Warmer

We had an early snowstorm yesterday, though I’m not sure “early” really works as a modifier anymore, given the fact that we have one of these almost every year now. Two years ago, an October storm brought down the beautiful ornamental pear tree in our front yard. Such a terrible and surreal sound to hear, amid the quiet of snowfall, the splitting of wood as the trees break and snap. We didn’t have it that bad here this time, but I know my family and friends in CT got creamed.

We spent much of yesterday doing classic “Snow Day” things: baking bread, making soup, cleaning, laundry, building snow folk…calling our landlord to fix the broken furnace. Perfect timing! Thank goodness for a gas oven and the space heater I’ve been schlepping around since moving from New Haven in 1999. So while Paul took the kids outside, I pulled all the winter scarves and hats out of the hall closet. The cats like to sleep in there, and I discovered immediately that the amount of cat hair on the accessories was enough to knit an entirely new scarf. Gross. Time to do some washing. Another domestic project enthusiastically begun. I was on an uncharacteristically energetic Saturday roll.

And then Assistant Furnace Guy emerged from the basement. He was clearly frustrated and let me know that he had to wait until Actual Landlord arrived with a part and some necessary tools. I figured he would let me know the state of things and then either head back to the basement or out to the truck, but no. He felt like chatting, and normally, I am a fine chatter. I am the “can I offer you a cup of coffee while you work on my furnace?” kind of chatter.

But I found myself feeling irritated and impatient almost right away. I had Things to Do. And anyone who knows me knows that have a tendency to let domestic chores overwhelm me to such an extent that I often drown willingly beneath them. I was on top of stuff yesterday and I didn’t feel like chatting with the very nice man who was fixing my furnace. Sometimes I can be a real jerk.

But I could also never in a million years brush someone like that–someone who has been ripped away from the Penn State game on snowy Saturday to help me–off. Unthinkable. So we stood in my foyer, amid the piles of cat hair-covered hats and mittens strewn about the floor and made small talk. How long had I lived here? How old are my kids? Had we ever thought about building our own place?  I answered all of his questions while smiling but I wasn’t fully present. I was in sixty other places.

Then he said something that brought me forcefully back into the moment, and also shot me back to the far-past of my childhood. The last time I was here, you had just had your little one, I think. He had been here before. He remembered Jose as a baby. He remembered me even before that. We were more than just tenants whose furnace “needed fixed.”

Suddenly I felt terribly ashamed of myself. In that moment, my attention crystallized on him and I saw him more clearly: navy blue coveralls smeared with furnace grease, scraggy, chapped hands, gold wedding band, warm smile. Kind eyes. I told him I had a hard time imagining we’d ever be homeowners. It’s a real shame, he said. This country shouldn’t be this way.

I just smiled and agreed with him, though I bet we have different ideas about what the country’s shame is and about what way it should be.

When I realized who it was that he reminded me of, who he was evoking for me so strongly in this bit of banter, I had to catch my breath and stop myself from laughing out loud.

My grandfather.

This was my grandfather. This was exactly the kind of conversation he would have had with owners of broken furnaces in his days as a fix-it guy. He liked to chat and he really liked the people who needed his help. And they liked him. A mutual admiration society at every home he visited.

I’ve written an essay about my grandfather that keeps getting encouraging rejections from very good journals, but someday it’s going to land somewhere and that will make me happy. I asked Assistant Furnace Guy how long he’d been married (31 years) and was just about to tell him about my grandparents, how they were married for 66, when Actual Landlord showed up with the Shop Vac and they took their banter back down to the basement.

It took them another hour to get the thing fixed, but the house felt warmer well before that.

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