Return to old address rekindles thoughts of a cherished bond

March 23, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

IT WAS just 10 years ago - March 23, 1992 - that the doorbell rang three times at the old family house on Guilford Avenue, signaling a family friend's arrival.

Dorothy Croswell, who visited that night, had her own way of announcing herself, a triple touch on the electric bell that was her signature. I was around that night, biting my fingernails, worrying that social sparks would not fly.

It was a meeting of two old friends, my mother and Dorothy, who at that point had known each other for 52 years. They met just out of college at the city's old Department of Public Welfare office on Saint Paul Place. They were both social workers who had earned their graduate degrees in the 1940s; they took their profession seriously. Never once did I hear them disagree about matters in that agency.

Shortly after they met and became close friends, Dorothy moved next door to a rowhouse where each floor had been converted into a roomy apartment. She remained there for the next 20 years and in the process became the 13th member of our household. She had her own key to the house - she hit it off very well with my grandmother, Lily Rose - and often ate breakfast and dinner with us. When she did leave Guilford Avenue for another apartment, it was only four blocks away.

After my mother had given birth to six children in the 1950s, Dorothy stepped in as a first-rate adopted auntie and city tour director. Neither she nor my mother drove cars. They both traveled by foot, bus and taxi. And they were not averse to company when they made their frequent trips to Howard and Lexington streets.

Dorothy never married, and in a very real sense, our family became hers. She had her own set place at the table and her own green wicker chair on the front porch, under the column closest to Ilchester Avenue. Her birthday, Aug. 20, was celebrated with fanfare.

That night a decade ago was different. Dorothy had retired, left Baltimore and moved to Florida to be near her brother and his family. This night was a return to the old address. Time is not always kind, and trips back to virtually unchanged places can roil the emotions.

Both my mother and Dorothy had no shortage of opinions, at times not in placid agreement. I'm sure Dorothy thought my mother could be too outspoken; I know my mother thought Dorothy was too tight with a dollar. I think they often agreed to disagree - and in so many ways each woman had her own life and set of friends.

For years I've thought about that evening, and now feel I have the answer to its underlying tone.

The two old friends missed each other, but perhaps would not admit it. Their visit was formal. Dorothy remarked that the old house, its wood floors and familiar furniture, never looked better. My mother said her friend looked so well. They laughed, but Dorothy, never one to give in to impulse to stay a little longer, declared the night over. My father drove her to the hotel where she was staying.

It was the last time both women saw each other. Dorothy returned to Florida. My mother died a year later, and Dorothy 17 months after that. And yet, their final visit was as steady as their beautiful friendship.

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