Summer nights were for sitting on the front porch

JACQUES KELLY

May 31, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

By tradition, Memorial Day means that summer has arrived in Baltimore. In years past in the Monaghan-Kelly household, the arrival of the holiday meant that iced tea could be served every night. The screen door could now slam. Every window in the house could be hung with a navy blue roll-up blind.

When Decoration Day arrived, as my grandmother Lily Rose referred to the holiday, her porch became the center of the house.

The nightly routine never changed much at the corner of 29th Street and Guilford Avenue, where all the rowhouses came with grass terraces and contiguous front porches. Until Labor Day, or maybe a week or two later, if you weren't out evenings on your porch on lazy summer evenings, you were presumed dead.

Porch-sitting began in earnest after dinner, after the last of the iced tea had been scooped out of a blue crockery bowl and stowed away in the ice box, after the Oriole gas range had cooled, and after the last dinner dish had been washed. On a hot night, this retreat was shady and inviting.

It was also a very public spot. Perched there, you could watch the whole neighborhood under the cover of a big striped canvas awning. The awning's privacy was illusory. The rest of the neighborhood watched you, too.

I well recall the assortment of porch furniture in those days, the era when the dried out, old green wicker chairs were trying to hold their own against the newer metal models. Lily Rose and her sister, great Aunt Cora, were all enthusiastic seamstresses. Each wicker chair had its own pillow covered in a summery

cotton. Occasionally, the pillows were made of the same print as in the dresses they were wearing. Their billowy dresses and plumped pillows made for quite a sight.

Each adult member of the family had an assigned space, chair and pillow. Being the eldest of the six in the junior generation, I got the run of the porch and generally seized a spot on the concrete coping that ran around the perimeter. A metal glider, which drank household oil yet persistently squeaked, was another favorite resting spot. Its cushions also doubled as superb components for building a play house.

In those days, air conditioning was reserved for the Boulevard movie theater. The lack of air conditioners in homes assured a healthy turnout each evening on the rockers and lawn chairs on the neighborhood's porches.

There was conversation and newspaper reading as both of the city's afternoon dailies were passed back and forth, section by section, from my grandfather to his wife, onto her sister and then to my parents. Once I asked what the difference was between the News-Post and The Evening Sun. My grandmother said she preferred one for the pictures and the other for the words. By about 8:30, it was growing too dark to read anymore.

My grandfather often used that hour as an excuse for getting out of his rocking chair and walking a block south to Dr. T. Ellsworth Ragland's Guilford Pharmacy. He might buy a few cigars or a pint of peach ice cream. He also bought the first edition of the next morning's newspaper, which was then available by 9. More words to read.

Sometimes I'd tag along with my grandfather and watch as the gas street lights would come on. The sycamore trees did their best to block the reflected silvery glare from Memorial Stadium, where you'd always hear a roar on a humid night.

There were definite signs that the porch-sitters were giving some thought to retiring to the Land of Nod. The main bedtime alarm was the order that Lily Rose issued to raise the awning. That was a fun job. The awning was held by ropes and pulleys and made a whoosh noise as it went up.

Lily Rose always said it was a custom to put the awning up at

night, but I really think she wanted to spy unobstructedly on the neighbors as deep night fell over Guilford and 29th.

Occasionally Pop Monaghan, my grandfather, would grow a little rhapsodic on a Memorial Day evening. He'd start lecturing the assembled grandchildren about the Civil War and the exploits of his Uncle Leonard.

Lily Rose put up with the soliloquy as long as she could, then whispered, "Don't believe a word he tells you."

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