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Sunday, January 24, 2010

And they did

While moving things to repaint the living room, Risa knocked a chimney from one of the five lamps on the mantel and made extra work for herself, picking up glass. She decided it was time to reduce from five to four lamps there anyway, so added a bit more work pouring oil from the chimney-less lamp into the wells of the other four, cleaning chimneys and trimming wicks as she went.

During her break, she picked up the book she'd been reading, Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, and upon what did her eye fall but this passage:
Ma sat in her rocking chair, sewing by the light of the lamp on the table. The lamp was bright and shiny. There was salt in the bottom of its glass bowl with the kerosene, to keep the kerosene from exploding, and there were bits of of red flannel among the salt to make it pretty. It was pretty.
Hmm! Risa rose up, putting the book aside, and stepped into the kitchen to rummage through the rag cabinet. Sure enough, at the bottom of the box, the forty-first and last rag was a handkerchief-sized hunk of red terrycloth. It would have to do.

What size is "bits?" Laura didn't say. Taking the rag and a pair of scissors with her back to her chair, Risa reduced the rag to a pile of postage-stamp-sized "bits" (some were larger) and rose up and stuffed them, more or less equally divided, down the openings of the lamp wells, where they took up kerosene, became heavy, and sank.

The effect was immediate, and she found it pleasing. Magnification, distortion and refraction give the illusion of "red" lamp oil! The four lamps would now make a pleasing accent for the ends of the long mantel. Risa cleaned the empty lamp base and put it away with the spare chimneys and wicks.

Red oil is sold in stores, of course, but is not suitable for practical lamp work. The stuff is "scented," which is to say it stinks, making the atmosphere in the house even more poisonous than does clear oil. Sometimes the power is off after a storm comes in off the Pacific, and the lamps have a real place in the scheme of things, so the stench of their burning is tolerated. With "scented" oil it wouldn't be.

D'ya s'pose they make such impractical lamp oil because they've seen pictures of lamps with red wells and are trying for the look without knowing how it was done? Or did the well-to-do have colored lamp oil in those days, but maybe with a better formula than manufacturers of today know anything about? She wondered.

After painting the living room walls and ceiling with a roller (the next day she would see to the angled corners with a small brush), Risa put back the furniture and the lamps and built up the fire a bit. Rain was pouring from all the eaves and hammering at the ground round the foundations.

On top of the woodstove she set a pan of potatoes in water to boil in their jackets, and next to it set the Dutch oven to preheat. She made up a batch of cornbread and poured it into a round cake pan and set the pan in the Dutch oven and covered it with the lid. After reading Laura Ingalls Wilder some more, she checked the cornbread (done!) and moved the Dutch oven to the warming shelf behind the stove.

Then she checked the potatoes (just about done) and carried the pan into the kitchen, where she cut up some of them with onions, moved them to an oiled frying pan, and back to the woodstove.

After she turned the potatoes a few times, she got a small trout from the refrigerator, where it had been thawing, shook it in a sack with cornmeal, and rolled out the trout into the frying pan. She turned the trout once, and the potatoes one more time.

When Beloved came home, Risa told her about the lampwell trick from the Little House stories.

"Let's eat by lamplight tonight," said Beloved.

And they did.

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