October 2, 2011 by wcobserver
Over a period of weeks, sometimes months, my dad would collect bits of debris to burn. He would back up to his growing stack of brush at the edge of the dormant garden, the bed of his rusted blue Ford Ranger piled high with dead limbs and old fenceposts and oddly shaped pieces of wood that he might find alongside the road.
The truck unloading was ceremonial, it seemed to me one day when I watched him, a kind of ritualistic process where he lifted each piece from the truck, carried it slowly in his now-halting pace across the soft plowed dirt, and strategically placed it on the rising, unruly mound. Even the very last, tiny pieces merited his attention, scraped from the truck bed with his worn-out broom and thrown in fistfuls onto the top of the pile.
Sometimes I watched my father with his fires. Early into the process, he studied the future shape of it, how high it would blaze, whether the base would attract a good draft, whether unwanted combustibles had been suitably removed from the perimeter. He stacked his fuel accordingly, bits of wood and old lumber and limbs broken in the winter storms, piled akimbo with large against small, thick against thin in a perfect formula for flame. He would light it in the morning, when his footsteps tracked rich green across the silvery coat of dew on the lawn. His time at the donut shop for six a.m. coffee with the old liars, as he called them, would be cut short for the fire.
Usually he stood to the side of the shimmering heat, shovel in hand. After one of the last fires, my mother complained that he stood so close that the skin on his forehead turned red and later peeled. Standing in the dining room with them, I looked at my dad as she pointed out the damaged skin. He raised his eyebrows and smiled, offering no excuse except to agreeably remark that it had been hot.
I know his mind traveled to his past while he watched the fire. The flames would dance and reflect in his eyes while he talked about fields they had burned when he was growing up, his dad, his brothers, and how the mules had to cut a line around the field to keep the fire from jumping the fence. He remembered his mother and how she burned off her garden in the winter, leaving the ground filmed in ash for the early planting of onion, cabbage, and potato. He talked about the cold of the night, when the feather bed kept him warm until his father got up to fire the stove and his mother would be mixing biscuits.
A friend once remarked on the task of clearing out the old family house after his grandmother died, particularly the basement. It seems during her waning years, she had stockpiled kindling carefully gleaned from her wooded yard. Grocery sacks and cardboard boxes, each one stuffed with dried twigs and broken limbs, filled the space like so many sockets in a wasp’s nest. She had prepared a hive of future warmth. He said it took seven pickup truck loads to remove her cache of carefully prepared comfort.
At first, I discounted my friend’s grandmother’s collection of kindling as some kind of mental or emotional disorder. But today, as I picked up fallen oak twigs in my own yard, the wind tearing through the woods glowing orange with autumn, I thought about one of the more opportune swaps in my life—my old refrigerator for a wood cookstove. Neighbors had inherited the stove when they bought the old house nearby. A “Royal” brand, its heavy cast iron top features six burner plates and a water warming bin on the right. There’s small firebox and ash bin on the left and an oven in the middle. The sides and front are white enamel, and a glass-covered chromed dial on the oven door features a double-ended needle which simultaneously points to a number and a description of the temperature: slow, warm, medium, hot, and very hot, the intervals also marked at the other end of the needle at 100, 200, up to 600.
I pick up more dead wood and stack it by the door, worrying that my bundles of twigs will be similarly disparaged someday, a burden requiring disposal by patient descendants. But I must plan for future winters when ice coats the electric lines and snow piles up on the roads and I end up with several days of splendid isolation, maybe without running water or the benefit of electricity. Then the old cookstove will spring to life, its grate glowing in a steady bed of coals, lids jiggling as food simmers on its top, the rocked chimney a beacon of warmth into the gray sky outside my window where wind will whip streams of smoke into icy mist. In a bad winter a person might need a basement full of kindling.
But I suspect it is not completely the need for fire that pushed my friend’s grandmother or my father in their almost religious attendance to the needs of fire. As much as they might have needed the bodily comfort the fire would assure, they had a greater, more present need, the need to accomplish. In my father’s later years, he could not show much to account for the hours of his days. But he could still build a superior fire. When he was 85 and we had taken away his truck keys and he couldn’t go for donuts with the old liars or gather wood for a fire, I found him one day by an old wood pile at the side of his house. He had the sledge hammer in one hand, gripped up close to the head, and a foot-diameter length of oak sitting upright on a nearby stump. He had driven a splitting wedge into the center of the oak, sweat pouring off his forehead, his slight frame bent to the task.
In response to my concerned questioning, he replied: “The ole dad is still worth something.”
(To be continued)