This is the wood stove in my parents’ house that used to heat our home through every Northern Michigan winter growing up. My parents did not go to using electric heat until I was a senior in high school.
Even though none of my friends heated their homes by fire, I don’t remember ever thinking it was strange. Nor did it occur to me to complain about it, as my dad doesn’t take very kindly to complaining (“What’s that, you think you’re too cool to drive a full size conversion van around campus at U of M? That’s fine, I guess you don’t need a car that badly then.”).
So basically we just got used to stacking wood in the falls and building fires after school during the winter (during the school week it was the job of whoever got home to the chilly house first).
Though my mom was unhappy about all of the dirt and dust the wood and smoke brought into the house, the stacking was clearly my siblings’ and my least favorite part.
Every fall a man named Dick Farmer would pull up in his beat up red pick-up truck with load after load of stacked wood. He looked to me like he was about 100 years old, and he had one glass eye which would have made him scary had he not been so nice. He was very direct, but friendly too. Mr. Farmer used to ask my dad every year if he could hire his girls, because we were such hard workers. I think this is one of the best compliments you could give my dad- to tell him he’s raised hard working children.
I remember one time my sister Juli accidentally threw a heavy log on my hand. I ran to my mom in the house and presented her with two puffy, green fingers. She held ice on them and read to me from the Highlights magazine until my dad got home. My dad looked at my fingers and said they’d be fine, “It won’t do any good to take you to the hospital. They’d only tell you they were broken, but there’s nothing they could do for you.” Looking back I find this statement slightly odd, because (a) there are things they can do for broken fingers, and (b) we had health insurance, so it’s not like it would have cost much. But I didn’t think to question my dad at the time, so I was out stacking again the next day.
The worst part of stacking wood was actually not the globs of dirt under your fingernails, the time spent on something else when you’d rather be playing with friends, or the physical strain of it- for me (and definitely my older sister Jenni, and maybe Juli too, but not Kati because she’s braver than all of us) it was the giant wood spiders. I’m talking GIANT. And hairy. Not only were they an enemy while stacking, but they occasionally made it inside to places like the shower or the couch while watching a movie. Oh, and of course there were those times when my dad used them to terrorize us. Although there were times he heroically killed them for us too- he, my mom, and Kati were all our saviors when it came to attacks by giant, hairy wood spiders.
There were also those times when we were cozily watching Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman on Saturday nights and all of the sudden we heard an impressive rumbling/crashing noise and knew that one of the stacks of wood had fallen. Depending on how bad it was my dad would either go out and re-stack it himself, or we would all throw on our boots over matching flannel pajamas and head out to the garage to re-stack.
There’s an art to stacking wood. We had to crisscross two pieces of wood over and over (to create kind of a square pillar) on the ends to keep all of the wood stacked in rows in the middle. Sometimes someone grabbed a piece that should have been left to support the ends when making a fire. That’s what would cause the wood to fall.
We used to go to Florida every year for Spring Break. If you are familiar with Northern Michigan, you know that we often returned from a sunny Disney vacation to a land of ice and snow. When we got home from our trips to Florida – a 30+ hour drive with seven people in one car – we returned to a COLD house. Yes, my parents left the heat on 50 degrees to prevent frozen pipes (we did have heaters, but we heated our house with wood because it was more economical), but it was still frigid inside. So we would all huddle together in one bed chanting, “body heat, body heat,” while my dad or mom built a fire- and even then it was still a good chunk of time before the heat reached us cuddled up in our bedrooms down the hall.
The best year was the one my oldest sister racked up a phone bill at my grandparents’ house talking to her boyfriend, and my dad made her to all the stacking herself. Not so great for Jenni, but great for the rest of us!
I’ve heard male friends who have daughters and no sons wonder aloud about who’s going to help them with manual labor, yard work, etc around the house. I wonder why their girls couldn’t? My dad has a pretty strict rule about not paying anyone else to do what you (and your kids) can do yourselves- this probably explains how I have experience re-shingling a house, changing my own car tire, putting a dock in the water, mowing lawns, and launching a boat.
My friend Laura has told me that our home and our clothes used to smell like the fires that heated our home growing up. I never noticed it at the time, but I do miss that woods-y smell our home used to have. I miss getting dressed by the fire, because it was warmer than our rooms. I miss having an object I could draw close to to get warm in seconds (especially living in the drafty apartment I do now). Having heat come out of vents is nothing like having a fire to warm yourself with.
I don’t miss stacking wood or burning my shoulder from standing too close to the wood stove while changing my clothes (that was one heck of a blister).
I do miss the feeling of being a ‘team’ preparing for the winter and then keeping the house warm by taking turns building fires throughout the winter. I do miss the creaking sound the stove made when you twisted the handle to unlock and open the heavy iron doors. I do miss staying inside with my family on cold Northern Michigan winter nights and snowy days.
Like so many things in our past- the wood stove represents ambivalence- good memories and bad, feelings of hatred and joy, laughter and pain.
It’s good to have reminders…