I try to keep myself organized. Not "Martha" organized, but somewhere between her ideal and the aftermath of a nuclear detonation. This past weekend I was going through old photos (remember when "going through old photos" involved shoe boxes and rubber bands, not computers and hard drives?), which is a risky task. I invariably get distracted by the nostalgia of it all, and the next thing I know, four hours have passed and I've accomplished nothing.
And, wouldn't you know — I paused when I found the shot you see above.
The picture was taken in December of 2005, on the first of three nights we spent without power, following a terrible wind and ice storm that tossed a pine tree onto my wife's Nissan. Ah, New England. It's so nice here.
Grace was just 2 years old at the time and William was an infant. The only candles we had were scented, so our dark, frigid house smelled powerfully of "Fresh Linen," "Lilac," and "Mountain Breeze" all at once.
"This must be what it's like to visit a brothel in northern Alaska," I told my wife. She didn't think I was funny.
The house got very cold as soon as the sun went down. We stuffed the children into their entire winter wardrobes, and to quote Jean Shepard, Grace "looked like a tic that was about to pop."
I fretted about the kids being uncomfortable (or worse), I obsessed about the food that was going bad, I worried that the pipes might burst. The darkness made me increasingly stir-crazy. And I couldn't bear the uncertainty: How much longer would we be without power? An hour? A week?
'Ol Dave was coming a bit unhinged.
Staring at that photo of Grace shivering and chewing American Cheese slices by flashlight, I couldn't help but think of the cold mornings of my own childhood.
Our house in Pennsylvania was heated by a coal furnace. No, my family did not have a time machine that transported us into the 1800s — I assure you this was in the 1970s. The basement of our thin home had a dirt floor and stone walls, and even as a 9-year-old I had to stoop to avoid hitting my head on the ceiling. At one end was a great blazing furnace that sat next to the "coal bin." This was no more than a boarded-up corner of the room, filled to the top with apple-sized chunks of coal. A corkscrew device pulled coal out of the coal bin and into the furnace as needed. The spent ash fell into a steel "ash can" beneath the fire that had to be periodically swapped out for an empty one.
If there's one thing coal fires like to do, it's extinguish themselves. They're the most suicidal of all fires. Some mornings I'd wake up and smell smoke, and I'd know my father was in that dank basement, trying to get a new fire going. In the kitchen, my sister would be wrapped in a blanket, perched on a chair in front of the oven, its door wide open and the heat blazing. Pots of water simmered on the stovetop burners. I'd climb onto the empty chair that awaited me next to my sister.
My mother would call us to the kitchen sink one at a time, where she'd have us stand on a chair and lean in. She'd wash our hair with just the right blend of warm water from the stove and cold from the tap, and I'd listen to my own breathing in the sink while she scrubbed my soapy head. Then, with our hair washed and dried, we'd eat our Cap'n Crunch or Rice Krispies back in our stove-front seats.
Eventually, my father would return to the kitchen (the basement could only be accessed by first exiting the house, which made these winter morning surprises that much better), covered in soot and aggravation. The fire was lit and soon the house would be warm.
I was jolted from my memory by Grace's voice. "Remember that, Daddy?" she said, pointing to the picture of herself with the flashlight.
"Yeah," I said. "What a weekend."
"That was fun," she said.
Fun!?! I thought. I was a nervous wreck! I though you two were going to freeze to death! I was going bonkers in all that darkness!
"I like those flashlights," she said, and then wandered off.
I guess I make a lot of assumptions as a parent. Not only about what the kids'll want to eat on a given day or what games they'll want to play, but also about how they process our shared experiences. I wonder if my father did the same.
I really loved those frosty mornings of my childhood — the soap smell and the swirling water; the blue flames in the oven and that hot, dry air on my face; my feet dangling above the cold linoleum. My father, I know for a fact, did not. It's a funny thing.
And I still haven't sorted my pictures.