During the week my grandmother and great-aunt staged thei annual fall frenzy of housecleaning, the floors weren't safe to walk, the air wasn't fit to breathe and you took a bath at your own risk.
The ladies' ritual never changed. As the autumn days grew short, their batteries began charging. They wanted to clean and purify my grandmother's house of a summer's worth of heat and dirt.
Fall housecleaning was a week's agony. Lily Rose, my grandmother, and her sister, my Great-Aunt Cora, were women with remarkable domestic skills.
About a week before the starting gun went off for fall housecleaning, the two sisters wheeled an old wicker baby carriage along Vineyard Lane to a Greenmount Avenue hardware store where they bought gallon jugs of varnolene. They also laid in a fair supply of steel wool. The Waverly merchants could have marked on their calendars the day the sisters bought out their stores.
For housecleaning season, the sisters virtually disassembled a perfectly worthy house. The summer canvas awnings came down, as did the dark blue linen-weave window shades. The wire screens came out, too. Curtains and rugs were changed. Winter lamp shades replaced summer ones. I think they would have changed the roof if they could have found a way.
Aunt Cora rooted through the cellar until she found a galvanized metal scrub bucket, which she filled with soapy water and ammonia. She attacked the woodwork in each room with a scrubbing brush. It was a miracle that any paint remained on the window sills and sashes after the drubbing Aunt Cora administered.
The two sisters pooled their substantial energies to sanitize the Oriole-brand gas range in the kitchen. They felt the stove needed an extra dose of absolution so they poured potent cleaning agents into the kitchen sink, removed the range's cast-iron components and dunked them into the bath of acid. Their eyes and nostrils suffered for their zeal for cleanliness.
The man who built their home in the 2800 block of Guilford Ave. had included fine oak parquet floors, a touch the two sisters long admired. To show their appreciation, they kept that wood waxed and buffed to the standards required for the Belvedere Hotel's ballroom.
Each Friday throughout the year, they waxed and polished their beloved oak floors. But twice a year, fall and spring, they stripped the six-months' worth of wax with a cleaning agent called varnolene. Today we'd call it paint thinner and an environmental hazard.
I always hoped that the day appointed to clean the floors would dawn cool and dry -- perfect for ventilation. But it was usually a damp day and the house reeked of this peculiar chemical odor, fine if you liked breathing raw vapors more appropriate for a woodworking shop.
The old wax hadn't been removed for five minutes before they were on their hands and knees again to apply a thick new coat of paste wax to the scoured parquet squares.
They had a big buffing machine, with stiff bristles, that made marvelous swirl patterns on the mirror-perfect floors.
Cora was in charge of keeping the front door's brass plates shined and sparkling. As a matter of domestic law, the sisters partitioned the house into sectors for which each was responsible. They even divided the hall banister -- half for Lily and half for Cora.
It's hard to forget the sight of that pair fighting the battle of the slipcovers. Every upholstered piece of furniture had its own covering. Washing shrank the slipcovers and they had to be pulled off and wrestled on. The ladies always won.
The dining room had a milk-glass electric light fixture in the shape of an inverted dome. It held a few bulbs that also got heavily immersed in water.
On more than a few occasions, Cora would turn on the lights before they had dried and the bulbs would pop before dying. To my 6-year-old eyes, it was comic relief on an otherwise humorless day.
At the end of housecleaning week, the winter curtains and shades were up, the wool rugs on the floor and the windows so clean the glass seemed invisible.
The house smelled of moth balls, paint thinner and paste wax -- the scents of a frenzied week in October.