The ten-dollar friend

In the clutter of white elephants that spilled out of the small antique shop onto the village street, I found my ten dollar wood stove. This was years before oil prices made woodstoves a New England necessity. I had then no real thought of using it. My recently acquired Revolutionary millhouse in the New Hampshire woods had one new thing I was proud of - an oil burner system. But this small old wood stove delighted my eye, looking with its black satin sheen like a Victorian lady's prim party skirt festooned with black rosettes.

In the kitchen, a hearth had been built of old bricks by a teen-age neighbor, and the small brick wall behind it ended just high enough to install my family of toy mice, in various garb from a chef's hat to a grannie in her cap and nightie sitting in a small overstuffed chair with a green hot water bottle.

Lovingly polished, my stove looked every inch the lady she was, with all the years of neglect and grime behind her - a gentlewoman rescued from exile and restored to her home and hearth. I was surprised, when the stove was lit for the first time, with what passion she burned. A prim Victorian lady to express herself so heatedly - it was almost unseemly. She had also, I found, a surprising appetite and fairly gobbled up the sturdy logs offered for her delectation. With such a bottomless creature I realized we would have to get in a goodly supply of logs.

The oil burner, on the other hand, was an easier and passionless acquaintance who kept his distance in the cellar. A flick of the switch and the motor chugged on, a mechanically measured warmth coming out from the baseboard heaters (if anything so impersonal could be called warmth). But the oil setup was fickle, I found. Whenever snow weighed heavily on the trees overhanging our power lines, the burners would go off, and for an hour or so we might be without heat. This was inconvenient but not hazardous. The little kitchen stove still seemed not worth the fuss of screwing up pieces of newspaper just so, fitting into its small innards the right amount of kindling to be watched as the flames took hold and grew before the logs could be inserted. And the logs had to be cut exactly, since the stove, like most ladies of her generation, had precise standards and they weren't easy to live up to. Better to just have people admire the little stove, I thought, and leave practical matters to the impressive oil burner that presided over half the cellar.

But then came the snowstorm that took us by surprise. It was the tail end of the winter, and a freak icy cloak descended without warning on the landscape and most unkindly on the network of tree limbs extending over our local power lines. They became utterly powerless. For almost a week we had no light, no television, no oven, and most uncomfortable of all, no heat, while thermometers plummeted.

Feeling like ice sculptures, the family of cats and I moved into the kitchen where we all gathered about the little lady stove, who, delighted at having so many children gathered around her, was pouring forth enough heat to defrost all of us shivering at her feet. For days our whole life was centered around her.

To cook, I removed the rosette-shaped little hat on top of the stove, and the exposed hole emitted enough heat to prepare hot chocolate and soup, and cans of creamed corn. Through the little side door one could insert potatoes in foil to be grilled - which took precise timing or dinner would consist of round black embers. The lady stove was an energetic if limited chef.

Sleeping in front of the stove would have challenged a crocodile. There wasn't room to haul in a bed, so I pulled a low table up to a chair and placed cushions and pillows judiciously. This would not have been too uncomfortable if the chair and table had not expressed a constant desire to part company, leaving me filling up the gap. Since the family of cats were determined to get as close to the stove as I was, they would pile on top of me at night in layers. This increased the warmth as cats are excellent insulation having a high R factor. But they also tend to congregate in clumps, and every two hours I would have to roll over and stand up to keep from growing numb in sections. This was helpful in keeping the stove fire going during the night since the flames tended to go out, not being airtight in design. The wood burned hot but quickly and had to be replenished. She might be a genteel lady, but she is also one of those who eat all night long and never gain an ounce.

During that week without electricity, we kept hearing of families having to move into our local school to seek warmth. But our lady stove kept her family together, which was fortunate because I couldn't see showing up at the school with my whole menagerie. The stove was like a Mary Poppins who was the essence of reliability if a trifle eccentric.

At last the siege was over and the ice lifted off the trees, lights came on, and we blinked our eyes. Radio and television intruded their voices on our country silence, bringing in the outside world with its complications. And there , bathed in light, sat our little lady stove, pleased with herself because she knew we couldn't have pulled through without her. She wasn't saying anything, but her feelings were plain. She glowed with the glory of knowing how indispensable she was.

This wasn't her farewell performance by any means. While I work in the kitchen or watch TV she is behind me, enveloping us in warmth. Sometimes so much warmth that I have found my lounging robe literally melting to a blob if I get too close. Perhaps our Victorian lady does not approve of synthetics.

Since oil bills are steadily mounting we have been progressively retreating into the life and style of earlier generations.

The proud oil burner is gone, replaced with another, used less often. Two more wood stoves have been added to our house, a fancy small French stove in my upstairs studio and a big airtight fellow in the new solarium. They are efficient creatures and well should be, each having cost several hundred dollars. Since our world has discovered the virtue of old ways there are, alas, no more ten-dollar friends.

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