I sat in my recliner Monday evening, watching the temperature drop through the 20s and into the teens and finally into single digits. My house was warm from basement to attic, a big friendly fire was burning just beyond the hearth and the woodpile on the back porch was filled with good dry, aged wood.
As I sipped a cup of hot chocolate and enjoyed an extra piece of pound cake I couldn’t help but wonder why I, of all the people in the world, had been so blessed, while others were cold and miserable and scared of what might happen to them as the cold front continued to tread this way.
It just doesn’t make any sense to me. Three words kept running through my mind. “Thank you, God.”
I haven’t always lived in a house that was such a secure fortress against the elements. My first childhood home was a four-room clapboard house in a mill village. Boy, howdy do I remember those extreme winter nights in the Porterdale of my youth.
Our house was up on brick pillars and when the wind went whipping across the village it whipped right under our house. There was no insulation whatsoever in those old houses. We played under them in the summertime to escape the heat and you had to be careful when you stood up because there were hundreds of exposed nails sticking down like stalactites in a limestone cave.
If you know Tommy Lee McCurdy, ask him what his friend discovered about standing up too suddenly under a mill village house.
I’m pretty sure there was no insulation in the walls, either. In fact, we were lucky to have drywall. Our friends who lived out in the country didn’t.
The floors were cold. Very cold. The only heat we had was a gas space heater in the living room. We would usually turn it off at night. It cost to much to run it wide open and my daddy was afraid that if he left it on low that the pilot light would blow out and we would all wake up dead from asphyxiation. So the house was absolutely frigid during the night.
Mama would tuck us in and when I say “tuck us in,” we got the real deal. There were so many quilts piled up on my sister and me that we couldn’t turn over. I wish I still had all those old quilts. We took them camping and sat on them at picnics and laid under the car on them while we worked on the engine. Wow. Now folks sell such for $1,200 apiece on the side of the road in the North Georgia mountains — and for more than that in fancy gift shops.
I always insisted that my bed was colder than my sister’s because it was right against the window pane and hers was against an inside wall. The glass wasn’t very thick and I swear there were times when my hair would blow during the night from the wind coming under the sill. I could blow my breath onto the window and draw pictures with my fingers and sometimes my breath would actually freeze on the inside of the window pane.
The worst part of the cold winter’s nights was when it came time to answer nature’s call. The bathroom was outside, understand, and there was no way anyone wanted to traipse outside in the dead of night. Naturally we kept a pot under the bed — some folks called it a slop jar — but you didn’t really want to use the pot, either, because then you would have to empty it the next morning. I have lain awake a many an hour trying to choose between instant relief and delayed mortification.
I left my water dripping Monday night, just for old time’s sake, and set up heat lamps on my outdoor faucets. Back in the day, my daddy would wrap our pipes with old newspapers and duct tape, but on a really cold night it didn’t matter.
Mama would always draw up water in every utensil she owned, and in the bathtub, once we got one. She would leave the water dripping, as well, but when it got really cold, the pipes were going to freeze. That was a given. And when they froze — they burst. There was one plumber in town — Oscar Harold Jackson — and when the pipes froze and burst, you just had to wait your turn for Oscar Harold to come fix them.
But as bad as those winter nights seem now, my mama was always so thankful to have that roof and those four walls because they were so much nicer than the sharecropper shacks she had often lived in as a child. And as she would always remind us, there were lots of folks who had it lots worse than we did.
Those were the people that I thought of Monday night, as I drifted off to sleep in my nice warm bed. I kept thinking about them and the phrase that ran continually through my mind was “there but for the Grace of God, go I.”