I WAS WALKING down the front steps early Wednesday morning when I knew it was time to observe the annual ritual. It was warm; the wool rugs in the living room gave off a musty scent. It's time. It's May. Houseclean while it's still cool.
So, for the next few days I'll submit to this rite, a practice that so many people have abandoned -- making over a house for the season. By the time it's over (Memorial Day for sure, when the ocean house opens for the first week), I'll have lost a couple pounds and gone through every room in a cleaning frenzy worthy of my most obsessive private moments. In truth, I love it.
I acquired the taste for this compulsive behavior as a child when I witnessed my grandmother, her sister and my mother rip our Guilford Avenue rowhouse apart during the month of May, only to close it down for the summer and make a long visit to the beach. They cleaned away the winter grit, opened the windows and added slipcovers. So did just about everyone else in Baltimore.
It wasn't that I was slow to change when other people stopped going through this spring ordeal. I decided that I really liked the process -- it imparts a sense of timing -- the way some cooks roll out the grills, lay in a supply of charcoal or refill the gas canisters.
I had plans to replace an air conditioner, but then Virginia Jefferson called a few weeks ago to relay some news: The most important component of my summertime cooling system -- the canvas awning over my south-facing back porch -- is in tatters.
She and her brother Lorenz are my awning makers, as their father was to my family, in a history that stretches back to 1917.
We had a short discussion. I agreed to a new outfit. A replacement mechanical cooler will have to wait until the year 2000. So will my falling-in back porch. Now it'll just get some remedial carpentry.
Sometime this weekend I'll start rolling up the winter rugs, then haul them down the cellar steps.
I have a collection of straw summer rugs, but they don't go down until I've had the chance to vacuum and chase away the dirt of the winter of 1998-1999.
Then I go window by window and drop the screens in place. There is nothing so welcoming as the scent of fresh May air inside a house that has been closed up tight since Halloween.
Along the way I deal with a few white summer slipcovers -- very impractical -- but I like the way they look. The slipcovers make a room look like 1940s Bermuda.
The last thing to go into hiding is my wool blanket. It's still cool in the morning and I like to leave the windows open this time of the year. So I've been known to keep a blanket around until the second week of June.
By the time the housecleaning chores are over, my garden will be in full bloom. Then my priorities will shift. I'll stop obsessing about screens and start looking for lightning bugs.