We had a pot-belly stove in the living room, its chimney reaching up through a cutout in the roof of the bus, secured by copper sheet metal in the shape of a star against the ceiling. In the early years it was a small stove you could feed wood into from the top or front, its narrow legs resting on a slate hearth in the corner. The walls were protected from the heat by more sheet metal that we would take turns making faces into, our expressions distorted and blurred by the murkily reflective surface. Dad eventually built a small wood chest near the stove where we kept chopped wood and kindling. After a few years, a larger, heartier wood stove took the place of the first, this one darker, bigger, stronger, still pot bellied and kind of adorable with its dainty little legs holding up its stout body. This one could burn wood or coal and it was much better at heating the length of the bus, the very rear and very front of it still always holding a chill in the winter months, no matter how hot it got in the living room.
We were inclined in general to spend the winter months in warmer climes; California and Arizona are ideal candidates for December through early March if you happen to live in a home that’s largely made up of windows. There were several winters though where we kept our perch in Pennsylvania or Maryland and muddled through. My mother was always great at soups -creamy potato and cheese, beef stew, chicken noodle from scratch, lentil- the scents of which permeated the air of our cozy home and steamed up the windows. It was difficult to play outdoors for long and we didn’t have a tv until I was nine, so our days were mainly spent doing our schoolwork, playing tense games of Monopoly that spanned hours or days, reading, or playing quietly with our toys.
At night, after dinner was done and the dishes had been washed and put away, we would curl up in our beds and read, or make a puppy pile and listen as one of my parents read to us from one excellent book or another, the Hobbit, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and we would eventually drift off to sleep with magic in our thoughts, the soft, warm light of the kerosene lantern flickering against the shadows while Stan Getz played quietly through my dad’s 8-track player. Then, after my parents tucked themselves into the back of the bus for the night, the master bedroom that consisted of a bed the width of the bus and a dividing wall made of thick, spacious drawers, I could hear the wind kick up outside, the knocking of tree branches and the soft, low whistle of the wind finding a foothold in the bus’s siding or windows, and happily, the sounds of the fire in our little stove, stocked for the night and barely moving, but moving just enough. My bed was the sofa in the living room, the foot of which neared the stove, and I could hear it crackle and breathe through the night, as comforting as any warm hearth in the dead of winter. Dad would get up in the middle of the night and tend to the fire, making sure it didn’t go out before we woke up. Sometimes I would wake up when the door to the stove would open and I could see my dad silhouetted against the amber glow of the fire that was visible through the small square mouth of the fireplace, poking the embers and adding a few small logs. It would get warmer then for a little while and I would have to kick off the covers and maybe flip my pillow over to get at the cool side.
There was a blizzard one year, ‘83 I think, and we were housebound for days, if not a week. This was a snowfall. This was a winter. We had heaps of pancakes and pots of oatmeal with apples and raisins, brown sugar and butter, herbal teas and hot chocolate, soups, stews, and stir fries; it was food and snow all week long. We built snowmen and snow forts and stockpiled snowballs and made snow candy, because of course. Jessie and I would sometimes make believe we were Laura and Mary Ingalls and carrying firewood was prime pioneer reenactment material, as was walking through the edges of the ice and snow covered forest of northern Maryland. We were made of mittens and sweaters, of long johns, of socks that came up to our knees and thick boots that were likely purchased at the second-hand store, but who really cared, because kids grow so fast, of coats that were bought big so we could wear them for a while. Pups, our 11-pound dog, had his own fur coat, but he couldn’t take it off when he came inside and instead would sit with balls of ice attached to his feet and curls, chewing at them if they didn’t melt fast enough. He went outside after the first wave of the blizzard and immediately disappeared beneath 14 inches of snow. He was no quitter though, plowing through like a sled-dog, perhaps imagining himself as a part of the Call of the Wild like my sister and I imagined ourselves in the Little House in the Big Woods. I doubt that last part, but I like the idea.
Winter for us was probably not very different than it was for others, except our house was small and we didn’t have central or forced heat, but I enjoyed having different perspectives of the different seasons. The snow in the west was always just a dusting, an inch or two at most, compared to the thick blankets we’d get in the east. Winters in the desert and at the beaches in California were so mild and pleasant, but then you wouldn’t get the fall foliage or the surge of optimism that occurs when spring starts to emerge by way of crocus and daffodils. I suppose there’s always a trade off. We were lucky, I think, to choose our trades and then trade again when we wanted.