I GREW up in the working-class world of Holyoke, Mass., a New England paper-mill city. The once-red brick of our tenement building, darkened by factory soot, gave our home an unkempt appearance on the outside, but the inside was spotless. Our clothes weren't always new, and sometimes they didn't match, but my mother always said, ''What's important is that they're clean.''
Our five-room apartment was small for a family with five children. We didn't have a living room, or a parlor as we called it, so the kitchen was our gathering place. It was a large bright room with three big windows overlooking the busy street three stories below, with a view of the canal and the endless row of paper mills on the other side.
The kitchen was crowded, but somehow there was room for everything. A chrome table, covered with a freshly ironed tablecloth, and six chrome-and-vinyl chairs fit snugly against the windows. Old yellowed shades had just been replaced by modern venetian blinds, and soft print curtains matched the wallpaper.
Near the table, my mother's old rocking chair faced the oval-screened television. A black, three-party-line telephone hung on the wall above the TV, both fairly new additions to our home. Colorful scatter rugs covered worn spots on the linoleum floor. Nothing fancy, but it was home.
In the fall of 1956, when I was in the 4th grade, I came home from school one day and noticed a furniture-delivery truck parked in front of our building. FRENCHIE'S USED FURNITURE was printed across the side of the truck in big black letters. Wondering who could be getting some ''new'' used furniture, I hurried up the stairs to our apartment. To my surprise, there were two delivery men at our door, talking to my mother.
From the sound of the conversation, I sensed a little difference of opinion, but I didn't concern myself with listening, because at that very moment something else caught my eye. A big, shiny fire-engine red stove stood at the top of the stairs. The bright glossy enamel glistened like glass. I walked around it, examining every inch. It was huge.
Suddenly, my train of thought was broken by my mother's voice quietly arguing with the two men in the hall. I glanced over to her for a moment and saw a look of distress on her face.
I HEARD one of the delivery men tell her there was no way they were going to cart that big thing back down those stairs. She said she didn't care what they did with it, but it wasn't going in her house. Finally, she gave in to letting them call the store to verify the correct name and address of the delivery.
''This is 563 South Canal Street, isn't it?'' I heard him ask my mother. I recall a slight look of defeat on her face when it was verified that my father had, indeed, purchased this monstrosity.
It was obvious that my father didn't concern himself with such trivialities as color coordination, and this must have been some kind of bargain. So, with mixed emotions, we watched that stove move in. By the time my older brother came home that afternoon, the stove was already installed in the middle of the kitchen.
''Wow, where'd this come from?'' he asked.
My mother kept her cool and calmly replied, ''It's our new stove, your father...'' she began.
''Hey, yeah, it's uh, really nice, Ma,'' he interrupted. ''It looks great,'' he said, as he flashed me a look of uncertainty. He stood there staring at it, unsure if he'd said the right thing.
For a long time, the red stove was the main attraction in our household. With the only door to the apartment directly facing the stove, the large bright object in the center of the kitchen could not be overlooked. We were so amused by people's expressions that we began the silent game of ''watch the person's face.'' A knock on the door brought us running to play ''the game.''
First it was neighbors, then the landlord, then the door-to-door salesmen, and ''oh, my gosh, a red stove'' from the insurance collector.
But eventually, everyone got over it, and the only times we were reminded of the color was when someone came to the door for the first time since the stove's arrival. When Father Morisette stopped by on his annual door-to-door visit to his parishioners, he just stared at the stove for a while, gave us his blessing, and was on his way.
MY friends were great; they thought having a red stove was neat. We were the only people on the block with one.
The uniqueness of this colorful monstrosity eventually made it more than a cooking and heating necessity. We found ourselves defending its very appearance and respecting its purpose. So what's wrong with a red stove? So what if it is different? Watching my mother shine it up every day, polishing the smudges off, I saw a sparkle in her eyes as bright as the shine on the enamel finish.
In the cold winter months, the warmest place in the house was right beside the stove. But that spot was already reserved for my father's old stuffed chair, and this was where he could be found any time he was at home. After playing in the snow or ice skating, we always came in wet and cold. We'd open the big oven and place our wet mittens and socks on the door, as we sat before it warming our hands and pretending it was a fireplace.
All through the cold winter nights, we could hear the comforting sound of the glugging oil jug behind the stove, silently keeping the whole house warm. Warm brown bread and pots of baked beans cooking overnight left a sweet aroma that filled the house for hours.
On Christmas Eve, the house was always filled with the wonderful warm holiday scent of a plump juicy turkey slowly cooking. Even after basting it every two hours during the night, my mother was up before daylight, and by noon the stove was covered with holiday-dinner delights.
After a while, it was hard to remember when the big red stove hadn't been a part of our family. Then one day when I was older, we moved to another building a few streets away. But the big red stove did not come with us, and a modern white stove stood in the new apartment.
I never asked what became of that famous red stove, but I knew it had served its purpose and had made its memories.