He is not an obtrusive genie, yet I am never unaware of him. Several times a day a slight sensation trickles underneath my skin as if ranks of goose-pimples were taking up stations. Just before someone is tempted to twiddle the controls, there is a slight “Click!” which says that the thermostat has gone into action. A far-off “Whoosh!” says that the pilot light has ignited the released gas. There is a silence while, alerted, I subconsciously wait for the fan to cut in. Then it comes — an indescribable sound purring through the airducts, barely audible. Oddly enough, I never hear the fan go off, for the house never seems to have that old, friendly silence that the crack and snap of a fire didn’t shatter.
Closeted near the back-to-back bathroom and kitchen plumbing, my furnace genie has a water-heating cousin. After all the pioneer years of not having hot water on tap, I give thanks for the continuous supply of a quick-recovery system every time I turn on that blessed hot tide. Then in his corner, in a moment or two, the angry whoosh of igniting gas tells me I have disturbed the slumber of my lurking genie.
In the kitchen stands another cousin, the gas range, all white and gleaming, but speaking hollowly, whenever a dish or spoon clatters upon it, of thin material lightly enameled. The burners, like circular mouths of inward-radiating fangs, wait only the touch of the controls to flash into lurid blue flame like a fire-breathing dragon. Occasionally the burner fails to ignite for a long moment, and then comes on with a grand sunburst and an extra-loud whoosh that has the effect on a slightly tensed nervous system of an unexpected “Boo!”. Somehow the stove always seems to grin at me after one of these moments. He seems to know that although I am waiting for something I know is going to happen, he always manages to take me by surprise.
I shall never forget the first meal I cooked on that stove. I had become accustomed to putting the foods to cook on an old wood-burning range or a slow electric stove, then leisurely laying the table, occasionally eyeing the contents of the pots, adding a stick of wood if necessary to the fire or turning the element from High to Low. Then THAT day, still credulous of the ease I had bought with my new servant, I was scarcely finished the centre-piece and the silver when I leaped for the kitchen. I had not reckoned with the speed of gas! The potatoes that had been pan-browning were bottom-blackened and smoking furiously. The carrots had boiled dry. The soup had boiled over and was demanding stirring down right now. The glass tea kettle was already jumping crazily from the ebullience of the huge bubbles rushing to the surface, to the imminent danger of knocking a hole in its glass bottom. On its way to the sink the soup added drips on the floor to the mess merrily smoking in the prongs of the burner. The tea-kettle was rescued that time before it bounced its bottom out, but the carrot pot and potato skillet had to be scoured and refilled with canned substitutes. And the stove had to be cleaned. I had read the instructions concerning the immediate removal of food burned on my pristine snowy enamel.
When a discretely amused husband and voracious family arrived home, I was as near tears as a middle-aged homemaker could be who had spent years trying to maintain sang-froid in emergencies. I was still sneaking furtively into the dining room with dishes and dashing out again before arranging them, to stir, move, remove, or add water to that meal. By means of the whole family ganging up on that stove, we finally managed to sit down to a slightly damaged dinner.
Then I delivered my ultimatum. “Making meal-getting EASY? Bosh! I had NEVER worked so fast and furiously! If I were going to be running a thrice-daily race with a galloping gas range, it could go straight back! I was exhausted!” In a placating voice my mechanically-minded imperturbable husband counselled patience until he should read the instructions on adjusting the flame and could tackle the job of regulating it … and ME!… on the next Wednesday half-holiday. After all, in a town like Dawson Creek, where two plumbers-turned-gas-fitters were hooking up hundreds of units to the natural gas system we were boasting of as first in British Columbia, they really hadn’t time to adjust burners. This was a job requiring patience, finesse and a certain amount of luck.
He was right, of course. But I remained mollified only until the next morning, when, with the visions of the lovely cook kitchen of the advertisements in mind, I attacked a couple of crates of peaches for canning. Fourteen cups of sugar I measured into the preserving kettle, and the appropriate amount of water for syrup. I set it over the gas. The long-handled spoon eluded me in the cutlery drawer. When I turned to stir, caramel, brown and sticky, followed the swirls of the spoon. Even the seemingly clear sugar-and-water I hastily decanted into the dish-pan – the only vessel large enough to hold all that syrup – had the tell-tale smoky bitter-sweet taste of caramel. What to do with all those seven pounds of precious sugar absorbed my outraged frugality while I boiled, scraped, scoured and dissolved that sticky black mass from my preserving kettle. Only the inspiration to turn the salvaged liquid into synthetic maple syrup prevented me from making caustic comments on the “savings” gas was supposed to bring. Uncountable neat pint jars of brown waffle syrup had to be stored before the peaches were attended to in an atmosphere of unusual alertness.
Although the burners were eventually adjusted, there are still times when a few moments’ abstraction results in a boil-over or burn. It is only when we go out camping or to the vacation cabin that the watched-pot-never-boils situation sets me fretting over the incredible slowness of a wood-fire or barbecue.
It is possible that the experience of the morning previous to the dinner-canning debacle had had a certain effect upon my composure in these episodes. We had had the “roughing-in” of the gas-pipes done for months and had been signed up for connection still longer. After several false alarms, I had taken silence for safety and offered my home to a club for a come-and-go tea. The place was polished and the cups and refreshments disposed for serving when a trio of trucks drew up. There were the plumber and his helper to disconnect the old hot-water-front from the coal range, and replace the aging hot-water tank with a gas-heated one. A gas fitter and his helper to remove the old range and hook up the new one. The “utilities” serviceman and his helper to connect the gas and install the meter. In a few moments my best china was rescued from the melee of six stout men, two water heaters, an electric range, a new gas range, the nightmare contraption of a meter, three sets of tools, two bowls of soapsuds for testing for gas leaks, and an excited dog in one small kitchen. This was soon joined by an over-grown twelve-year-old boy who was supposed to be on sentry duty at the gate to re-route tea-goers to a neighbor’s house that, in true frontier fashion, had been offered for the function on a frantic over-the-fence appeal at a moment’s notice.
All afternoon that boy got underfoot in the most persistent way, and with a determined gleam in his eye, despite repeated banishments by a harassed mother trying to tell three sets of workmen where everything was supposed to go. Finally as the workmen prepared to light the pilot light, the hovering kibitzer begged to be allowed to apply the first match. With all the solemnity of an acolyte at a holy rite, he eased the flame into being. Then with as an ecstatic an intonation as a breaking soprano could achieve, he shouted, “EMANCIPATED! I’m emancipated! No more wood to split and tote! No more ashes!” That was my first inkling that is would be difficult thereafter to educate a boy in the disciplinary value of home chores to be done. We never did solve that one. Truly youth is emancipated! It became necessary to acquire a summer cabin in the woods to keep the younger generation in touch with the facts of non-automatic domestic (in) conveniences.
In the living room is another gas-family relative for which I have a certain reserved fondness. Until the old hot-water heater gave way to the insulated one, there was always at least one thing in the house that I could back up to of a morning to comfort the cold spot between the shoulder-blades that seems to inhibit effective A.M. exertion in slow-starters like me. For months I wandered disconsolately around the house which the thermometer… and my family… stoutly affirmed was too warm already, looking for an agreeable spot to lean against with the last cup of coffee, as had been my habit with sundry stoves and heaters as long as I can remember. Finally admitting that he, too, missed the radiant warmth of former heat-dispensers, my husband installed a little gas grate for Christmas. It lacks the discrete silence of an electric and the companionable chatter of a wood fire, but it purrs quietly and flicks furtive fire-darts up behind the clay grid. Somehow it seems right to keep that domestic off-shoot of Dante’s Inferno from the bowels of the earth behind a grid! By lifting skirts well above the knee, at which level the heat seems to emanate best, one can get a comforting flood of radiant warmth. Presently it penetrates to the latitude of the hot coffee, and I feel almost warmed to the core and ready for the day. The cat and dog can hardly wait for me to move so that they can monopolize the glow. Their appealing looks always induce me to drain the last of the coffee before I really want to… and how I hate to be hurried! With womanly inconsistency… according to the family… I hold the grate responsible.
Yet, there is something chillingly sinister about the gas. Only last Christmas I read of the Duchess of D… who was standing with her back to a gas-grate when her gown was ignited and she died horribly. I’m getting a permanent curvature of the spine from peering back over my shoulder at the hem of my housecoat for fear that ……..