Around-town reminders of those long-ago Christmases

December 18, 2004|By JACQUES KELLY

THE THOUGHTS of the past circulate around like the stars at night during this time of the year. And often in devilish ways.

The other evening I climbed aboard a Saratoga Street bus for a short ride up the hill to the Lexington Market. There, amid a teeming, quitting-time street scene, I could see my late mother, in her happiest element, gathering the goods for the best Christmas she could give to family and friends.

I thought how hard she worked at this endeavor. Then I looked around and also thought, the people working the stalls that night at the market were not exactly loafing either.

A few minutes later I was in the basement section of a Charles Street restaurant named Copra, a rather splendidly refitted bistro with plasma televisions, working fireplaces, rough stone walls and exposed ceiling timbers.

I glanced around at the holiday crowd and caught sight of the spindles on the staircase, which had not been changed when the place was renovated.

I had another Christmas memory bang. I'd been here before: This very building was the old Minor's, a proper Charles Street restaurant and lunchroom that closed more than 35 years ago.

I was delighted to see the old space return with the style and polish it once possessed. When Minor's was Minor's, it was the only place I knew that listed egg lemonade on the menu, which was lemonade with egg whites for extra froth. I could see the Christmas gift baskets sold here 40 years ago, the candied dates and figs and tins of shortbread wrapped in orange cellophane.

In the weeks before Christmas, my grandmother, Lily Rose, and her sister, Cora, allowed exactly one advance peek of the holiday, and this was the tasting of the cookies they had baked and then stored in ancient stoneware crocks in the basement.

The thought of those butter and nutmeg-rich cookies still torment me. I can see the 12 of us, around the kitchen table, on a cold December night, reaching for a beautiful silver bowl piled high with those heavenly confections.

I often think I'll re-create their efforts, but my energy and spare time are not like theirs. I can see them, working at night in the Guilford Avenue kitchen, dealing with metal tubs large enough to bathe a child, mixing the flour and butter for the cookies we all so enjoyed.

And, on the very same night, one flight down in the basement, would be my father, uncle, grandfather and perhaps another great-uncle, Frank, on loan from South Baltimore, laboring on the Christmas garden.

No wonder thoughts of decades of Baltimore Christmases swirl around this time of the year. I've often felt the term holiday, when it implies a day off, is a misnomer. These days are anything but restful; each morning my to-do list spills down a sheet of legal paper and reminds me of a document my engineer grandfather, Edward Jacques Monaghan, would have prepared in his own precise and logical way.

I think I've got a lot to accomplish daily; then, the other day, I found his Christmas card address book. There in his perfect handwriting, was a catalog of names, no old friend left uncontacted or thought about in the 12th month of the year. In his handwriting, I can see the joy he took in hard work.

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