Its funny the things that recall a memory connected with family. As I grew up in Massachusetts, winters were always cold and harsh. Our house had oil heat. Of course, yet that wasn't enough; we also had a fireplace. For me, I truly loved to stoke up a nice fire in the fireplace; for a while, I actually wondered if maybe I was a pyromaniac, a firebug. I came to realize that that wasn't the case. No, there's something primordial about fire; it seems to call to the human subconscious.
Then there was the Island, that is, Martha's Vineyard. We went there every summer, from June to early September, and it was primarily a place for swimming, fishing and all manner of youthful fun. Yet, our cottage had a fireplace; a big old stone one with great patches of soot staining it. I wondered why the place would have a fireplace; after all, we went there in the summer, which by definition is hot!
I soon understood. First off, we were in New England, not exactly the hottest of places to start, and, second, we were out on an island. Our days were warm, sunny and pleasant. Ah, and then came the night. Once the sun went down and those cool ocean breezes turned cold, we needed to stay warm, and in a cottage that meant building a fire.
Up on the hill stood grandmother and grandfathers cottage, and like ours it was a simple, small place intended for summer use only. Originally, it had no fireplace, but grandfather put one in; a nice red brick one that kept the living room snug and warm. When it started settling into the ground, my dad jacked it up and fixed it; so that fireplace had quite a bit of family history wrapped up in it.
Then there was the old wicker basket. Back home in Arlington, we just burned trash in the fireplace; in our cottage, we had a small metal dish-like thing that held the wood. At grandmother and grandfathers cottage, there was an old wicker basket. It was brown and rather bent, and it sat next to the fireplace. I used to worry that a spark would set fire to it, but grandfather was always careful about such things.
Whenever the basket got empty, grandfather was so nice about letting me help him fill it. I was his little lumberjack, as he said. I had to go outside and chop down some trees. What this really meant was, he gave me an ax handle, took me out in the backyard and pointed to the trees ready to be cut down. He was very good at explaining how to pick out just the right tree. They had to be short, so they'd fit in the fireplace, and they had to be dry, so they'd burn. Grandfather said that when a tree died, its branches fell away, it shrank down and it dried out.
Id go around the yard and whack each tree that he told me was ready for harvesting. I was amazed at how strong I was; one hit, and those trees came down. I became very good at shouting, Timber!
After that, wed collect up all the fallen timber, carry it inside and fill up the old wicker basket. Of course, we just had to stoke up a fire afterward. I mean, after all my hard work, the fireplace just about cried out, Use me. Id help grandfather get the kindling and wood in place, and meanwhile, grandmother would be bustling about in the kitchen. I didn't have to look to know what she was doing. She was putting water in the kettle to make hot chocolate, and getting the graham crackers out of the little pantry under the stairs.
By the time the fire was crackling away, shed roll her little cart into the living room and serve us. Grandfather and I would sit around the fire play, as always, a game of gin rummy, our favorite game. As the fire light flickered about the room and the occasionally strong wind gust rattled the windows and shook the oaks standing in the front yard, Id give a look to the old wicker basket.
Yeah, Id filled that, me, all on my own. I was the mighty lumberjack, and Id done a good job for my grandparents. Of course, that was life as seen through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy.
Ah, would that life could stay so simple
Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.
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