A fire within

His teenage son, with a propensity for T-shirt and shorts in winter, faced the cold in the most surprising of ways.

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A huge pile of commercial firewood is dusted by a late winter snow squall.

A winter's day in Maine, with a cobalt blue sky and a lacing of snow in the pines, is incomparably beautiful. If not for the biting cold I would more deeply partake of it. As it is, on the coldest days I generally spend time outside only by necessity: to shop for food, shovel snow, or split wood for the ever-hungry stove. But my 15-year-old son is a different story.

It is 7 a.m. and I am standing on the warm side of the kitchen window, hot cup of tea in hand, watching Anton trudge off to school in the dim and frigid Maine morning. The only thing more remarkable than a teenager's ability to drag himself out of bed and hit the road at such a lonely hour is his attire: shorts and a T-shirt. I glance at the thermometer: 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Yes. Remarkable.

A well-meaning parent once scolded me for "letting" my son go out in the cold so scantily clad. But Anton has always been like this. From running barefoot in the snow when he was 5 to jumping into freezing Maine lakes in autumn, he just doesn't seem to feel the cold. I think, then, that it is a matter of his strength rather than my weakness as a parent.

Early on, of course, my impulse was to bundle him, against his will, to the point of suffocation with woolens, doubled socks, scarf, and gloves. And that would have made him uncomfortable and resentful. Considering all the other complexities and challenges of raising a child, I soon learned to choose my battles with care. Dressing for warmth just didn't seem like one worth fighting, no matter how cold I felt just looking at Anton plowing his way through the drifts in his sneakers.

And then, one day, my forbearance bore unanticipated fruit.

I awoke at an early hour to the wind howling about the eves like a spirit possessed. Our very old, wood-frame house wheezed in the joints – a ship ill at ease on a bounding sea. I gazed from bed at the burgeoning day as a light snow gusted past the window. During the night the stove had burned its complement of wood and gone cold. I girded myself for the bundling up, the pulling on of stiff boots, and the march through the snow to the wood pile for another armful of fuel. Warm under the covers, it was the last thing I wanted to do.

And then I heard it. A singular sound. A sort of "chock!" that cut through the moaning wind and the creaking house. And then again. "Chock!" I lay back in bed and gathered the unmistakable rhythm of wood being split.

"Chock!"

Now even the chill of the house and the early hour could not restrain me. I got out of bed and went to the window. There, his breath steaming from his mouth, was my son – in T-shirt and work gloves – swinging the wood maul in clean, practiced arcs the way I had taught him, coming down squarely on length after length of wood, cleaving the sticks cleanly in two.

Now, mind you, this is a boy who will not pick his socks up and whose room looks like the final proof of chaos theory. But here he was, by dawn's early light, splitting wood, unbidden. A short while later I listened as he returned to the house, dumped the pile into the bin near the stove, and rekindled the fire. Then he crept back up to bed.

My impulse was to jump up and thank him. But I didn't do this. Because I didn't want to break the spell.

All I knew was that some angel of Anton's nature had moved him to act, and that his indifference to cold had permitted this. My impression was that he had reached yet another milestone in growing up: the one that allowed him, without loss of self-respect, to be aware of the needs of others, parent included.

Remarkable.

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