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THE AVERAGE BROOKLYN HOME was a comfortable one for the times and heated by stoves and fireplaces. Almost every house of any size had two or three chimneys and a flue or two, especially for the kitchen stove.
The brick hearths of the fireplaces were often renewed in color by painting them with a mixture of clay and water. Whoever was assigned the task of painting our hearth bricks would get a can and go over the hills of clay. The can was filled with the most vivid red clay that could be found. Next, a mop was made for the daubing process by tying a rag around a stick several times until it was a thick wad of cloth. I delighted in making mud pies, so it was fun whenever I was given the task of painting this gooey mixture on the bricks, with this homemade applicator.
Treasured brass andirons that had been handed down from generation to generation were in one of our fireplaces. Beds of red coals, intense heat and long years of usage had worn their long iron legs thin, but we continued to use them for many more years.
The houses in Brooklyn were mainly framed of lumber and had five or six rooms. Most houses had long green blinds of shutters at the windows. At the beginning of nightfall, a member of the family was delegated the job of seeing that the blinds were closed and locked for the night. Locking the blinds gave an added feeling of security.
The rooms of the houses were usually large enough to accommodate old-fashioned furniture. I remember Mother’s massive marble-topped bedroom suite. It had been her bridal bedroom furniture. The bureau was very heavy because of a slab of white marble on the top and a large square mirror.
The wash stand was where a colorful bowl and pitcher was supposed to sit, but at some time in the growing up period of my mother’s brood, someone had smashed portions of her set. Only one or two lonely pieces remained unbroken, and a few more were cracked but still usable.
The piece of my mother’s bedroom suite that I remember best is the pretty bed made of oak. The headboard was quite tall and covered with intricate carving. The footboard was low compared to the headboard. When Mother was out of the room, we often used it as a jumping off place.
Mother used a cotton or felt mattress on her bed as well as a feather tick. In hot weather, the felt mattress was always placed on top of the feather tick, but when winter really began to come in with force, the felt mattress became the bottom and the feather tick was put on top of it.
It was awfully hard to make up the bed so that it had a smooth appearance when the feather tick was on top because the lumps of feathers never seemed to settle enough to make a smooth surface. It was always pleasantly squishy, and I dearly loved the feel of it on cold nights.
Our grandmother had made the feather tick and filled it with loads and loads of downy goose feathers. At some time in the life of this feather tick, it had been full and firm, but as I remember it, some of its plumpness had disappeared. On one occasion, it had been sent from the home to be cleaned, and when it was returned, it was limp and much lighter. Some of the precious feathers had been removed, but the old tick still remained an enjoyable treasure.
Sinking into this nest of downy feathers on a wintry night provided a luxuriously warm night’s sleep. Little mounds of feathers seemed to snuggle all around your body and hold you close in a warm embrace until morning. Even then, it was a difficult task to detach yourself from it.
Once or twice, its comforting hold was so complete that one of the younger ones of us dreamed that he or she was in the little house outdoors and proceeded with a necessary bodily function. The one that was wet upon screamed loudly, and the offender had to be hoisted from the bed; but I must state that this was the exception rather than the rule.
Our winter sleeping attire was usually a long-sleeved, high necked gown made of cotton or flannel cutting. The gowns were warm, but the wind would seep in around windows and doors and through cracks in the boards of the old-fashioned floors on very cold nights and bring a chill that often resulted in goose bumps on our legs and arms.
Because we had no central heat, Mother often gave us added assistance in warning up the cold bed sheets before we went to bed at night. Sometimes this assistance was in the form of a brick that had been heated in hot coals and wrapped in several old cloths. Sometimes it was a water bottle filled with hot water.
Our feet eagerly sought out these warm-ups whenever we felt one in our beds. Sometimes there was a mad scramble of feet as each occupant tried to get his extremities on the warmer first, and hold them there for a while at least until he got pushed off.
I remember a funny incident that happened to us in the bed one cold, wintry night. In some way, the screws in Mother’s bed had become loosened, and she was not aware of it. Because of the width of the bed, my mother and two children could easily sleep in it. I was among the chosen number for this occasion and most glad for the chance because I loved to sleep in Mother’s bed. We were sleeping cozily when the bed gave way without warning, and we were plunged downwards in a pile. The bed slats had dropped, and with them went the springs and mattress, leaving us with heads down and feet sticking up in the air. Luckily for us, the tall headboard craned and leaned crazily but didn’t crash onto us. Wild consternation, laughter and screams followed at first, but after a swat or so on my rear, Mother got us adjusted and back to sleep again.
During this early period of our lives, the procedure for sleeping comfort in the summertime was a bit different from that of the winter season. With the advent of warm weather came a plague of mosquitoes to infest our house.
The house was only partially screened, and when the windows were opened for ventilation during the day, mosquitoes would slip in and hid on the ceilings and walls. They were not too active during the day, but at night, we became the favored diet.
Mother sprinkled citronella round and had us rub with it or use other insect repellents, but those mosquitoes were hard to get rid of.
One of our best bulwarks against these pests was Mother’s bed with the big mosquito net draped around it. The big net was a real help against the mosquitoes and often gave us the only chance for a peaceful night’s rest. At the back of the headboard, a stick poked up about three feet before it made a right angle turn and projected over the bed. Mother attached her mosquito net to this arm.
The large, thin piece of netting was square like a box when arranged around the bed. As soon as prayers were said, we jumped inside the net house as quickly as possible to keep any mosquitoes from sneaking in with us. Then the sides were carefully draped over each other. Sometimes the sides were pinned together with safety pins as further reinforcement. But often the pinning did no good because we would roll and twist in our sleep, which caused the net to part and let in the troublesome insects. This state of affairs became worse than sleeping without a net because the trapped mosquitoes had a full chance to bite us, and they always took advantage of every opportunity.
When these little pests were outside the net and unable to get to us, they seemed to become infuriated and sang loudly as they tried to squeeze themselves through the tiny mesh.
Frequently, one would get his body stuck half-in and half-out like a prisoner between bars which made us very happy. With a loud yell of There’s one, we would apply a resounding whack and quickly exterminate him. Sometimes this process was repeated over and over until we went to sleep and by that time, we would have reduced their numbers considerably.
Some people who didn’t have mosquito nets resorted to other means to get rid of mosquitoes. A favorite method was to make a smoke in the bedroom, by burning old rags or paper with sugar sprinkled on them in a deep container. Perhaps it was an unsafe practice, but it often had good results for the sleepers.
Some homes in Brooklyn were large and pretentious, especially on Brevard Street, which might not have been termed as a part of Brooklyn by some people, but we thought of the lower part of this street as the main residential one. At this time, the other side of this section of Brevard Street had not been selected as the site for a cement and rock crushing company.
The later installation of this industry on a site that was opposite many lovely homes was a calamity and most unfortunate for the homeowners. The homes were constantly subjected to a continuous fall of fine dust which made housekeeping a difficult task for the housewife. Some of these Brooklyn residences were elegant both inside and out. My earliest recollection of such a residence on Caldwell Street was the home of a prosperous insurance man. His enormous two-story house made passers-by stare as they walked along. People spoke of it in somewhat awed tones because it was supposed to contain unusual features such as mahogany stairs, lovely light fixtures and other fine appointments. Some houses had eight or ten rooms, hardwood floors, tile baths, closets and many conveniences that few homes in the city had at the time.
One of these homeowners was among the earliest possessors of an automobile in Charlotte. The car was a big red machine that caused Brooklyn to stir with excitement when it was driven down the street.
The yards were often filled with shrubbery and flowers of all kinds Planted rather haphazardly because the design for planting them was usually conceived by the owner.
I remember the many and different kinds of old-fashioned flowers and shrubs that filled our yard. Most of these shrubs and flowers have been planted originally by our grandmother for her grandchildren. My mother said that she made this remark as she carefully planted cherry and apple trees in our yard, I’m planting these trees for my grandchildren to enjoy. She had been gone for many years, but we enjoyed the fruit from the trees she had planted.
Some of the most prized ones were three large cherry trees that stood in a row in the front yard and provided shade for our playhouse which was directly under them. We were always anxious for cherry time to come again so we could eat the big black fruit. Sometimes the result from eating too many cherries wasn’t too good. We would roll with a stomachache at night and whine and cry to Mother for relief. Sometimes this relief would come in the form of a dose of castor oil which we hated almost as much as we hated the stomachache.
Our next neighbor knew that mother had a problem and tried to help her out by mischievously sprinkling flour over the cherries hanging on the trees. With a doleful face, she informed the older children, Don’t eat these cherries. They’ve got something on them that will make you sick. We looked at the flour with dubious thoughts, but I never heard of any deterring effect that this ruse had on anyone that was tall enough to pick the forbidden cherries.
In our backyard was a very large prized persimmon tree. Every fall, it was filled with big green persimmons that turned a lovely orange color as fall progressed. Mother regularly cautioned us not to eat the persimmons until frost had fallen, but in our eagerness to eat them, we would bite the half-ripe fruit which puckered our mouths. One bite was usually sufficient to convince us that we should wait until at least one frost had fallen.
Our neighbor used to tell us that possums came up from the meadow at night to get some of these persimmons because they liked them so much. I always wanted to be present at the capture of a possum but nobody ever satisfied this desire for me.
The nearest that I ever came to one of these beady-eyed little creatures was a grocery store. Someone had caught a possum, put him on a forked pole and had him in the store for display or sale. Not every having seen a live possum before, I thought it was some kind of cat. I reached out my hand to stroke him when someone quickly yelled, Don’t! He’ll bite your finger off! This frightened me, and of course I hurried away from him. This was my first and closest look at one of these little night denizens of the woods.
Then there was Mother’s favorite apple tree. It stood in the middle of our lot with its gnarled, twisted trunk, indented with deep cavities that seemed to bore almost through its depths at certain places. But the roots of the old tree were sunk deeply and firmly in the earth, forming a union that defied wind and rain and kept the tree standing. In spring, sap bypassed the scars in the trunk before surging upwards and around them until it reached the limbs and gave them life.
The ancient, craggy old tree was starkly beautiful in winter, and when spring came, nature filled its branches with loveliness that overflowed. It became an immense bouquet that scented the air with the wistful fragrance of young spring. Even the smallest twigs were laden with delicate pinkish-white blossoms which made the top seem a home for fairies. Birds came to sing in its boughs, and bees droned lazily and daintily as they searched the blossoms for honey nectar. My mother loved this tree, particularly its beauty in the spring.
Love, Rose Leary. Plum Thickets and Field Daisies: A Memoir. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1996