william's picture

A Vermont Christmas in Atlanta

My mother Lynette was a farm girl who grew up in Vermont, a state that’s proud of its Yankee thriftiness along with its maple syrup.  My father was a Georgia boy who grew up in Augusta, but his penny-pinching would put Vermonters to shame.  He was absolutely afraid to spend money if he didn’t have to, or so it seemed. His lifestyle of cheapness seemed to be based on an old newspaper clipping that was taped to our ancient refrigerator throughout the years I grew up in the 1920s house on Stephen Long Drive. The clipping read “I once complained because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet”.  I think he took it out of a past issue of the Bulletin, which was the weekly newsletter printed out for Sunday mass at Christ the King Cathedral. But he wasn't too cheap to buy beer for himself every now and then, certainly not a necessity; however, he wasn’t about to turn on the heat in the house in Peachtree Hills. Unless perhaps it was below zero, heat was absolutely frivolous in his mind.  My mother would have to literally beg him to turn on the heat, finally resorting as a last straw to telling him that the children were freezing.  At that point, we kids were expected to stand there chattering on cue. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Actually, I didn't mind that much because it was so much easier to put lots of covers on and be awfully comfortable, compared to being absolutely miserable in the summertime (no air-conditioning back then!).  But boy, it would drive my mother crazy that her parsimonious husband wouldn't turn on the heat when she asked him to. When my father, who we called Pop, had purchased the two-bedroom-one bath home, there were four kids; me, my brothers Steve and Matt, and sister Mary Ann. My brother Steve and I had to sleep in the screened porch room at the back of the house. Matt and Mary Ann got one of the bedrooms, while the parents took the other. When Pop finally got around to converting the open porch at the front of the house into a bedroom, he naturally hired the contractor who promised him the lowest price. He assured my father that heat from the adjacent living room would flow into the new bedroom naturally if you kept the door open. Pop quickly decided that would work, especially after the contractor told him the price for putting in new ductwork and replacing the rickety furnace to handle the new load.One winter was particularly cold in Atlanta. Several days before Christmas, the highs were only in the upper 30s, with lows in the 20s.  It was also cloudy and gloomy, which made it seem doubly cold. Pop, however, decided we could do without turning the heat on until "it really got cold".  I have to admit, it was pretty chilly in the house.  My dad told our Mom to wear a coat in the house during the day if she was cold, and just add several more blankets on the bed at night.  That wasn't the answer my mother was looking for.  So she reached back into her Vermont roots for an idea that she thought would help keep her warm.The next day, she walked out into the backyard and located several good-sized rocks in the very back of the yard.  They were about the size of cantaloupes, or maybe more like sugar baby watermelons.  She set them aside until the evening.Shortly before bedtime, Mom put the two rocks into the oven and put the broiler on.  I watched, fascinated.  It looked like the rocks were almost glowing red, they were so hot.  She carefully pulled them out of the oven with some old towels, wrapped them carefully, and while Pop was in the bathroom brushing his teeth, put them at the foot of their bed, where her feet would be close to the hot rocks and hopefully, keep her side of the bed nice and toasty. Pop had never noticed the rocks in the oven, much less the lumpy towels going into his bed.  He had an evening ritual of reading the newspaper cover to cover, drinking a couple of beers while watching TV, saying evening prayers, and then going to bed.  My mother was already sound asleep when he came into their icy cave.  My mother was enjoying her newfound warmth. My mother, it seemed, had solved her problem with the cold.  All was well.  She nestled her feet up against the warm rocks in the bed, her feet protected by the towels.During the night, though, Pop tossed and turned in the bed to get comfortable.  Inadvertently, and probably because it was an old, saggy mattress, he caused one of the rocks to shift.  The rock rolled out of the protective towel and nestled up against his bare ankle, just below his pajamas.  The rock started slowly cooking his flesh.  When he awakened to the smell of something burning and realized from the pain it was his own leg, he let out a bloodcurdling scream.All of us kids woke up and ran into our parents’ bedroom, expecting a grisly murder scene.  We had never heard my father scream like that.  But all we saw was my father clutching his leg and hollering about a "damn rock" in the bed.  I looked over and saw the naked rock clearly over on my father's side of the bed. It was smoldering and there was a black mark on the sheet where it had started burning through to the mattress. A small wisp of smoke was rising to the ceiling."What the hell are you doing trying to kill me with damn rocks in the bed?"  My father demanded. There was that word again."I only put them in there because you wouldn't let me turn the heat on. That’s how we kept warm in Vermont. It's your own damn fault.  If you hadn't moved around so much in the bed, the rocks would've been fine.  If you're not going to keep this house warm, I'm going to keep putting rocks in the bed so I can at least keep my feet warm!""No you won't! I never heard of anything so ridiculous! We’re not in Vermont and I'm not sleeping in this bed if there's damn rocks in it," my father shouted. This was pure entertainment and neither parent noticed that all four kids were looking in from the doorway.  None of us had ever seen Mom and Pop fight like this, much less use curse words on each other.  I once got the back of his hand when I used the word Jeesh. Pop had told me it sounded too much like Jesus and he said using that name in vain was a mortal sin and would send me to hell.My father then turned towards us kids.  "You children get back to bed!" He then ushered Steve and I back to the porch and Matt and Mary Ann back to their bedroom, and I heard the door to their bedroom slam. Steve and I sneaked back into the living room to see if the fight would continue. We almost got caught when Steve stumbled into the Christmas tree.We wondered if the neighbors heard all this.  Boy, there was a lot of hollering going on.  The last thing I heard was my mother telling my father "then you need to start sleeping on the sofa."  She said it so loud that we could hear it from behind their closed bedroom door. We scampered back to the porch because it sounded like Pop was moving to the sofa in the living room.Steve and I wondered if we could maybe get some hot rocks in our bed.  It seemed like a neat idea, although that big blister that was forming on Pop's ankle didn't look like much fun.  But the way Mom made it sound was that it was Pop's fault that the rock rolled up against his leg.  Steve and I decided that we'd ask Mom to put hot rocks in our bed tomorrow night.We never got the chance though, to try the hot rocks. Thirty minutes after the big hot rocks fight, the heat miraculously came on.  Of course, it didn’t benefit Steve and I out on the screened porch because the heat didn’t go there and Pop kept the door to the porch closed to keep any heat in the house from escaping. The only way we knew that the heat was on was the smell of the furnace. It smelled like something was burning and we both got up to see what it was and to make sure that the house wasn’t on fire. We realized the heat was on when I walked across one of the floor registers. We both stood there over the register and felt the wonderful dry heat.My mother started controlling the heat after that.  It became much more comfortable in the house, but not in the screened porch. When we opened presents a few days later on Christmas morning, I commented on how warm it felt in the living room. Pop gave me a dirty look, and I noticed the blister, which still looked pretty ugly.For several months after that, Pop complained every time the gas bill came about how much using the heat was costing the family, but my mother wouldn’t have any of it. “Fine, I’ll just start using my rocks again”. That would usually end the argument.My father had the last word though. My mother had carefully stored the rocks near the furnace in the dirt cellar, just in case. The rocks disappeared, though, several days later.  Steve and I suspected that Pop chunked them out into the woods on his way to work.Later, we noticed that all of the rocks that could be used as heater rocks were gone from the backyard. Pop was taking no chances.