I’m sitting on the hearth warming my backside by the fire. I love the cold weather, if for no other reason than I get to build fires. Of all the things we did when we built this house 24 years ago, my fireplace is the icing on the cake.
This was not your typical build. Not the kind that goes up in four months at the hands of young bucks who swing hammers as easy as I swallow sweet tea. I jumped in and decided to do a lot of the work myself. General contractor. Ditch digger. A goffer pulling wire. Cracking the bubble setting drainpipe with my level. Trim, doors, windows. Moved a couple of walls three times. It was a two-year labor of love.
This is also the reason we lived in a two-bedroom apartment with three kids for way too long. Beth was a forgiving and patient woman.
Of the several things I couldn’t do, one was building this fireplace. We didn’t want an insert with a false chimney. We didn’t want a wood stove with a pipe inside a wooden chase. We wanted the real thing. Concrete foundation. Block, brick and stone. A 42” damper that would draft the pillows off the couch and suck them up the chimney.
If fire or wind or time ever tears this house to the ground, this chimney will be the one thing still standing.
Years ago, a big-time movie team came to Henry County to make an FBI thriller starring Michael Gross, the dad from Family Ties. They used my grandmother’s birthplace as one of the sets in the movie. The house had been abandoned for years. The window glass was broken. The front porch sagged.
They fixed it up and used it as the hideout for the bad guy.
When the grand finale came along, and the house was surrounded by FBI agents with automatic weapons, and the villain was shouting, “Come get me coppers!”, I was appalled to think about Susie Virginia Walker Chappell sitting at the kitchen table in that very house. Gun fire riddled the front of the house with holes. The ammo storage inside caught fire. And then, grandma’s house exploded right there on national TV.
When the smoke cleared, the only thing left standing was the three chimneys from the old fireplaces.
Sometimes when I’m driving along old country roads, especially in the winter, I’ll spot an old chimney just off the road up in the woods. I always wonder about the house that used to be there. The man and woman who built a life together. How many times they sat by the warmth of a good fire. A garden. Chickens in the yard. A bloodhound sunbathing on the front steps.
Raising a family around a good fireplace makes for sweet memories. Kids getting out of bed on a cold Saturday morning, standing in front of the fireplace not wanting to get too far away, trying to stay warm as their pjs heat up against the warmth of the fire. Cups of hot cider or hot chocolate in the evening. Watching a movie with all the lights out, huddled under blankets to the sound of the crackling and popping of oak and hickory.
Beth would ask, “Can we build a fire tonight? I’m cold.” She was a blanket person with an inner body temperature of a reptile. Feet like ice cubes. Let me tell ya, I wanted those feet warm before we went to bed. I was always happy to oblige her.
So, as I’m roasting chestnuts on an open fire, which is code for broiling my hind end by the fireplace, I’m thinking about her. She is not here. If she was here, she’d be nudging me out of the way to get closer to the fire. We’d both be drinking the last few cups of her holiday spiced tea out of coffee mugs held between both hands.
The coals are hot enough to smelt iron. I’m warm and toasty on the outside, but a little blue on the inside tonight.
Being a widower has its own special kind of loneliness. Being by myself is not the issue. In fact, sometimes, being around other people in some social settings makes me even more aware of her absence than when I’m by myself.
The part of being alone that gets to me sometimes is the unshared life. The trip we would have taken together. Eating cookies and cream ice cream because it was her favorite. Owning a hearth with room for two.
Marriage is all about sharing. When you spend over four decades with a woman who is your friend and your companion and your partner in everything you do, you share everything. You share being sick. You share a good joke. You share little stories of your day with the grandkids. You share cleaning toilets. You share fears and dreams and hopes. We are built to share this life with someone.
I can see her sitting on the couch under her blanket. The dishes have all been put away. The early evening darkness of winter has settled in around us.
She’d give me a hard time. “When is that fire going to be ready? I’m not getting out from under this blanket until I can feel some heat.”
“A good fire takes a while. Why don’t you make us some hot chocolate while I get this going?”
Her eyes light up. “Okay. I like that idea.” She shivers in dramatic fashion for my benefit as she shuffles off to the kitchen.
That is a life shared. Not always in the big events, but mostly in the little things that happen on an evening at home. The everyday moments that make treasured memories out of a life together.
So, yeah, I’m feeling blue that I cannot share this fire with her tonight. We are not sitting together on the hearth stone that we had cut just for this fireplace. She’s not jabbing around with the poker to stir up more heat.
My friends who have been widowed far longer than I, tell me that the loneliness never goes away completely. One day I’ll not think of it as often. One day there will be a new page in my life that turns to the next more easily.
“You don’t ever forget,” they say. Gosh, I hope not.
“You don’t want to forget,” they go own. “You just learn to remember your life together with a full heart instead of an empty one.”
I take the poker in my hand and jab at the logs to make them settle down in the coals. The face of the stone above the hearth is warm to the touch. The air outside is cold when I walk out onto the back porch to get a couple more pieces of oak. I stand facing the fire for a moment, my hands open, held out front toward the blaze.
And because we shared so many, I go to the kitchen to scoop up a bowl of cookies and cream. The blue feeling fades, and I am warm.
The blanket probably helps.