I can just imagine my Uncle Jacques during World War II. He was in the Navy on a ship in the North Atlantic and thinking about returning to the old family home on Guilford Avenue. In a letter my family saved, he mentioned how he's saving his money so that he can junk the old coal furnace and install a new oil-fired boiler.
I often reread this letter, written in his precise handwriting, worthy of a graduate of Polytechnic Institute and the old Mount Washington Country School for Boys. This is an engineer's unsentimental approach to warming a cavernous rowhouse. He's excited by a new technology and can't wait to do away with the coal bin.
This winter my father, Joe Kelly, his brother-in-law, inherited the task of replacing my uncle's furnace, and all its upgrades over the years. My father's heating guy assured him that the old model was the Cadillac of its day, but eventually things wear out. My father reports the house has never been warmer, but the cost of heating oil hurts. We talk about it plenty.
For starters, my father's new boiler has finally pushed hot-water heat to Aunt Cora's third-floor front bedroom. This is not an easy exercise. She insisted on sleeping with her windows wide open; there was often a light coating of snow on her floor. She was a seamstress and made her own wool blankets. Come evening, she sat wrapped in a heavy bathrobe near a cold window and read English murder mystery novels while occasionally puffing on a Chesterfield cigarette.
Her sister, my grandmother Lily Rose, ran the house because she was the older sibling and was a born household general. She was typically thrifty in the Baltimore version, but like her son the ex-Navy engineer, she had an enthusiasm for heating a house well. Lily Rose, who was born in the 1880s, had a high respect for anthracite coal. She preferred a coal fire, which she told me made a house "warm as toast."
Lily had no problems with the labors attached to a coal bin. She liked getting up at 4 o'clock in the morning and shoveling coal into the furnace. I think what she really enjoyed was the control this gave her over the radiators and the house in general.
My Uncle Jacques came home from his military service with a nice peacoat and his savings. The oil burner arrived and he was a happy guy. Lily often complained about the fuel bills - but then, who doesn't?
My uncle lost no time claiming the space in the cellar where the coal bins once stood. He built a classic 1950s Baltimore basement club cellar that in time became a place for the Christmas garden and the television set, which Lily Rose evicted from the first floor because she thought it was undignified. I think someone once dropped some candy wrappings in her parlor during the very brief period when a new Sylvania model appeared there.
Lily generally opposed modern technology (she kept her distance from the telephone), except for the brass thermostat that controlled the furnace. She guarded it; if she was paying the heating oil bills, she alone claimed the right to set the temperature.