I live in an old house. I guess that’s pretty clear by now if you have been following along. Old houses are not the pillars of efficiency when it comes to staying warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The work we have done on our place over the years has helped, with many newer windows and some fresh insulation but there’s plenty more that could be done on “the list” some of which may or may not ever be completed.
Our old house is heated with oil and if you’ve ever purchased a tank full of heating oil, you know it can be very expensive. Not that the other common heating fuels around these parts, natural gas and propane, are much better, but heating oil tends to be on the higher end. But I’m not here to discuss the pros and cons of oil vs. other heating fuels. In fact, I have this sort of “old house romance” with the idea of these heating oil guys that have been servicing this old house for decades (no, let’s get this straight… not with the actual guys… just the idea of the same company servicing this place for so long). The day we moved in, we found a nice note on the kitchen counter from the oil company, saying something to the effect of, “we have serviced this house since 19–, here’s our phone number.” Of course, sitting next to the note was the obligatory oil-company promotional calendar with a different scenic nature photograph displayed for each month. Sure, they were protecting their business, and the calendar reminded me of the stuff we used to see lying around my grandmother’s old house before she passed away. But it was good customer service, and now it’s become part of the history here and I like that, even though it may not be the least expensive way to stay warm.
Let’s just say, in the winter, we burn a lot of oil. In our basement, there is a big old boiler (circa 1950’s or 60’s we think) that burns the oil and heats up the water, and industrial looking pumps that move the hot water through old cast iron radiators dispersed throughout the house. Upon my first viewing of this boiler it was a frightening octopus of a monstrosity that sits in the middle of our basement, and a beast that I feared I would never understand. But I’ve since learned to work with it, understand its operation, and enjoy it as one of the quirky remnants of folks that have lived here as caretakers before us. When servicing time comes around there is an old-timer that we call, an oil-soaked guy with black fingernails and the permanent stench of petroleum on his clothes who comes in and does the yearly maintenance. You can tell he enjoys working on it, a past relic from his generation and not one of these new-fangled, super-efficient pieces of machinery that are in most homes these days. In 16 years, the old boiler has never failed us (knock-on-wood)…
Each room of the house has a cast iron radiator sitting in a corner or up against one of the walls. I love old radiators! Ours aren’t particularly ornamental, but they are quite functional and now that I have lived with them for some time, I am not sure I could ever live in a house that doesn’t have them. Many people find them burdensome, space wasters, but not me. I appreciate their durability, I adore their architecture and I especially enjoy the heat that they provide. During the cold, wet winter months, the radiator in our kitchen has a perpetual stack of hats and gloves and mittens stacked on top drying out for the next day’s use, and piles of boots laying on the floor in front, with muddy, melting snow dripping off the treads. Radiators, though, are a complex species and getting them all to heat at a consistent proper temperature seems to be an impossible task of adjusting and readjusting the amount of water flowing through their pipes and each winter, after they have been closed down for the warmer months, the process begins again. Although we manage to keep the lower floor rooms at a mostly comfortable 65-67 degree temperature in the winter, the upstairs, where the bedrooms are, tends to always be cold. To get the upstairs radiators to really fire up and stay consistently warm means the downstairs is too hot and with the cost of oil through the roof, we choose not to burn it excessively. So the bedrooms can be a tad cold, but folks always say, its good for sleeping when the air is cool. Our motto here… if you’re cold, put on a sweatshirt or wrap up in a blanket!
The other night the Midwest and a good portion of the US, was socked with a major winter storm that brought blizzard conditions and significant snowfall. Our area received somewhere in the neighborhood of 12-16 inches of snow and schools were closed for two days, while the plows dug everyone out. During the first evening, when the snow began to fall and the winds started whipping up, our power was knocked out, leaving us in the dark with no electricity and no water as our house is served by a well. In typical pioneer spirit we fired up the wood stove, lit some candles and prepared for what we thought would be a night without lights, without television, without video games, and a night spent sleeping around the warmth of the fire in the stove. Thankfully our power was restored after only about an hour or two, but when we went upstairs for bed that evening, knowing we would all be home, snowed-in the next day, our son’s room was very cold from the heat being off for even just that short time. We got him and his sister into bed, warm jammies on, and covered in their huge piles of blankets. My wife and I then went to bed and as we were sitting their chatting before the lights went off, she laughingly said to me, “do you think they’ll remember it, when they’re older, how it was always cold upstairs?” “They’ll say to their friends or their own kids, remember when Mom and Dad were too cheap and never wanted to use the heat so we had to have piles and piles of blankets on our beds to keep warm.” Thinking back to the obscure things that I remember from my childhood, it made me chuckle and I said that yes, I was sure they would remember it!
I thought about that brief moment the next morning, and although it was just a passing comment during a bedtime conversation, it struck me as one of the first times she and I were talking about a time, which in reality is just around the corner, when the kids will be grown up and moved out and on their own. Do we still have several years with them around? Yeah, sure, but those years are passing so quickly, and at least in my daughters case, being thirteen and off to college in just over five years, it’s closer than I can really comprehend. That’s an emotion that I can’t quite grasp my hands around, spending all these years, raising our children to be adults, proudly following their every move and then one day sending them out into the world to spread their wings and be out on their own. It’s a time that I look forward to with proud anticipation and a time that I am hesitant to think about and that brings tears to my eyes.
For now, I can’t really contemplate those days. There are too many important milestones to savor in the present. In the meantime, I am happy that they still want me to tuck them in at night, in their cold rooms and under their piles of blankets.