When the Furnace Comes On

I came downstairs at 6:07 a.m., and it was cold in the house.

“I’m NOT turning on the heat,” I said to myself, “not when it’s only halfway through October.” I went and got an old jacket and threw it on over my teaching togs. I made a full pot of decaf and warmed my hands on the mug.

The car, by the time I hit the interstate, was warmer than the house had been.

That night, at a meeting, we discussed the sudden chill temps.

“I refuse,” said one of the women, “to turn my furnace on in October.”

We all nodded sagely, although some of the assembled looked hastily away. Ha, I thought; your heat is on, isn’t it?

By the time I got home, just after 9:00, it was downright frosty outside. It was a-soak-in-a-hot-tub kind of a night. And when I woke up at 3 a.m., I realized that the thermostat, or one of my housemates, had undermined my firm intent. The house was warm, and the furnace was chugging.

I smiled and went back to sleep.

And in the morning the house was toasty and welcoming to early risers.


There’s a certain smell when the furnace first comes on,–even when someone has changed the filters and cleaned the big old machine. It’s an odor of roasted paper and friendly dust. It rises up for a morning, and just smelling it is an event. And then the scent settles down, settles in; the heat reaches into all the nooks and all the corners, and it becomes, firmly and with no nonsense, furnace season.


Why, oh why, oh why, I have been moaning, did I agree to teach four classes this term? And why, having done that, did I construct my syllabi so that all four had papers due—big papers, significant papers, papers that require intensely focused responses—in the second week of October?

Oh, woe, oh, woe, I have been saying, and I have been walking hunchbacked, as if tumbled over by the weight of all those papers on my back.

I’ll never get caught up, I might have lamented once or twice.

And then Wednesday, while my class of lovely, smart, and witty people were taking their midterms, I graded the last of one set of essays, and I realized I only had one more set to go. The students completed their midterms; since most of them had opted to put pen to paper, I bundled the stapled documents into the Wednesday class folder. The last student waved and left; I chatted for a moment with the instructor who teaches in the room after I do; and then I walked outside.

It was crisp—one of those blue-sky days where the air is champagne-clear. The trees, since the temps dropped, had finally started to turn, and the colors were creeping up, glorious. A breeze chuffled dry leaves around and about; every once in a while, that breeze got really playful and swirled those leaves in circles, then lifted them up and let them fall. I was smiling when I got in the car, and the almost-hour’s drive melted away, and after lunch, I put my sneakers on and went for a long, stretching walk. I wore my skinny knit gloves, and when I came home, I graded three more papers and then I took James to the library.

And suddenly I wondered what I had been so worried about. The grading was getting done. After the midterm, the semester stretches out into the final paper process, and the grading slows way down. I shifted my shoulders, and I realized they had been tight with tension, and I chided myself.

I got a couple of soup and stew cookbooks to look through while Jim browsed the DVD’s and the manga section, and I imagined the house smelling like beef stew and baking bread while leaves swirled outside, and everything clicked into place.

This is completely doable, I thought.

There’s a little bit of magic in the days when the furnace clicks on.


There’s magic in each season, really, but if pressed, I would have to say that autumn is the best. These are my days, I thought suddenly, and I realized that Fall is my favorite, with its outrageous colors and whimsical decorations and rolling chestnuts and skittering leaves.

Manic squirrels run across streets, daring and urgent. I look out the kitchen window and there’s one frantically tunneling in the front yard.

Hide the acorns! I imagine them chittering to each other and they scramble off in every direction, blatting at the neighborhood cats, frantic to get their pantries settled before the really cold weather settles in.

I understand how they feel. I press Jim into service, and we inventory the freezers, and I make up my shopping list. It is hunker-down season. It’s time to be sure there’s plenty on hand.

And that of course, must be some atavistic, inherited autumn impulse, because the supermarket is eight minutes away, and I could walk, if need be, to the corner store. But something impels me to bake cookies, to vacuum and mop, to sweep the back steps, and to rake the leaves out near the street, where the leaf-sucker has easy access.

And on Friday, after lunch, James gamely plays wingman for a long afternoon of errands.

We recycle ink cartridges at the office supply store and buy new pens and replace my missing ear buds.

We drive to the bins back behind the animal shelter and recycle cardboard and paper.

We shop at Kohl’s; we buy some small plates, orange and red and gold and brown, that say things like, “Thankful for Fall!” on them. As the last of the soft soap dribbles away, I am replacing the plastic dispensers with ceramic plates to hold bars of soap—bars that come in little cardboard boxes…one small way to circumvent household plastic.

We buy some birthday surprises for the dad.

And then, on this glorious afternoon, this perfect fall day, we head north to Dresden, and then we turn onto Route 16, and we drive five miles more to the apple stand. “Our own apples!” says the sign, and we pull up next to the red-painted barn and go exploring, hunting for apples to make a birthday pie and a big batch of applesauce.

The woman behind the counter, my age or older, is bundled up. She wears a knit cap, pulled down to her eyebrows (little sproings of gray hair escape) and a puffy, pale blue jacket. She looks at me through steel rimmed glasses; I am comfy in my long-sleeved knit shirt.  She says, “I think it’s warmer outside than it is in here!”

And she’s right; the big, clean-swept barn is downright chilly. She advises us, and we choose a big bag of Melrose apples for cooking and baking and a small sack of McIntosh for eating. Jim buys a package of cheesy snacks, and we chat with the chilly lady for a moment or two before heading back to town and to the little family market whose butcher shop we love.

I buy sliced ham, boneless chicken, a big chuck roast for stew, and center cut pork chops. We wander by the frozen section and choose some birthday celebration ice cream.

For dinner, we eat roasted pork chops and roasted apples.

The ice cream will go nicely with birthday apple pie.


It is a time for cooking and sharing. It’s a planning time, a reckoning time. It’s a time of energy and accomplishment and a funny little pulsing beat of joy and anticipation. It sneaks up on me; I feel the first curling fingers of winter cold sliding down my forearm and think, “Oh, no; not YET, you don’t.”

But the chill is here and it waits for me and it brooks no argument. And finally, we have to give in, don’t we?

We turn the heat on.

And with that capitulation, a door opens. The season opens up, opens into a time of warmth and possibility.

“Oh, yes,” I think. “If I work hard, and if I work smart, I can manage this just fine.”

These are the days when the air is clear and crisp, when the house smells like baking bread and bubbling soups…the days when the furnace first comes on and the fall draws close and wonderful mysteries push close to the membrane, waiting for just the right moment to reveal.

8 thoughts on “When the Furnace Comes On

  1. I used to hate fall. Now I don’t understand how I ever did. It is the most glorious of all…. until the first snow…. and the first daffodil….. lol. Love finding joy in all the seasons!!!

  2. Kim Allen

    I went away for two week, leaving a crack of a window open realizing from a far the night temperatures were in the 30’s. Sure enough, when I arrived home from 5 hours of driving through the rain, it was cold and dampish inside. I sure did turn on the welcome heat. And unceremoniously, or maybe that was it, I transitioned into fall, worried still about the work outside I had to do. The gardens not weeded, abundance of bulbs not planted and the bags of mulch not laid, holding the promise of next year has me worried. But there are warm and crisp days ahead, good to work in. And so I slip into a new groove, Autumn being my favorite season, and having established earlier that summer is not my favorite to garden. I will enjoy being outdoors, and invest in the promise of the Spring. I love fall and look forward to your writings about it. I love your words about it, as you capture it so well. I look forward to more.

    1. Kim, your outdoor plans sound wonderful and I know we will ahve lovely days to complete our work before the snow falls (she said hopefully…) Fall may be a time of settling in, but it is so full of promise, too…

      1. Kim

        Thank you so much for the inspiration. After reading your piece, I reframed my feelings, just as you did. I feel hopeful and know fall brings the promise and opportunity to do fall things. It will all happen!

  3. We’ve had snow twice and it’s stayed around but we just pulled out a blanket and cooked an oven meal. The boiler is still firmly off!
    I do enjoy fall; summer is always great but so much work! It’s nice to have that change of season and with it a new focus on different tasks. My freezers are groaning under the heaviness of the garden and orchard harvest! Still loads of tomatoes to do.
    As usual I enjoyed your words and mind set.

    1. An oven meal is so good on cold days. And I congratulate you on your stocked freezers…that is such a practical and wonderful accomplishment. Good luck with tomatoes. I am apple-focused this week!

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