The Memories Of Christmases Past Haunt The Streets Of The City

December 15, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

The ghosts assert themselves in the fading December light, along with the exhilarating arrival of the decorations, music and lights. These are not ghosts in the spirit category, but the ghost memory of people and places the holiday season seems to manufacture and toss out. They pop up unexpectedly and attack your emotions.

It was raining ice the afternoon I spent on 36th Street in Hampden, which each season seems to make itself over a little more with pastel storefronts, luxury goods and fancy lights. It's all very pretty, but I look over to the corner of 36th and Roland and expect to see the old Christmas tree seller and his oil drum filled with a bonfire. No more.

I was heading south on Charles Street when I glanced over at the Allston apartments at 32nd Street. For so many years I'd be required to post here, along with my parents and siblings, for an event called the treasure hunt. It was a kind of Christmas party hosted by a family friend, Dorothy Croswell, who died 13 years ago. Every year, for a full 40 years, she gave her gifts, which she had carefully recorded in the same spiral-bound notebook. At the end of the event, Dorothy would read out what had been given in what year. It was a long inventory.

This was not a roaring Christmas party in the sense of trays of champagne and fabulous food. (Dorothy was a teetotaler.) But what a night of memory.

A friend drove me along Perring Parkway to Parkville for my balsam evergreen tree. As we came back and passed the site of Memorial Stadium, I thought of all those wonderful late-December afternoons of the 1970s and 1980s, the downtown in the southerly distance and the pungent scent of cut pine. It was a scene out of a card illustration: Volunteers from the Eye Bank and - I believe - World War II veterans groups tending the stacks of trees. This was not a big-box commercial hardware store; it was a labor of love.

I had a nasty encounter with a cookie tin. It was a solid piece of engineering, and for half a second I thought it was the kind of tin that the great Guilford Avenue ginger cookie baker Pat Trimp would have liked. We lost Pat to a heart attack in March. Her loss told me I ought to appreciate the simple parts of the holiday season. That's what it's really about.

Not all the ghosts deliver feelings of sorrow or wistfulness. They can hit you with a needed splash of hope.

I wasn't careful when I boarded a bus the other morning. It turned out to be an express run that deposited me in East Baltimore on Monument Street. Throughout the summer of 2006 I watched blocks north of Johns Hopkins Hospital disappear. Tattered old rowhouses fell by the hundreds. The people who lived there were not delighted about having to move. But there, on a rainy December morning, as promised, were the first blocks of replacement houses and residences. A new East Baltimore was taking physical shape.

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