Battling winter's chill with wool

January 13, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

THE OTHER NIGHT, as the wind charged against the windows, I reached for a wool blanket to cover my feet. My house is notoriously cold and drafty, the kind of place that beckons staggering monthly fuel bills.

The blanket that kept my feet warm was a 1940 model pieced together my grandmother, Lily Rose. She made all our blankets because she knew how to conquer a Baltimore winter.

Wool blankets have kind of disappeared today in favor of down-filled coverlets and electric blankets and well-insulated houses that don't admit a chill. I stick to my old favorites because electric blankets scare me, and the feather-filled quilts are too torrid, if such a condition could exist in January.

Over the years I've collected an impressive inventory of winter blankets that no one else seems to want. My mother found a bundle of them in an old basement cupboard and knew I'd be a willing keeper. I have blankets all over the house: I use them as throws on sofas and pile them on the beds.

I feel like a real winter's night wimp compared to the rigorous, deep-winter sleeping customs of my youth.

We slept under a pile of blankets because we would sleep with windows open - wide and open to the January skies. I don't think there were any exceptions - even when it snowed. We'd wake to find a white dusting on the floor in the morning.

This was because though my grandmother turned down the furnace heat at night - a little - she liked her house to be, in her words, "warm as toast."

She also controlled the fuel supplies and paid the bills, too. She said she preferred to heat a house with coal because of the warmth it radiated.

My own take on this was that she was the kind of person who didn't leave the house much and enjoyed running it with masterful authority. She was also a morning person who thought nothing of rising in the 5 a.m. darkness to start whipping her 11 fellow family members into shape for the day's routine.

She told me how she liked to get the fire that had been banked overnight started up again in the morning. The furnace was in the cellar. Just to one side was the coal bin and her black shovel.

I think she liked the idea of knowing just how much coal she used. It was the same principle of how much chocolate she put in her caramels.

She never trusted fully the oil bills when we converted from coal to this distillate. She couldn't see the oil flowing into the furnace and didn't like the bills when she got them. She somehow thought she'd been gypped - one of the major sins in her set of household rules. Ever the Baltimorean, she had the phrase "value for money" imprinted into her philosophy of household management.

Value for money also applied to wintertime blankets.

She preferred to make her own. When it got to be time for me to exit a crib (there were other little Kellys ready to take that place), I was given a bedroom of my own up on the third floor, in the back room, one of the colder parts of the house.

One day I was taken to the part of Stewart's department store - the one the Weinberg Foundation is renovating this winter at Howard and Lexington streets - and allowed to select the wool for the blanket she would make for my bed. I was all of 4 years old and picked a shade of raspberry red because it resembled raspberry water ice. The completed blanket was not very large. Why confound a child with a heavy tarp of too much cloth?

It may have been a child's blanket, but it never wore out. It lasted and lasted, lasted much longer, in fact, than the factory-made Hudson Bay blanket I was given to take away to college. It wore out.

My red, which weathered to a shade of salmon, just got warmer. Last year I decided it was time to give it a new home. So, on a fall day, weeks before it got cold, I gave it to my sister Ann for my nephew Paul. She assures me it gets used every night.

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