Warming up to a warm start on a cold day

November 10, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

AS ONE OF my newspaper colleagues joined me for coffee yesterday, she carried a bowl of hot oatmeal, no match for the miserable cold bran cereal I'd served myself earlier in the morning. I thought it's time to buy a canister with the happy Quaker man's face on it.

Hot breakfasts were a staple of my childhood. No one was better prepared to cater to the whims of that household of 12 than Great-Aunt Cora O'Hare, a happy, optimistic soul who was at her best in the dark hour before dawn. It didn't stop here. She was always prepared to produce a 9:30 snack in the evening, too.

Cora was one half of the sister act - along with my grandmother Lily Rose - that helped run the old-fashioned household that nourished me. Cora was a true believer in the value of starting the day with a good meal. She lived by this philosophy and was bustling around the kitchen at the hour when most people are rolling over for another 40 winks.

She could stretch a bowl of pancake batter (always called flannel cakes) so that it fed 12 on Sundays and another five or six on Mondays. There were other morning treats - kidney stew, cinnamon toast, French toast and anything else that made you want seconds.

For many years I thought Cora's breakfasts would go forever, but they didn't. And it was precisely 30 years ago this month that this remarkable woman served her last to me.

In fall 1971, I was a senior in college who worked Saturdays on the city desk of the old News American on Lombard and South streets. I had to be out the door by 7:30, in good time to start tapping a typewriter by 8 for Wilson "Buck" Auld, the Saturday morning city editor. Aunt Cora and Buck Auld were both first-rate Baltimore characters who believed the day was not over until you'd given all you had, then thought about how you could improve upon tomorrow.

But on this day I'd received a dispensation to take a College Board test at Johns Hopkins, just in case I wanted to bag newspaper work and become a graduate student. My heart was not in the test but I decided to go through the motion, pay the exorbitant fee and fill in those maddening dots. As soon as this ordeal was over, I was free to go to the newspaper office, where I wanted to be all along.

Cora encouraged me to give the test my best shot - after all, she believed in education and most days wore a silver charm, a graduation token of her Eastern High School Class of 1913. She said she'd be glad to fire up the kitchen stove for my early Saturday morning exit. As I recall, she served bacon, oatmeal and rye toast, then sent me out the front door.

I never forgot that November morning. The city trees were at their peak of color. Wyman Park and Charles Street were putting on a great show of browns, oranges and reds.

Cora had not much more than a month to live. She took to her room on the third floor and never made it off. Cheerful to the end, she thanked me for the Pratt Library mysteries I brought her during her last weeks. She died on a Friday afternoon, just as my brother Eddie, then a freshman at College Park, had scooped me up in Washington in his Chevy Impala.

We drove back to the old house on Guilford Avenue to get the crushing news. Earlier in the day, Cora made a last request of my mother: a glass of orange juice. My mother, who had also been the recipient of so many of her aunt's delightful breakfasts, knew to make it fresh squeezed.

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