A Time To Thank Memory Keepers


December 06, 1992|By KEVIN THOMAS

Before the Christmas season is over, I'm going to drag my kids to historic Ellicott City and indulge myself once again by imagining how Christmas must have been a long time ago.

I'll tell my kids about how my mother took my brother and me every year into downtown Washington, D.C., to see the Christmas decorations in the department store windows. And how we would press our faces up against the cold glass and watch mechanized Santas and their helpers busily at work.

Then, I'll take my kids to Ellicott's Country Store so they can get a feel for how people used to live. They can buy "penny" candy from the antique display case. Or pick out Victorian ornaments for the tree.

And I'll walk up all four flights of stairs and take in the store's decorations, which in any season are the most exquisite in Howard County.

And I'll be thankful for all the people who have ever shown an appreciation of history, even that part of history that is currently in the making. Memory preservationists, I call them. Librarians for the old and forgotten.

Without people such as Mildred Werner and Enalee Bounds, the mother-daughter owners of Ellicott's Country Store, we would be a little less enriched.

For 30 years, the two women have owned the store, creating within it a time machine hurling customers back to ages when there were "hunt rooms" and "French country kitchens" and "Victorian bedrooms."

That's why places like the Country Store are so popular. It's more than nostalgia. It's a real chance to have the past back again.

So when an arsonist struck at the Country Store earlier this year, I felt as if I had been personally robbed of something. What sort of person would destroy history?

But there is a lesson here about perseverance and how some things can't be taken away -- especially not from the memory preservationists. It's a unique inner need that would have Enalee Bounds shout, "Of course, we were going to re-open!"

And they have come back, perhaps better than before.

That's why we go to places like the Country Store and try to re-create them in our own homes, because we are drawn to the sense of simplicity and serenity that we believe existed then.

Of course, it's partly an illusion. But by imagining what it must have been, I believe we create a new reality based on the old.

My house is full of antiques. Thanks to my wife, who had a much better appreciation for such things and was gracious enough to share it with me, I'm surrounded by old, comforting things.

We lean toward the light oaks, a casual kind of furnishing, with white walls and lots of pictures and flowers around. Our bed is brass and iron and sits so high off the ground, you almost need a stool to climb onto it.

A long time ago, I sold an oak Morris chair for $20. Now, I nearly die every time I see one on sale for $650.

But that was when I was still in conflict between the old and new. Had I not met my wife, I might have surrounded myself with black laminates and cold, gray contemporary furnishings.

I suppose modern has its comforts, but you can't put a Victorian Christmas tree in the middle of Luke Skywalker's living room. And Christmas wouldn't seem quite right to me without a Victorian tree.

It's silly, isn't it, chasing a past that probably never existed the way I imagine. Yet I know that I'm not alone.

Still, let's face it, the department stores aren't downtown anymore because people like the suburban malls better. My kids will remember Santa in a parade around Columbia Mall the same way I remember those magical store windows my mother took us to see.

And I may never understand it, but my kids have begged us for years to put up those bright colorful lights around the house that were so popular when I was a kid.

Still, I hold fast to my desire to recapture something that probably never was. I put candles with white bulbs in our windows, and pretend it's real candle light. We cut our own Christmas tree and decorate it with lace ornaments and baby's breath.

And we go to places like Ellicott's Country Store, where there are all kinds of tapestries and antiques and potpourri smells and peanut-shaped candy. And we fill our bags and our minds with dreams. How can we help ourselves?

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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