In the land where I grew up, it was always 82 degrees. Inside the house, I mean, in the winter. Our furnace was top-notch, and my dad wasn’t afraid to use it. He had a wife and two daughters, and he wanted them to be comfortable. Even when I became a teenager and discovered that putting makeup on a face glowing with sweat could be a challenge, I didn’t complain. After walking home from school when our outdoor thermometer was stuck at ten below and the snow was as tall as I was, it was such a relief to come into a toasty house, where my mom would peel off my frozen mittens and rub my hands in her own.
My mom really liked being warm. Even in the summer, she would point out our calico cat, Patches, snoozing outside in the sun, and say, “I’m just like a cat.” She lay out on a quilt not so much to get tan as to let the sun penetrate her bones.
It’s not that Iowa didn’t get unbearably hot in the summer, especially around the time they do RAGBRAI these days. We tried to plan our annual trips to the lake in Minnesota for the worst of it, which is why we missed seeing the first moon landing in July 1969. Lacking an air conditioner, even one for a window, we resorted to creative solutions. Everybody had a bedroom fan, and I still have the monster fan Dad would haul in front of the entry door, turned one way to bring cool evening air in (especially after it rained), the other way to draw hot air out. My sister and I always complained about that “other way,” because it left the indoors feeling less cool than stifling, but there was no convincing Mr. Kress.
Besides, we could always go down to the basement. It wasn’t “finished” – cinder block walls, poured concrete floor – but it was nicer than a lot of the limestone cellars I’ve seen in Dubuque. Some days we had supper down there, carrying fresh-sliced plates of tomatoes from the garden down the stairs to the table where the laundry got folded.
It wasn’t until Bonnie and I moved out that our folks invested in central air. That was the beginning of The AC Wars, not that they would have admitted to fighting about anything, ever. The problem was, Dad was more warm blooded than Mom (and me), and he basked in the freezer-like chill of his domain. When stores invested in air conditioning, they put up signs to entice people to enter, courtesy of Kool cigarettes. “Come in!” called the signs. “It’s Kool inside!” I’m surprised Dad didn’t put one on his own front door.
Mom coped as well she could; she really did. After all, she was probably thinking, He paid for it. (Don’t get me started on the value of a housewife. My dad, bless him, thought the same way I do.) She would put a sweater over her tank top, or socks and shoes instead of flip flops. She complained to me in letters, but not to him.
One day, though, she finally snapped. “Look at you!” she said to the man she loved. “You’re dressed for winter! You’ve got on long pants, socks, lace-up shoes. No wonder you want the house at 68!”
To his credit, he got it. Once she pointed it out, it was obvious that one of these people was dressed for summer, while the other for, at best, late fall. So that one, to the wonder of the rest of his family, changed his wardrobe, putting on shorts and sandals. He noticed that the house felt a little too cool, and he turned the thermostat up a few degrees. Mom still spent more time than he did on their screened porch, soaking in the heat like a feline, and I’m sure he pumped the AC in his car as far down as it would go when he had no passengers. But peace was restored in the household, for the most part, no matter what season they faced.
These days, we – and by “we” I mean Americans as a nation, not my parents, who have both gone to heaven where it’s always perfect, inside and out – we seem to have lost our inner thermostats, or maybe it’s more a matter of believing we deserve the best, the most, whether that means a new car every two years or lots of cheap heat in the winter and equally cheap frigid air in the summer. I feel like an idiot bringing a sweater to the grocery store, and there is one Dubuque restaurant in particular where I put it on before entering, keeping an emergency back-up jacket in the car. Is it because they serve soup? I don’t know.
As my mother might say, It’s summer! What’s wrong with a little warmth? I’ve worked in places where the powers that be plead with us during every heat wave to please turn our thermostats up, to save a little money. But some thermostats are locked, so some nice guy wearing heavy pants and socks and shoes and, for all I know, a nice warm cotton t-shirt under his work shirt comes in, checks the temp, declares it just fine, and leaves. So I put a work jacket on over my sweater, and lay a blanket over my lap. When I’m too cold to think, I go outdoors, sneaking some heat like a smoker.
I’ve heard from retired friends lately who brag about how they can go anyplace, any time they want to. I’m looking forward to the day when I can happily say, “I can be warm, even in the summer!”