Putting the family on a more solid footing

January 27, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

A FEW DAYS ago my father invited me back to the house on Guilford Avenue to unveil his newest addition - a fine oak floor installed in his sunny kitchen.

We'd talked about new floors for years. Finally, after the holidays, he called in the carpenters and did the deed. It's a glistening piece of tongue-and-groove work, worthy of the bountiful meals prepared in the social center of the house.

Don't ask me to explain it. The kitchen, with its pair of south-facing windows aimed toward Ilchester Avenue, is heart of the operation, the place where confidences are traded and boiled white icing birthday cakes made. No matter what the holiday or occasion, the front parlor empties. Its occupants drift out to the comforting warmth of these four walls, the stove and sink.

I think of the kitchen floors I've known the way I do some of the family cars - the old Buick, the creamy yellow Dodge, the two Ramblers, the metallic blue Checker and the mustard yellow Dodge Dart Swinger.

After all, this new oak model is my third kitchen floor in nearly 51 years. The first was a primeval linoleum, with squares of green and black tile, I recall. Its color probably wasn't true. Like every other underfoot surface in the house, it got covered and recovered with thick, honey-colored paste wax. While all this wax swabbing produced a dubious hue, the result did not show the dirt.

The one family story associated with this, what I presume was the original 1914 floor, revolved around the annual day when my grandmother and her sisters made their lye soap. They rendered fat (an odor whose nastiness was second only to the preparation of fried honeycomb tripe) and added the alkaline solution, lye.

Lye, if exposed to the skin, produces a nasty burn. The story goes that on one of these soap-making days, my mother, then an infant, was crawling around on the linoleum and found a piece of dropped lye that burned her lip. She loved to tell the story, display the scar - and to make her own soap.

That floor survived 45 years of potato mashing, sauerkraut fermenting and unrepentant cigarette smoking. There was also the occasional grease fire when the fried oysters got frisky on a Friday night.

When replaced, the 1914 floor was worn and beat, showing the wear only we Baltimoreans can produce in extracting full value from a worldly possession.

The second floor appeared the summer of 1959 or 1960. I remember seeing it for the first time after we'd arrived home after a summer at Rehoboth Beach. There were a full dozen of us living under the roof at that time and it made sense to concentrate the household disruption when the house was evacuated for the July and August heat spells.

This floor was a spiffy black and white tile model - which did show the dirt. I never liked it. Before long some of the squares had to be replaced. But, like the model before, it racked up 40-some years of spilled milk and washings with homemade soap. (The soap, by the way, remained in annual production until my mother's death.)

The new floor, the 2001 oak model, is the most sturdy we've ever had. My father was so pleased with it he decided the paint on the baseboard that surrounds it looked a bit shabby. So, in good Baltimore tradition, he went into the cellar, found a can of paint and did the touch-up job himself.

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