Air Conditioner Stories

Photo from Wikimedia
It’s above 90 degrees here today and humid in proportion.  That must be what made me remember what it was like when I was small, when we had only one window unit air conditioner to cool as much of the house as possible.

For some reason, Mother and Daddy put it in the dining room, which was in the middle of the house on Ridgeway Drive.  I guess the theory was that the air would spread out and cool the living room and the bedrooms.  Unfortunately it was not powerful enough to do that, so one of my early summer memories is sleeping with a circulating fan blowing on me.  The hum of that heavy metal fan and the sweep of air as it turned from side to side soothed me to sleep many a night.

Window unit air conditioners happily left my adult life until I moved to New York in the ’80s.  I rented a fifth-floor apartment without central air, so once again I was in thrall to a window unit.  I had actually moved one with me from Atlanta which my uncle gave me–I don’t recall when I went and picked it up in Tennessee, but undeniably it moved to New York with me and was put in the window by the movers.  It was in a metal case, somewhat elderly, and extremely heavy.

It didn’t have a bracket, so I depended on the window and a few sticks of wood wedged in the sash to hold it in place.  This worked for a few weeks, but the air conditioner began to drip on the bedroom floor, which did not do the cheap wood parquet any good.  One towel per day was not enough to absorb the moisture.  Clever girl that I was, I thought I could fix this single-handed.

I took the wedges out and took hold of the air conditioner to shift it in the window.  It was much heavier than I thought and began to fall out the window.  I grabbed it.  The metal casing sliced the tips of the fingers on my left hand.  Automatically, I stomped on the air conditioner’s electric cord.  The good news was, the air conditioner hung from the window and did not fall.   The bad news was, I obviously could not pull it back in.

I looked out the window.  There were unit air conditioners in all the windows directly below mine on the fifth floor, from the fourth to the ground.  Immediately beyond the line of air conditioners was the parking lot.  I knew what I had to do.  I unplugged the air conditioner, still standing on the cord, and wrapped the damp towel around the cord.  Then I swung the cord to one side and let go.

The air conditioner fell in an arc, landing in the grass just next to the parking lot.  It did not graze any other air conditioners or take out any cars.  I was exhausted with relief.  I called the security guard and told him what I’d done.  When he stopped laughing, he said they would clean it up the next day.

Then I realized I was bleeding all over the place.  I knocked on my neighbor’s door and assured her I wasn’t dying despite the blood.  Hands and heads bleed a lot.  My neighbor took me to an emergency room.  Fortunately the cuts were not deep, although the process of cleaning them was not pleasant.  I have a little scar on my thumb to this day.

The next day I called my friend Kathy in Atlanta to report my adventure.  She laughed until she coughed for breath.  For months after that when we spoke, she would ask, “Thrown any small appliances out the window this week?  Not even a toaster?”

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Visiting Aunt Lou and Uncle Floyd

Uncle Floyd
What follows is an exercise I wrote for a class several years ago.  We were to remember a time and place that was lost to us, and write all we could remember.  So I did:

We drive up the blacktop road toward  sunset, my parents and I, the old Ford pickup laboring up the hill.  Turning into my uncle’s gravel driveway kicks up a small cloud of dust.  The truck wheezes to a halt, and the dust settles as we climb out and walk to the house.

Across the blacktop road from the house is a tree-lined field  with cattle grazing quietly in the dusk.  They are a motley bunch, a mix of  Herefords and Holstein crosses, too bony for good beef cattle, too stocky for good dairy cattle.  My aunt’s little Jersey is the only princess, with her fawn-colored coat, her delicate hooves, her big brown eyes.  Aunt Lou keeps the milk cow so she can churn her own butter; she thinks it’s better than store bought.

At the side of the yard is my aunt’s garden.  Honeysuckle spills over the woven wire fence, scenting the humid air.  The first two rows of the garden are flowers:  zinnias, marigolds, snapdragons, daisies.  The rest is food for the summer, and for preserving:  beans, corn, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers for pickles, canteloupes, watermelons.

In the shade of the back yard, past the chicken coop, is her mother-in-law’s wildflower garden.  Miss Blanche transplants sweet william, violets, and trillium from the woods, watering them faithfully. Their colors are paler and more delicate than the sunny flowers in the other garden.

Tall, old oak trees and maples shade the back yard and the front yard during the day.  Now that the sun is slouching down below the hill, birds rustle the branches as they settle in for the night.  They fuss and squabble in the trees.

The old clapboard house is painted white; the tin roof is shiny.  There’s a dogtrot hall running through the middle, with a couple of large rooms on either side and a kitchen in the back.  For many years there wasn’t a bathroom.

On a summer night the most important room is the front porch.  This is where we all sit and talk while night falls.   There is a porch swing, where I sit with Miss Blanche, and two wooden rocking chairs for the two men, tired from a long day in the fields.  My mother and Aunt Lou sit on metal chairs in the front yard, hoping for a breeze.

The women’s voices are low and even.  The men rumble in baritone, punctuated by my father’s laugh.  Miss Blanche and I are quiet as it grows dark, waiting for the tree frogs to begin their high piping.  Lightning bugs blink erratically  in the yard.  The humidity settles in the hollow like a ground fog.

“Look,” Miss Blanche says.  A deer broaches the mist in the hollow, sights us, and floats away into the dark.

Soon, the moon will rise above the hills.  It is time to go home.

My Mother’s Shadow

Mother
Several years ago my niece Judy found an old camera with film in it at my sister Glenda’s house in Ohio.   My brother-in-law John bought it in Japan while he was in the Navy during the Korean War.  It took color photos, which wasn’t common at the time among amateurs—this was some time before Instamatics and Kodachrome.

Judy took the camera to a camera shop, where they removed the film safely and developed it.  She gave me a framed 5×7 print of one photo for Christmas that year.  (I wanted to scan it for this blog post, but the print has stuck to the glass of the frame, so I can’t remove it without damage.)  It’s the only color picture I have of myself as a small child.  I look about two years old, still a bit babyish, in a dress and white baby shoes, with pudgy arms and legs and a round face.  I am wearing an expression my friends all recognize to this day as, “I’m playing along with you because I have to, but you are trying my patience severely.”

This must have been a family outing of some sort since John and Glenda were there, and at that point we all lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, 40 miles away.  I’m standing alone on the steps of the Confederate Memorial in Centennial Park in Nashville.  It’s summer, and I will be three years old in the fall.

At the corner of the photo is my mother’s shadow, stretching over the steps close to my feet.   She has a middle-aged figure, stout around the waist, and is wearing a bucket-shaped hat with a brim.  Her shadow leans toward me.  Mother is not reaching out to keep me from falling, but one feels that the moment the picture is taken she will sweep me off the stairs to safety.

Mother was afraid of many things, I learned as I grew older.  Glenda said Mother was terrified that I would die as a baby, because she had had a miscarriage between my brother and me and because she was an “older mother”—all of 38 years old when I was born, the last of five children over a span of 19 years.  She hardly let me out of her sight.  Glenda said at one point I broke out in a rash, and Mother took me to the pediatrician.  He said, “There’s nothing wrong with her.  You’re making her so nervous she broke out.”

I spent most of my life convinced I was utterly unlike my mother in every way.  I was rational, she was emotional.  I was calm, she was nervous.  She used to say, “You’re just like your daddy,” and I was proud.  I tried to practice being the strong, silent type like him.  I found it hard to say what I felt.  But as I grew older I realized I wasn’t calm, I was just pretending to be calm.  I was rational, but I had emotions too.

Mother died in 2004 after many years of illness and devoted care from Glenda.  I miss her on Mother’s Day especially.   No matter how old I get, her shadow is still there, on the edge of the picture.

Recipe: Juanita’s “Rocks” Cookies

Rocks Cookies
Rocks cookies fresh from the oven

This recipe actually comes from my sister Juanita’s neighbor, whose mother made them in rural Pennsylvania.  Juanita sent me some at Christmas last year, and I liked them because they have that Christmas smell (see last week’s post).  Also they will keep for a week or two in a tightly closed plastic container, which is a plus sometimes, and they freeze well.

Anyway, I thought of them when I needed to make cookies for my book group, so I called Juanita and got the recipe.  When I baked them, they didn’t rise, and they cooked faster than planned.  Hmm, I said to myself, and called my sister Glenda.  Glenda said, maybe it’s because you used a dark cookie sheet?  Then she read the recipe to me, to make sure I had it all.  Woops!  I had left out the baking soda.

End of the story:  even without baking soda, they tasted fabulous.  So I took them to book group, and they snarfed them down, and requested the recipe.   Juanita called afterwards for a report, so I had to admit my mistake.  She laughed, and said the first time she made them, they ran all over the pan.  Her neighbor forgot to mention the flour when she gave her the recipe!

So here’s the deal.  If you want them the way they are supposed to look, and with the texture they are supposed to have (a little bit puffy and cakey), follow the recipe precisely.  If you have dark cookie sheets, lower the temperature by 25 degrees!  If you want them chewy and not puffy, leave out the baking soda.  It works just fine.  Also, this recipe can be halved.  It makes an inordinate amount of “rocks.”  P.S.  For some reason, this image will not rotate!  Makes me crazy.  Just turn your head sideways to see what the non-baking-soda version looks like.

“Rocks” Cookies

1 cup butter

1 cup sugar

4 eggs

3 cups regular flour

1 lb. each of chopped dates, raisins, and chopped walnuts

1/2 teaspoon each of allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt

1 teaspoon baking soda, dissolved in a little hot water

Cream butter and sugar.  Add eggs.  Add dry ingredients and baking soda (batter will be stiff).  Fold in the dates, raisins, and walnuts.  Drop by spoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets.

Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes (if using dark cookie sheets, bake at 325 instead).  Makes 5 – 6 dozen.

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