Conjure up a roaring fire. Feel your muscles relaxing as they soak up heat from soul-penetrating warmth of a wood stove.
That’s not what I felt, perched on top of a three-story house one freezing, under a midnight blue sky, Christmas 1975. Just a boy, barely a teen, I was actually tied to the chimney. It was a wobbly 1800’s chimney too. Did you know that back then they didn’t use real mortar, but a clay and horsehair mix so by the time I got up here, half the bricks were loose? All the horses deader than I’d be if I slipped? Worst of all, I was holding a hose. My assignment; protect the house from the chimney, which roared jet-engine flames just over my head. A chimney fire happens when years of smoke residue acculmates, then catches fire inside the flue. All that energy gets funneld out the top. Flames, sparks and floating, flaming creosote being the last thing anyone wants to land on thier roof, I’d been sent up there to create a protective ice sheet. But this kind of thing happens in an instant. Getting up there with a hose, in the middle of the night, challenge enough. I didn’t even bring a spray nozzle so my numb, blue thumb over the hose-hole had to do. Somewhere there was a pinhole in the hose hissing up a plume of droplets that froze and fell back onto my face as sleet.
Sounds frightening? Honestly, for a country teenager, it was absolutely thrilling.
Back in the ’70s, out in the country, parents would do things like sending a skinny youngster up three different frozen ladders with a hose tied to his belt. We lived in a 200-year-old, un-refurbished house. Fire was not just for atmosphere. It was our only source of heat. Managing it occupied lots of time. We knew what sort of wood to burn, and keeping it going all winter meant that occasionally, we ran out of proper firewood like pecan and hickory so we’d use some bad-burning old pine. Pine’s heavy black smoke builds up on the inside of the chimney, building papery, black, tarry curls of soot. Those can catch fire and rage all the way up the chimney. That is a chimney fire. Chimney fires easily become roof fires.
Even if the fire truck showed up, there’s no fire hydrant for miles. So skinny, cold me, holding on to a leaky hose was our best defense. It was exciting. I was a great climber. Daddy worked furiously to kill the fire and lock the dampers, Momma and sister yelling instructions up at me. The ranger from the nearby state park came to help. I was on top of it all, action below and the winter sky clear, deep blue velvet studded with diamond stars and flying red embers above. The action went on, the squirting, well past midnight.
When all was safe, we built a new fire and relaxed and warmed up in front of it. Fire was friend again. The lights on the plastic Christmas tree glowed. Momma made Swiss Miss hot chocolate. It was a Saturday night. We got to stay up even later and watch Gloria Gainer belt out I Will Survive! on the tv disco show, The Soap Factory. The Chimney-Fire-Christmas may be one of my most memorable, and miserable, Christmas memories.
Exciting as our backwoods life was, I knew that we were an anomaly. My friends lived in town. They had new houses, concrete driveways that skateboards could roll on, shag carpet, and cable tv. Sometimes I envied them. They didn’t have to cut firewood much less climb burning, frozen chimneys made of horsehair mud. But you know, anytime we had a choice, they wanted to come to my house to play. For them cutting firewood and sleeping in a freezing cold room was an adventure.
Decades later, a client insisted that I join in their family Christmas Eve dinner. There was some sort of family drama going on and they felt a guest would help keep things fun. Or, at least civil. This was fancy Christmas like I’d only seen in movies. I was enchanted. For a few minutes, I dreamed of this life. There was a piano player, a paid bartender, and elaborately wrapped gifts each family member had ordered from New York and London. Multiple fireplaces roared. They had piped-in natural gas to keep the logs burning. This client had housekeepers, landscapers, and horse grooming staff, all of one huge Mexican family who lived together nearby. They were my buddies and in a way my work team, so I stopped by their place later that night. Children climbed over me. Plastic toys beeped. Mother’s pressed fried, sugared fritters into my hands. I dreamed of buying a little farm down in Mexico, near these guys’ home. That was a warm cozy dream.
On the long drive home that night, the contrast burned in my thoughts. That may have been my first Christmas Eve away from home, but I drove the few hours, crawled into my own bed, and woke up early to feed the fire so Momma and Daddy, older now, would be warm when they woke. I listened for the gentle roar that indicates a chimney fire. Like Daddy taught me. This is my placI knew that I loved being right here. Life with silver chandeliers, and soap from London weren’t for me. Moving to Mexico will always be a cozy dream. There’ll always be some people with a lot more and some people with a lot less.
Christmases are like that too. Some Christmas memories glitter and some hurt. The kidney-stone-Christmas. Christmas after Daddy died was the worst. He always read aloud from a children’s book, The Polar Express, but he’d get all choked 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. We ended that tradition.
Covid Christmas tops it all. My heart breaks for other families. Our family is safe, though we’ve lost friends to the virus. We ate in the yard. We didn’t invite extended family. It’s the first quiet Christmas here in I don’t know how many decades. In fact, I had the sorry duty of making sure folks knew not to come. But we welcomed a new family member, my niece’s new baby. We were four generations on a sunny afternoon, together, safe and quiet. As the cloud cover cooled the day down and we cleaned up, I looked way up over the roofline to that chimney. It’s lined with stainless steel now. No more chimney fires. No more thrilling nights perched in sleet and red hot embers. This new born boy will never know the thrill. But next Christmas we’ll be herding the one-year-old around, plying him with plastic toys, and keeping him from brushing against the hot woodstove.
I hope for you, that even the sad ones, the painful Christmases gone by somehow seem, warm. Maybe tender is a better word. I hope you find that comforting haze that our powerful minds apply to diminish the pain. Time heals. A bit. Time blurs.
Christmas this year will be impossible to forget. Tough to put into a cheerful perspective. I trust that science will prevail. We’ll get out of this mess. Our best minds will figure out ways to help us cope. Christmas-to-come sparkle with bright lights, love, and fires to warm our imaginations and our souls. Here’s to wood fires that will warm our muscles, our souls, and our memories.