COLD MEMORY

I grew up in a very old, cold house.

It was first built in the mid 1800s as a four-room bungalow with a crawl space attic. At some point, owners raised the roof and built a small apartment under the eaves. One little bedroom, a miniature living room, tiny kitchen, and a bath. In front, there was a balcony just big enough for a single adult to stand and look down at the countryside.

This would eventually morph into our upstairs bedrooms. Two “kids” rooms so small the drawers were recessed into the walls to make room for beds, plus a slightly bigger space for my parents.

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The lower main floor expanded in all directions. From the original four modest rooms, it became seven. Each room was added to a different side of the house without regard for architecture or logic. It was a classic of “country” design based on utility alone. Eventually, the dining room had no windows and the large “salon” had but one small opening that faced north.

The downstairs was dark as night all the time. And chilly.

Two stairways twisted around each other, but there were eighteen doorways. You could get lost in the twisting hallways of that house. Some hallways ended at a blank wall. Perhaps they had gone somewhere … once upon a time.

My parents loved it. From the day we moved in, they began a series of renovation projects that would never be completed. I can’t remember when it wasn’t being remodeled. I still have a horror of home renovation projects.

One year, a slow-moving contractor left us without a wall in the dining room through a long, freezing New York winter. We wore overcoats from November till April when finally, the walls for the new room were added.

With all this renovating going on, you’d think they’d have put in a modern heating system at some point, but they didn’t. They kept the converted coal burner that probably was original to the house. The radiators were surely antiques, ornate, cast-iron relics from the turn of the century — possibly earlier.

That old furnace was barely able to heat to the first floor. The second story was effectively unheated.

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I was cold in that house most of the time. I developed a love-hate relationship with bathing. I loved being in a tub of hot water. It was the only time I was entirely warm. Getting in or out of the tub was terrible. The bathroom was frigid and I was a tiny, skinny kid. The kind of kid that is always being urged to eat.

Even today, I have trouble convincing myself to get wet in anything but the warmest weather. I have a knee-jerk reaction that getting wet equals chilled-to-the-bone. Until I develop some momentum, it’s a battle.

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It’s odd how old, nearly forgotten memories live on in our bodies. Physical memory is sometimes more powerful that more normal mental images. Some of my physical memories elude my conscious brain completely. I react, but I have only a dim, shadowy memory fragment of why. A lot of things I can’t remember are probably best left on the trash pile of personal history.

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One thing has come back to me.

I had a cold childhood. Cold at night, cold by day. Cold relationships with cold people. It shaped me in all kinds of odd ways that still linger as I trudge forward into my “golden” years.

30 thoughts on “COLD MEMORY

    • Quaint old houses are for the young who have plenty of money and strong backs! I love old houses, but they are money pits. The only people I know who have successfully completed restoring them had a lot of money and time to put into the projects. They are beautiful, often and oh so tempting 🙂

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  1. Oh my, no wall for 6 months. I hate being cold. Your mom should have put a little in the bathroom and your room. Did you have electricity? I even have a little radiant heater in my room today if I get cold. I love your story.

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  2. The shadow of my father hangs over everything in our family. In many ways not a good shadow.
    But I have consciously healed much of it. I will not continue the circle/cycle. Wish my brothers and sister had followed suit.

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    • I’ve mostly healed too, but there’s always stuff left over. Our childhood experiences form our character. Even bad parents can raise good kids. My father was a really BAD guy, but my brother and I turned out to be good people — despite him. Because we wanted to NOT be like him.

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  3. I had the opposite problem, house-wise, growing up. We lived in an apartment over the garage (my parents owned the whole building, but Dad had his roofing business downstairs). Anyway, Mom like to crank the heat up – and it was radiator heat. My old bedroom had originally been the living room, so it had an unusually large radiator. It was hotter than heck, even in the dead of winter.

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  4. But you are not cold, anyhow I warmed up to you straight away. I also lived in a cold house, but only temperature-wise. Just a fire if mum lit it with coal, wood and paper, very complicated. You got singed in front of the fire and had a permanently cold back. It was probably hardenening up training for me. We all survived. My dad never really learnt that central heating costs a lot of money according to how you select it. He turns it up as far as it will go and everyone that visits him has to open a window.

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    • It took me a long time to learn to do simple stuff … like hug someone. It just wasn’t in my mother’s nature. I don’t honestly remember ever being hugged by my mother … or anyone of my relatives in that generation.

      So, after I left home (at 17) I had to work on warming up to people. I’m still slow to let myself be touched. I don’t like strangers touching me at all, though I put up with it. It has been a long journey from where I began to today and the journey is far from over (I hope!) ….

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      • We didn’t hug at home either, but it is just not in the english style, so I never really missed it. In Switzerland everyone shakes hands when you meet them and hugs are the order of the day if you meet someone. I still have problems with it. they even give each other a peck on the cheek (only three times not more or less – I don’t know why). . A Mum could be quite good with her hands if I did something that did not please her, but just a warning, not anything too bad. I am not keen on people touching me if I do not know them.

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        • Glad you know what I mean. When you don’t come from a touchy-feely kind of background, it’s hard to be warm and fuzzy. I’m good with people I know very well, but until I know someone very well, I tend to prefer a warm smile and a cup of something with cookies 🙂 In my family, food IS love.

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      • WOW!.., and WOW! I too really like being in the tub or taking a hot shower but dread getting out and going through the cool down stage while I’m drying out.., Shuuuuddder!. Later I learned that “evaporation” was the way things cooled down. It didn’t help, I still hated it.

        As for physical contact my parents weren’t very demonstrable in that department.., it was mostly my Mom who thought it was in bad taste to do anything, like hugging, in public. Public was anywhere she decreed it to be.., even in the privacy of our own home, like the living room, or kitchen, so forget about the bedroom which was pretty much off limits anyway. But sometimes I swear I heard giggling coming from within which, of course, I never had the nerve to ask about.

        As a result I had to get over my aversion to the hugging, hand holding thing while out on a date. It did cause a few problems until I realized what the cause really might have been.., but it took years.

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        • I think non-touchy parents were more common in our generation than these days. I’m not sure how much of this touchy-feely stuff is real, either. People do a lot of kissy kissy and I think much of it is kind of fake. I mean, really, do total strangers need to kiss when they meet … and does it mean anything? But I’ll hug YOU anytime 🙂

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  5. I still have “new house” scent memories of the old house in West Hem(s)tead. It was brand-spanking new when we moved in back in ’56.

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