On Guilford Avenue 35 years ago, the sisters came in pairs

Jacques Kelly

May 06, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

Some years ago, every weekday morning, or so it seemed, a cab would call for a pair of women at a Guilford Avenue rowhouse.

This time of the year, the ladies would be in spring coats or mink stoles. Each was formally dressed, well-corseted, dusted with powder and touched with rouge. I always guessed their destination to be shopping at Howard and Lexington streets, or a doctor's appointment or the hairdresser.

There were but eight rowhouses on the part of the 2800 block of Guilford Ave. where as a child I watched the comings and goings of these ladies. The houses across the street and below Ilchester Avenue were beyond my powers of observation.

In the 1950s, four separate sets of sisters, all advanced in age, lived in four of the rowhouses in the 2800 block. Often, one of the sisters was married and had her own family. In my own household, the sisters raised separate broods under the same roof. Thanks to the roominess of those gracious homes, there was generous space for all in the extended families.

This type of living arrangement could be difficult today because of the generally smaller size of newly built housing. Some 35 years ago, it was normal and brothers-in-law were tolerant.

The thing that always impressed an observer about the block's sisters was their closeness. When you saw one, you generally saw the other. None was a twin. But they certainly were inseparable.

As a bold 4-year-old, I was on a first-name basis with most of the block's sets of sisters. One set was Sadie D.T. Deaver and her sister, Mollie Lenhard. Two doors away was Rose Vavrina and her sister, Ethel Hutson, who were too formal for any nicknames. Next was Katherine Smith and Josie Shea. In my own household, the supreme matriarch, Lily Rose Monaghan, resided with her sister, Great-Aunt Cora O'Hare. Helen Stewart, another sister who had lived in the house, died a few years before I was born.

Age never was discussed, but I would guess all these grand ladies were born in the 1880s and 1890s.

A time or two, Aunt Sadie and her sister Mollie invited a few of the Kellys along with Aunt Sadie's niece Kathy to Hochschild, Kohn & Co.'s sixth-floor tea room in the old downtown shopping district. I don't recall too much about the luncheons except that Aunt Sadie always treated. And if we ordered french-fried potatoes, they were to be eaten with a fork.

About this time of the year, the block's residents prepared their front porches for summer "sitting out." Each member of a household had an assigned place and chair under the billowy canvas awnings.

Aunt Sadie's wicker lounge was especially nice and complimented her high status within the block. During her secretarial career, she had worked for Mason Morfit, father of television personality Garry Moore.

We all felt Sadie Deaver had special clout with CBS-TV as a result. Hers was the first house on the block with a color television set.

My grandmother and aunt had their own porch chairs and pillows. In the cold-weather months, between 3 and 4 o'clock in the afternoon, they sat in separate facing chairs in the front parlor, Lily in a rocker and Cora in an arm chair. Each had her own window and each window sill held a celery-colored glass vase with rooted ivy.

Their space within the house also was divided. Cora cleaned to a certain pole on the hall balustrade. Any dust on the other side was Lily's responsibility. Cora made the Sunday evening biscuits and most desserts. Lily dealt with main courses.

Each sewed, but they maintained separate sewing machines. Lily's was electric. Cora's was a foot treadle model. Cora went to church every day. Lily went only to first communions and confirmations.

In all the years I lived with these elder sisters (as well as with my own four sisters), it never occurred to me how close they were. Their personalities were so distinct, their ways so different. Lily was eight years older and died first.

At Lily's wake, Cora had a pained look on her face as she told a friend she was the sole survivor of the seven children born to her parents. Within a little more than a year, Cora was gone as well.

It was 1971. Cora had outlasted the other sets of sisters on the block.

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