It’s 70° on a November day. I’m wondering what happened to fall. I’m not interested in 20° below zero. Been there before. I’ve seen the white caps on Lake Erie frozen in time, like the wind swept up the choppy waves and froze them in mid-stride. I’m not crazy enough to want that, but this is ridiculous.
When it’s time on the calendar for frost on the pumpkin and the small clouds of steam that float into the air with every breath, I expect the weather to pay attention. Temperatures like this confuse the mosquitoes. The grass might need cutting again. The thermostat is constantly switched between heat and AC. I end up in a mid-sleep sweat at 3 in the morning.
I grew up in a house that had no central heat or air. Brick walls with plaster on the inside. Concrete floor with linoleum tile. No rugs. The floor was always cool in the summer, which means that it was like walking on ice in the winter.
There were two wall furnaces, a gas heater in the living room and a gas heater in each bathroom. We never left the gas heaters on at night, so the entire house depended on the wall furnaces to keep the chill at bay. When it was time to get up, a small boy in Roy Rogers pajamas would dash for the spot on the floor in front of the furnace. We’d dress for school in front of the heater in the living room.
My Dad used to talk about how cold it was when he was a kid. He and my Uncle Robert shared a bed. The old farmhouse had no insulation. It was built up off the ground on stone pillars. He always claimed he could see chickens running beneath the house between the cracks in the floorboards.
It was his job to help build the fires. Two fireplaces and a cook stove. There was always a bucket of fresh water sitting on the sink from the night before. Some mornings, and this was the part he always pointed out, there would be a layer of ice in the top of the bucket. That story was a close second to walking to school barefoot in the snow uphill both ways. I guess I had it easy.
Blankets were a big deal in those days. I loved the weight of a heavy blanket in winter. The sheets were so cold it hurt, but under a blanket the harsh chill faded away. Sometimes I wonder if all the climate control stuff has ruined the feel of a good blanket. Nothing like a cold bedroom and the warmth of a mound of blankets.
Somewhere along my early teen years the earth moved. My folks put down carpet and bought us all electric blankets. Still no central heat, but these modern blankets were the cat’s meow. An hour before bedtime I could turn on the heat. A small control box on the floor. A dial from 1 to 10 that glowed orange in the dark. Warm sheets were a miracle from heaven.
Every October my family went to Cherokee, NC. We made that same exact trip for years. Pictures on the main drag with the Indian Chief. Small hatchets and Native American trinkets. The saga of Unto These Hills. Over in Maggie Valley, the chair lift ride up to Ghost Town. The same little motel with leaves in the swimming pool.
The morning air would be crisp. Frost on the fodder. I ate pancakes the size of a frisbee with bacon. It was only five or six hours from home, but it was a magical world that mesmerized a small boy.
One year we broke our routine and stayed with a friend over in Bryson City. Evidently, they had never heard of central climate control systems either. It was colder than the hinder pars of a penguin that night.
The house was up on a hillside, narrow and three stories tall. My bedroom was on the top floor. What I remember most is the narrow stairway and the steam heat. Radiators in every room. I had never seen anything like it. When it came time to go to bed, the sheets were so cold I wondered what it might be like to live in an igloo. I can still feel the weight of the pile of quilts on top and the sound of the pipes creaking and popping in the night. I never slept better in all my life.
There was one time I stayed a few days with my Aunt Francis and Uncle Paul up in Forest Park. They lived in the quaint American neighborhood that you’ve seen in any movie. Rows of small white houses with porches and large trees and a backyard to explore.
They had a furnace beneath the house. Houses with basements or cellars were a mystery to me. There was a grate the size of a sheet of plywood in the floor between the dinning room and kitchen. It clinked when you walked across it. A hollow, foreboding sound. A boy could drop small army men, pennies and crayons through that grate, and they would disappear into the belly of the beast. I fantasized about a fire breathing dragon living under their house.
I didn’t need blankets for sleeping. I slept between two of my cousins. I think it was Terry and Larry. Much older cousins who were football players with thick arms that flopped across my skinny bones and pinned me down where I couldn’t move. But at least I was warm.
These days, my wife and I have internal thermostats that are in conflict. Especially, when it comes to sleeping. I’m hot, peeling back the blanket. She’s cold, adding on extra layers of blankets. We both sit on the couch in the evening with blankets. Mine, a small light weight one across my lap and legs. Gosh I feel old just saying that. Hers is a down-filled super blanket from the Antarctic, pulled up under her chin. Most of the time we just fall asleep right there by 9:30.
You’d probably agree, the best blankets have healing powers. Especially the ones made from worn out shirts and dresses, stitched together by old world hands with love and compassion. Shapes and colors woven into patterns that tell the stories of our ancestors.
I wish I had a quilt like that. I wish every kid could wake up on a cold winter morning under the kind of warmth and love and security that makes the world a better place. The human race would be more human, the frantic pace of life would slow down, and the worries of a pandemic stricken world would fall silent if everyone slept under a quilt made by Grandma and a host of Great Aunts?
All we need now is a little cold weather.