Holidays to remember

November 25, 1999|By Warren Buckler

YOU COULD sense the tension as soon as we entered my grandparents' house at 806 Cathedral St. and began to ascend what looked to an impressionable 12-year-old like the Mount Everest of staircases. It led to the second-floor living quarters where, that year, we celebrated Thanksgiving.

My grandfather, the first of three Warren Bucklers, came from a long line of prominent Baltimore healers and medical practitioners, a noble tradition upheld in my generation by my cousin, Dr. Billy Neill.

They trace their medical lineage back to Dr. John Buckler, who enjoyed a large practice in the 1830s. Grandpa was the first to get his medical education at "the Hopkins"; he was a member of the class of 1899. One thing Johns Hopkins Medical School, founded six years earlier, did for its graduates was arm them with unyielding certitude that science held the answers to mankind's ills.

Faith in Hopkins

Rapid scientific progress, indeed, gave doctors of his era many new weapons for fighting disease. When my grandfather announced his intention to become a physician, prominent family friends urged him, or so said my grandmother, to enroll at a scientifically advanced institution in Germany. No way, said Grandpa. Baltimore need not take a backseat to Europe. He was proved right many times over.

But the Hopkins did not prepare him for his daughter-in-law -- my mother. Trouble sometimes arose because they did not see eye-to-eye on medical issues. In fact, they looked right past each other.

He did not take kindly to being challenged by a layperson. She was no less determined to hold her ground. Family gatherings could get bumpy. My mother thought modern medications were little better than toxic chemicals. When it came to internal ailments, she believed doctors were recklessly scalpel-happy.

The natural way

She sought good health from assorted spiritual, nutritional and manipulative therapies, untainted by unnatural substances. To that end, she consulted homeopaths, osteopaths, naturopaths, organic gardening fanatics, Buddhist monks, faith healers, advocates of meditation under pyramids, a woman who preached -- creative motion -- a forerunner, I suppose, of Falun Gong, and others I'm happy not to know about.

You would think a few drinks in the Victorian parlor -- even in the 1940s my grandparents were oblivious to Bauhaus, art deco and Frank Lloyd Wright -- would help everyone relax. Instead, alcohol reminded my mother that when Grandpa presided at my birth, she was allowed no voice in key decisions.

She attributed many of my shortcomings to his scientific delivery techniques. Finally, we moved to the big dining room, where my grandfather reigned as supreme autocrat. The discipline of the examination room prevailed. This room would not have been a good place to promote the ethical treatment of animals.

Indeed, the atmosphere was suitable for hearty carnivorous feasting. Near the door hung a large and graphic painting of fish, eels and other fruits of the sea piled on a platter. The staring eyes of these hapless creatures haunt me still. The furniture was fashioned from black walnut by a refugee from the regime of Napoleon III.

My grandfather bought it 100 years ago at a bargain price, and it still graces my brother and sister-in-law's dining room in LaPlata. The massive sideboard features boars' heads complete with oozing bullet holes. The ornamentation on a carving table includes a slain deer hung by its hind feet. My grandmother set a formal table, with lots of doilies and place cards, and more cutlery than any sensible person could use. Silver bowls were loaded with candies and fruit.

Still, doctoring sometimes took precedence over decorum. Grandpa had a phone installed by the table and was known to disconcert guests during the soup course by talking to patients about their intimate concerns. Thanksgiving was no exception.

No answering machine came between a conscientious physician and an ailing Baltimorean. It was hardly a surprise that chickens, hams and buckets of oysters, sent by grateful patients, made the holidays especially bountiful. Nurse, as we called the cook, widely known for her creamed mushrooms on toast, prepared the turkey, which was delivered to the carving table by her daughter Urethra, mercifully nicknamed Rita.

Dinner table conversation

Now Grandpa took charge. I don't know whether he was trying to gross out the kids or get back at my mother. Anyway, as his stainless steel blade slashed through meat and bone, each piece of the bird reminded him of some epiphany in the operating room:

"Here's Mr. Johnson's gall bladder. I'll never forget it. This looks like Miss McCreary's famous tumor." And so on. "Warren, that's puffeckly hawribble," protested my grandmother, who could laugh and scowl at the same time. Still, Nurse's food was good and the whole scene in its own way quite marvelous.

The day ended on a conciliatory note. Even if my mother couldn't persuade Grandpa to try creative motion, she was grateful no white-jacketed attendants from the Hopkins forcibly stuck us with needles.

Full to bursting, we hustled home, took our nightly doses of echinacea and other curative powders and fell into bed, where staring eels, gall bladders and deer carcasses soon danced in our heads. No wonder Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday.

Warren Buckler, a Baltimore native, writes from Valparaiso, Ind.

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