The sights and smells of Thanksgivings past

November 21, 2009|By Jacques Kelly

My mother endorsed Thanksgiving because she felt it was an unemotional holiday. It didn't carry all the past associations and mental baggage of other feasts. It was just pleasant to gather around a table for an afternoon on what is usually a gentle Baltimore Thursday.

While walking south along Charles Street this week, I lapsed into a Thanksgiving mood, coaxed by the scent of wood burning. I glanced around and saw some smoke escaping the stone chimneys of the old Maryland Club. I glanced into its washed windows and saw the sidelights flickering, the polished paneling and a wall of portraits. Perhaps it is the orderliness of this landmark, known for its food and Victorian interior, that reminded me that Thanksgiving is a great domestic holiday.

It was a rule that all the fall housecleaning would be over and the old Guilford Avenue house where I spent all those years would be at its best for the Thanksgiving assembly. This meant it would have been vacuumed, washed and waxed until, if you didn't watch your footing, you could skid across the front hall on a flimsy wool scatter rug. We didn't need decorations and ornaments for Thanksgiving; an orderly dining room table said it all.

Because it was fall, the daylight was anemic and the back garden was petering out. There might have been a few last roses around and, if so, much admired. Come November, my grandmother would have cut ivy to root over the winter. She had a pair of pressed-glass vases that sat in each of the two windows in her parlor. Each held some of that ivy.

Alongside each window was a chair, a rocker and an upholstered straight-back. One of the blessings of a family Thanksgiving is continuity. For the unbroken 20 years I was around to witness them, my grandmother, Lily Rose, and her sister, Aunt Cora, sat at those chairs, alongside the sprouting ivy, every afternoon. Only death separated these two siblings.

I think of their calm demeanor and wisdom, their ability to make our Thanksgiving dinner, and all that went with it, seem almost effortless, but this was part of a well-hatched plan. They were both early risers and had the preparation work finished before daybreak.

My grandfather, Edward Jacques Monaghan, was something of the bartender in a house where liquor consumption was both condemned and permitted. Pop Monaghan had his private stash of Wight's Sherbrook rye ready for any guests who needed a little something to get through the afternoon. At other times of the year, cocktails and wine were rarely served and not really encouraged.

Thanksgiving dinner required some hard work. My mother, who by happy mutual agreement stayed away from her mother's kitchen routine, scoured old Baltimore for the makings of that meal.

The week before the holiday, she'd drop into two or three of Baltimore's more ancient municipal markets. Her favorite was the Belair Market on Gay Street, which in November 1958 looked like medieval London. She carried all her marketing home in a brown paper shopping bag on the No. 8 streetcar.

I associate a lot of smells with the holiday - burning wood was not one because my grandmother had all the mantels in the house removed to increase wall space. I do, however, think of silver polish, and the tablecloths stored in the sideboard.

If it were a humid Thanksgiving, the kitchen grew warmer and the sauerkraut and its steamy brine became more apparent, competing with the redolent sage in the turkey's dressing. And yet, with all these Thanksgiving labors, why was it the canned tiny peas were as much a part of the domestic scene as the main course?

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