Many many many months of March ago, my father began a ritual of retiring to his bedroom directly from the dinner table. The placement of his diminutive desk, just inside his bedroom door, left him staring at the wall when he paused and therefore easy to disturb.
I was fascinated by his obvious toil. So many boxes of paper stacked on my mother’s good bedspread, and so many crumpled papers under the tiny chair on which he sat. I can still hear the noise the solid metal works made as, hunched over his enormous adding machine, he pulled a giant handle toward him. Cha-chee, cha-chee, the machine proclaimed, as the 2-inch wide white tape the machine continually delivered made its way steadily to the rug. He would offer me the pleasure of tearing the paper across the sharp teeth of the machine before I went to bed. That was, after all, the job of the income tax helper.
Not long after my father’s bloodshot eyes returned to normal, and the machine was put to rest, my father made a special, post Sunday dinner announcement. My father was a quiet and restrained man, but he couldn’t conceal his delight, as he told us all that very soon men were coming to our house to build the family a fireplace. I didn’t know it at the time, but my parents had saved up their tax return money — two years of adding machine tapes and tax toil — for this life-changing home improvement.
The folly of pursuing employment as an adding machine tape puller is not the reason I’m sharing this story here today, and the contrasting spending and saving habits of our parents to the next generation are already well-documented. I have a sweet spot when it comes to a fireplace, and I’ve yet to meet a client who pauses long when asked if she wishes to have one.
The pleasures of the fireside are so fundamentally visceral that buying, splitting or stacking wood, removing the ash, fussing around with the screen, tools and the flue, or even a little inefficient heat loss seems a minor inconvenience. The business and pleasure of burning stuff right inside the house in a fireplace surrounded by a glorious mantel further decked out with our most prized possessions or art is a business and pleasure every homeowner covets.
For those who have neither a wood-burning or gas fireplace, wood-burning stoves are next best favorites. Surely a giant cast iron pot of simmering stew atop the wood-burning stove is a rarity, but a wood-burning stove remains the option that most reliably offers the benefit of providing heat. Available for wood or gas, even the most decorative, diminutive or colorful stoves are often the fire of choice for the more conscientious fire-lover.
I am sometimes happy enough to install nothing more than the mantel. Surrounding nothing at all and fixed directly to a painted wall, the suggestion is, yes indeed, a fireplace in this room would be swell. Such imaginary fireplace arrangements, which still provide a focal point and accessorizing opportunity, can be almost as satisfying as the real deal. If the mantel is exciting or artful or salvaged, and the room lacks interest or architectural significance, these theatrics settle in nicely and ground a furniture arrangement in no time at all.
Thinking back to the day my entire family sat on folding chairs lined up across the full width of my parent’s family room to watch two masons and their helper install our all-brick fireplace, I remember the lessons learned about brick. Laying brick and the endless patterns is only a little less fascinating to me than the process of manufacturing brick, another soft spot because my grandfather was a mason. Anyone who takes the time to become familiar with brickmaking will come to look upon this ubiquitous building material with a newfound reverence.
My own knowledge of the complexities behind achieving certain colors, which I learned watching my grandfather “yard dye” and underfire his own handmade brick to render them a very soft, nearly apricot color, makes me get a little weird when brick is subjected to a coat of paint. A similar pall takes hold when debates about slaking, efflorescence, dust, crumbling, cracks, dust or deterioration of any kind, which is always caused by water or neglect, arise.
But more puzzling than any debate about the pleasures, problems and pursuit of sitting by a fire is the recent design trend of filling an entire fireplace opening with stacked wood. I suppose it looks interesting and perhaps implies a particular status, as if to proclaim “sure, we spent all this money, and now we’re not even going to use our fireplace,” but I can’t help but wonder how setting the thing ablaze can be resisted.
Another inclination a brick-loving, fire-burning fireplace-user like me finds bewildering is that of the entirely empty and never used fireplace. I have stacks of photos of this phenomenon, one firebox more beautiful than the next, each still as perfect and soot-free as the day the mason left. I can’t help but wonder if the mason who set the brick to form a perfect herringbone pattern lacked an audience as captivated as my family was so many many Marches ago. As for me, I take great pleasure in throwing a tax return into the fire every now and then, confident both my father, and my mason, would be proud.
re-printed from Life@Home Magazine March 2011