Cold Facts About Sleeping

Jacques Kelly's Baltimore

January 21, 1996|By JACQUES KELLY

I always count on these last 10 days of January to be the coldest part of winter. The hottest part of the summer falls exactly six months later, in the last third of July. Or so it seems.

There is a lot in the perception about weather. Every night that I've forgotten to turn on a booster electric heater in my bedroom I grouse about how cold the room seems. Yet I know I sleep better in a cold room.

Why?

My grandmother Lily Rose told me so when I was a boy.

Somewhere over the years that tradition of sleeping in a windows-open, cold bedroom fell into disfavor. I don't know why.

My grandmother and her sister, my Aunt Cora, believed that blasts of cold night air in the bed chambers were the best friend of one seeking happy hibernation.

The sisters shared a routine in preparing for bed. They maybe had a small snack (we tended to have early dinners). Then they finished the last paragraphs of the evening newspapers. What they didn't do was watch much television; they regarded it as something of a nuisance. Even if they had watched more, though, they wouldn't have seen any TV meteorologists scaring viewers with winter-weather threats. There weren't many of those types around back then.

If there was school or work the next day, you went. After a good night's sleep in a cold room, of course.

My grandmother's last official act before climbing the steps to her bedroom was to set the main thermostat back a good bit.

She then had a few more bits of business. She wore her hair long and combed it out at her vanity table each night. The signal that she was ready to retire came when she went to the window and threw it open, no matter what the temperature.

Aunt Cora opened her bedroom to the cold also. Her third-floor window faced the northwest and received some of the strongest blasts from the wind. She lowered her window shades and fastened back the draperies with little cords that had brass rings on the ends. Sometimes I thought it was an act of futility to open the one window. She actually had three and they were all so drafty they let in as much air as they kept out.

Lily Rose enforced the windows-open rule with her grandchildren. When her precepts were challenged, she countered by saying that a cold room promoted deeper sleeping. Fortunately, we had piles of wool blankets, the same ones I use today.

It was an innocent era. Your teeth didn't chatter from worry about crime and unsecured, unbarred windows. If your teeth made noise, it was because of the north wind.

About the only time I can remember talking about crime was during a period in the 1950s when Baltimore's notorious Cat Burglar was at work. He was a man who specialized in robberies so stealthy that it often took his victims hours to realize their possessions were missing. No guns then. When captured, he said his most potent device was a screwdriver.

If we didn't fear nighttime crime we also didn't fear snow or foul weather. Many a morning there was a light dusting of snow on the bedroom floor. Over the years, these repeated doses of moisture turned the flooring brittle.

Aunt Cora kept a sewing stand by the open window in her room. Its finish wore down over the years, thanks to the nightly dose of hard weather.

I'll say this for the sisters: They may have had us sleeping in Alaska, but we awakened in Florida, or at least North Carolina.

Because the women awakened so early, they got the furnace chugging at a pre-dawn hour.

My grandmother was widely known for her early-morning activities. To this day neighbors swear she hung washed clothes at 4 a.m. She and Aunt Cora shared a passion for the dark morning hours. They had the house to themselves and raced around with an efficiency that would come to a halt once the other 10 members of our household started to sputter.

During those raw days of winter, Lily Rose and Cora dressed most appropriately. On bitter cold and windy mornings Aunt Cora would dig into the deepest recesses of her closet for an ancient sealskin or beaver coat that would not meet the approval of today's animal rights' advocates. Though there was no one who was better than Cora with all the dogs we had or with a little bird that fell out of its nest, she had no qualms about wearing fur.

She said there was nothing like a fur coat for warmth on her daily walk to church.

By the time the rest of the household was emerging from its foundation of blankets, the sisters had the coffee perking away. Then the voice of WBAL Radio broadcaster Galen Fromme would come through the glowing tubes on 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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