Everybody ought to have a Great-Aunt Agnes

February 09, 1997|By JACQUES KELLY

THE FEBRUARY 13ths of my childhood were nights when two sisters as different as sisters can be arrived at the family home on Guilford Avenue. The occasion was my father's birthday. The pair of siblings were my father's mother, Mary Louise, and her sister, his Aunt Agnes.

The two sisters lived near each other in South Baltimore. They were no strangers at our home, and no large gathering was considered complete without their personalities and demeanor.

Even now I associate Agnes Sophia Bosse with my father's birthday. Perhaps it was the quarters perfectly wrapped in silver foil that she handed out at one of those parties. Perfection suited Aunt Agnes well. She was a drawing-room comedy's version of a very proper, never-married aunt.

Her dresses involved yard after yard of small-printed fabric trimmed in rickrack edging. She often wore a tuft of lace at her neck along with a good cameo pin. She liked a lot of powder, Yardley soap (lavender scent, of course) and hairnets. She wore rimless glasses, which she laughingly referred to as her nose pinchers. She was correct. Those spectacles fit on the bridge of her nose like a clothespin.

She never hid her age and seemed proud that she was born in 1892. "Just think of 400 years after Columbus," she often told me.

As happened at those birthday events, half the group remained in the living room and the other half ended up in the kitchen. My grandmother Mame would hold court at the kitchen table, telling the stories we'd all heard many times, while Aunt Agnes positioned herself in a proper chair in the living room, often offering her take on the same set of facts. It made for an interesting evening of comparative reportage. Luckily, we had enough people in the house that each woman got a fairly large and appreciative audience.

Agnes had her own library of stories, too, of course. As a young woman she had been a dressmaker for Bettie Fuechsl, a Charles Street designer. Agnes did fine hand sewing and embroidery. She was quite proud of the outfits she made for Wallis Warfield, later the Duchess of Windsor.

And while she looked back with considerable reverence on what she considered her glory days as a fine dressmaker, I admired her more for her resolve and tenaciousness. When economics and changes in taste doomed the custom dress trade, Agnes took a job at the Edgewood Arsenal. She made gas masks during World War II, a job that seemed curiously at odds with her ever-proper bearing and refined ways.

Aunt Agnes became a daily commuter from South Baltimore to Harford County and probably gave the federal government some of the best-made gas masks it ever owned.

To recall Aunt Agnes is to envision her flawlessly maintained little rowhouse at 406 Folsom St., off Riverside Avenue, (phone Mulberry 37-24) just a few blocks from Federal Hill.

A public high school had yet to be constructed at the foot of her street, and the view across the busy working harbor was amazing, a scene of old freighters, criss-crossing tug boats and traveling cranes at work at the thriving Key Highway shipyard.

Agnes' front door and each slender window had working green shutters. The front walls were painted brick, lined to resemble mortar joints. She fitted each of her window shades with a tasseled pull string she had hand-crocheted. A flake of dirt never passed through the front door that wasn't immediately exiled. Even her cellar, which had a brick floor, was spotless.

Her house exuded the order and warmth of the Kaiser Wilhelm period. Many an evening we spent there passing plates of her homemade jelly cookies. There was always milk to drink, perhaps a thimble of sweet German wine. The parlor settee seemed as if it were stuffed with coarse horsehair.

Toward the end of her life, she elected to reside at Stella Maris Hospice in Baltimore County, miles away from her little Folsom Street house and a very different environment from the old streets of South Baltimore.

And until old age and sickness prevented her, she regularly left Stella Maris, boarded an MTA bus, transferred and checked to two others, and returned to her old neighborhood to have her hair rinsed and set the way she wanted it -- perfect, nothing out of place. Then she took the same set of buses back to Baltimore County and would sit down to her evening meal with the other residents. But not before, I am sure, she chided the kitchen staff that the dinner plates were not warmed enough.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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