IT WAS A LATE winter school day 38 years ago when Sister Marie Therese announced that as part of Lenten almsgiving, she was naming class leaders for the Bishops' Relief Fund. Before long, I realized that I was in charge of an hourlong charity fund-raiser. I was also 9 years old.
I counted my blessings. My designated event was not to be the first of several held within the classroom. The kickoff event of these charity sessions was a bake sale headed by my friend, Danny Gonzalez, whose mother was a talented and resourceful baker.
The day of his mini-bazaar proved a success, thanks to her spice cake -- which sold for 10-cents a slice. There must have been brownies and other cakes for sale, too, although I can't recall for sure.
I am, however, sure that the receipts in the Visitation Academy's cafeteria dropped that day as two dozen third-graders diverted their milk money in the cause of religious overseas aid. By the end of this sweet fest, there was about $20 in the strongbox.
The day made an impression on me, now that that I was the designated grab-bag mogul of the third grade. It was my task to arrive a week later with enough loot-loaded grab bags to equal or top the bake sale's proceeds. It was no small challenge to compete with a worthy spice cake.
Innocently enough, I told my mother about being named grab-bag chairman. As a longtime volunteer, she reacted with proper gravity. She spoke of the responsibility and how it would be a lot of work. I look back now and realize she was also four months pregnant with her sixth child, a fact that didn't weigh in too heavily with a now grab-bag-crazed 9-year-old.
There was no sentence ever spoken in secret in the household where we all lived. My Lenten charity responsibility was immediately being discussed by my grandmother Lily Rose and her sister, my Great-Aunt Cora. These two siblings said not to worry, we'd fill those grab bags and best the spice cake. This was war.
For the next three weeks, they claimed every small, empty, paper bag that came near the 2800 block of Guilford Avenue. They even had neighbors passing wads of paper bags over the garden fence. Never, never would they have spent money buying new paper bags. That wouldn't have been in the spirit of sacrifice and making do.
Eventually, they assembled a thick wad of paper sacks -- rose-colored ones from Hutzler's, bags from Hochschild Kohn with outlines of the Washington Monument and Pimlico Race Course, blue sacks from Read's drug store and tan ones from Stewart's.
One afternoon after school, Lily Rose and Cora told me we would be going downtown on some errands, an unusual time for this pair of early-morning, get-it-done-before-9 a.m. personalities.
It was a little before 5 p.m. when we walked through the door of the New York Sewing Machine Co. on Eutaw Street. Cora bought a leather strap for her foot-pumped Willcox and Gibbs machine. She also bought some extra needles. Lily left with a tin of machine oil. Then we fled to Hutzler's basement for a getaway dinner of vegetable soup, kaiser roll and a chocolate ice cream soda -- obviously, we weren't all that abstemious during Lent.
The next night, my Aunt Cora's third-floor front bedroom was transformed into a war room for the Bishops' Relief Fund. She pulled out a large cutting board and stretched it across her bed, so her Martha Washington bedspread wouldn't wind up looking like a piece of Schweizer cheese after her pinking shears had done their job.
I inquired about their strategy. They said they were going to fill the empty paper bags with home-production stuffed animals, beanbags and other little treasures. They worked and worked some more. The treadle on that machine worked into the night.
I filled gingham rectangles and crescents with handfuls of navy beans. I held the stepladder as my grandmother climbed through her stash of cloth remnants stored in the deepest recesses of the basement. I watched as these odd pieces of cotton that were originally used for summertime cushion covers on the wicker porch furniture found a new life as frogs, elephants and horses.
Arithmetic homework got done in a hurry for a bunch of nights until the day of the grab-bag sale arrived. All the prizes were now wrapped and placed in a bin. For a dime a grab, you got a dip into the Stewart sisters' sewing treasures.
The day arrived. Nobody thought about a second's worth of real schoolwork until Sister Marie Therese announced the second component of the Bishops' Relief Fund could make its debut.
The first arm that plunged into the loot emerged with a nice prize, an animal that looked like a half lion and half llama. It had whiskers. And it sold.
By the end of the event, there was $29 in dimes and nickels. The spice cake had been vanquished.
Pub Date: 3/09/97