Everybody has a story: Mother, child play waiting game to warm a cold house
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
When I was in elementary and high school in the 1950s, my widowed mother and I lived in Julian, Calif., near San Diego. Julian, at 4,235 feet in elevation, could get quite cold at times, and on some cold mornings in our uninsulated two-bedroom house on a hill overlooking the town, we could actually see the water vapor in our exhilation.
We used a number of tactics to deal with this situation. One option was not open to us: leaving the heat on at night. We had a large oil heater — brand name Superflame — in the living room. It was about 4½ feet high and 2 feet square. A major advantage of this heater was that it was large enough to heat a house three times the size of ours, and it was completely manual, which meant that even when the power went out in a storm, we still had heat and could cook.
My mother was not comfortable leaving this mammoth heater on at night because one of the families in town had done so with a similar heater and, so the story goes, a gust of wind through the chimney blew the door open, and the house burned down. The inhabitants were lucky to escape.
So we relied on flannel sheets and lots of blankets at night. On cold nights, I would throw the blankets over my head and not come out until the next morning.
We did not have the luxury of a thermostat on a timer. You had to get up, go turn on the oil, go out to the kitchen for a match, open the heater door and throw the lit match into the oil in the bottom of the heater.
The floors in the house were covered with linoleum, ice-cold linoleum on the coldest days. I didn’t usually wear slippers or socks on. Consequently, my mother and I played the waiting game. We didn’t keep score, so there was no clear winner over the years, but there were definitely morning winners: The winner on any given morning was the one who outwaited the other.
Each would listen for the other to stir, to see who was going to get up first. One of us would usually be colder, hungrier or more in need of the bathroom than the other, and would grumble and grimace as the feet hit that cold floor and did a quick tip-toe dance across the frozen linoleum.
After the heater was lit, it was a quick dash back to the warmth of the bed to fend off the acquired chill of the morning and remain there until the heater had started to warm the living room and kitchen. To speed that process, we sometimes shut the door to the bedrooms, which tended to prolong our stay under the covers.
Being somewhat naive, it was a while before I even caught onto the fact that the game was being played. Like playing basketball with your friend who announces that the game has begun right after he scores a basket, the realization hit me one morning when I accused Mom of feigning sleep just so I would have to get up in the cold to light the heater.
There was no denial, just a burst of laughter from Mom.
I was the last to know, but once I learned the strategy, I had my share of mornings in which I would rise to a warm house, too.
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