Braving pesky moth crystals on first chilly morn

JACQUES KELLY

November 09, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

During the 11th month of the year, the grass in the front yard was coated with frost in the morning. The furnace in the cellar made noises like the boilers on the Titanic.

An alarm clock never needed to go off in that old house on Guilford Avenue in Baltimore's Charles Village. The hot-water heat pipes started clanging and banging about 6 in the morning, issuing a not-so-subtle wake-up call to each of the house's 12 inhabitants.

The noises from the furnace were actually something of a second warning. The day's first alarm came in the pre-dawn. My grandmother, Lily Rose, and her sister, Great Aunt Cora, had separate rooms where each adhered to a custom of sleeping under layers of scratchy wool blankets with windows wide open to the night air. Come 5:30, they arose and immediately lowered the large windows suspended by chains on heavy sash weights. The sound of those lead bars grinding through the window frames acted as a kind of first warning at an hour known best by newspaper and milk deliverers.

There were other sounds. It was a certain sign that you had overslept if you were awakened by the steam whistle atop a distant plant -- always referred to as the tomato factory. It sounded at 6:55 a.m.

Those frosty November mornings brought hearty breakfasts. No corn flakes. No Pop Tarts. Great Aunt Cora usually had a pot of oatmeal bubbling, with maybe another one with cream of wheat for the special-order people such as my mother -- her niece -- who preferred that cereal. My grandfather's typical breakfast was dark toast, stewed prunes and hot coffee but in November the prunes often became a baked apple with condensed milk.

Sometimes, some of Sunday morning's flannel cake batter survived. Cora added a little baking soda and we'd have a Sunday breakfast all over again on Mondays.

A sudden drop in the mercury meant donning more clothes for school. All the gloves and mufflers were stored in a piece of furniture known as the sewing box. This was an aged mahogany stand with two deep bins and three or four drawers. I think it was one of my grandmother's wedding gifts.

Its compartments held all the woolen furnishings designed to combat a frosty North Baltimore morning. My mother lived her life waging a battle against moths. To her, these were the airborne enemy of the fleecy lamb's wool scarf, the Scottish tam-o'-shanter and the hand knitted mittens made in New Windsor by her friend, Rosamond Weisburger. Mama would not be defeated.

Sometime in April or May, she had gathered all the woolens and doused them liberally with moth crystals. As an extra preventive to insect picnics, she'd often painstakingly pour the fine granules into gloves' fingers.

Then she'd pack the sewing box tighter than an Army foot locker and close it up for the summer.

Whoever made the -- from the breakfast table first on that nippy morning got to pry open the drawer for the season's first crack at the wool hats, glove and scarf collection. Once opened, the drawers had a way of popping their contents out over the front hall floor. These winter fashion accessories were handed down from Kelly to Kelly (there were six of us in nine years), school color to school color as graduations happened and academic allegiances changed.

Within a few minutes, the first floor was a rainbow of dyed wool -- City College orange and black, Loyola blue and gold, Johns Hopkins light blue, Visitation purple, Notre Dame navy. There were also versions of Ancient and Dress Stewart plaids brought back by family and friends from Bermuda and Canada that were the last things snatched up. Their drawback was their lack of style, but they were warm and practical.

Now came Mama's revenge for the squabbling over scarf rights. In the shadowy morning rush, you yanked the garb that appealed most without bothering to remove whatever amount of moth crystals had failed to decompose.

Try yanking on a pair of gloves loaded with moth flakes in the little finger cavity. Those pulverized shards of chemical hurt. One of my siblings claimed the moth crystals could actually draw blood.

Within minutes, the population of the house had decreased by 50 per cent, the cooking pots were in the sink and the sewing box's drawers had survived another November morning.

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