Monday, February 6, 2012

A new flame really lights my fire

Ralph and Atom enjoy the glow of the gas-fired flame

Simply Living
February 6, 2012

I've been spending quite a bit of time lately sitting by the fireplace. My bare feet rest on the raised hearth while a steady blaze warms my toes.

A fireplace is not a feature most Northerners expect to find in a Florida home, but when we built our house 20 years ago we knew we wanted one included in the design. Except for the five years when we lived in Kissimmee, we always had a fireplace.

Our first home was on Cape Cod, where some sort of wood-burning feature was an integral part of all residential construction. A mason installed the firebox, but my husband made it beautiful by facing the front and back with large stones that we collected from the beach.

When I think back to those days, it's hard to believe how much work we did. Before any stone was set in place, we handled it at least four times.

The first step, of course, was finding stones. To do that, we'd drive to the dock, get into either the family's old Beetle Cat sailboat or trusty Boston Whaler and head to one of several small islands in Pleasant Bay. Once there, we'd walk purposely along the shore with downcast eyes. When we found an unusually shaped, extra smooth or colorful rock, we'd pick it up and carry it back to the boat. When the boat was full we'd sail or motor home, transferring the rocks to our old Datsun station wagon before unloading them into a pile near the house. Eventually, we sorted through the pile, dividing the beach stones by size and shape. Once sorted, we took them one-by-one into the house.

Building that fireplace was quite the project, especially for a young couple with no previous masonry experience. We must have poured as much love into that structure as we did concrete and sweat, but it was worth it. The result was stunning. Our stone-faced fireplace was the perfect focal point for our hand-built home.

On Cape Cod, the hearth was truly the heart of our home, filling the house with warmth, ambience and a feeling of security. Of course, it also filled it with smoke, ashes and the occasional ember that burned holes in the yellow pine floorboards and covered the pretty beach stones with smudgy, black soot. The downside to a blazing fire is that burning wood is a messy affair. Bugs and dirt come into the house with kindling and cordwood and no matter how careful you are a certain amount of smoke inevitably sneaks into the air.

Fireside memories from old Cape Cod motivated us to include a raised hearth fireplace in our Lake County home, but stays in the cabins at Silver River State Park in Silver Springs were responsible for our switch last month from wood to gas.

A favorite part of our overnight getaways to a state-park cabin was time spent in front of the gas fireplace. Each time we were there, Ralph and I were impressed when a flick of a switch was all it took to set the realistic looking ceramic logs aflame. A pretty fire raged as long as we wanted it to without any smoke, dirt or nasty bugs.

For two years, Ralph and I talked about converting our wood fireplace to a gas unit like the one we enjoyed at the park cabin. We did research, visited local stores and looked at dozens of images on the Internet of different log sets and flames. Finally, we made a decision and after a few false starts due to faulty materials, our propane-fired vented gas log set was up and working.

Now, on a chilly winter morning, we can warm our toes by a dancing flame. My allergy-sensitive nose appreciates the lack of smoke in the air and my yen for a tidy house is satisfied by the no-fuss-no-muss nature of fake logs and a gas flame.

If you had asked me 30 years ago if I'd exchange wood logs for made-to-look-like-wood ones, I would have laughed and said "No way!" Three decades since, I've had time to reconsider. The ambience and ease of a gas log set makes sense in Florida's mild climate. It's the perfect way to take the edge of a chilly day without adding unnecessary work.

Needs change over time. So do people. What I need now is more focus-on-the-fire time. Think I'll brew up some tea, take it over to the fireplace, put my feet up on the hearth, push the remote and enjoy the fire's steady glow.

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