The old-fashioned floor grates were a necessity in the early part of the twentieth century when the house was heated by a woodstove in the basement. Now the stove was gone, but the grates remained—one on the main level and one on the floor above—bringing lots of questions from adult guests and endless hours of play for children who, when left to their own devices, would remove the grate on the second level and stick their heads—or dangle a leg—through to the floor below. Those floor grates were built-in baby monitors in the early days; I could fold laundry in the basement and hear a crying baby two floors above me like she was in the next room.
With all the charm of an old house, however, there were things I didn’t want to know—like what lurked inside the walls. A winged creature stuck behind the plaster flapped until one day the walls fell silent. We later found the dead bird’s body—fully decomposed—when we opened the little trapdoor on the base of the chimney in our basement. But what I really didn’t want to know was about the electrical wiring hidden behind the walls, done by too many homeowners over more than ninety years.
We had so many power outages in the first couple of years in the house that I asked for a discount on our electric bill a few times and got it. Some of those blackouts affected the neighborhood, some just us. Husband seemed to be away on work travel whenever those happened, but I was prepared with candles, flashlights stowed around the house, and some foods we could whip up without power.
Husband was on an international trip the day the outlets in the kitchen started snapping. When they began reeking of burned plastic and the breaker blew, I got worried. I called a co-worker of Husband’s who used to be an electrician, but his accent was so thick I couldn’t understand him. Disappointed, I hung up and dialed Husband’s friend.
“You’ll be fine. That’s what breaker boxes are for,” he said. “To trip the circuits before your house burns down.”
I don’t recall the ending to The Tale of the Stinking Outlets, but the problem stopped with or without our intervention. Later, during some home renovation, Husband learned the mysteries of the breaker box.
“What went off now?” Husband hollered from the basement. “I just flipped one breaker.”
“The outlet in the bathroom and the light in the guest room,” I hollered back. “Oh, and the ceiling fan in the living room.”
In time, Husband made peace with the irrational electrical layout.
In the early days, our furnace was as reliable as our breaker box was understandable, and I soon realized I could handle the darkness more than I could tolerate the cold. Our service plan through the gas company was solid, though, and I usually got a technician to come to our house within hours. Especially in the dead of winter like that day in January.
“Sorry to say, we don’t have the part you need, but we just ordered it. Let’s see… It’s Saturday, though, so it won’t be here until Monday. No deliveries on Sunday.”
“It’s fifty degrees in here,” I said.
“We’ll get you some loaner space heaters.”
The heaters didn’t raise the temperature in the house, but if we were the perfect distance from them, we could warm ourselves without burning our coats. Overnight, the temperature dropped even lower. We dressed in so many layers we were sausages sharing a family bed that night.
Sunday seemed endless. We had to get through to Monday when the part would arrive. We lived in our outdoor winter clothing. I even managed to pull on two stocking caps. We went to a restaurant to thaw ourselves and then home again to snuggle in bed and watch movies.
Sunday evening, a neighbor stopped over to pick up the girls for their AWANA club at church. I stood at the door and waved goodbye.
“Hey, you’ve got a package on your step,” my neighbor yelled to me before he got into his minivan.
I looked down. A package from the gas company. The furnace part slated for delivery by USPS on Monday. It hadn’t been there earlier in the day, but there it was now. A miracle in a little cardboard box.
With gloved fingers, I dialed the familiar phone number. Our heat was restored within the hour.
Husband was away the day the garage across the alley ignited. The girls and I watched the inferno from our back door.
“Wow,” Flicka said in a whisper.
“Yeah,” I said. “Look at those firemen go.”
Another time, from the kitchen window I saw a small circle of flames licking up from the middle of the alley. I investigated. A single book was on fire. I hustled back to the house and called Glenda. Yes, she saw it too.
“Should I call the fire department?” I said.
“Maybe so,” she said. “It might not be just a book but something explosive.”
A fire truck pulled into our alley. A firefighter jumped out of the cab and walked over to the burning book. He stomped out the flames with his big boot.
I thanked him, feeling foolish. I could’ve done that. After the mini-crisis was averted, I wondered about the title of the charred book and the story inside its burnt covers.
Thinking back on our mishaps, I see the humor. But I also see the Hand. Like those parents in ancient times telling their children stories of the column of clouds by day and the pillar of fire by night, about their dry passage through roaring waters, and about food falling from the sky when they were starving, I tell my girls of the electrical dangers that amounted to only a bad smell, about the impossible provision of a furnace part one Sunday night, and about the fires that didn’t touch us.
And like those ancient parents, we tell our children stories now, so on those days of fears and fires, we can all remember.
*Miss an installment of the blog? Or want to catch the story from the beginning? Visit http://www.tamarajorell.com/blog-entries-by-date/
*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.