Under the House

Loretta, who actually enjoys going under the house

Winter, the season for putting up with things. In the suburbs, people shovel their driveways. In the country, they may be snowed in behind a long dirt driveway for days. Cars seem to break down more often in winter. Pipes freeze. Ice-clad branches break and snap a power line. A dog falls through the surface of a frozen lake and has to be rescued.

Virginia is not known for especially cold winters, but for about eight years my family rented a drafty, 100-year-old log cabin with only a wood stove for heat. My brother and I hauled wood for the stove three or four times a day. My mom fed the stove during the day, and my dad kept it going at night. One winter, when it was really cold, my dad had to pour antifreeze into the toilet in the bathroom next to my room. If you held your hand next to the casement window above my bed, you could feel the outside temperature like a pulse. 

I remember hunkering down with my mom and brother under quilts on the sofa, eating cinnamon toast while my dad crawled under the house with a blowtorch. We had been away at my grandparents’ for Christmas, and we came home to snow and the silent, still cold of a stove-heated house that had been left. (In cold weather, an untended woodstove can make you cry, almost. Except your dad is not crying, he’s under the house unfreezing the pipes.) The stove was finally going, and I think the cold water worked, because my mom had a cast-iron pan and kettles heating on the stove for our baths. We anticipated the freezing-hot sensation of warm water on our cold toes and thought about our dad under the house, where none of us had to go.

Last night, Richard crawled under our house in North Carolina, where it has been unseasonably cold. It’s probably as weird a house as the log cabin—it’s tiny, handbuilt, with lots of cold-emanating windows—and we own it. Little about it is up to code; it was built before this county had a building code. It sits at the top of a long, steep driveway that is the bane of propane dealers and UPS drivers. Bees try to eat holes in it every spring. But we love this house. Richard loves this house, and he grew up in very, very different houses—houses with no leaks or heat problems or drafty windows. He grew up in suburban winters, where the main challenge was shoveling a stubby little cement drive. But he loves our house enough to crawl under it on an 18-degree night looking for a leak in the pipes, which may or may not be causing our low-producing wells to run dry.

He came in from under the house with dirt and leaves and fiberglass stuck to his coat, and he was pretty cheerful about it as we ate supper, talking about what we’d investigate next and whether there was enough water to take a shower. We’ve been in touch with a lot of well guys and plumbers lately; we’re getting to know our neighbors through the typical problems people have around here—hard-to-insure property, driveways that need regrading, rock wells that should be drilled deeper. I’d prefer that everything worked fine (and for it to be about ten degrees warmer), but as I close off our bedroom and make a bed in the loft (it’s warmer up there), and as Richard cuts a hole in the flooring in the shed above our well (don’t ask), I’m reminded how putting up with things is part of every winter I’ve ever spent in the country, and I wouldn’t trade it for a different kind of life.

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