Door-to-Door: Keeping Warm

By Pat Lynch

We had ways of keeping warm. We girls wore long, flannel nightgowns and raced to stand over the floor heaters on chill mornings. The warm air rushed up, nightgowns billowed out and we looked like tiny-headed creatures with ballooning torsos. Standing over the heater was so delicious. If you were the first one there the warmth blew gently up and enveloped you. It put you in a state of serenity. But you had to share. You always had to move over, make room, take your turn, and make sure everyone, especially the little ones, got a chance to warm up.
Our little ones were our baby brothers who wrapped their cowboy blankets around their shoulders for billowing and swayed over the heater until the blankets puffed and cold was gone. Then they toddled to the sofa, and waited and watched in sleepy contentment. Sometimes one or another of the older ones would monopolize the heater. Then came the uproar: “Mom, Sheila’s hogging the furnace. Pat’s hogging the furnace.” Our mother always made the miscreant surrender her position, and always said, “You kids don’t know what cold is.”
She was from St. Louis where it snowed and the lakes froze and the temperature dove to freezing. She said her father, our grandfather, would get up at 5:30 a.m. and put logs in the wood-burning stove in the kitchen, and that’s where everyone would huddle, drinking coco. It seemed wondrous to me, drinking hot chocolate and gazing out the window at fresh snow; it seemed idyllic, like a Christmas card. Our mother rolled her eyes. “You kids don’t know how lucky you are.”
One morning our father, Sacramento born and bred, said it was cold as ice and if he didn’t have hot coffee his frozen eyes might drop from their sockets. “I can’t drive to work with my eyes rolling on the floor,” he said. Our little brothers, side by side in their cowboy blankets, looked up in fascination. Our mother gave him his coffee and said again, “None of you know what cold is.”
Well, she was right. One early April, while we ran around in light sweaters, glorying in the spring, our parents reserved a large cabin in Tahoe. They got some kind of an off-season “deal” that wouldn’t be available later. It meant we would have to miss a day of school, but it was an opportunity that “just didn’t pop up that often,” our mother said. My ecstasy was utterly boundless: we were going to the mountains and not going to school. How does life get better?
We headed up in the station wagon, climbing into country made green and beautiful by rain. We thrilled to see signs that warned of deer crossings and Kathleen said three Hail Mary’s, fervent supplications to send a deer our way. Moira spotted a plop of leftover snow and we let out rapturous shrieks. It was our first sight of real snow. Other snow sightings followed, chatter escalated. We finally turned up a narrow, bumpy road and reached the cabin, ‘nestled’, as promised, in the deep, high woods. “What the hell?” our father said. We gaped. The cabin had no walls. It had an arched roof, canvass front and back, a brown plywood deck-like floor and front door, but nothing but air on either side.
We kids jumped out of the car into a new kind of cold—exhilarating, biting. Pinecone cold. The mountains smelled so good. But we all had to pee. We ran into the cabin with no walls. There was a wood stove but no bathroom. Canvass flaps distended from the roof to mark off “rooms” but there was no toilet anywhere. By now our parents had gotten out and our father spied an outhouse, half hidden, and a long walk away. This meant the boys got to go pee in the forest with Dad while the girls had to form a line at the outhouse. As usual the littlest went first, but Mom told me to go in with Sheila because Sheila might not be able to reach the “contraption.” I took Sheila’s hand and started toward the outhouse. “You know who wakes up in the mountains in spring?” Kathleen said. “Bears. They wake up from hunger.” I paused. Don’t think. With faked nonchalance, took Sheila’s hand, and went in. It was dark and vile, but no bear. The toilet seat was encrusted with ice.
Our father took the boys in the car and drove off to find the cabin people who had left us with no walls. Our mother, Kathleen and I pounded the toilet-seat with rocks, the ice broke off in chunks. The sun that had lit and mildly warmed the crackling forest floor, began to fade, and now the even deeper cold arrived. It felt like it came from space, it stilled the very air. Or mother unpacked our pedal-pushers and we put them on over our shorts. We put on our thin sweaters and extra blouses. Mom told Kathleen and me to gather wood and tinder. Tinder? She said it was the scratchy stuff around the trees.
Kathleen and I stayed together while we gathered, no more talk of bears. It was twilight already. Kathleen wore a dark blue sweater. Bits of dimming light fell on it as she stooped. Something else wafted down. At first it was hard to believe. “Stand up,” I whispered. She rose, held out her blue arms. The snow fell gently, fluttering like it does in stories. “Your hair,” she whispered. I put my hand to my head. It was everywhere, beautiful everywhere. We ran back to the tent-cabin and dumped our gatherings by the stove. Sheila and Moira were sitting up, both of them in one sleeping bag. “Snow,” Moira said. “It’s snowing.”
Our mother had gotten the stove on, a dull red glow shone behind its small window. “We’ll need more wood,” she said, almost to herself. Then she made a wide, forced smile and said, “Well well. Our first snowfall together. Isn’t this something?” But now a wind had come up and Kathleen and I got in a sleeping bag. The wind forced us to face away from the beauty.
Our father came back with the boys and said the cabin walls rolled down, but you had to first unsnap a gismo and a thingamabob. It took him a while to do this and while he worked he cussed the weatherman and the cabin people. Where was Mom to say, “Mike, your language?” The canvass suddenly rolled down and now we had another wall. Then a thump from behind and our Mother appeared with an armful of logs. Now all kids were in sleeping bags around the stove. Dad got the last wall down, but we still saw snow because it bunched in through cracks and puddled down the tent sides. The wind got louder. “It’s a damn blizzard,” our father said, but Mom said this was no blizzard; it was a storm with flurries. Our parents went to the door and talked in urgent whispers. I scrunched closer to Kathleen. She said even her butt felt cold. Moira said to Danny, “Kathleen’s bottom froze.”
I don’t know how they did it, but our parents packed everything back in the station wagon. Kathleen and I helped the kids out of their sleeping bags and ran with them to the car. At the end our tennis shoes were soaked and we had to ride barefoot, our feet immersed in sleeping bags. Mom turned off the cabin stove and climbed into her front seat. Dad started the heater and drove slowly, slowly, down the skinny road. In half an hour we were warm again and told everyone how and when we first realized we were being snowed on. When we got home two hours later we put on our flannel nightgowns and pajamas and had a picnic dinner on the rug, including Hostess cupcakes. Then I said, “I miss the snow though.” I don’t think I meant it. But I wanted to make my father laugh and see my mother roll her eyes.

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