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Volume 16, Issue 51 - December 18 - December 24, 2008
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Bay Weekly’s Annual Holiday Story 

The Christmas Stove

A used Amana was the best gift I ever gave

 by Jane Elkin


Editor’s note: Traditions return at holiday time to knit our pasts and present into a garment we wear comfortably into the future. At Bay Weekly we’ve made it a holiday tradition to tell you a story of how the season’s milestones are celebrated in our extended family. This year Jane Elkin takes her turn.


I will decorate gingerbread men with my daughters again this year, just as I do every year. Last year’s batch looked like South Park characters. Other years they’ve been traditional Bavarian, military or even tropical. The themes change, but the lighthearted mood is always the same. It’s an impromptu event that began nearly 20 years ago, the year of the Christmas stove.

            That was the year we bought a house that came with a stove I didn’t need or want. It was a perfectly good Amana, only seven years old and equipped with all the bells and whistles. But I already had one I liked better. So, driven by the guilt of privilege, I resolved to find the stove a good home. The Salvation Army was not the answer, for they would just sell it, and a stove is so basic to the home that no one should have to do without.

            A stove is the modern version of the campfire, changing a bit with each generation, while its function remains the same. It is both a tool and the family hearth, a place where family recipes are handed down with family lore. It’s a place where we make food and memories, and it provides us with food for thought. It’s cheerful and warm, inviting togetherness.


My Mythology of Stoves

            When I was a child I learned how to cook by watching my mother. She specialized in old Yankee favorites like haddock chowder, fried smelt, boiled lobster and baked flounder … pot roast, Acadian pea soup, liver with onions and chicken hearts in gravy … blackberry cobbler, whoopee pies, fudge and rhubarb sauce. There was nothing she couldn’t cook, and I wanted to be just like her.

            I stood on a stool, stirring pudding, mesmerized by the power I wielded over nature’s strongest force. The gas flames were bluer than any shade in my Crayola box and more intense than an electrical storm, all shot through with flashes of red and orange.

            Remember to always stir the pudding clockwise, Mama teased. If you reverse direction, the ingredients will separate.

            I picture her as a child with long black braids, the image of Molly the World War II era American Girl doll, stirring pudding at the coal stove that was her family’s only comfort against the biting Massachusetts winters. At night, the meager heat from its dying embers wafted upstairs through a hole in her bedroom floor. Even so, she slept immobilized in a cocoon of three blankets. When her mother stoked the fire again in the morning, it was so hot she could iron Mama’s hair ribbons and dress bows just by running them over the oven door’s metal handle.

            Their coal stove routinely burned the food, and it was messy, too, with ashes and soot. Whenever the coal-and-ice man came to replenish their supplies, he dragged the black-dusted ice blocks across the linoleum floor, leaving a grey trail like that of a giant slug.

            I cooked on a wood stove at a home we once rented near Seattle, a cedar home on the water with giant banana slugs outside leaving their own trails. The woodstove was beautiful, with a silhouette of foxes on its window. That woodstove saved the day when a freak windstorm knocked out the power. When my daughters came home at dusk, the eldest gasped with delight to see her shadow dancing in the fire’s flickering light. The whole house smelled of the choucroute casserole that bubbled on the cast iron cooktop, and with a voice full of the Christmas magic, she gushed, It’s just like Little House on the Prairie!


The Comfort of a Good Stove

            All these images of warmth added to my guilt that Mandy, the Amana radar range, sat idle, banished to the garage of my new home. She needed a family that would appreciate her functional utility as much as her metaphoric cheer, and I wanted to give her to them with no strings attached. That is how she came to sit for four months, waiting and waiting for just the right family to come along.

            Over those months, I pondered all the antiquated stoves my family and friends had used in the name of desperation or economy. A Swiss friend had an old wood-and-oil-burning stove in her weekend farmhouse getaway. It was an exact copy of the stove my aunt used well into the 1960s. It had recessed trivets the cook pried out with a spiral wire handle whenever she needed to add wood. My aunt was grateful for the oil burners, but my friend cooked with wood, and it took her four hours to boil rice.

            My father’s workshop had an antique pot-bellied stove with a bowed isinglass window that contorted my features in its orange reflection. It was an inherited afterthought of a stove: another generation’s reject. A recalcitrant relic, it was relegated to a shed, neglected for 50 weeks a year and cursed for its inefficiency the other two. Yet I was so transfixed by its primitive beauty that my silence and its dim light lent me a cloak of invisibility.

            Since its feeble heat only reached a six-foot perimeter, Dad had to pause often to massage his frozen fingers. When his hammer accidentally struck his thumb, he cursed, Son of a B…! Then perceiving me in the orange glow he’d mutter Isn’t there something you should be doing inside? I thought no one but him would have tolerated such discomfort for the sake of money.

            Dad tended another tricky stove in his role as provider. It was a propane stove that heated our summer cabin in Maine during the shoulder seasons. The pilot light was persnickety, but once it caught, the tiny house warmed up in no time. The antiseptic cold that at first froze the insides of my nostrils gave way to a gentle warmth that released the sweet pine aroma of the fresh lumber he’d used to build the cabin. It was one of the coziest places since the womb, and I often fell asleep to the gentle hiss of the gas flame.


Finding a Home

            There is a saying that is cross-stitched and framed in my kitchen. It reads, Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do, or do without. I knew that Mandy’s future family would understand and appreciate that sentiment.

            My quest to find a home for Mandy was finally realized by a church relocation program for abused women. An inspector came to measure the stove and try it out. I filled out donation forms, then Mandy and I waited for an appropriate match to be found. Through a month of silence and two false alarms we waited.

            The weather turned cold, and we were on Christmas vacation when the long-awaited call came. I was baking gingerbread men with the girls, and a heavy snow had just begun. Within an hour, two businessmen in suits and overcoats arrived in a pickup truck. With dress shoes slipping on their makeshift wooden ramp, they wrestled the stove into the back of the truck, fat snowflakes blanketing their garments and hair so that they looked like snowmen. They waved and drove off into the blizzard, and that was the last I saw of Mandy. It was December 22.

            I hear she found a great home in an empty apartment above a downtown storefront. The recipients were a woman and her three children who had been living there for two weeks, eating take-out and cold cereal. They were so happy to have a stove that they joined hands and danced around it, laughing and singing.

            I don’t know what happened after that moment, but I picture a little girl standing on a stool stirring pudding while her mother tells her about her childhood stove. Or maybe they are baking gingerbread men …

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