Summertime, when the living was busy and the screens had to go up

Jacques Kelly

June 03, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

The retrieval of the window screens from the basement storage bin was one of the signs that the season of the housefly, the lightning bug and the bumblebee was here.

I was partial to those old wooden screens. Getting them out of storage told me that school would soon be out for the summer. The screens also made me feel important for I would be allowed to hose them down in the backyard before they were installed in the windows. Some years, even the job of repainting their wooden frames fell to me.

In the 1950s, at least in our Guilford Avenue neighborhood, long before it was called Charles Village, there was a gradual phasing-in of summer. It was a lot of work to get these barnlike, three-story rowhouses ready for summer.

It was not accomplished with the flick of a power switch that turned on a central air-conditioner. But, observing the work and doing some of it sure beat diving into a book the reading teacher had recommended.

Every window in the house (there were 25) had summer screens. To leave a screen in a window after October was considered a breach of domestic law. It was also ill-advised. The wire mesh tended to rust and break. And no matter how small a tear in a screen, every hornet in north Baltimore seemed to know its precise location.

One year, my Uncle Jack devised a better system of installing screens. He nailed heavy thumbtacks with numbers imprinted on their heads to each screen and windowsill.

The screens were stored under the front porch in a cool chamber loaded with old trunks and porch furniture. This compartment was the farthest spot from the back steps and back door. Easy access was not a foremost consideration. It was all hard work.

Before the screens were put up, the storm windows, wooden and unwieldy, had to come out. This was a job too big for an 8-year-old.

Inside the house, all the wool rugs came up and straw matting went down. Curtains, window shades, bedspreads and lampshades were also changed. The canvas awning, held together with heavy pipes, also had to be installed.

Then there were the clothes. Winter coats, sweaters and suits went to the cleaners for summer storage or were given a heavy dusting of moth crystals and put away.

My grandmother Lily Rose and her sister, Cora, believed that in summer, you had to outsmart the wretched heat. They stripped the dining room sideboard of their parents' wedding silver. They stashed away vases and candlesticks in a belief that this bric-a-brac caught dust.

Other changes occurred in the kitchen. The two ladies made a judgment call when to quit perking coffee and start brewing iced tea. It seems Memorial Day had something to do with it.

The iced tea my grandmother made was the bellwether of the season. She packed two metal tea caddies tight with loose tea, then added numerous scoops of sugar, the juice and skins of three whole lemons and a pot of steaming water in a deep Dresden blue tureen that dated from the 1920s. In four hours, she had the most delectable beverage I'd ever tasted.

This time of the year, Cora produced her legendary strawberry shortcake. She took her usual Sunday night biscuit recipe and made a mound of dough. When baked, it resembled a mountainous moonscape.

She iced this crumbly oversized biscuit with nun's butter -- powdered sugar and butter. She then topped the buttered biscuit with mashed, sweetened strawberries (those from Anne Arundel County were preferred) and topped it all with real whipped cream.

Making the shortcake was as labor-intensive as installing the screens. But cooking was all part of her day's work.

Come evening, the whole family took to the front porch. The two sisters traded various sections of The Evening Sun and News-Post between them until it grew too shadowy to read.

The lightning bugs came out. The old green gas street lights came on. And, before long, the clan started yawning.

I begged to pull the ropes to raise the porch awning for the night as people slipped upstairs to bed. The sisters believed in a full day's work. It began at 5 a.m.

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