Dressing for winter, depriving the moths

November 10, 1996|By Jacques Kelly

We never needed an alarm clock in that old Guilford Avenue house in 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 the home's 12 inhabitants.

As the 11th month of the year rolled around, the front grass would be coated with frost and the cellar's furnace would be making noises like the boilers on the Titanic.

The furnace noises were actually something of a second warning. The day's first boom came before 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.

At 5: 30 a.m., they arose and immediately lowered the large windows suspended via 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 delivery boys and the milkman.

In case you missed, or ignored, those wake-up calls, there were others. You were running late if you were still in bed when the throaty steam whistle atop some distant plant -- always referred to as the tomato factory -- blasted at 6: 55 a.m. I think it gave a second toot a little after 7.

Our immediate next-door neighbors to the south never made a peep, except for one time of the day. Mr. Hoopper, as we always called this gentleman by the name of S. Stewart Hoopper (two Os, two Ps, no exceptions), saw his only daughter Julia off to the Montebello School at Harford and 32nd, where she was a librarian.

Mr. Hoopper stood on the porch, rolled up that day's morning Sun into a megaphone and broadcast a very audible warning to her to watch out for stop signs and traffic lights. I forget the precise words, but it was a loving father's daily send-off ritual.

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

If the dregs of Sunday morning's flannel cake batter had survived, Cora added a little baking soda and we'd have a Sunday breakfast all over again on Mondays. Reconstituted pancakes were never as good on the second day, but it was still a breakfast luxury. Nobody complained.

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 waged a constant battle against moths. To her, these were the airborne enemy of the fleecy lambs-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.

By April or May she had gathered all the woolens and doused them liberally with moth crystals. As an additional prevention 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 down for the summer recess.

Whoever made the dash from the breakfast table first on that nippy morning got to pry open the drawer for the season's first crack at the collection of wool hats, gloves and scarves. Once opened, the drawers had a way of popping their contents all over the front hall floor. The 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.

In a few minutes, the 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 inevitably the last things snatched up. Their drawback was their unstylish status and warm practicality.

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 percent, the oatmeal pot was in the sink and the sewing box's drawers had survived another November morning's battering.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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