Scrambling to Keep the Home Fires Burning

Written by Becca Tucker on . Posted in News Our Town Downtown, News West Side Spirit.

I will never look at a thermostat impassively again. The fact that with a slide of the thumb, or the push of an index finger, one can turn a cold house hot? Now that we lug each log to our wood burning stove, that fact of modern life reveals itself to be a complete and total game changer.

The Greeks endowed their gods with lightning bolts and mighty stallions that dragged the sun across the sky in a golden chariot, but never fathomed a thermostat. Maybe you say they’d never give a god such a boring superpower as keeping the house pleasant, but consider Hestia: the virgin goddess of the hearth, who presided over things like baking bread. Yes, there was a goddess devoted solely to the home fire, and her job was so all consuming that she didn’t even have time for a fling.

If the home fire went out through accident or negligence, it was considered a serious breach of domestic duty and an insult to Hestia. That makes sense, since before the advent of matches it would have been a real pain to get a dead fire started again, which would have put the kibosh on cooking, and depending on where in ancient Greece you lived, could have made for a cold night.

Hestia, you are not the lamest Greek God. I get you now.

This fall, we bought a used wood burning stove through Craigslist. The idea was to cut down on last winter’s $2,400 oil bill, and to set ourselves up better in the event that another Sandy came along to knock out our heat and electricity and hot water for 14 days.

At first, everything stove-related, from building the brick pedestal that the stove would sit on, to getting cords of wood delivered, fell under husband Joe’s purview. He clanked and grunted, and the previously underused foyer became a new, and central, room in our little house.

Like a powerful magnet, the stove drew to it a rocking chair and a side table, then a Turkish floor cushion where a second person could plop down; a tea kettle. We started to use the stovetop to cook soup, re-heat leftovers and make toast. The gate that kept the baby away from the stove became a convenient place to hang wet socks and towels, which would be toasty warm in minutes. The baby liked to pull herself up on the gate and peer through the bars, declaring, “Ot, ot.” “Ot” was a beautiful word during the polar vortex.

It wasn’t until Joe was gone for a night that I started to share in the tending of the fire. Rather, I neglected to feed the fire all afternoon, and when I tossed a couple logs in before bed, they didn’t burn. Hestia was miffed, and I wasn’t happy either to find myself up at three a.m., shivering in underwear, rearranging kindling and scrunching newspaper to coax the big stubborn log to ignite, so the baby wouldn’t freeze.

Then Joe hurt his shoulder. I tromped through two-plus feet of snow to the tarp-covered woodpile, and filled the rain barrel with logs. That was the system. I had to rest after each few steps, supporting myself on the rim of the barrel while my heart’s hammering subsided.

Then I spied the pink sled, a piece of junky plastic that we’d taken the baby sledding in, back when the snow was still fun. The rain barrel fit in the sled – sort of – and any pieces that toppled out, if they were on the thin side, could be placed on top of the sled’s runners and dragged to the house. Add a pair of snowshoes, and this became my patented technique.

The sled system is easier on the back, but the sled topples over a lot, especially when the snow is sticky. My rule is three topples, and I abandon the sled and carry the bucket. Whichever combination of tactics I end up using, by the time I’ve managed five trips to the woodpile, my clothes are wet from the inside out and my back is yapping. I’m spent, but satisfied, too. The sight of a good pile of wood by the fire is comforting, like a full fridge.

As I sit in the rocking chair by the stove at 5 a.m., typing on my laptop, I hear a whoosh. The log I just put on has caught. I can see shadows from the flame’s flicker dance on the wall. Good morning, Hestia.

Becca Tucker is a former Manhattanite who now lives upstate and writes about the rural life.

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