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Cold comfort

By John Gould / March 25, 1983



A ski resort over in New Hampshire has been advertising that when its guest return from the slopes all bruised and weary (my words) they will find their rooms toasty warm and cozy, with ''the covers turned down.'' (Their words.) My brickmason uncle used to chuckle about the master mason's wife who came to the job to see him about something, and was leading their small boy by the hand. It was lunchtime, and the little boy was heard to exclaim to his mother, ''Ooh, Ma! Lookit the hod carrier eating pie!'' This gentle humor may be lost on today's transit-mix millions, but the snobbery was that pie is too good for some people. I'm probably wrong about the ski set, but I would consider having my covers turned down a frivolous gesture. Once upon a time I had my covers turned down most briefly, and this was followed by haw-haw and glee.

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It was on my first visit to the family farm which, some years later, I came to own. Dad liked to go now and then to see how his father, who lived alone, was making out, and this time I was all of eight years old and ready to go with him. We got off the steam-heated railroad train to step into the -35 degrees (F.) of a windswept platform where the baggage man recognized Dad and called, ''Where was you yestiddy, Frank? Should-a been here before it warmed up!'' My Grandfather had had a letter saying we would come on the morning train, so he was huddled deep within his buffalo teamster's coat, a squirrel cap pulled well down, and all evidence of life aboard the pung tied up in the wisp of breathing to the fore. Tanty, the plowhorse doubling as a smart roader in the off season, had rimefrost sticking out a foot from his muzzle. Welcome to Maine!

The farmhouse had been built in 1790, of green lumber. That was the year a sawmill was set up at Little River, and Great-grandfather had been the first customer, bringing old-growth long logs from his back acres. He, with wife and two children, had been living in a log camp with dirt floor, and he was eager to frame up something better. The house he built that same year was thirty-five feet square, and every board and timber spent the next hundred-odd years seasoning and shrinking, to be ready for me when I came. The winter wind, which on that occasion was northwest and competent, went right through every crack and crevice. Only the kitchen was warm - a red-hot range kept the outdoors at bay. By the time Tanty got us home, Dad and I were past caring, but Grampy was fine inside his furs, and after he let us down at the door he took Tanty to be stabled. The fire had waned while Grampy was to town, so Dad stoked it and started some breakfast.

Grampy insisted we go to see his stock in the barn, but we otherwise spent the day in the kitchen. It was a snug and cozy day. I enjoyed being a little boy treated as a grown-up. Grampy had made a rooster ready, and my father promoted a chicken stew in an iron pot. Starting modestly, the stew accumulated elegance as he added vegetables from the cellar, and when he dropped in the dumplings in the late afternoon I heard for the first time the strict admonition: A watched dumpling never sets. If you take the pot cover off dumplings you get wallpaper paste. Supper in the kerosene lamplight was magnificence, and then came bedtime.

I discreetly got into my flannels by the stove, Dad pulled a heavy wool sweater over my head, I ran my feet into lumberman's red wool socks, and Dad led me up the front-hall stairs to the windswept galleries above. In the lamplight, I looked my room over. A wardrobe, two bureaus, tables and chairs, a canopy bed piled high with blankets and comfortables, and a venerable quilt from fancywork long ago. Dad said, ''I'll turn down your covers for you!''

He had, while I was undressing, put a hot soapstone amongst my bedding, so it wasn't all that bad. The bit about turning down the covers amounted to nothing more than a quick flip - I was inside and he was fitting things snug at my neck. He patted me and said ''I'm in the next room. Holler - but don't get up.''

He went out with the lamp and I was alone in the dark - and in a bedroom that was also a freezer. One of the bureaus stored frozen cuts of beef and pork. I slept, and waked when Dad called me to breakfast. There was a trickle of snow across the foot of my bed, where wind had blown in around the window. I dressed by the hot stove while Dad turned the ham and eggs, and that afternoon we left. I've a rich memory of how Dad laughed when he said he'd turn down my covers.