My refrigerator is nothing special. It’s short and squat, a just-right size that fits nicely into its spot under the cabinets. Our kitchen is the size of a breadbox. So the fridge fits into the breadbox. I’ve always lived in small, crowded spaces. The rambler I grew up in in Pennsylvania housed eight kids and two adults with three bedrooms and one bath. In small spaces, there is always a noise to be heard, the crackle of laughter, the bang of a knee on the step rail, the Oldsmobile station wagon pulling up the hilly driveway. Our fridge was always full of good food, homemade meatloaf or Southern barbecue, gallons of whole milk and sweet tea, fresh eggs and bacon, cheese and a variety of meats for Dagwood sandwiches.
My fridge is the same way. In Fall, we keep it well stocked. Red grapes, sweet October apples, horseradish mayo, pulpy OJ, bottles of fresh water, pork chops thawing on a plate to grill for dinner. I’m getting hungry. I associate a full fridge with nurturing, the way mothers nurtured when they worked at home and had time to devote to domesticity. I don’t know how they do it these days. What I really want to say about refrigerators is that they used to be heavy steel boxes with chunks of ice that had to be replaced on a daily basis. When I was driving by the old Georgia house with Mom, she pointed out the porch where she used to rock me as a baby. She said they had an icebox then, made a point of remembering. Because iceboxes were work. And keeping baby bottles fresh, milk cold, was something women thought a lot about in the 1950’s.
Simple things. What is simple has changed. I grew up calling a refrigerator an icebox. I don’t know when I switched to fridge. Before magnetics, the doors were clunky with mechanical latches that you had to push hard to shut. There were no ice dispensers, crispers, water that flowed through a tube in the door. If I had my way, I’d order red appliances. A big red front loading washer, maybe Bosch or Kenmore. Gas dryer to match. Red stove, red refrigerator. Not tomato red. But the dark red of a maple leaf like the one I saw at the writing retreat last weekend at Gale Woods Farm.
Gale Woods Farm is over 400 acres of what was once private farmland, donated to Three Rivers Park system by the family. We were writing about place, walking to the mounds, crunching through maple and oak where the forest meets the prairie. It’s a working farm with sheep, chickens, cows, farm equipment strewn about the property. What would it have been like to grow up there before the time of refrigerators? With root cellars and iceboxes and men (maybe a few women) who went out and sawed chunks of ice from frozen lakes to sell locals so they could keep leftovers cold. I don’t want to go back. I only want to imagine.
And underneath that imagining is a quiet place. A simpler place. Not better. Just simpler. I would read by candlelight, work in the daylight hours, go to bed when I was tired. I’d send letters through the mail with 6-cent stamps edged with bad cursive, stumble out to check on the dogs with a kerosene lantern, delight in the way the snow flickered down through the burr oaks and maples when the Moon was full. Inside, my wet boot tracks would leave frosty prints on the burlap mat, the window panes would creep forward into the fog between warmth and cold. The icebox would not hum when I reached in to pull out glass jars of milk, a crock of butter to lather on homemade bread. I’d shut the door against hollow walls of tin, walk over to my writing desk, take out the fountain pen and get to work.