News-gathering family went through many editions daily

March 29, 1998|By Jacques Kelly

MY GRANDMOTHER Lily Rose once gave me some advice: "Don't carry tales." Meaning, avoid the gossip, lies and misinformation that swirl around people. While she was serious about this, I often wondered how this dictum fit in with life on Guilford Avenue.

In that household of 12, where she was undisputed matriarch, verbal goods changed hands daily. We were a household of newsmongers, people who took pride in the accuracy and speed of our information. Given our numbers, we certainly had the staff.

The first edition of the day's news arrived before some were out of bed. When my great-aunt Cora arrived home from the 6: 30 daily Mass, she usually had an early flash. After all, she walked to church with Loretta Byrnes and Sue Martin.

Loretta was secretary to the city's director of public works. She was a kindly person, but with her around there was no need to read a newspaper to get accounts from the world of City Hall.

Sue was a milliner who wore thick eyeglasses and, of course, big hats. Her eyesight may have been poor, but she possessed remarkable powers for observing what went on along Ilchester Avenue, the street that bisected Guilford.

My grandfather, E.J. "Pop" Monaghan, officially disdained the morning report from the first Mass. But I noticed that he never stopped listening. After breakfast, Pop strolled down to one of the neighborhood news agencies and brought back his own reports.

To the east, at 29th and Barclay, was E.E. Bentz's Snack and Chat Shop. It was a classic Baltimore corner store, a combined delicatessen-candy shop and living room. To the south lay the Guilford Pharmacy, whose three soda-fountain booths occasioned nearly as many confidences as the four confessionals at SS. Philip and James.

In the afternoon, my mother evaporated for one of her club meetings, a shopping pilgrimage downtown or an afternoon with her girlfriends at the race track. She possessed a sharp eye and a devastating wit. She also loved people. This combination produced some of the best dispatches of the day. Thirty years later, I read one of her letters about a walk down Charles Street, and it all comes back.

Lily Rose was more the Miss Marple of the gang. She preferred to observe human behavior, to note the comings and goings of neighbors, and to form her own pithy conclusions. She didn't go out of the house as much as everyone else, but she had a nose for news, too.

By 3 o'clock in the afternoon, having taken a nap, bathed and dressed for dinner, she was stationed in her grandmother's rocking chair by the front window. Our house sat up on a hill that offered a fine view of Guilford Avenue.

About 30 minutes later, Aunt Cora descended the stairs. She, too, had changed for dinner -- hair styled, fresh face powder, rouge, lipstick and jewelry. She assumed her place in the front parlor, an upholstered chair opposite her sister.

That cozy room faced the setting sun. It had long, large windows hung with weighted curtains, whose many folds concealed searching eyes. Little escaped Lily Rose and Aunt Cora from this crow's nest -- tipsy neighbors, ill-behaved students coming home from private schools, neighborhood girls with too-tight sweaters and a trail of suitors, delivery trucks from a select store.

Come summertime, when the big canvas awning went up, the sisters moved outdoors to the porch. When we took a place for the summer vacation, they preferred a spot on the boardwalk so they could monitor the action there.

The day's most complete news report came in at about 5:30 in the afternoon. Dessert was on the table, Aunt Cora was lighting up her Chesterfield, my mother was working a Lucky Strike and Pop Monaghan had a cigar going. Many times Dorothy Croswell, the next-door neighbor, dropped in for a slice of pie and coffee, a Pall Mall and a talky tidbit.

There was no need to turn on television. All the news of Guilford Avenue flew around that table faster than any Associated Press wire could deliver it. Now I realize what Lily Rose meant. Don't carry tales. Dig them up on your own.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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