If you saw a snapshot of Dad, Mom, Sis, and me, back then, we’d look all 1970s suburban. Sitting on couches and recliners, facing a box. Walter Cronkite or Carol Burnett seemed to hold our attention. We’d just transitioned from black and white to color and we felt oh-so-modern. But we were pretending. Under this old farmhouse, cold air flowed and possums nested. On the loose windows, plastic sheets, stapled-up, stopped the wind. We only heated two rooms. Just across the hall, the Christmas tree glowed in a frigid hall. Upstairs in the bedrooms, you could see your own breath. We sat in the warm room on cold nights looking at two boxes side by side, a new tv and an old cube of a wood-burning stove, our only source of heat.
That black box, the heart of this home, inspired fear. We all knew how to turn the dampers to encourage or slow the fire. We learned the smells and sounds. We couldn’t see the fire inside the box, but knew how to keep it happy. Lady, the fearsome, 80-pound hound, found a warm place behind the hearth but she kept one ear arched, alert to the stove. Like a dog or a baby, this black steel warmed our hearts but we understood it contained wildness that might surface at any moment. We nursed a baby dragon.
It happened during a commercial. A gentle whoosh at first. “Turn that TV down. Listen.” Daddy commanded. A weird dog snore? A wind howling through a pipe? Instantly, the cozy heart of the wood stove burst, and a jet engine roared through the room. Daddy jumped up. “DO NOT OPEN THE STOVE DOOR!! Shut the dampers!! Lord have mercy SON! Get outside and up the ladders. I’ll turn on the hoses!!!”
Minutes later, perched on top of a three-story house, I held onto a cold hose with one hand and tied myself to a hot chimney with the other. The thick braided rope had a steel cable within so if it burned, it’d still hold me. Up here, it was only me, the jet roar, a blinding explosion of orange sparks and flame, and indigo sky. With a thumb over the hose end, I sprayed the tar paper, and cedar shake roof knowing the water would freeze into a protective layer of ice. A pinhole in the hose sent tiny droplets up, over me, that froze and sleeted back down on me. Misery? No, for a 13-year-old country boy, this night was nothing short of exhilarating.
A chimney fire happens when years of smoke residue accumulate inside the chimney. That thick tarry build-up catches an ember and starts to burn and the constant airflow from the stove below flames it, and funnels it out the top. It happens in an instant. It can happen anywhere. But in an 18th-century chimney, it’s particularly dangerous. Back then, instead of mortar, builders used a mix of clay, lime, and horse hair to hold bricks together. That can crumble, letting fire into the attic, ending in total disaster. Our roof was vulnerable too. A patched-together mix of 1850’s cedar shakes and 1950s asphalt shingles could turn into a roof fire too. We were prepared. Ladders, ropes, and hoses stay in place all winter.
It seemed like hours later, I slid down the iced roof, holding the rope. Down the steel-mounted ladders, to dog licks and warm clothes, Momma set out by the stove. Fire was friend again. The lights on the Christmas tree glowed. Momma made Swiss Miss hot chocolate. It was a Saturday night. We got to stay up and watched Kool and the Gang on the late-night tv disco show, The Soap Factory. “Lord have mercy on those fools. I’m going to bed. Son, you know how to fix the fire for the night?”
After that night, I know the sounds of a fire. The preliminary growl, the hiss, the crackling, or the roar. Minding a fire is one of the skills Daddy taught me. He gave a super sensitive sense of smoke smells too. I know the smells of different woods burning. The smell of a healthy fire, of the wrong wood, or of trash in the mix. Nothing warms muscles or souls like wood heat. It’s mesmerizing. But it’s dangerous. A whiff of smoke in the air and my senses go on alert, that’s something Daddy gave me that I carry with me ever since the chimney fire Christmas.
Decades later, a client insisted that I join her family for Christmas Eve dinner. These people were living it up; a high cotton Christmas. There was a piano player, a paid bartender, and a chef. The entire house had heat. No cold rooms here. I could wander around to look at various professionally decorated Christmas trees. Two fireplaces roared. For a while, being in this Tv scene enchanted me. But something was missing. Finally, I put my finger on it. The smell from the fireplaces was off. I squatted to inspect. This is terrible firewood, too green and too wet. It barely burned. Did they pay for this uncured wood? Criminal. The flames looked romantic. But all the fire came from underneath, hissing out of a natural gas pipe, some sort of contraption below the wood kept it all looking pretty. These fires had no warmth.
This rich client employed an entire family from Mexico. A wife and aunt, the housekeepers. The husband and various nephews, landscapers, and horse groomers. At about 10 pm., the housekeepers and I left the big house. As I often did, I stopped by their compound to relax. They lived across the field in three trailers clustered around a firepit and three picnic tables. The men greeted me with tequila. I’d tried to help set the table or something. “No! No, no! siéntate y relájate,” Mama Lily constantly told me to sit and relax. She treated me like an honored guest, not like just another gardener. She toasted tortillas over the open fire and put them on my plate hot and leaned over to roll them for me.
This family, my coworkers, had become my buddies, my teachers of Mexican ways.
Tonight, the fire pit roared and plastic Christmas trees glittered through the window. Dogs licked, children climbed over me and their plastic fire trucks beeped and blinked. Mama Lily pressed fried, sugared fritters into my hands and two dogs looked expectantly at me. I would have loved to stay over, to be part of Santa, more tequila and warming by the fire. But this was my first ever Christmas Eve away from my family. On the long drive home, the contrast of different ways of gathering clouded my mind.
At about midnight, I parked in my sandy spot at home. I looked up at the farmhouse. Plastic stapled to the back porch kept the cold out. But a smooth new roof slid up to the newly rebuilt, safe, chimney. A tiny bit of clean smoke rose into the denim sky. Live oak smells. The fire is safe. Momma and Daddy, much older now, are surely in bed. I added all-nighter logs so they wouldn’t have to work too hard on the fire in the morning. I listened and sniffed and said to myself, “Night Daddy, I know how to fix the fire.”
My friends have moved back to Mexico now. They call every year, “Come for Christmas! Santa rides a horse here!” What a dream for me, a cozy, simple Christmas in a warm, desert town, tequila, fire, and friends. But I know, we all have our own ways. I’ll stick with mine. I’ll be home for Christmas as long as that fire needs tending.
Some Christmas memories glitter and some hurt. The kidney-stone-Christmas. Covid-Christmas. Christmas-after Daddy-died. The worst. We didn’t try to read The Polar Express that year. Daddy loved that book but he’d choke up at the part where the grown man hears the jingles of a bell from his childhood family gatherings. With his tender heart, Daddy could never finish the reading.
Christmas-to-come may sparkle with bright lights, trips to the city, sugary Mexican fritas, or warm beaches. Who knows where we’ll end up? No matter, I’ll carry with me the memory of that roof, it warms my soul. When I smell smoke when I hear a fire, something inside snaps to attention. It’s something Daddy gave me. Yes, sir, I know how to fix the fire.