This old wintertime house

Sunday, January 12, 2003

Editor's note: This column originally was published Jan. 12, 1997.

It is always somewhat surprising to me that in January the coldest part of winter descends upon us. It seems that with the days becoming infinitesimally longer, the rising sun starting back up the northern horizon, that we'd be over the cold. But not for this hemisphere. To impress the truth of this fact there's the old axiom to repeat, "As the days begin to lengthen, the cold begins to strengthen." I don't know who first said this. Some Poor Richard's Almanac writer? The saying doesn't give any cutoff date. As it stands, it would seem that sometime in June would be the coldest.

At this season one tends to personify the daily shelter in which one lives and call it a friend. When the cold rain and sleet pelts against the sides and the roof and winds whistle around corners, trying out doorknobs and windows to no avail, one smiles smugly and says, "Thank you, house. You're a good and faithful friend." You might, just to show your appreciation, wash an already clean window, polish a door knob, or oil a hinge. Your wooden, brick or log cabin wintertime friend, if pleasantly placed, wears a different perfume from that of summer when the fragrances of sweet locust, lilacs, autumn olive and clematis rush in every time the door is opened. In winter if a door is opened around my place, I get the fragrance of wood smoke from someone's fireplace. I can't tell what wood is being burned, unless it be cedar or pine. Gladys Taber, in her Stillmeadow books, is always speaking of the inimitable smell of apple wood burning. She had an old apple orchard and it seems she always had a roaring applewood fire in the 300-year-old fireplace as the wind rattled the windows and poked an inquisitive finger down the chimney.

I have a unique vaporizing system in my old house friend to keep the joints from drying out. The pipes of my heat registers drop down about two feet then make a right angle turn toward the furnace. On this little piece of "floor" where the pipes turn, I set an empty, one-pound coffee can and fill it with water. The water evaporates in about two weeks and must be refilled. From time to time I drop in a few whole cloves and maybe a cinnamon stick or two. There is a pleasant, subtle, spicy odor all over, especially when the water gets low.

Because of a closer daily relationship within a winter house, one gets much deeply acquainted with the zones. The big, comfortable, rocker-recliner there in the north window complex might look like just the place to curl up with a good book, but no, the location is too cold. The old, creaking-with-age rocker clear across the house, pulled up to a south window where the sun shines in all day when it is clear, is the right zone of comfort now. It's a space of warmth and light and occasionally one can look out the window to see who is walking in the park or watch the now-silent mockingbird flit about.

My brick friend speaks to me in its own language. In the deep of night, upstairs rafters creak, saying, "It's getting colder. Better get another blanket." The distant purr of the furnace says the same thing in a different language. The furnace is like some big cat in the basement, purring.

Have a headache? The house seems to know. At other times you might have to hunt through a myriad of things to get what you want, but the house, like some efficient nurse, seems to know exactly where things are. Without effort you find the tea, the fuzzy slippers, the fluffy pillow, the snug afghan. In a few minutes, wrapped up like a cocoon, tea-comforted, big basement cat purring, you're over it and ready to pat the walls and say, "Old house, you're my friend." I get up and squirt some oil in the rocker's wooden joints, maybe journey down to replace the filter in the cat and drop some oil of cassia in the coffee cans. Lucky me, to have such a wintertime friend.


Jean Bell Mosley is an author and longtime resident of Cape Girardeau.

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