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December 12, 2011

MIKE LUNSFORD: A house with a hearth becomes a home

My son came home with a load of wood one day last week. Our little two-wheeled mowing trailer was groaning under the oppressive weight it held, its tires as pudgy as a glutton’s belly and its tongue nearly lapping the ground. He had to cut a few trees near our churchyard, hoping to prevent cleaning up an even bigger mess later on, and rather than just rolling the wood over the hill or letting it rot where it fell, he thought we could use it ourselves. His soon-to-be father-in-law, appropriately nicknamed “Moose,” helped him cut and load the great chunks for hauling. I think the pair just wanted to do their weightlifting that day someplace other than in a sweaty gym.

Evan has been in the mood for hard work lately, and not the kind he finds behind a desk or the wheel of a car. At 24 he seeks out physical challenges like I used to, and, as of late, he’s been splitting wood as if he had beaver blood running in his veins. With a maul and a wedge, an axe and an attitude, he tackled the load that same afternoon, swinging his tools of destruction as if his life depended on it. In less than two hours I had a cord of perfectly split white oak sitting under the protection of a massive pine along our driveway; it will last us a long time, particularly since I have another stack-this one larger-residing under the eaves of my old barn. I split most of that load — sycamore and maple and walnut, mostly — although Evan decided just a few weeks ago to knock the rust off my old tools and whack a little elm and add a row or two to it.

We don’t have a wood burning stove at our place, although I’ve considered one for back-up when the power goes down.

We have a fireplace, which has come in handy many times when the juice no longer runs through our wires, but for the most part, we pick our spots through the winter to build a fire and play board games and watch movies and eat popcorn. It is a pleasant arrangement.

I grew tired of heating with wood from my days at home. My dad put a woodstove in when I was in my teens, and it seemed like all I did in those days was haul ashes out or bring new supply wood into an always-empty box. On some days our living room was as hot as a blast furnace, and I recall that on occasion my mom would have a window open just to bleed off some of the excess heat. But I will say that on a cold, cold day, standing next to that stove was a most pleasing thing.  We all felt like old cats, curled up around the stove as it cracked and steamed.

Before that, our fireplace, built with the house over 60 years ago now, was an open affair, lined outside with rough red bricks and topped with a mantel of pine. In those days we had a gas “log” that we lit with a match. The burner had no faux logs around it, and it didn’t crackle like many do now. It really just hissed at us as we huddled around its relatively low blue-yellow flames, most often in flannel and cotton, freshly clean from our baths and ready for bed. 

My wife grew up with a fireplace, too. Like my childhood hearth, it wasn’t really built for show. Decades older than the one I grew up with, it was constructed around 1870 in the Italiante style farmhouse six miles up the road from my home. Sometime in the early ‘60s, her dad had a stone mason from Clinton come to the house and build a right proper hearth of pink and tan sandstone. Its firebox still holds the same ancient bricks it did when Ulysses Grant was president, and I remember that her dad, Gib, held court in front of that old fireplace at a lifetime of Thanksgivings and Christmases as his sons-in-law and grandkids watched the coal he fed into it glow. Those were good times, too.

The fireplace in my living room is much older than our house. The hearth is made of wonderfully grained oak, and a mirror above the ancient mantel is surrounded by a pair of posts and intricate scrolled carving. I am told that the mantel came from a much older farmhouse up the road to the north of us; that homestead blew apart in a storm years and years ago, and when my house was built in the late 1950s, the mantel, probably minus the ceramic tile that was popular in such pieces in the first few decades of the last century, came to live in our house. We’re glad it did.

Over the years, that hearth has been the fulcrum of our home. We have stood alongside one another in front of it for photos, stretched out before it to read our favorite books, slept beside it with a cold winter wind howling against a powerless house. My absolute favorite photo of my daughter is of her standing in front of that hearth, in pink and pigeon-toed and in an Easter bonnet. It has always been a tradition to hang our Christmas stockings from it, and who knows, in a few years, perhaps we’ll be hanging a few more for grandchildren.

In just days, my son will be a married man. He will move away from our house to a place of his own. He has told me that in the future, he wants a fireplace and that the new maul and axe he owns will come in handy as he feeds it the wood it craves. 

That is a good thing. I think a family needs a center, a hearth and its warmth, to turn to when the world outside is cold.

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com or c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. His third book, “A Place Near Home,” is available through his website and is in local stores now. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com.

 

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