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Nothing Like A November Morn


As the 11th month of the year rolled around, the grass out front was often coated with frost and the furnace in the cellar would be making noises like the boilers on the City of Norfolk.

In November, an alarm clock never needed to go off in our old Guilford Avenue house. The water heater's pipes started clanging and banging about 6 in the morning, issuing a not-so-subtle wake-up call to each of the house's 12 inhabitants.

The furnace noises were actually something of a second warning. The day's first boom was distinctly earlier.

My grandmother, Lily Rose, and her sister, Great Aunt Cora, had separate rooms, where each adhered to a custom of sleeping under layers of scratchy wool blankets and with windows wide open to the night air.

Come 5:30, they both arose and immediately lowered the large windows suspended by chains on heavy sash weights. The sound of those lead bars grinding through the window frames acted as a kind of first alarm at an hour known best by newspaper delivery boys and milkmen.

Those frosty November mornings meant hearty breakfasts in the household. No cornflakes. No Pop-Tarts. Great Aunt Cora usually had a pot of oatmeal bubbling, with maybe a secondary pot of cream of wheat for the special-order people, such as my mother -- her niece. Some ate more than hot cereal. My grandfather's typical breakfast at other times of the year was burnt toast, stewed prunes and hot coffee. But in November the prunes often became a baked apple with condensed milk.

Sometimes some of Sunday morning's flannel cake batter survived for another day. Cora would add a little baking soda to the mix and we'd have a Sunday breakfast all over again on Monday.

A sudden drop in the mercury meant donning more clothes for school. All the gloves and mufflers were stored in a piece of furniture known as the sewing box. This was an aged mahogany stand with two deep bins and three or four drawers. I think it was one of my grandmother's wedding gifts.

Its compartments held all the woolen furnishings designed to combat a frosty November morning in North Baltimore. And it was thanks to my mother that these woollies survived from season to season.

My mother lived her life waging a battle against moths. To her, these winged insects were the airborne enemy of the fleecy lamb's-wool scarf, the Scottish tam-o'-shanter and the hand-knitted mittens made by her friend Rosamond Weisburger. Mama would not be defeated.

She believed that no home was safe without pounds and pounds of moth flakes and balls liberally distributed throughout the basement, and in closets, packing trunks and cartons.

Each November, the cold-weather garments had to be extricated from under that avalanche of white crystalline moth flakes. Many a day I reached for a nickel in a coat pocket and produced a handful of shrunken mothballs.

Sometime in April or May, Mama would gather all the woolens and douse them with moth crystals. As a special preventive to insect picnics, she'd often painstakingly pour the fine granules into the fingers of gloves.

Then she'd pack the sewing box tighter than an Army footlocker and close it down for the summer recess.

Whoever made the dash from the breakfast table first on that nippy November morning got to pry open the box for the season's first crack at the wool hats, gloves and scarves. Once opened, the drawers had a way of popping their contents out over the front-hall floor.

Those winter fashion accessories were handed down from Kelly kid to Kelly kid (there were six of us -- born in nine years).

Within a few minutes, the first floor was a rainbow of dyed wool -- City College orange and black, Loyola blue and gold, Johns Hopkins light blue, Visitation purple, Notre Dame navy. There were also versions of Ancient and Dress Stewart plaids, purchased by family and friends who had visited Bermuda and Canada. These were inevitably the last things snatched up. Their drawback was their unstylish status and warm practicality.

Now came Mama's revenge for our squabbling over scarf rights. In the morning rush we yanked the garb that appealed most, without bothering to remove whatever amount of moth crystals had failed to decompose.

Try yanking on a pair of gloves loaded with moth flakes in the little-finger cavity. Those pulverized shards of chemical hurt. One of my siblings claimed the moth crystals could actually draw blood.

Within minutes of this frenzy of activity, the population of the house would decrease by 50 percent as we kids trooped off to school. The sewing box's drawers had survived another November morning.

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