Thermometer a throwback to days before digital devices (Hudson's Corner)

The other morning I sat at the kitchen table with the door open. Cool air filtered in, so cool I was glad to be wearing a robe. I had turned off the fan in the bedroom during the night and I had not yet turned on the kitchen fan. The morning was unseasonably cool for July, more like New England than Maryland.

As I ate my cereal, a catbird landed in the cherry tree and took off towards the neighbors. A wren trilled somewhere out back, along with early morning traffic. It was as bucolic as our garden can be on a weekday morning.

Through the dark green, 90-plus-year-old screen door, the thermometer on the back porch caught my eye. I could not read the temperature, but I realized that the sturdy enamel thermometer had been hanging there for more than a half-century.

It has not always had the green trim the painter recently gave it. The trim originally was gray, reminiscent of old gray and white enamel kitchen tables, with a few chipped and rusted spots. Now it looks almost new and matches the back door.

I do not know for certain, but I imagine my father bought this thermometer on one of his long trips to the hardware store. It hung on the wisteria-covered back porch at our old house on Roland Avenue. It moved with us to this back porch and has hung ever since on the creamy latticework that screens our kitchen from the neighbor's.

The thermometer is one thing, along with the playhouse my father built from a wood piano crate, that he would never have forgotten to move. Furniture and clothes did not interest him. Measuring did.

An engineer, he kept track of the temperature until his last days. When he brought the morning coffee up to our mother each morning, he reported just what the red mercury on the thermometer said.  She kept a small tabletop thermometer indoors to see how its temperature compared to that on the dining room thermostat.

My parents talked about the temperature every day. Like most people, they lamented very high and very low numbers.  When they no longer lived here and were housebound in an apartment, my father dialed up the weather on their living room phone. He then wrote down the temperature with a thick black marker on lined notebook paper, announced it to my mother when she came into the room and handed her the paper, so she could refer to it.

If he didn't give her the paper, she would ask him over and over for the temperature.

She used the backs of those weather papers to jot notes. On one side were my father's bold, black numbers, and on the other side were letter drafts, phone numbers and lists in her blue ballpoint script.

When we cleaned out their apartment almost 10 years ago, we could have filled a notebook with those pages. Children of the Depression, they did not throw away much. 

While my husband and I comment on the weather, we do not follow it the way my parents did. We know if it is warm or cold, hot or freezing. We mostly rely on my electronic devices for the daily weather forecast. No longer does the number for weather exist. That and number for the time disappeared a few years ago.  

Most mornings, however, one of us looks at the porch thermometer. Although we do not keep a chart, we can remember that in one recent week, morning temperatures ranged from the high 70s to the low 60s. The morning I realized how long that thermometer had been hanging on the porch, the temperature read 64 degrees.

I thought about other July mornings when it was already in the 80s, January mornings when it was 5 degrees, summer afternoons when it hit 100, but not yet this year. I thought about my mother walking by the thermometer, coffee cup in hand, to garden in the coolness of 5:30 a.m., and my father measuring just where to drill the holes to hang it. I thought about my sister and I running by it to the playhouse.

I thought about Margaret Brown, who helped raise us, on her way to the clothes line strung between heavy iron poles no longer here.

I thought about how this wonderfully old-fashioned device without any technology, batteries or bells and whistles has been working day and night, year in and year out for decades.


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