This is a story about self-respect and tradition and honoring long-gone parents; about lover turning against lover, mother against child.
In other words, this being October in New England, this is a story about turning on the heat.
If we were a less swaggery state, Sept. 15 could be considered the legitimate kick-off to the heat season. That’s when landlords are required to make sure their residential properties are at least 68 degrees during the day and at least 64 degrees at night, per the Massachusetts State Sanitary Code.
But to quote every local still rocking shorts and a Dunkin’ iced coffee and vowing to hold off until Nov. 1, “ya, no.”
We’re talking about the unofficial heat season. It’s dictated less by some meaningless “official” calendar date than by arbitrary — but set-in-stone — rules that are different for each person. The pressure to withstand the thermostat’s siren call will be particularly great this year, thanks to an expected sharp rise in home-heating prices.
Depending on the family you were born into, and the beliefs of ancestors no one otherwise honors, come this time of year, every New Englander has his or her own truth:
“No heat until trick-or-treat.”
“Not before the first snow.”
“When I can see my breath inside.”
“If you have to wear a sweatshirt with your cargo shorts for 9 continuous days to bring your trash out/go to Dunkin’ it’s time to turn on the heat,” Hingham native D.L. Lee explained in a Twitter exchange. But to 65 degrees only.
“You don’t want it wicked hot,” he added, “but you don’t want to wake up with a sore throat either.”
As too many families know firsthand, having the financial means to joke about turning on the heat is a luxury. That’s never more so than now, with the Department of Energy Resources projecting significant home-heating price increases this winter. Rising prices will be made that much more painful by a winter that’s projected to be slightly colder than last year’s and will come at a time when inflation is already straining and breaking budgets.
In many homes there is a heat boss, and in Wakefield, that’s Jennifer Blackmon, a single mother of four, who found a note on the Internet that she liked so much she now uses it on her own thermostat.
It starts with a list of pointed questions — “Are you wearing a hoodie, pants, socks? Is it November? Do you pay the gas bill?” — and then moves in for the kill:
“Unless you answer YES to all of these,” it reads, “do not turn on the HEAT!!!”
Like many fighting the good fight, Blackmon, a longtime home health aide, said she holds off in part because to turn it on is to lose control, a common lament among heat decision-makers. She described a scenario in which she returns from work and is greeted with a hot blast.
“I’m like, why is it hot in here?’” she said. “I told my teen that if you can walk outside in a snowstorm in slides and basketball shorts you have no right to complain about the temperature of the house.”
But even the most dictatorial sometimes have two sets of rules. One for human family members, who, if they’d like to stay warm, are invited to eat dinner wearing a sleeping bag, and another for the flora and fauna.
Tori Montbleau, a real estate agent and self-described “stay at home pet mom” (and also the mother of human children), usually holds off even as the chill sets in. But this year will be warmer, thanks to their new pet gecko. “I will probably cave soon for the health of my reptile baby,” Montbleau said, sounding smitten.
In Zoe Helene’s Western Massachusetts home, the decision to turn on the heat revolves around the plants. “They let me know when it is time,” said Helene, founder of the environmental feminist collective, Cosmic Sister.
The plants make their wishes known by dropping their leaves, she said, thinking of her sacred — and tropical — Brugmansia, a gift from a friend and translator in the rainforest. “It wants to be in the Amazon,” she said.
Heat happens behind closed doors, so if you keep your shades closed, you can prance around your home in a T-shirt, barefoot, and no one needs to be the wiser. And besides, what really counts as “turning on the heat”? Do space heaters? Wood-burning stoves? That’s between you and your conscience.
But for some people, the battle is an internal one, pitting immediate physical comfort against childhood memories.
In early October, after a few cold days, WCVB anchor Maria Stephanos was involved in just such a struggle.
“Have you turned the heat on yet?” she tweeted. “I am fighting it not sure I will win.”
Reached at home, where the heat had not yet won, Stephanos explained that the chill was an homage to her late mother, who kept the temperature in their Groveland home set to 62 degrees.
“She was proud that we had to put 11 sweaters on to stay warm inside,” Stephanos said.
She thought back to her tween self, who “lived” to walk by the thermostat and tick it up a few degrees. “But my mother knew in a second,” Stephanos said. She happily mimicked her mother’s cry. “MAH-ree-ah!”
Stephanos had baked banana bread earlier in the day, she said, and kept the oven door open a crack afterwards to warm the kitchen. “My mother would be so proud of me right now.”