By Catherine C. Brooks
On a cold Saturday evening the first of December 1931, Momma, Daddy, Granddaddy and Granny Richardson, Lou and I sat at the dining room table enjoying our evening meal—we called supper. With wood heaters, filled with hardwoods, burning in both the dining and living rooms, we felt cozy.
“The wind is howling tonight,” Granddaddy blurted between bites. “It seems to be blowing right through the walls in the bedroom.”
“The temperatures have already dropped,” Daddy answered. “If the winds die out, we’ll have a hard freeze by morning.”
We all grew quiet, listening to the wind blow. A lose shutter banged, Shep, our Sheep dog, barked from the back stoop and tree limbs banged as they hit the roof. An eerie feeling crept into the big house where I had been born and lived my young life. I didn’t like the cold windy nights.
“I’m hearing more than the wind,” Momma exclaimed. “I’m going to check
on the living room heater.”
We all jumped up at once, letting Daddy pass to join Momma in the next room. I saw him feel the stovepipe where it entered the wall. He shook his hand so I knew it had to be extremely hot. Then he shook his head like he did when wondering what to do.
“With this wind, sparks can easily catch the wood shingles on this old roof and set them ablaze, burning everything tonight, if we let it burn itself out,” he said. “Mr. Richardson, could you go see if Howard could come help me outside?” Howard was his brother-in-law.
Granddaddy left and Daddy went outside, everyone forgetting the remaining food as we gathered around the red-hot heater. Then Momma went to check on the room above to see if there was any sign of fire since the open bricks ran through the two closets.
I didn’t say a word, but I wondered how would Santa would find us if we didn’t have a house. Momma had been sewing late every night after we went to bed because there were scraps in the wastebasket mornings. So I knew that she was getting things ready to add to Santa’s gift.
“Nothing is burning on the inside,” she explained upon returning to the living room. “But you can feel the heat coming from the bricks inside the closets.”
My parents had purchased the large older house, the original section dating to 1839, in March 1925. The entire structure needed restoration. Since Momma did most of the interior work except replacing walls, many rooms still remained in disrepair. The burning chimney was in the older part. The upstairs room, with holes in the walls here and there like a baseball had hit them, and the two closets remained empty except for some of Momma’s youngest sister’s toys that Lou and I used for playing housekeeping.
About that time, Granddaddy entered the back door, coming through to warm
himself by the fire.
I realized Daddy had been busy preparing for action when I saw Uncle Howard holding the lantern while Daddy climbed the ladder, overlapping the window. In the shadows, I saw that he held onto the ladder with one hand, holding a sack of something over his shoulder with the other. Within minutes, we heard something falling through the chimney. I hope Daddy doesn’t fall off that tall roof, I thought.
The stove began to cool off as the wood was low, but the chimney roared as before. Outside, Daddy and Uncle Howard disappeared with the lantern. Some minutes later, Uncle Howard, carrying the lantern and Daddy, carrying a second sack, reappeared. We saw him climb outside the window towards the peak of the roof again. Soon the roar from above grew faint and then disappeared. They had saved our house. But how? What had he poured out of the sacks?
Meanwhile, Daddy removed the ladder by the light of the lantern. We knew he’d just placed it beside the fence when the two came in the back door within minutes. The two men pulled wraps off, hanging them on the kitchen wall pegs. They warmed their hands by the dining room stove.
“Grace, we will have to close the living room door tonight,” Daddy said. “It isn’t safe to have another fire in that room until someone lines the chimney. The buildup of tar has taken its toll, and I fear the mortar has cracked tonight.”
That was the room where Santa always placed our Christmas tree that we left outside for him, decorated it and left our gifts. I worried that he wouldn’t know where to put anything if the room was cold.
“Let’s finish eating our cold food,” Momma said. “Have you eaten, Howard?” she asked.
“Yes, I’ll stay long enough to get warm while yo’all finish.”
While we ate, Daddy told us that he was glad it hadn’t been cold enough for hog killing. He used the two 100 pound bags of salt that he’d purchased for salting the meat to put out the fire. Water would have cracked that old chimney but salt was safe, he explained.
After we cleared our plates, Momma went to the kitchen, bringing back saucers of warm bread pudding with raisins, poking their heads out, for everyone, including Uncle Howard.
“Push your chairs under the table,” she instructed as we finished eating. “We’ll bring some of the chairs from the living room in here.”
We already had a day bed, Daddy’s Morris chair and a rocker in the large room. So there was plenty of room for the two easy chairs when they moved them since the straight back chairs sat under the table with their backs in the air.
The following week, Daddy had a man look at the chimney. Its opening was too small for a standard liner, but he could use thin metal the weight of stovepipes to line it. He had used it on other chimneys and it had proved satisfactory. And best of all, I thought, was that he could do it before Christmas.
I went to my cold bedroom that night with a hot iron that Momma wrapped in a towel and placed at my feet. She had carried the oil lamp in her hand with the wrapped iron tucked under her arm when we climbed the steps. My body would warm the bed with enough for me to sleep until morning before the iron cooled off. I dared not try moving or turning over because I’d be in a cold spot even though the bed was piled with quilts. In fact they made turning a chore because of their weight. But I didn’t worry about Santa not finding us because everything would be as it always had in my day.
© 2003 Catherine C.
Brooks All rights reserved Contact Catherine Brooks at
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