There is more sexual vocabulary to a 1950s O’Keefe & Merritt stove than you might imagine. The central component of the valve is the shaft, which needs to be lubricated. The valve itself fits into the burner, which is the female end. These things were taught to me by a man named Diamond Jones, who showed me I could work with my hands in ways I never thought possible. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In 1984 my husband and I bought our first house: a beach cottage in Santa Monica. When the previous owner vacated, he left behind the piano and the stove. I was thrilled to accept both. Although the piano was a handsome piece of furniture, it turned out to be completely unsalvageable from a musical standpoint. However, the stove was flawless and would soon become something of an obsession for me.
It’s ironic, I suppose, because I don’t cook in any interesting or creative way. My fascination with the stove had nothing to do with food. Rather, I loved what it signified: a sturdy, straightforward, mechanical (as in nonelectronic) representation of a simpler time. It was a presence that sat in the center of my kitchen, and therefore in the center of my household, and therefore at the center of my family, and therefore at the center of my universe, and somehow anchored it.
For 11 years, life with my stove was uneventful. The fun began when my husband and I moved to a small town in New York’s Hudson Valley and brought the stove with us. Pretty soon one thing after another began to break down. Once the pilot light extinguished itself and the oven stopped working, I called a local appliance store, and they sent out a man we’ll call Dan.
Dan was exhausted, probably underpaid, and definitely overwhelmed. He was also an old hand at fixing stoves. Well, some stoves, that is. Not mine. The most he was able to do was repair the pilot light.
About a year later, I went to work for a month in Los Angeles, where O’Keefe & Merritt stoves are more commonplace. At this point, the pilot light was igniting but the burners were not firing up. I decided to consult someone about my stove and its idiosyncrasies. I saw an ad for a store called Antique Stove Heaven; I called and was referred to Diamond.
When I described my stove woes to him, he told me I needed to clean the valves. I asked him how and he said to bring a valve in to the store. So I called my husband in New York and asked him to open the stove, find a valve (somehow), and send one to me. Luckily, my husband was both indulgent and mechanical enough to be up to the task.
Antique stove heaven is a gem of sparkling cleanliness in notoriously rough South Central Los Angeles—close to the site where the 1992 Rodney King–inspired riots began. Family owned for 27 years, it sells and services such beautiful, immaculately restored old stoves that walking into its showroom feels akin to walking into a stove museum. I went to the office, described what I needed, and was told to go in the back and see Diamond. The back was a cavernous workroom filled with decrepit, dead, and dying stoves and parts waiting for triage. At the far end, standing at a workbench, was a strong, handsome man, deep in concentration on his work: Diamond Jones, nephew of the owner. When he turned his pale, soulful eyes on me, I was overcome with self-consciousness. But that was nothing compared with what happened when he started telling me how to clean my valves.
I stood close to Diamond as he peered at the tiny shaft, which breaks down into about 100 little pieces. (Well, it was probably six or seven, but it felt like 100.) He showed me how to deconstruct the shaft, clean it, oil it, and put it back together. Then he made me try.
“I don’t think I can do this,” I said, awed by what he had just done.
“Of course you can,” he said, soothingly.
“I’m afraid,” I whispered.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he murmured. Mind you, Diamond wasn’t flirting with me—not at all. But that didn’t stop me from going a little weak in the knees.
I returned home to New York, where my husband had been dutifully feeding our two daughters toaster-oven meals for a month. After he had disassembled the stove and managed to find a valve, he couldn’t figure out how to put the whole thing back together. He had called Dan for help, but the sight of the stove’s jumbled mess had put Dan over the edge; he had stormed out muttering obscenities.
I tried not to panic: There was work to be done, and I had to do it. Nearly paralyzed with anxiety, I took apart the first valve. Several pieces into the job, I got lost and called Diamond. He guided me through the process, and then I was off on my own, taking apart, cleaning, and reconstituting all five burner valves. It was a triumph. If I could do that, I determined, I could probably do anything. Well, except reassemble the entire appliance.
If repairing my stove could make me feel this good about myself, I thought it could have the same salutary effect on poor, beleaguered Dan. I called him and explained how he was the only one who could put the stove back together for me. The flattery worked, though the process was excruciating. I stood beside him every step of the way, praising his acumen and cheering him on as he threatened to give up. Finally, Dan put the last of the pieces back in place and lit up with pride. He was a new man.
Life with my stove went along swimmingly for several years—until the pilot light stopped working once more. I called Dan yet again to come fix it, but the appliance company told me Dan had quit. Stricken with guilt, I felt sure it was my fault. Following the inevitable post-adrenaline crash that ensued after tending to my stove, he probably couldn’t face another appliance and ended his career. Plus, he had put out the word about me; the company told me that no one on their staff could fix my stove anymore.
I needed Diamond. Over the phone, he diagnosed the problem and talked me through how to fix it—but it would only be temporary without a more thorough repair, he warned.
“Do you ever come to New York?” I said, jokingly.
“Well, I’m going to have to,” he said in his deep baritone, “if I’m going to fix your stove.” I laughed. “I’d pay your airfare!” He laughed, I laughed some more, and we said good-bye.
About a month later, I received an urgent phone message from Diamond asking me to call him right away. Puzzled, I called him back. “I’ve got a great deal on an airfare for a month from now,” he said. “But I need to make sure you authorize it, and I’ve got to buy it today.” This was no joke. A few weeks later, he arrived at my house, wearing his Antique Stove Heaven uniform and carting an enormous, fully loaded tool kit. I introduced him to my husband, who had stuck around for the event. He had felt a little threatened after hearing about my training session with Diamond in L.A.
Diamond spent eight hours with my stove, taking it apart, boiling each part to clean it, reconditioning and reconstituting every inch. I wandered in and out of the kitchen, we talked, I made lunch. At the end of the day, he billed me for his airfare, a few parts, and the labor. The total was about one-tenth of what it would have cost me to replace my workhorse of a stove, which, thanks to Diamond—and its mechanical structure—will probably be around forever.
People frequently admire my stove, and when they do, I seize the opportunity to tell the story of my love affair with it, of Diamond, the lessons he gave me, my heroic ministrations, Dan’s breakdown. For years my teenage daughter would say, when her friends hung around the kitchen, “Mom, tell the stove story.” This was not because she shared my enthusiasm for the stove but to confirm to her friends what an idiot I was.
My relationship with my stove has outlasted my kids’ childhoods and my marriage, too. As the complications of change and loss, and the unpredictability of life, unfurl before me, my stove remains the same: functional, dependable, easy to understand. It continues to occupy its space in the center of my kitchen, and it serves as a constant reminder to me of what can be restored even when all hope appears to be lost.
And though my family is now far-flung, when my children come home and we spend time together cooking, eating, enjoying one another’s company around the hearth of simmering pots and roasting dishes—it still, in its way, anchors my universe.