As 'Hot, Buggy' Summer Returns To City, Neighborhood, Family Traditions Blossom

May 24, 2008|By JACQUES KELLY

When the Johns Hopkins undergraduates start disappearing from the blocks around my Charles Village home, the Baltimore summer is around the corner. I miss these kids, but there's something relieving about the neighborhood intermission their departure brings. Friends of mine tell me it encourages the locals to show their faces.

For me, the Baltimore summer vacation season begins when my lone surviving rosebush blooms. I put it in nearly 30 years ago. The variety is a Queen Elizabeth. And when the buds show enough color to be cut, I declare that the open-window season is here. This year, the rose has been reluctant to show full color, but maybe today or tomorrow that will change.

The arrival of the summer season (I realize June 21 is four weeks distant) came ready or not when I was a child. Neighbors seemed to compete to take down winter curtains and install summer window roll-up-and-down shades made of a linen-like dark blue material.

The job of lifting out the very heavy winter storm windows (real wood) was too much for a 7-year-old, but I was allowed to help with the screens, which had to be hauled out of the cellar and washed down with a hose before being slid into their tracks.

About this time of the year, my grandmother would start rumbling about how she hated the summer and conditions she denounced as "hot and buggy."

This condition did not apply to the late spring strawberry season, when she took a wooden kitchen match to a piece of paper and ignited the Oriole range's oven one last time.

Before long, it held the biscuit-like base of her strawberry shortcake, the foundation of a major dessert. She intentionally made the bottom part of this artful confection dry, then corrected the situation with a layer of nun's butter icing (really a form of butter cream), then added macerated strawberries. Not content with that, she whipped sugared cream of the highest butterfat count. I equate her shortcake with the heavy storm windows. Neither was for amateurs.

If Memorial Day was warm, she began making iced tea, too. Her recipe was similarly complicated - and she insisted her tea steep for four hours. It was worth the wait.

I never knew anyone who made a shortcake or tea just this way. It seemed like only a few days later she was shutting down the house for the summer and looking east toward the Atlantic Ocean. Her bedroom there was always the one closest to the waves.

We observe a quaint neighborhood custom. Every year, half of Charles Village opens its gates to garden visitors as part of a community festival.

This year, the other half of the neighborhood (blessedly not mine) goes under the garden examination. As a matter of fact, all I've done is sweep up some holly leaves and cut the grass after all that rain. My garden has never been lusher - and promises to put on quite a color show.

The moral of this story is easy. Stop worrying about the garden. Just open the windows, and wait for the lightning bugs - and the Queen Elizabeth.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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