs would make you jump halfway up to the ceiling fan. And while the romanticized images of a cozy woodburning stove filled many a magazine page, our reality was as far removed from those images as a tattoo parlor and a Mennonite farm.
Many and often were the woodstove fire troubles that plagued our household. When the pipe leading from the stove to the roof got too hot, it glowed red like an ember. I remember being afraid it was going to catch the house on fire, but thankfully it never did. The smoke fumes (my dad often forgot to open the flue) permeated my clothing and hair and were a source of embarrassment. My mere presence in any building was sure to set any firefighter within a ten-thousand-square-foot range to sniffin’ an twitchin’ from the fumes.
I am not one easily scared, but after a close encounter with a gas stove that blew my eyelashes, eyebrows, and the front two inches of my hairline clean off my face, I left all fire and fire-making activities alone. I had seen up close and personal that fire was my friend, but only from a distance. I wanted no part of that stove. And one day, my deepest fears were realized.
I was in my room when a metallic roar, a loud whoosh and deep boom, rattled the house. I rushed into the living room to find my father standing frozen, staring at the outline of a small human sitting in a chair. I knew it was a chair, only because that is where the chair always sat. But now, it was simply the outline of a chair. It was covered entirely with ash. As was the figure of what had to be my younger brother. The gray snowman slowly reached up and felt its head, a black hole forming where the mouth should be, gasping in utter astonishment.
My father, never one to be bothered by non-essentials like instruction manuals, had decided to jumpstart the fire one particularly cold day. In went the wood. In went some kindling. And, to really get things going, in went some gasoline. The combustion that resulted blew the overflowing ash pan out of the bottom of the stove and all over the living room—my brother and the chair taking the brunt of the ash avalanche. Thankfully they were cold ashes from the previous fire.
Why is it that we can whiplash from one emotion directly into another one? We went from fear and horror to hilarity. Well, two of us did. Dad and I were howling with mirth. My brother whiplashed emotionally too. From fear and horror to fury. It wasn’t one bit funny to him!
There are times you look back, much later, and remember an event with a different emotion than the one you felt when it happened. I wanted a house with central heat, but I didn’t need it. I had my wants mixed up with my needs. I needed heat. I hated that stove—hated the smell, hated the smoke, hated cleaning out the ashes. But looking back now, I’m thankful for that old woodburning stove. It provided what we needed.
Many things in my life have looked like a negative, only because I had an ungrateful heart. Some of the smokey, ashy, wintery seasons of my life were, in hindsight, blessings.
I’m getting older now; my bones are getting creaky, my hair has turned silver, my youthful days are behind me. But the creaking and the silver are like the smoke and the ash of that stove: they are simply part and parcel of the blessing of being allowed to grow old. Not everyone gets to. I’m going to count the blessing, instead of cursing the smoke.
*Writings by Rachel (Coltharp), Jan/Feb 2021