The house has about thirty-eight rooms plus common areas and passageways and some unheated cure porches that were added when it was in use as a sanatorium. Except on the few days of the year when it’s warm, we live in four of them—scurrying through frigid hallways, past windows rimed with frost, stumbling over frost heaves under the carpets—to get from one to the other. When we must, we warm three of those—the kitchen and our offices. Our bedroom and all the rest are as cold as Dick Cheney’s heart, just warm enough to prevent pipes from freezing.
This is in part an effort to save on the fuel oil bill. It’s also the right thing to do; polluting the atmosphere by heating rooms in which the only life is squirrels gamboling in the rafters is indefensible.
When we cook, we run the kitchen temp up to near that of the frozen food aisle of a supermarket, and we stand close to the stove. Ann has a little electric heater right next to the desk in her office. Waking or sleeping, I wear long underwear; Ann (thank you, God), only when awake. We pile on layers and wear gloves (fingerless so we can process words).
The place to be is my study. I have a pedigreed cast-iron stove—a Glenwood, circa 1870—that radiates comfort like a mother’s love. When I’m in the house, there’s almost always a fire in it.
Every morning on the way down to the kitchen to get the coffee brewing, I light a fire-starter cube. After I’ve taken the night chill off the coffee pot and cups, checked the back porch thermometer, and turned the pot on, I go back up and feed the stove some firewood. I leave the draft orifice wide open until I get a blaze like a blast furnace in a Carl Sandburg poem. After an hour or so, its warmth is noticeable. By late morning, I have moments when I’m not thinking about my body temperature.
I share my sanctum with Baby Kitty (a lot) and Ann (some). Sundays, we read the New York Times there, make a pallet on the floor and nap there, have cocktails there, and by the end of the day we feel better about things.
Sometimes, I’m able to recall being young in Texas, when lots of us didn’t have air conditioning or couldn’t afford to turn it on. I’ve never seen the statistics on it, but I’ve always thought that movie attendance at that time spiked dramatically in summer. I had a neighbor who would take his three kids and a board game to the library and stay all afternoon. When I can see my breath over my computer screen, I take comfort in recalling these scenes. Not much, but some. We got through that; we’ll manage this.
I offer this slice of our North Country life for several reasons, including importantly that I don’t want anyone to think, as some do, that we are living a blissful idyll up here away from everything. I don’t think I’d feel good about living a blissful idyll, even if we were.
These Artic temperatures inside the former monastery might give the impression that we’ve been having a lot of cold weather. We haven’t, though. The house is funny that way. It doesn’t like changing from cold to warm or warm to cold, and once it gets chilled (usually around Labor Day), it tends to stay that way. Fiddling with radiator settings and thermostats is slow to change that. So on the odd warm day in winter, it’s not unusual for the temperature inside to be cooler than that outside, a condition we yearned for when living in Texas.
I suppose Ann and I are hard to please; we’ve rather missed the normal cold weather. And snow has been late arriving, too. It usually starts in early October, and there is a pretty sizeable accumulation by now. Not this year. Just a dusting now and then until late November. We had hopes that when Buffalo was being buried under seven feet, some of that storm might reach us, but we got only a few inches. Still, it was the first time we’d had even that much, and it was enough to send people hustling into basements and storerooms to pull out winter sports gear.
We found our Gore-Tex outer garments and lobster mitts and took our snowshoes to Dewey Mountain across the lake. We’d been up that trail a number of times during the elongated autumn, so we felt confident about staying on track. And we did.
I was surprised, though, that snowshoeing up a mountain—even a little one—was so much more fatiguing than hiking the same route. We were hardly well-started, when I hollered up ahead to Ann why don’t we stop a minute to take in the view. With the trees bare, it was possible to see Lake Flower and Lower Saranac more clearly than in summer. I was on record early as a man in favor of feminism. I figured it would lift the burden of stereotyping from men (me, included) as well as from women. Still, I was loathe to say to Ann, a female, that I couldn’t keep up with her and needed a rest. “Wow, look over there, Ann. Isn’t that beautiful. Let’s stop and take a picture.”
By the time we reached the top, I’d gotten over my reluctance. I just owned right up to it. “I can’t keep up with you,” I said. And as much as I didn’t like doing it, I added “anymore.” It was no surprise. Our eighteen-year age difference was going to bully it’s way into our life together at some point. But I didn’t think it was going to happen last month on Dewey Mountain.
Though there has been less snow than usual and temperatures are not so cold, one aspect of winterness has remained unchanged—short days. It’s dark when the alarm sounds in the morning, and it’s dark again long before the work day is over. This conspires with the chilly house to form a deeply felt hibernation urge. Nothing seems more inviting than crawling between flannel sheets and burrowing under a heap of down covers and staying there a long time—say, until spring, when there is more daylight and warmth. In my case, that urge grows stronger as I grow older. Being up stirring about energetically in winter is not for old men.
An hour or so after sunset on the day of my dismaying epiphany while snowshoeing, just as I was beginning to look forward to a drink of whiskey, a nice supper and an early bedtime, we remembered that we had tickets to a concert. The days must have been longer and the weather warmer when we bought them. We seriously considered not going. But the concert was by Anonymous 4, the superbly accomplished women’s group that specializes in medieval music. Opportunities to hear such musical excellence is unusual here in the mountains, so we forced ourselves out of the house and drove the hour or so to the Crane School of Music in Potsdam. It was beautiful music, gloriously performed, well worth going out in the cold dark night for. I’ll try to remember that the next time I decline some interesting activity just because it occurs after dark in winter. But acting against primal desires is a daunting task.
We are hosting a benefit for Historic Saranac Lake next week. Guests will stroll around the cemetery with candles and sing carols over selected graves. (I’ll stay behind and keep the home fires burning.) And we’re going to have a potluck Feast on St. Stephen’s Day.
These events will keep me awake past my reasonable 8:30 bedtime, but I’m looking forward to them a great deal. For a while, we’ll heat the whole house. We’ll light fires on all the hearths. Champagne and canapés. Good food. Two scenes of joy and merriment.
Then that’s probably it for me until about Memorial Day. If there’s an emergency, or someone invites us over to have supper with Jennifer Lawrence, I’ll go out. But most nights until then, I’m going to sit by the fire, eat enough extra to put on a layer of fat against the cold, and go to bed early and without misgivings.