Christmas meant a buildup of family secrets


December 11, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

It's hard not thinking back these December weeks to a tim when the old house was shrouded in Christmas secrets and surprises.

As the oldest of six children, who all pretty much enjoyed a full run of the three floors, cellar, cupboards, closets and pantry, I found it strangely amusing when certain liberties and freedoms were suspended for the weeks in advance of Dec. 25.

One year, sometime in the early years of the Eisenhower administration, my father and his brother-in-law announced that for the next two weeks, our club cellar would henceforth be off limits until Christmas Day. (A club cellar is a Baltimore term for a one-time coal bin that in the 1950s had been treated to acoustical ceiling tile, floor tile, knotty pine paneling and a Sylvania TV set.)

To make their point, the men strung up an old World War II blackout curtain across the club cellar's threshold.

Night after night, my brother Eddie and I craned our necks, looking down the cellar steps, to see if we could snatch a peek at what was going on behind the curtain.

Occasionally, we'd see a piece of lumber and consider it a victory.

The weeks of guessing grew more frustrating as my father and uncle hammered and sawed and used the drill press.

It was known that they were building some sort of Christmas garden, but its design, theme and details were all a state secret. The suspense grew worse when Great-Uncle Frank Bosse arrived from his Light Street house in South Baltimore.

He was loaded down with his artist's palette and long-handled camel's-hair paintbrushes.

Uncle Frank's previous visits never included a trip to the cellar. He was strictly front parlor company. But all of a sudden, he too joined the other men in the subterranean sanctum sanctorum.

Soon my grandfather began making trips downstairs, presumably to talk and regale the other three men with his library of stories -- tales of the Johnstown Flood, the Ocean City Hurricane of 1933 and political corruption under Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

The secrecy held tight and was expanded throughout the old Guilford Avenue household.

And for weeks beginning shortly after Thanksgiving, my grandmother and her sister would have a billowing cloud of flour dust in the kitchen.

This was their season for stepped-up production of cakes and cookies.

They stashed their baking in heavy crocks and old lard tins, sealed tighter than a mummy's case.

There were other distinct signs.

In early December, the Delivery of Baltimore truck began making frequent calls to the house.

The packages were all wrapped in plain cardboard or paper.

When I inquired as to their contents, the subject got changed, or I was told the box merely contained a dust mop or slipcovers. I never believed a word.

My mother, whose passion for shopping increased this time of year, would arrive home at 4:59 p.m., a scant minute ahead of the sacred dinner hour.

She, too, would be loaded with packages, often bearing the label of the old Harry P. Cann toy wholesale firm on West Redwood Street.

These parcels too would be hidden in undetectable places.

Only on the morning of Dec. 25 would the secrets unfold.

That particular year, after we'd gone through gifts under the tree, those of us denied entree to the club cellar for that long fortnight raced down the steps as the blackout curtain was raised.

The men had created a Christmas garden and had outdone themselves with a mountain made of cement.

A real stream, with an electric pump, fed a working water mill and fishpond with live turtle and goldfish.

Added to this were several loops of steaming Lionel locomotives, freight and passenger cars.

There was more.

Uncle Frank, a Sunday painter whose finest work was of the old United Fruit Co.'s Light Street piers, had produced a 15-foot-long canvas background of idyllic mountains, chalets and blue skies.

To a 5-year-old's eyes, his artwork looked like something worthy of a back dining room at Haussner's.

No other Christmas garden in the area had such a masterpiece.

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