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The night the tree went flying


YEARS AGO, ON A night well-remembered in our family, my parents found the perfect Christmas tree. This specimen stayed green, scented all three floors of the house, never shed a needle and showed off the ornaments.

The hunt began on a Sunday night in December, during a merry visit to my grandmother's Poultney Street rowhouse in the neighborhood we call Federal Hill today. In 1963, it was just plain South Baltimore.

My parents and five brothers and sisters were listening to the grandmother we all called "Mame" (Mary Louise Bosse Kelly) retell her catalog of war stories, those often-told family tales that seem to get repeated on cozy nights.

Before long, she'd produced a venerable Esskay lard tin full of Christmas cookies. The kitchen table was soon a mound of wax paper (used to separate cookie layers), dough Santas and stars, and bottles of RC Cola.

As we wolfed down this first draw of heavenly Christmas baking, my mother mentioned that we still needed to buy a tree. Mame responded that the neighborhood boys were selling trees just around the corner on Cross Street near Charles.

Back then, the spot was a random collection of vacant shops and alleyways. Today, it's home to upscale music bars whose admission charges equal what we paid for a tree then.

My grandmother was a strong advocate of waiting till the last minute to buy a tree. She knew that by the laws of Baltimore neighborhood economics, tree prices fell as Dec. 25 approached. We ignored her "You're buying too early" advice, trooped down an alleyway and found the Cross Street woodsmen.

Their stand had all the right features. There was an oil drum full of smoking fire to keep the sellers warm. There were a few two-by-fours nailed together in a cross to support a row of balsam trees, which was about the only kind of tree available then, except for the few Scotch pines that were beginning to be introduced. And, of course, there was a line of bare electric light bulbs strung up.

Without much deliberation, my mother and father eliminated the worst of the balsams, picked one that seemed to have all its parts and tied it atop our Rambler American station wagon. My grandmother was steadfast. No tree for her that night. She figured to hold out until Dec. 24.

After prolonged goodbyes, Mame waved us on the way northward. My father took the car up South Charles Street and east on Montgomery to Light, where he reminisced on the old wharves that once stood in what has since been proclaimed the Inner Harbor. Back then, on a good day, Baltimoreans called that body of water "The Basin."

At the place on Light Street where my father was describing the glories of the Old Bay Line, the tree broke its flimsy moorings and flipped into the Light Street traffic. Oncoming cars hit it squarely.

We all let out a gasp, but my mother thought the flying tree exceedingly funny. She remarked that at least the freight train that then made nightly bulk deliveries to the McCormick spice plant hadn't hit it.

Well, if buying a tree early was an extravagance, we certainly were not going to add to the profligacy by buying an undamaged replacement. The injured balsam was fetched and retied.

A few days later, my father brought the bruised tree inside the house. He turned its worst side toward the corner of the dining room. Its second worst side was trimmed with large ornaments. Its scent, helped along by the tires of Light Street, was extraordinary. My mother claimed the cars had pressed out the sap.

It was, by all accounts, our best-remembered tree.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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