Sisters In the 'Hood

Jacques Kelly's Baltimore

March 10, 1996|By JACQUES KELLY

When I was growing up, it seemed like every weekday morning a Diamond, Sun or Yellow cab would call for a pair of women on my Guilford Avenue block.

If we happened to have an unseasonably warm day in late winter, the ladies would be in spring coats. But whatever the season, they were always formally dressed, well corseted, dusted with powder and touched with rouge. I always guessed their destination to be either the shops at Howard and Lexington streets, the doctor's office or the hairdresser's.

As a child I watched from my house the comings and goings of these women. There were but eight houses -- including my own -- that I could see in the 2800 block of Guilford Ave. Some of the houses across the street and those below Ilchester Avenue were beyond my powers of observation.

In the 1950s, four separate sets of sisters lived within that eight-door area on Guilford Avenue. They were sisters who, though advanced in age, had scarcely been separated throughout their lives. In each household, at least one of the sisters was married and had her own family.

In my own house, the sisters both had families. This type of living arrangement would be unthinkable in today's society; small households are the norm, of course. But some 35 years ago, multifamily arrangements were the Guilford Avenue norm. Brothers-in-law and other family members were tolerant, often happy at the situation.

The thing that always impressed me about the block's sisters was their closeness. When you saw one, you generally saw the other. There were no twins among them, but they certainly were inseparable.

(I often say the roominess of the block's gracious old homes allowed two sisters to live under the same roof. There was generous space for all in the extended families. A little in-house distance worked wonders.)

As a bold 4-year-old, I was on a first-name basis with most of the block's octet sorority. There were Sadie D. T. Deaver and her sister, Mollie Lenhard, at the south end of the block. Two doors away was Rose Vavrina and her sister, Ethel Hutson. Next was Katherine Smith and Josie Shea. In my house, at the north end of the block, my Grandmother Lily Rose Monaghan resided with her sister, my Great Aunt Cora O'Hare. Helen Stewart, another sister, had lived in the house, but died a few years before I was born.

Age was never discussed, but I would guess all these grand ladies were born in the 1880s and 1890s. Though all the sisters outside my house were friendly, my siblings and I were especially fond of Sadie, whom we called Aunt Sadie, and Mollie, whom we did not call aunt.

A couple of times Aunt Sadie and Mollie invited a few of us Kellys, along with Aunt Sadie's great niece Kathy, to Hochschild Kohn & Co.'s sixth-floor tearoom in the downtown store. I don't recall too much about those luncheons except for two things: Aunt Sadie always treated, and if we ordered french-fried potatoes, they were to be eaten with a fork.

Aunt Sadie was a merry and generous person. She seemed to love nothing more than to sit at the center of a department-store dining room table and treat a gang of 9-year-olds to grilled cheese sandwiches and seven-layer chocolate cake.

Back on the block Sadie was a presence, too. Toward the end of each spring, the block's residents arranged their front-porch furniture 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 signified her high status within the block. During her secretarial career, she had worked for Mason Morfit, the lawyer father of CBS television personality Garry Moore, a Baltimore native. We all felt Sadie had special clout with CBS as a result. Hers was the first house on the block to have a color television set.

My grandmother and aunt had their own chairs and pillows on the porch, of course. But in the cold-weather months, between 3 and 4 in the afternoon, they sat in separate, facing chairs in the front parlor. Lily was in a rocker and Cora in an armchair. Each had her own window and each windowsill held a celery-colored glass vase with rooted ivy.

Their space within the house was further 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 woman sewed, but maintained separate sewing machines. Lily's was electric. Cora's was a foot-treadle model.

In all the years I lived with these elderly 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 that she was the sole survivor of the seven children born to her parents.

A little more than a year later, Cora was gone as well. It was 1971 and Guilford Avenue's last great sister act had departed.

Pub date: 3/10/96

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