On the day after Thanksgiving, after finishing some errands on Charles Street below Mount Vernon Square, I suddenly decided to take a walk through what used to be the heart of downtown Baltimore: Howard Street.
Of course, Howard Street is all boarded up or mostly empty now: The old Oriole Cafeteria, the great department stores that ruled the shopping life of Baltimoreans, the specialty shops and marble-floored banks -- they exist only in memory.
Walking along Howard, I thought about how in December the downtown streets used to be filled with Christmas shoppers and Salvation Army Santas and boys who sold brown-paper shopping bags for a nickel. I thought about all the time I'd spent as a child drinking hot chocolate in Hutzler's Fountain Shop or visiting the enormous Laughing Santa enthroned in Hochschild-Kohn's window or going with my mother to the Virginia Dare Tea Room, tired and hungry after a morning of shopping.
The tea room is now a parking lot.
I walked on. A wind blew down the narrow corridor of Howard Street, stirring up more memories. I watched it blow past the revolving doors that used to be the entrance to Hutzler's fabrics and notions department and then past the corner farther down,where a brown-and-white-spotted dog used to sit outside Bickford's Cafeteria, patiently waiting for leftovers.
Glancing up at the sky, I noticed the late morning sun was trying to break through a high, thin veil of clouds. It was just the kind of sky, I thought, that my mother would have noticed. I remembered suddenly how much she liked of bells from a nearby church, St. Alphonsus probably, filled the air. I turned onto Saratoga Street, heading toward the sound. Instantly, a delicious smell nicked my memory. I wondered: Was it the scent of the hot, caramel popcorn my brother and I used to buy on bitter-cold winter days? I hurried the few feet to where the tiny popcorn shop once had been. The black wrought-iron gates that opened into the narrow arcaded alley were still there. But the shop itself had vanished.
And, I noticed, so had the beauty salon where decades ago the strong odor of permanent wave chemicals once threatened to overcome me and my best friend, Ducky Harris, during our annual Christmas spree downtown.
And then it happened. I saw my grandmother. Dressed in her usual sturdy walking shoes, a heavy wool cape thrown over her coat, she was standing two doors down, in front of the Carry On Shop, peering through the window. Her head was bent, and I couldn't see her face under the hat she was wearing. Next to her was a little girl -- she looked about 8 or 9 -- who was pointing at something in the window with great excitement.
As I watched, I realized with a start: The girl is me.
And suddenly it matters not at all that the sign above the shop window says "Top Dog Custom Jewelry" or that the woman in the cape has been dead for three decades or that the young girl is now the mother of grown sons.
It all comes back to me in a flash -- the Christmases I spent shopping with my grandmother, the things we did, the things I felt. Even now, that woman and that girl are never far from me. The connection is like that between stem and flower, all of a piece, one holding the other up, one allowing the other to bloom.
In the land of my childhood, Christmas officially began when my Scottish grandmother got out her dark green tam-o'-shanter with the navy pompom on top.
She kept it, wrapped carefully in tissue paper, in a cardboard box under her bed. Also inside the box was a shawl woven in the tartan of her clan. "Buchanan," she'd say, holding up the bright tartan for me to see. "It's from the Old Country," she told me with pride and, I later realized, a little sadness too.
Each time she said this, I tried picturing the Old Country: In my mind it was a place of rolling green hills and soft mists, of cottages with smoke puffing through chimneys; a place populated with kind women wearing sturdy shoes, green tam-o'-shanters and tartan shawls. I knew I'd like it there.
We had a Christmas ritual, my grandmother and I. Each year, always on the second Saturday in December, the two of us rose early, before the rest of the household was up and about. After a breakfast of tea and thick porridge topped with homemade peach preserves, we set out on our special shopping trip.
My grandmother, who liked simplicity almost to the point of severity, was dressed for comfort and warmth: thick-soled shoes and woolen socks, a heavy coat with a cape thrown over it, fur-lined leather gloves -- all of which she had picked up at various thrift shops. And, of course, her non-thrift-shop, from-the-Old-Country, dark green tam-o'-shanter. Her outfit said, "Here is a woman who is ready, at a moment's notice, to walk through snowstorms, climb icy embankments and, if need be, camp out for days in a blizzard."
By the way, did I mention she always carried a thermos of tea, some fruit and a box of raisins in her bag? "The Highlands of Scotland," she once told me of her childhood home, "is not a place for sissies."
The walk from our house in Catonsville to the No. 8 streetcar took about 15 minutes; the ride downtown a little under an hour. It gave us just enough time to talk about the major purpose of our trip: finding the perfect Christmas gift for me to give my mother.
It was always a tricky business, finding a way to agree on what that gift would be. At the time, I had a strong attraction to the new and shiny: a piece of sequined costume jewelry in the shape of a parrot; a frosted-silver glass bowl filled with colored bath salts; a pair of shiny, green silk gloves.
Tactfully, my grandmother would steer me away from such choices: "The green silk gloves are very pleasing to look at but not very warm," she would say in her Scots accent, one that rolled the "r's" in "green" and "very" and "warm" in a most pleasing way.
Our first stop downtown was O'Neill's department store. We'd enter through the Lexington Street doors, walk through cosmetics and down a few steps to the notions department. It gave my grandmother a chance to catch up with Miss Lillian, her favorite sales lady, and to buy the cotton darning thread that was an O'Neill's specialty.
From there we'd walk down Lexington Street. Past the Century Theatre where Grandmother and I saw "National Velvet" twice in a single sitting, we navigated the throngs of shoppers who spilled out from the sidewalks into the narrow streets; past the Enna Jettick shoe store where she occasionally bought a new pair of sturdy shoes; past the Lavender Man who sold the fragrant flowers from a box suspended around his neck, the kind of box that cigarette girls carried in "Casablanca," which oddly enough was my grandmother's favorite movie.
We were headed for Saratoga Street and my grandmother's favorite shop: the Carry On Shop, a name that paid tribute to the British tradition of "carrying on" in the face of whatever adversity life throws at you. A charitable shop run by the women's auxiliary of a prestigious local hospital, it featured fascinating second-hand items, most of them contributed by the women -- usually society women -- who ran it.
It was here that a discriminating shopper could pick up designer clothing, small antiques, beautiful leather-bound books, and the fine but odd piece of silver or porcelain or glass.
How clearly I remember the hours of quiet companionship we spent, my grandmother and I, in the Carry On Shop. It was a small place, lit with lamps that gave it an intimate, cozy feeling. There was a balcony where books were the main attraction. It was there that I came across a green leather book with the words "Jane Eyre" written across the cover, like a signature, in gold letters. The book and I became, and remain, best friends.
It's funny, but occasionally, when rereading "Jane Eyre," I still hear the sound of my grandmother's voice: "Too dear," she's telling the sales clerk about some item or another -- meaning the price was too high.
One Christmas trip downtown, however, stands out in memory. On this particular second Saturday in December, when my grandmother and I reached the Carry On Shop, it was surprisingly crowded. I headed over to the table holding a number of tiny glass figures and was attracted instantly to one that depicted a bird in flight. Turning it over, I saw the word "Steuben" marked on the back. The price tag, handwritten in pencil, was not clear: the bird was either $6 or $60.
If it was $6 it was the perfect gift for my mother, who had an interest in birds; if it was $60 I was out of luck. Fortune smiled: "Six dollars," said the sales lady.
When I carried the bird over to my grandmother, she was standing before a small dressing-table lamp, its shade a pyramid of pleated red silk. She had lit the lamp and in the darkened store it glowed like a ruby. I saw a look on her face that was new to me. Something about the small, elegant lamp -- I didn't know what -- clearly attracted her.
Maybe, I thought, it reminded her of the days when she was a young, athletic woman, living on the grounds of a castle, surrounded by suitors. She'd told me about those early days -- about her horse, Maggie, whom she rode through the fields, and about her fiance, David, who'd died from scarlet fever.
Suddenly, my grandmother's voice pierced my thoughts. "What is the price of the wee lamp?" she asked a saleswoman.
"Too dear," my grandmother said. But I heard her sigh as she turned away. I was not used to hearing her sigh. It bothered me.
After I bought the glass bird and a small compass for my brother, the two of us headed over to Kresge's five-and-dime store on Lexington Street. It was a good place to pick up wrapping paper and ribbon, and, besides, they had a woman there who played the piano and sold sheet music. We liked to shop to the sound of the piano lady, particularly when she played our favorites: "White Christmas" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear."
When we left Kresge's we walked over to Howard Street to tour the lavish Christmas windows in the department stores. It was crowded in front of the windows; sometimes you had to wait 15 minutes to get to the front of the crowd so you could see the fabulous displays of elves and angels and Santas and reindeer. Stories were told in these windows. Angels flew and elves hammered away in Santa's workshop.
For some reason, though, I couldn't stop thinking about the red, pleated-silk lamp. And the look on my grandmother's face.
By the time we headed for the streetcar that would take us home, it was growing dark. And cold. The street was still filled with shoppers, and, under the lights of the stores, I could see their breath frosting the air when they spoke.
Riding home on the No. 8, I stared out the window, looking at all the wreaths on houses and colored lights strung across porches. Through the windows of some houses I could see a Christmas tree, shimmering with tinsel and colored balls.
But then darkness turned the streetcar window into a mirror. In it I could see a red silk pyramid glowing like a ruby. And just before I fell asleep, lulled by the warmth and motion of the streetcar, I thought I saw a young woman walking beside a young man who, I somehow knew, would die of scarlet fever.
I thought about all this, on the day after Thanksgiving, as I wandered through what used to be the heart of downtown Baltimore: the excitement of the season, the crowds, the smell of lavender and hot peanuts, the shopping bags filled with gifts, the music spilling out of the department stores, the clanging of the streetcars through the narrow streets.
And, of course, I thought about my grandmother and the Carry On Shop. It is a memory that has become, in a way, a traveling companion. Sometimes when I'm walking down a street that I know my grandmother never saw -- like the rue du Bac in Paris, a street lined with elegant second-hand shops -- I get this kind of nostalgic thrill.
It's as though she's there with me, looking in the windows at the antique jewelry and paisley silk scarves.
I see her now, a sturdy Scottish woman wearing a cape and a tam-o'-shanter, walking along the winding Paris street with me. At each dusty window we stop to peer in, our heads almost touching. We are looking for something. I'm not sure what.
Something red, I think. Something red and made of silk. Something that glows like a ruby.
Pub Date: 12/22/96