Cleaning generals went to war as soon as cold weather arrived

October 12, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

AT THE TIME WHEN most normal people were following the contest between the American and National leagues, the senior members of my household were batting .300 with radiator brushes and dust mops.

Our world series of domestic routine transformed the old Guilford Avenue house every October. The porch awning came down, the outside furniture got hauled into the cellar and the window screens were moved for winter storage.

Then the cleaning campaign got serious and moved indoors.

It was a curious couple of weeks, a time when my grandfather found he suddenly had a lot of business downtown and my father left for work a little earlier than usual.

Grandmother Lily Rose, the uncontested matriarch, was a woman of unchanging habits and routine. Once the weather turned cool, she took up the cause of dirt eradication, moving from third floor to cellar, systematically torturing, beating, vacuuming, washing or shaking her residential empire.

She was assisted by her sister, my great Aunt Cora, and my mother -- who often took to the cellar to wash the mountain of curtains, slip covers and rags, thereby staying clear of the cleaning generals during their most energetic campaign of the year.

During this period, the pleasant aromas (vinegar from the steamed shrimp, for example, or baking-powder biscuits) that normally floated from kitchen to dining room and stair hall disappeared.

October was a month of chemical clouds formed by gallon jugs of Varnolene (a heady and volatile mixture now frowned upon by the environmentalists), bleach, soap powder, ammonia and paste wax.

The two sisters worked methodically. They carried a heavy wood stepladder to do the walls and scour the house's pretty woodwork and trim, which attracted dirt over a summer with no air-conditioning and a lot of open windows. Sometimes their enthusiastic washing of light bulbs brought minor explosions.

The sisters propped themselves out windows in a way that might make the film-comedian Harold Lloyd shudder. If you've ever watched his film "Safety Last," the one where he hangs from the hands of an exterior clock, you get the general picture of Aunt Cora dangling high above the Guilford Avenue skyline with an ammonia rag in one hand and a window frame in the other.

They stripped the wood floors of old wax -- using steel wool and getting lots of splinters in their fingers -- only to apply a heavy coat of new paste wax.

As a child, I was fascinated by the energy they summoned for all this work, as well as for their cleaning professionalism. We even possessed a heavy-duty electric floor buffer fitted with a pair of spinning bristle disks.

The sisters were quite proud of their hardwood, parquet-pattern floors. I'm not sure these highly polished surfaces were as much appreciated by the occasional guest who took a flying header on an unsecured scatter rug.

At some point, a commercial rug cleaner's delivery man rang the doorbell and hauled in the wool carpets that had been taken up the previous May and stored over the summer. Then the washed and pressed fall draperies went up, along with the winter window blinds. (The winter roll-up blinds were a cream color; the summer blinds were dark blue.)

There was even a dirt-banishing menu. The morning a vegetable soup pot appeared on the back burner of our Oriole gas stove, I knew my grandmother had declared open season on soot.

She reasoned that after a hard day's work, the least she could allow herself was a tasty meal that wouldn't require a lot of work.

Her idea of ease was homemade soup. She cubed her beef, found a meaty bone, cut string beans and other vegetables, plus made little flour dumplings from scratch. Then, as if this weren't enough, she baked three or four cinnamon cakes.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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