Celebrating the end of the steam era

Sometime this month, with a turn of a valve, I'll let the steam escape from our radiator for the last time and turn the house-warming responsibility over to 12 hours of sunshine. The hiss will become a whisper and then ... silence.

My heart and my mind will turn to spring and fresh air. Within days, the radiator will become a nightstand or a plant shelf or a towel rack. Will I miss its voice?

In winter, these old-time heaters are the talkers in the house. Clang! Bang! Knock! We call it "hammer talk."

The rap-rap-rap on a winter night used to send the dog into a yowl and made us sit right up in bed. I can still hear my father's slippered feet scuffling down the hall to release the steam - as if he was adjusting a lid on a cooking pot. Psss-sssssh, it would say. A midwinter game in our house was to catch the knock before it worked its way up to a spissssssh and then a screeching holler.

My grandmother had a gray, accordionlike unit under her kitchen window. When the pressure rose in the pipes, so did the knocking. Like opening a spigot to summer, she'd reach over the table, turn the valve on, and then back off to let the steam escape. The pipes would spit like a whistling teapot, then settle down to what they do best: make heat.

Grandma would prop open a window with a cookbook. "Fresh air!" she'd exclaim. Like a frisky stallion, the cool air would race across the hot room in waves, and for brief moments, winter and spring would bump into each other.

Suddenly one day in April, Grandma would place a fresh white doily over what we kids called "the beast." Then she'd add a potted red geranium and prop open the window. Only this time, the window would stay open all day. "Fresh air" it was, and we children were chased outside to play in it. Then we'd sleep with the bedroom window open to let all that was fresh come in.

At our own home in the next few weeks, I'll yank a dozen scruffy-looking hay bales away from the foundation of the house so the crocuses and daffodils have a fighting chance. Then, on a really warm day, I may roll a screen down in the kitchen window, give the stormer a boost upward, and let that fresh air fill my house and my life.

But the last exit ritual of the winter season is to adorn the immovable beast with a sprig of life. I'll choose a flaming-red one with multiple buds, a splash of color that I can see from outdoors as I gaze upward at what was my valve-turning, four-month source of radiant heat, the mitten-cooker par excellence, which by now, facing the promise of spring, has thankfully run out of steam!

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