Friday, December 30, 2011


Happy 2012!  I'm not one to make resolutions, but I do resolve to confront things that are obstacles in my life and to focus more on what brings joy. A fire, the ocean, trees…these are all things of great comfort to me.
I didn’t grow up in a family sitting around a fire, but I know how to tend one.

I had my first exposure to a fireplace in 8th grade, when, much to my fury,we moved.  I was just starting to notice boys (and maybe one noticing me), when they made me move. I had refused to go on the house-hunting trips, and if forced, refused to go in.  I had gone on for months, not-so-silently kicking and screaming, but even after all my protesting,and all my belligerence, in spite of it all, today was moving day. We were moving to a place where it was green and trees and lawns and swimming pools; a place where they didn’t  have public transportation. 

When we got there it was a very nice house at the end of a cul-de-sac (or keyhole or dead end or whatever it's now called by realtors) with a huge green lawn, a wood-paneled den with, unbelievably, a fireplace, and the thing they were really counting on, a room of my own. They ushered me in, beaming.   

They (and when I say “they” I mean my mother and sister) had filled the room: a full bed covered with a miniature yellow-flowered bedspread and a Colonial headboard and footboard.  Opposite the bed was a dresser, a corner desk, a chair, and another set of drawers with an attached mirror. I had never had a room of my own.  It was awful.

Though the room was a place of privacy (a first) for me, the saving grace of that house was that there was a fireplace, though I hardly remember it ever being used.  At times when I was alone, I would ball up paper and light it, but I don’t think I was allowed to actually make a fire. Many winters my father insisted we keep the pocket doors to the den closed to seal off the big room and save on heating. One winter when he wouldn’t allow us to dismantle the Christmas tree until April, my mother was terrified it would catch on fire and burn the house down, so that winter the fireplace was totally off-limits. My fire-building skills weren’t learned there.

Most people crumple up the paper to start. I twist mine into little sticks and make believe that I’m struggling through The Long Winter with Pa and Ma, Mary and Laura.  Next, put the bundle of kindling on top of the paper and then stack your logs crisscrossed with room for air to rise up in-between and fuel the fire.   

Striking the match and lighting that first piece of paper, you hold your breath to see if it all catches. If it does, you can sit back---feel the warmth and let yourself be mesmerized by the play of flames as they consume the paper, twigs, kindling, and if all goes well, the edges of the logs.

You want to relax and just feel the fire, enjoy the crackle and the heat, and you should. You need to leave the fire alone so that it establishes itself and has a chance to burn.  But there’s always that urge to mess with the fire. To poke the logs and rearrange them and try to get the fire burning even brighter.  If I curb that instinct, I can keep that fire burning night and day.

When we were looking for our house, a fireplace was non-negotiable. People said, "You won't use a fireplace that much down here!" but I was adamant.  It's been so unseasonably warm this season, that we've had a fire ready to go for weeks and weeks.  Still,it makes me smile to know that the joy of watching the fire burn is only a match away.


  1. I burned my fireplace all day today in Ohio. I love it and I am looking at it now. I grew up with burning fireplaces and married a man who won't live somewhere unless there is a fireplace. (Florida is an exception) I understand this.

  2. the weather's dropping here and the next flaming fire is not far...!

  3. Growing up in upstate New York fireplaces were a way of life, especially in my Dad's family (my mom's family grew up in wealth in Buffalo's poshest neighborhood, servants discreetly kept their houses warm somehow). My grandfather treated his firewood with loving and parsimonious care. Only correctly aged wood could be burned, so that one stick of kindling was all that was needed (in Pa's opinion) and hence all we youngsters were allowed when we were asked to lay the fire (Pa walked on crutches for most of the last 30 years of his life so he had to let us do it--we still had to do it his way). We were allowed to use lots of newspaper which we would "wux" (one of Pa's many funny words--etymology unknown) into balls. My Dad--Da--learned his firemaking from Pa, although he was more liberal with the kindling. We had an old coal cellar in our house on the heights above Ithaca, with a little door at ground level where they once poured in coal and we now tossed in loads of wood. (I would never store firewood inside my NC home because of the masses of bugs it would bring.) On a cold snowy day in upstate NY a fire was just the thing. We moved into our house in Durham in 1986--it had a working fireplace but I did not think much of it at the time. It has since become a cherished focal point of quiet winter family evenings as well as noisy parties. Even on a warm Christmas Eve like the one just passed a fire is a must. There is something about bthe authentic crackle and smell of a log fire that no gas "fireplace" can match. My son Quentin has picked up the Read firebuilding tradition, and my daughter Dino as well. And as I write this, like yours, my fireplace has a neat fire built ready for another cold evening.

  4. The fire is now lit and burning brightly!