On yesterday’s morning delivery from our plant to a local supplier I had stepped out of the company van and was hit with the smell of burning wood. In-particular, it was the smoke from a wood burning stove coming from a nearby house. That smell, along with burning leaves and the scent of a distant burning campfire, always take me back to being a very young boy and being at my Grandpa Dale’s house.
There are gaps in my relationship with Dale that I think are partly his fault and partly my own, but when I was very young he made a huge impression on me. My Grandpa Dale’s house was a place I visited often in my youth. My mom was very close to Dale when my brother and I were little. She was never not close to her mom, but I think there was a part of my mom that was extremely mad at my grandma for leaving Dale. It was her parents and their marriage collapsed when my mom was only 18(her youngest sibling was only 8 at the time of their divorce.) There was still a house full of children that were basically abandoned by their mom, and my mom sort of had to step in and make sure things didn’t fall apart. Make sure her dad didn’t fall apart(time would later reveal sides to the story that weren’t known, but that’s for another day.) So early on in the split and then re-marriage(my grandma remarried, with Dale remarrying not long after) my mom took us over to see Dale a lot. I can remember spending the night often. The house was cozy. It wasn’t very big, but to me it felt like a vast space. It seemed as if each room you hit, there was another room hidden inside. When you’d walk into the kitchen when you first arrived you were hit with smell of maple. I think the reason maple pershing donuts are my favorite donut is because I smell them and they remind me of Dale’s kitchen. I also have an affinity for iced oatmeal cookies because of his house.
Then before you left the kitchen there was a stairwell that went upstairs to two bedrooms, one was my uncle Mark’s room and the other was my grandpa’s stepson Jack’s room. Jack was a few years younger than Mark, so he lived at the house longer. But in the mid-70s I can remember going up to Jack’s room and the walls were covered with KISS posters. He had even made a scrapbook with nothing but cut-out pics of Gene, Paul, Ace, and Peter in various states of rockdom. I was fascinated with that scrapbook, especially with Gene Simmons and his demon character. One picture in-particular was of him on stage with mucous-y lines of bloody spit and phlegm dangling from his reptilian tongue as he was probably eyeing the crowd for some underage girls to abuse after the show. It was scary and exciting all in one.
But I didn’t go up there that often, as my favorite spot in Dale’s house was his living room. It was where he had the TV, various comfortable spots to sit, and the wood burning stove. There was something so comforting about being in that room. It’s where my grandpa and I would sit later in the evening on nights I’d sleep over and have our bowls of ice cream(vanilla with chocolate syrup, natch) and watch late night TV. Usually it was The Benny Hill Show. My grandpa loved Benny Hill, and in turn so did I. When I was over in the winter Dale would always have the wood burning stove going. It instantly brought the room to an almost womb-like comfort. You never wanted to leave that room. You had everything you needed; direct heat, vanilla ice cream, and Benny Hill. I can remember waking up with Dale at probably 5 in the morning and he’d opened the door to the stove to put more wood in. I remember looking into that iron box of glowing embers and endless heat and saying to Dale “Is that where the devil lives?.” Dale just laughed and said “Maybe.”
There are other memories of Dale and that house. He’d run to the main drag in Nappanee and grab burgers and fries from the drive-inn and bring them back for dinner. I remember one of the “rooms in a room” was a small den behind the living room where all the board games were. My uncle Mark would pull board games out and do magic tricks(like pulling a foam red ball out of my ear or making a quarter disappear.) My uncle Mark became quite good at magic, btw(still, another story for another time.) I remember more than a few holidays spent in that house. An old piano sat in the dining room where my uncle Donnie would sit and plunk out some chords to Christmas songs while the kids rummaged and wrangled throughout the house waiting for the sign that it was time to open Christmas gifts. I can remember staying a whole week at Dale’s because the pipes froze in the trailer we lived in at the time. My dad stayed at home because he had to work, while my mom, my brother and I hung out with Dale.
Eventually Grandpa Dale and his wife Gloria sold the house in Nappanee and bought a farm in a small town called Wyatt. I think he was living out some long-seeded fantasy of being a farmer. I’m not sure if he ever grew anything, or if he even had animals, but he had a pretty awesome classic International Harvester tractor that he tooled around in. He also had a nice patch of forest where there was great mushroom hunting to be had. After he had his stroke the farm was sold and they moved to Florida where the heat and humidity made his injured body easier to manage.
I miss that old house where my Grandpa Dale lived. I miss my grandpa Dale. He’s been gone for over 5 years now and I find myself wanting to send an email to him and ask him a question about when he was younger. I’d want to ask him about Benny Hill and the favorite thing about living on a farm. I’d also want to ask him why his kitchen always smelled like maple pershings.
Funny what memories the smell of a wood burning stove will bring back.