Thursday, January 12, 2012

Coal Miner’s Granddaughter

Even for Southern California standards, we have had a relatively mild winter so far.  Our daytime temperatures have been in the high 70s to low 80s over the past few weeks.

Despite the warm days, we do tend to have desert-like temperatures at night.  Meaning that – even if it does get to be 80 degrees during the day – it can go as low as the 30s or 40s during the night.

Last Thursday, it had been so warm that I put Shane to bed in some sleep shorts and a
t-shirt.  Unfortunately, Jason and I forgot to set our heat at a low temperature in case it got cold – which it did – so our little man woke up in the wee hours frozen like an ice cube.

He climbed into bed with us and I nearly shouted as his frozen toes burrowed into mine.  Within a few minutes, he was toasty warm and back to sleep; however, it made me remember some cold days of my youth.

When I was little, the country was suffering from the energy crisis.  The Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) proclaimed an oil embargo and the U.S. suffered drastically. Do you remember when you could only get gas on alternate days and the lines at the gas stations were blocks and blocks long?

It was during this time that my Nana decided to send a big FU to the man!  She tried to reduce her consumption of gasoline by purchasing a diesel Mercedes Benz and having a coal stove installed in the house. 

Read between the lines OAPEC!

Yet, those Arabs, who lived in the extreme heat, had the last laugh as they didn’t know what it was like to be a coal miner’s granddaughter.

My grandmother’s house, which was built in Ocean Grove, New Jersey in 1920, was a prime example of early 20th century architecture. 

The house, which was 1,060 square feet, had your usual living and dining rooms and small kitchen with a breakfast nook on the bottom floor; and it had three small bedrooms with a teeny-tiny bathroom on the second floor. You could actually lay your head on the sink while sitting on the john – perfect for midnight restroom visits.

Back when the house was built, folks were quite simple.  They had their work and school clothes, and their Sunday best.  The closets in the house where I grew up reflected this minimalism.  Most modern day hangers were too big to hang inside with the door closed.  As you can imagine, I had a bitch of a time once I became fashion conscience in high school.  Those closets weren’t anything like my closet of today, which is actually bigger than the bathroom of my youth.

But those were simpler times. My Nana bought the house at the end of the 1960s.  To me, her house was a living thing which had its own personality.  Not necessarily one that I liked very much but, it was familiar and I grew accustomed to it.  I mean, I spent a  good portion of my youth on Lawrence Avenue.

I remember that the house was always hot in the summer and really cold in the winter.  It was so drafty that the wind would just blow right through the windows, which was why my Nana would put plastic up over those windows every winter. 

I am certain that I had Seasonal Affective Disorder because my daily dose of Vitamin D came filtered through those windows like murky milk of magnesium.  Despite that we couldn’t see anything outside our windows from November to April, the sound the wind would make rustling those plastic window coverings – especially if one started to come off prematurely – was much worse. 

I mean, this was winter people, my poor Nana was not about to climb up on a ladder to fix something so inconsequential.

I can remember lying in bed with about 8 to 10 blankets on top of me.  It was so heavy that it actually felt like those lead covers they give you when you take an X-ray.  It was so cold – and this is not an exaggeration – that, at times, I could actually see my breath in my bedroom.

At this point, the house was super cold because it depended on radiators for its heat.  Now, for those of you who have never had the luxury – and I do say that with sarcasm – of having a hot water radiator, you don’t even know what you are missing.  Basically, it is cast iron sealed container, which exposes pipes, that allows hot water to flow through the apparatus for the purpose of space heating. If you touch it while it is huffing, puffing and steaming, we are talking third degree burns. 

And, if you have never had to bleed – release pressure or steam – a radiator, you don’t even know what you were missing.  I had to do this on multiple occasion, especially when I had my very own, first apartment.

I can understand why they did away with them.

Now, I know I sound super bitter but really I just want to set the tone.  So these were the winters of my childhood until my Nana got her coal stove, and then everything changed.

The first thing my Nana did was have a giant coal bin built on the back porch.  It was humongous.  Then she had Larson’s Oil Company come and deliver a truck load of coal and it would keep coming back each winter year after year.

Now, when I was growing up, we needed heating oil – aka petroleum – to keep our furnace going in the winter.  It wasn’t unusual for the small tanker truck to pull up to our house and wet hose the fuel into our basement. But, later with the coal stove, it became a dump truck and tons of coal would rain down into the bin.

Every Christmas, I would have kids from school asking me for pieces of coal to put in their younger siblings stockings.

Now, to save money, instead of just switching on the heat, my Nana would wake up and grab her brass coal bucket and head outside – in the cold of course because it was winter, why would you need to burn a coal stove in the summer. I always remember her bundled up in her blue fuzzy robe and elf-like slippers out there shoveling coal in sub-zero temperatures. What the…?

Then she would get her cast iron stove going and it would warm up the entire downstairs. Actually, warm is an understatement.  We would change into our summer clothes to sit around and watch TV.  It would be February during a snow storm and we would have the front door wide open to let in the cool air. It was truly that hot.

The irony is that the upstairs would still be freezing cold. We still had the plastic over the windows and the curtains would be blowing in the wind, but it was as warm as the Arabs’ Sahara downstairs.

Now, I’m sure it did save my Nana some cash during that time period.  But I also think that it brought her back to her youth.  A time during the Depression Era when money was scarce and folks did whatever was necessary to make-do and get by.

I certainly think back to those times with fondness and nostalgia but, I can honestly say, it is because of those winters that I love living in Southern California. 

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