A Child's Christmas in Baltimore Sometimes the wind blowing down a city street can stir memories of a girl and her grandmother on a long-ago December day.

December 22, 1996|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,SUN SATFF

On the day after Thanksgiving, after finishing some errands on Charles Street below Mount Vernon Square, I suddenly decided to take a walk through what used to be the heart of downtown Baltimore: Howard Street.

Of course, Howard Street is all boarded up or mostly empty now: The old Oriole Cafeteria, the great department stores that ruled the shopping life of Baltimoreans, the specialty shops and marble-floored banks -- they exist only in memory.

Walking along Howard, I thought about how in December the downtown streets used to be filled with Christmas shoppers and Salvation Army Santas and boys who sold brown-paper shopping bags for a nickel. I thought about all the time I'd spent as a child drinking hot chocolate in Hutzler's Fountain Shop or visiting the enormous Laughing Santa enthroned in Hochschild-Kohn's window or going with my mother to the Virginia Dare Tea Room, tired and hungry after a morning of shopping.

The tea room is now a parking lot.

I walked on. A wind blew down the narrow corridor of Howard Street, stirring up more memories. I watched it blow past the revolving doors that used to be the entrance to Hutzler's fabrics and notions department and then past the corner farther down,where a brown-and-white-spotted dog used to sit outside Bickford's Cafeteria, patiently waiting for leftovers.

Glancing up at the sky, I noticed the late morning sun was trying to break through a high, thin veil of clouds. It was just the kind of sky, I thought, that my mother would have noticed. I remembered suddenly how much she liked of bells from a nearby church, St. Alphonsus probably, filled the air. I turned onto Saratoga Street, heading toward the sound. Instantly, a delicious smell nicked my memory. I wondered: Was it the scent of the hot, caramel popcorn my brother and I used to buy on bitter-cold winter days? I hurried the few feet to where the tiny popcorn shop once had been. The black wrought-iron gates that opened into the narrow arcaded alley were still there. But the shop itself had vanished.

And, I noticed, so had the beauty salon where decades ago the strong odor of permanent wave chemicals once threatened to overcome me and my best friend, Ducky Harris, during our annual Christmas spree downtown.

And then it happened. I saw my grandmother. Dressed in her usual sturdy walking shoes, a heavy wool cape thrown over her coat, she was standing two doors down, in front of the Carry On Shop, peering through the window. Her head was bent, and I couldn't see her face under the hat she was wearing. Next to her was a little girl -- she looked about 8 or 9 -- who was pointing at something in the window with great excitement.

As I watched, I realized with a start: The girl is me.

And suddenly it matters not at all that the sign above the shop window says "Top Dog Custom Jewelry" or that the woman in the cape has been dead for three decades or that the young girl is now the mother of grown sons.

It all comes back to me in a flash -- the Christmases I spent shopping with my grandmother, the things we did, the things I felt. Even now, that woman and that girl are never far from me. The connection is like that between stem and flower, all of a piece, one holding the other up, one allowing the other to bloom.

In the land of my childhood, Christmas officially began when my Scottish grandmother got out her dark green tam-o'-shanter with the navy pompom on top.

She kept it, wrapped carefully in tissue paper, in a cardboard box under her bed. Also inside the box was a shawl woven in the tartan of her clan. "Buchanan," she'd say, holding up the bright tartan for me to see. "It's from the Old Country," she told me with pride and, I later realized, a little sadness too.

Each time she said this, I tried picturing the Old Country: In my mind it was a place of rolling green hills and soft mists, of cottages with smoke puffing through chimneys; a place populated with kind women wearing sturdy shoes, green tam-o'-shanters and tartan shawls. I knew I'd like it there.

We had a Christmas ritual, my grandmother and I. Each year, always on the second Saturday in December, the two of us rose early, before the rest of the household was up and about. After a breakfast of tea and thick porridge topped with homemade peach preserves, we set out on our special shopping trip.

My grandmother, who liked simplicity almost to the point of severity, was dressed for comfort and warmth: thick-soled shoes and woolen socks, a heavy coat with a cape thrown over it, fur-lined leather gloves -- all of which she had picked up at various thrift shops. And, of course, her non-thrift-shop, from-the-Old-Country, dark green tam-o'-shanter. Her outfit said, "Here is a woman who is ready, at a moment's notice, to walk through snowstorms, climb icy embankments and, if need be, camp out for days in a blizzard."

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