Keeping home fires burning required work

When Mom started fussing and fuming because the fire in the old McClary wood stove was sluggish, I knew it was time to clean the stovepipes again.

Dad always dragged his feet about such matters, no doubt trying to summon up enough vocabulary to match the occasion.

He succeeded admirably, especially the time I accidentally jiggled the chair on which he was standing. After a great deal of difficulty lining up the pipes, he was about to reassemble them over his head when I caught my foot on the leg of his chair. The pipes came clattering to the floor, creating one awful pandemonium.

Amid the din my dog came bounding in through the layer of black soot and jumped up on the new velour sofa, adding more fuel to Dad’s verbal fire.

The dog got such a scolding he cast furtive glances in the direction of the stovepipes for days to come.

As if the air wasn’t already blue enough, Mom gave the pipes a fresh coat of silver paint. When she lit the fire, I sometimes think the resulting fumes were meant to purge my impressionable young mind of any bad words that had recently lodged there.

I carried on a love-hate relationship with that old cook stove, its crooked pipes suspended from the ceiling by stove wire. At best it was the one reliable source of heat. At worst it was nothing more than a cast-iron hog, and feeding it seemed a never-ending chore. In the morning the slant-mouth wood box beside it could be bulging with kindling, crumpled newspapers and firewood, but by noon it was empty, the contents greedily devoured by hungry flames.

The sound of Mom rattling the grates usually meant she was about to clean out the ashes, and huddling in front of the oven door in my underwear on a cold winter morning, I could see the linoleum in front of the cook stove peppered with little holes where stray embers had left their marks.

As winter gave way to summer, the huge woodpile beside the house dwindled down to a few sticks. Our farm had about eighty acres of river bush, so there was always plenty of potential firewood.

Dad had a Massey tractor on which he had mounted a small saw at the front. The sound of that tractor whining up the gully toward the house early on a Saturday morning in November meant but one thing. As my bare feet hit the icy cold linoleum I wondered why cutting stove wood always had to be done on the worst day of the year.

The ruts in the lane were filled with a skiff of snow, the wind moaned in the eaves and heavy grey clouds scudded out of the northeast.

Even the saw seemed in a surly mood, chewing venomously at everything within reach. As Dad fed its voracious appetite with one log after another, I caught the short lengths of wood it had just bitten off and tossed them into a pile, their rough bark grating against my woolen mitts. Catch and swing, catch and swing….

It seemed to take a long time before the height of the woodpile equaled the stack of logs, but gradually I had to throw the sticks of wood higher and higher. I was even generating some warmth as I caught and swung, caught and swung….

My body having fallen into a kind of rhythm, my mind had time to reflect upon the recent Remembrance Day program at school. The poppy pinned to Dad’s tweed cap and the two missing fingers on his left hand were mute reminders of the sacrifices made on behalf of Canada during the First World War. He was wounded by shrapnel in the trenches of France and his scarred hand was but symbolic of the much deeper wounds such soldiers suffered, emotional wounds that never really healed. On that November day, I think I began to realize for the very first time the significance of the sacrifice made by Dad and thousands of other men, a sacrifice that allowed me to be sawing firewood with him on a little farm nestled in the centre of a free country.

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