On Pilot Lights

The first time I saw a fire’s flame, I stood on the second floor of a third-story row home in my favorite place – my grandmother’s kitchen. The small space housed a gas stove with circular dials. Each of its fickle knobs was rotated right. All settings were on high. I wore a plaid button-down shirt and frayed denim; both were new to me. A cherry patch shimmered brightly on my right knee. I screamed and begged my grandmother to call 911, then prayed to a G-d I did not believe could hear me. I was just as worried, if not more, about my clothes – newly purchased, as I was for my stack of library books (mostly Judy Blume and Stephen King). Risk to life and limb seemed farfetched and fleeting. “Hush,” she said. “Everything is fine. We won the game of life.” At that moment I realized, the stove’s flame was a sign – of light. The Game of Life and Othello were also prized possessions. The stove was her first purchase on this side of the Atlantic. Her board game collection a close second. The pilot light, as I came to properly call it, was both her guardian and her guide.

Now, I listen to the radio and process what the speaker shares during a discussion of the dangers of asthma and air. Burning fossil fuels. Insufficient hoods. Pipeline networks. Talk of compressor stations and drilling rigs. I pick up on whistles and clues like those emitted by my grandmother’s tea kettle. The gas stove might have a limited lifespan. How can I reconcile the warnings with the nurturing and nourishment I found sitting beside the gas stove in my grandmother’s row home?

The news warnings ignite memories that simmered over a gas stove’s low flame. My grandmother would broil fish and fry chicken while the world stewed. She fled one war, then lost a son to another. Her nerves were never again in order. Xanax not yet over the counter. The stove became her refuge. The blue light was always on. Her kettle was always prepared to whistle all while the black and white TV remained dialed into prime time. Soaps both Days of Our Lives and Dove would bubble. No matter the state of readiness of her cupboards, her door was always open. She was persistently present and always ready to dine. Also, mine.

Origins often obscure, I’d jump each time I heard a click. The sound was just as often her dinner prep as her dentures. Despite her advanced age, my grandmother’s kitchen was heavy with adventure. She was content to remain planted. Spent her days prepping dishes from far-flung latitudes. She rarely ventured further than her patio divide. The only forms of division she wished to entertain were equal portions of pie, cherry, and raspberry her specialty.

When she passed, I struggled to breathe. I lost my pilot and I saw myself evaporate in her kettle’s steam. As debates on the future of the gas stove rage, I listen and wait, then consume memories as they saturate. Bowls and plates. Palates and platers. Reports indicate that the ban might only apply to new purchases. I wonder, what is the price of a memory – not for sale.

About the Poem

Reflection: As concerns for the health risks of gas stoves populate the airwaves, I prefer, instead, to reflect on the warmth I found in a kitchen that was always open and with a gas stove that was always on.

About the Author

Jen Schneider is a community college educator who lives, works, and writes in small spaces throughout Pennsylvania.

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