It’s chilly here in the hallway office, maybe 55 degrees Fahrenheit. I’ve not been able to get fully warm since my bladder cancer surgery two weeks back. Maybe that’s what set me to thinking about The Match Girl. Or maybe it’s just the season. I’ve read it through several times as the holiday season approaches.
This year the season stirs memories of being cold in tarpaper shacks. Shacks where the lack of noise from a television or refrigerator humming lets in the noise of the wind. Wind in the cracks of doors and windows, but also the sound of wind rattling the leaves on the trees outside, clicking the spinning leaves on the ground, hissing through the long dry grass and broom sage in the yard.
Cold where you can see your breath in your bedroom, huddled for warmth two to a bed. Nights when you really don’t know if you will wake up despite sleeping in all your clothes and donning a sock hat locally called a “toboggan.”
Most of all, today’s cold reminds me of the winter of 1973, the year my brother and I gathered sticks and scraps of shingles to keep a six-inch fire going in the fireplace in the room off the kitchen. There was no heat anywhere else, except when Mama fired up the tiny wood stove in the kitchen to heat bath water.
We faced mortality in our pre-teen years, driven home by the glass of water that froze solid on our nightstand. We fought sleep, afraid that our internal light would go out during the night, and we’d face eternal darkness. Then we resigned ourselves to it — that should it happen, we’d probably feel nothing and we’d not be cold any longer.
I do remember briefly thinking of The Match Girl story we’d learned in school that year, and driving it from my mind. I didn’t speak it aloud to my brother lying beside me.
Thankfully, this was a time when we had electricity, and we plugged our electric blanket into the socket holding the bare bulb in the center of the ceiling. The house had no wall outlets.
My brother and I had worked all the previous summer, and the one before, 40 hours a week, beginning when I was 11 and John was 12, to feed the family. But this second summer we had gone on strike, refusing to cut firewood for the winter. We said that we’d done enough. “You’ll cut it when you’re cold enough.” He was working a hundred hours a week driving a bread truck and wasn’t home to cut the wood we needed.
Dad was right. It was hard enough in summer and fall to cut poles smaller than your wrist, something small enough for kids maybe four feet tall to drag home and cut up with the bow saw. Hard with elbows twice the size of your forearms and biceps from malnutrition. It was worse once winter had a grip.
So we scavenged sticks and slowly worked our way through a few stacks of shingles a previous tenant of the old 1840s farmhouse left behind. Asphalt shingles that made a tiny blue flame and stunk like freshly paved roads.
When 12 inches of sleet fell — and stayed, we agreed that we were cold enough. We donned the ski masks that we slept in during the coldest nights, and took our tools a few hundred yards into the woods, in knee-deep sleet.
We cut long past our hands and feet going numb. The wind whipped the cold off the icy surface, reflecting the cold back into our faces. We dragged the poles to the house and cut them into sections that fit the stove and fireplace.
They weren’t roaring fires, by any stretch. But better than huddling around what had been no more than The Match Girl’s burning bundle of matches.
We laid in a little more wood, then it sleeted another nine inches before the tornado swarm of 1974 wiped out most of the homes around us, killing one of our classmates. After the twisters we cut a lot of wood to be ready for the following year.
Then Mama bought a chainsaw for Dad’s June birthday. Our Uncle Ben and Dad cut up about a cord of fine firewood with it, making our pile look puny indeed.
Then in September, Dad bought a house in town, with indoor plumbing and gas heat. It was with a heavy heart that we abandoned that stack of firewood.
Today I feel, in my aching bones, for those who are truly cold — not just chilly in a big old house out of choice and a preference for originality of architecture. I feel for the children who wonder if tonight’s sleep will be permanent, and for the parents who wonder about the same thing. And I open my heart and my arms that they may find a different kind of relief than the Match Girl found.