CHRISTMASES REMEMBERED Most were beautiful, a few were painful . . . Here they are as 10 Baltimoreans recall them Alice Steinbach

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Shhhhhhhh!

Be real quiet for a moment.

Do you hear it?

The faint sound of sleigh bells and reindeer hooves way off in the distance.

Now, squint real hard.

Do you see it?

Snow falling softly on the woolen caps and scarves of carolers on Christmas Eve as they sing "O Holy Night" just outside your front door.

Then take a deep breath.

Do you smell it?

The fragrance of pine and balsam and still-warm Christmas cookies spilling into every corner of the house.

Now, keep all that in mind as you lean back, close your eyes and let the Ghosts of Christmas Past enter your spirit.

That's what we asked several Baltimoreans to do: Remember a Christmas Past and tell us about it. Some remembered their best Christmas Past; others, their worst.

But best or worst, it might be wise to keep this in mind: Even if you live to the ripe old age of 100, you're only going to experience Christmas 100 times in your entire life!

Not very much when you compare it to number of trips you've made to the supermarket, or number of days you've spent at the workplace, or number of evenings you've wasted watching bad television.

So. A word to the wise: Make the most of this Christmas. And all those yet to come.

Who knows? Next year we might call you and ask for a Christmas memory.

Susan Badder

Susan Badder, executive director, Maryland Art Place, remembers the 1963 Christmas she spent in Rome as one of her best:

"I was single and working in Florence that year. On Christmas Eve, I went to Rome with three American friends. The next day -- Christmas Day -- turned out to be very balmy, and we went to the Rome zoo. It was so warm they had let out some baby lion cubs, and they let us hold them. I remember we had our pictures taken holding these baby lion cubs.

"I think I remember that Christmas in Rome so fondly because it was one of those holidays that didn't have all the usual anxiety crunch that comes with having to do piles of shopping and getting the whole family together. It was very self-centered in a way because it was just doing what we wanted to do. I don't think it dawned on me then that here I was -- in the center of Catholicism with the Pope holding masses everywhere -- here I was at the zoo holding baby lions. But I often think it was a wonderful way of approaching the end of one year and the beginning of another."

Bea Gaddy

Bea Gaddy, executive director of the Patterson Park Emergency Center, grew up poor in rural North Carolina when times were particularly hard. But hard times taught her the true meaning of Christmas.

"For the worst Christmas I ever had, I would have to go back to when I was 5 years old. That Christmas morning I woke up and there was nothing. Nothing at all. There was no tree, no presents, not even any food. That was back in North Carolina in the year of 1938.

"But everything's so different now. Every Christmas I've experienced in Baltimore since then has had a huge meaning for me. It doesn't matter if I'm able or not able to give presents or to get them, I've learned the true meaning of Christmas. I've learned that giving a gift is not everything. That loving your fellow man is.

"But it's hard to explain that to a 5-year-old. To explain why there are no toys, no laughter, no carols, no nothing. I don't want to see any child go through that."

Brian Rutledge

Brian A. Rutledge, director, Baltimore Zoo, recalls the quiet and pristine "whiteness" of a Christmas spent far from the madding crowd on the family cattle farm:

"My fondest memories of Christmas go back to living in the upper peninsula of Michigan where you experience Christmas at its whitest. Sometimes there'd be as much as 280 inches of snow on the ground. We didn't go anywhere. There was nowhere to go. You had to break snowdrifts in the morning just to get to the driveway. And we lived six miles away from the nearest store. If we did go out, we'd move around on snowshoes or by dog sled.

"It sounds shut-in, but it didn't feel that way. It's just a very quiet memory of Christmas and pleasure in the outdoors and very few people around. We didn't have much money for Christmas presents, but people made things for each other. And we had all the usual Christmas observances going on, with one exception: during the day you'd stop to take care of the livestock."

Constantine Grimaldis

Constantine Grimaldis, owner of the C. Grimaldis Gallery, grew up in Athens, Greece, and remembers that the end of innocence about certain aspects of Christmas occurred when he was 7 years old.

"Christmas was a family holiday, and we always gathered in the house of the eldest -- and the eldest was my grandfather. For years my grandparents took great care to play tricks that made me swear that Santa Claus was actually there. I never saw him, but I knew he was there. But when I was about 7, I became suspicious that Santa Claus did not exist.

"Then on that same Christmas, during the family dinner, something else happened. The tradition was that the eldest member of the family cuts a big loaf of bread into pieces and passes the pieces to each member of the family. There is a coin in the bread and whoever finds it in his piece supposedly has luck for the rest of the year. Again, my grandfather would make sure that I would find the coin in my piece of bread.

"But that year, the very year I became convinced there was no Santa Claus, my grandfather stopped putting the coin in my bread. So it was a double whammy that Christmas."

Dr. John Money

Dr. John Money, professor emeritus of medical psychology and pediatrics, Johns Hopkins Hospital, recalls Christmas of last year as one of his most "joyous," thanks to some foreign students.

"Best Christmas? It was last year. I drove up to New York to pick up two young doctors who were arriving here from India to study with me for three months. And everything was so exciting for them: arriving at the Kennedy Airport in New York and their first sight of the city -- which was decorated for the Christmas season.

"We took the Queens Midtown Tunnel and just as we came out of the tunnel, lo and behold, there were snowflakes falling all over Christmas-decorated New York. These two young men who had come from the tropical part of India had never seen snow before. And there it was. Their first Christmas -- they were Hindus -- and their first sight of snow. We stayed in New York for the weekend with friends and it was very joyous."

Barbara Bostick

Barbara Bostick, commissioner at the Baltimore City Jail, says this may not be the worst Christmas she ever spent, but it's the one she remembers:

"I come from a very large family -- there were nine of us and I'm the oldest girl -- and back when I was about 11 or 12, I decided one Christmas to bake a wonderful cake for the whole family. It was a huge coconut cake -- three layers tall. I still don't know what went wrong, but when it came out of the oven and I put all three layers together, the entire cake was only about 1 inch high. Maybe not even that. It was so heavy it could kill you.

"But I continued to prepare this cake, thinking somebody would eat it. I frosted it and put orange candy on the top. But the only one who would eat any of it was my father. My brothers and sisters were unmerciful about that cake. Actually, my cakes are still quite heavy."

The Christmas of 1961 was "by far, the worst Christmas I ever had," declares Elrod Hendricks, the longtime Orioles catcher who is now bullpen coach for the team.

At that time, he was playing ball in Puerto Rico, living on $300 a month; when Christmas came he only had a few dollars left -- not even enough to buy a $9 ticket for a flight home to St. Thomas.

"Three of us shared an apartment," he remembers. "The two other guys lived in Puerto Rico, and they went home for the holiday. I guess I could have borrowed the money from them, but I never asked them for anything. And I wasn't going to call my mom and ask her to send me money."

So he had no Christmas celebration at all. "I remember how lonely it was on Christmas, just being in that apartment all alone," he says.

New Year's Eve he decided to go out, and that was even worse. "I went to a restaurant where ballplayers could sign their name, and then pay on the first or 15th of the month. When I left, it was 11:30; I was going to catch a bus and go home."

But then all traffic stopped, as drivers took time out to celebrate; he walked the five miles home alone. "It was the emptiest feeling," he says. "I really wanted to cry. And I swore it would never happen again."

It never did. The following year he managed to go home to St. Thomas on Christmas. And on New Year's Eve, even now, he makes certain he won't be stranded away from home: He just doesn't go out.

Back in 1962, WBAL-AM talk show host Allan Prell was fired from an Oklahoma City station five days before Christmas. Waiting at home for Santa Claus were a pregnant wife and a 2-year-old son.

Recalls Mr. Prell, who was 22 at the time, "It was pathetic. I had no job, no income. Whatever money I had, I had to save to look for work. It was really a sick situation."

Adding to the despair was the knowledge that he had "screwed up" badly on the job. He was night man at an automated radio station, fell asleep and woke up to find the system was on the blink. He tried to adjust the equipment but failed, and all the commercials aired improperly.

"I really deserved to be fired," he says. "I guess the mind erases the worst part of your life to save your sanity. Today, I don't have one memory of that Christmas." Matters weren't as bad as they (( at first seemed, however. Shortly after the New Year, Mr. Prell was hired by a St. Joseph, Mo., radio station.

Henry Scarupa

Sister Kathleen Feeley

Sister Kathleen Feeley, president of Baltimore's College of Notre Dame, had her best Christmas ever last year, in the Bolivian leper hospital where her sister has been administrator for 23 years.

Getting there, however, almost made it one of the worst. "I flew down the night [the United States] attacked Panama," she recalls. "We were in the air when the pilot said the political situation was such that we could not land in Panama for refueling, and we had to head back to Florida."

But the next night she had a non-stop flight, and two days later attended midnight Mass -- held at 7 p.m. -- in the hospital, with the patients and the neighborhood people. Meeting them all was a "very moving" experience, she says: "They were so poor, but so full of happiness and love. I saw the essentials of loving and giving; it really makes you understand what Christmas is."

During the Mass itself, she had another gift: "A little child, a girl about 4, was sitting next to me, and she fell asleep. She was slipping off the bench. So I picked her up and held her all through the liturgy, this dear little Bolivian child. Having her in my arms through the Christmas liturgy was a special grace."

Gerri Kobren The Christmas best remembered by WJHU-FM personality Lisa Simeone occurred the year she was 12, when she was first allowed to clean fish with the grown-ups.

"For Italians, Christmas is really Christmas Eve, because that's the bigger celebration," she explains. "In my family, we always have an all-seafood dinner, 13 courses, with squid cooked four different ways, and cod, cuttlefish, smelts, sardines, shrimp, and some things I don't even know the English names of."

Dinner was for everyone -- parents and children, aunts, uncles and cousins. Cleaning the fish for the dinner was a family affair too, but one limited to the adults. "To be allowed to help clean the fish was a big treat," Ms. Simeone remembers. "It was fun, you'd make all sorts of jokes, and there was the anticipation, knowing how wonderful it was all going to taste."

Ms. Simeone's family is in Pittsburgh; she hasn't been home for Christmas for two years. On the air five days a week, noon to 6:30 p.m., she doesn't get much chance to enjoy traditional Christmas Eve dinners. She's not so keen on cleaning ink sacs out of squid these days, either.

"But the first time, it was a big deal," she says. "Then you get to be an adolescent, and you don't want to be all messy any more."

Gerri Kobren

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
39°