My family lived in a succession of houses and a couple of apartments when I was growing up. All were rentals except for one – the house in Highland, California.
That house started very modestly – two bedrooms, one bath, kitchen-dining room combination, and small living room. It was located in a not very posh neighborhood that still retained a rural feel to it; there were a couple of houses on our street that were not much more than shacks. That’s probably why my parents could afford to buy it.
A few families in the neighborhood carried out improvements on their houses and my Dad began to think about doing the same with our house, but we just didn’t have the money. Then my Dad broke his back on a construction job, and the disability check from the accident gave him enough of a nest egg to put an addition onto the house.
The centerpiece of the addition was a living room, and the centerpiece of the living room was a large fireplace with a raised hearth, which extended out in front and to the sides so that there was plenty of room to put firewood or potted plants or even sit down on it. The bricks were carefully chosen in different shades so that it didn’t just look like a solid block of bricks, and artfully interwoven with the brick exterior of the chimney both inside the house and out were igneous rocks of striking shapes. Dad had definitely cashed in some chips with his brick mason friend to get this level of craftsmanship.
It was magnificent. It was the closest I ever felt to being rich and living in a fancy house.
The problem was, Southern California is a rather warm place for most of the year. Sure, there are some colder nights and even a freeze or two. I remember snow once; it melted as it hit the ground, but my friends and I were incredibly excited nevertheless. We danced around and stuck out our tongues to catch the falling snowflakes.
This dearth of cold-weather days meant that any night on which the temperature dipped under 45 degrees dictated a specific routine: clean out the ashes of the previous (perhaps long-ago) fire, gather some firewood and old newspapers, find the popcorn popper and marshmallow skewers, and light that fire.
It was sort of like a little worship service at the hearth. Finding kindling and firewood was almost never a problem, since we had lots of scrub trees on our property and my Dad knew several firewood haulers who owed him favors. And there was always a hopeful pile of newspapers on the hearth, ready to go into service. Finding the stowed away popper and fresh popcorn, not to mention marshmallows that hadn’t hardened into rocks, was sometimes a challenge, but at least the grocery store was not far away.
Dad and I preferred our marshmallows burned, and the popcorn not burned, though the bottom kernels usually got singed no matter how much we shook the pan. Though the grease and sticky factors were high, it was a delicious meal. And especially on nights that were rainy and actually cold, we felt that we had conquered the elements. It was definitely better than turning the furnace on.
When my husband and I bought our house, there was no question or debate – the house had to have a fireplace. And while the rest of the house was somewhat ramshackle, I think our stone fireplace is magnificent. (See “Tinner Hill: Desegregation, Graveyards, and My Fireplace.”)
But I still get a twinge of envy when I think about the fact that someone else – someone who did not build that fireplace – is worshiping at that raised hearth back in California.