Some like it hot, but Grandma Lily Rose liked it cold

Jacques Kelly

January 31, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

The sound of a heavy window going up signaled a cold bedtime.

A winter night some 40 years ago meant my large family entered the land of nod with raised windows.

The tradition of sleeping in the winter air may have fallen into disfavor. But my grandmother, Lily Rose Stewart Monaghan, was determinedly old-fashioned. She dominated the 12 of us and ran the big old Guilford Avenue house pretty much the way her mother had run her big old North Broadway house.

My grandmother rose each morning in the dark. Neighbors swore she liked to hang clothes at 4 a.m. She and her sister, Cora Stewart O'Hare, who lived on the third floor, shared a passion for the early morning hours and they also believed in stimulating blasts of cold night air.

Lily Rose also wielded a mighty hand at the furnace. I think her predilection for arising at 4 a.m. was connected to her many years of tending the coal furnace.

Even after we'd converted to an oil burner, Lily Rose sighed for her coal furnace, which she said produced a more even heat and kept the house "as warm as toast." She even talked nostalgically of the day the old heater filled with gases, exploded and sent the iron coal door flying across the cellar.

In the mornings, Lily Rose the stoker pepped up the fire box with shovels of anthracite. Within a few minutes, the pipes would bang and clatter. And each evening, she banked the furnace so that the remaining coal burned slowly through the night. The house grew cooler but was by no means as cold as the six bedrooms.

Great Aunt Cora also subscribed to her sister's beliefs. Her room, which faced the northwest and was the farthest from the heating plant, was never as warm as the rest of the house. It also had three large windows which leaked as much air as they kept out.

But no matter what the temperature, when Cora closed the draperies at night, she fastened back the middle set of curtains with little cords with brass rings on the ends. Then she raised a window about a foot.

Lily Rose did the same in her room and enforced the "window open" rule on her grandchildren. When her precepts were challenged, she said a cold room promoted deeper sleeping. Fortunately, we had blankets, piles of them, the same ones I use today.

It was a more innocent era. You could keep a window open at night without fearing for your life. The only worries we had about crime were caused by newspaper accounts of the cat burglars who stalked 1950s Baltimore.

Snow or other foul weather never changed the open-window rule. Many a morning there was a dusting of snow on the bedroom floor. One particularly white morning, Cora brushed a light dusting of snow from her knitting table and rocking chair.

It was on mornings like those that Cora dug into the recesses of her closet for her warmest cold-weather garb, some ancient beaver or sealskin coat that would not meet approval from today's animal rights' activists. Cora said there was nothing like a fur coat for warmth for her daily, pre-dawn walk to church.

In truth, as cold as the rooms seemed at night, the house was always warm in the morning. The coffee was perking away long before WBAL broadcaster Galen Fromme's voice came over the kitchen radio. By the time Grandpop Ed Monaghan carried me downstairs piggyback, Lily had his stewed prunes on the table.

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