“Those people went up,” Mama said, “but they didn’t come down.”
I heard my great-grandmother speak but didn’t really pay attention. The night before, a freezing January wind had blown through and had chilled our house to around 40 degrees inside; I was busy trying to find warmth for my bedridden great-grandmother. When my mom had left for work, she’d called me from college across town to come and sit with Mama. The heat wasn’t working because the oil had run out the night before, Mother had to work – of course I would stay.
“Maybe stay just until the oil man comes,” Mother said. “If you get the fire going, Mama might stay in bed until I get home.”
We didn’t have central heat; that was something that had come along after our house had been built and we couldn’t afford to add it, so we used an old oil heater that stood guard in the middle of the house. The unit, with a metal top that burned you and mesh work on the front to keep fingers away from the even more dangerous middle, had a knob at the bottom to open the flow of oil from the tank and a lever at the top to control the speed of the flow to the stove’s inside. On the side, a mesh door with a latch opened to the middle well, which had yet another door that hid the vat of oozing oil, soot and flames. A wide, corrugated pipe connected to the chimney, taking smoke outside.
We lit it by hand. Mama would roll a long stretch of yesterday’s newspaper, scratch wooden matches against a box and ignite the paper. The tighter the roll, the slower the burn, and the more time for lighting the oozing oil rivulets. She would drop it into the vat. Five, ten minutes later, when we were sure the fire had caught, we plugged in the blower. The area around the stove grew toasty; the bedrooms, farther away, kept a chill. The floors of the uninsulated house never warmed; if you dared to walk in bare feet, you tempted cold the way Medusa tempted a glimpse.
My feet hit the hardwoods a few times each winter and the cold gnawed all the way to my knees.
I didn’t know any better, when I was small. Cold hardwoods and freezing feet were part of life in the winter.
“They went up, but they didn’t come down.” Mama gave me a child’s gaze. Damn Alzheimer’s.
I continued to tuck covers around her. The wind had subsided. The floors creaked, the only sound besides my steps, her words, our breathing.
“You know it,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am.” We had learned to agree as much as possible; it avoided temper tantrums.
But her insistence nagged. What was she talking about? No telling. Alzheimer’s had settled into her brain and had begun its suction of logic, memory, reason. I thought about the first time we realized there was a problem. I was 15, and she had gotten lost on her way home. She’d walked everywhere, all the time. The supermarket, post office and her senior center were within two miles, and she visited each daily until that day – equally cold and unforgiving – a kind woman brought her home.
“She was at the mall,” the woman had said. Six miles away.
I heard the bump and gong-like sound of the oil tanker filling the drums outside.
“The oil men are here,” I told Mama. She nodded, blinked. Again, the child’s stare.
Minutes later, I turned the stove lever to high let the oil flow quickly. I rolled and lit newspaper, and dropped it into the well, praying it would catch. It did.
I returned to the kitchen, flipped the oven to “broil,” put a pot of soup on the stovetop and turned on a game show. As the soup warmed and the oven fought to heat the room, I realized CBS news had cut in with a breaking report.
The space shuttle Challenger had gone up, a beautiful arch into a crystalline blue sky.
And something went wrong.
January 28, 1986, and weeks before the house felt warm again.