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Remembering an absent friend


A FEW WEEKS ago I accepted an invitation to enjoy a cozy Little Italy dinner with three persons I'd never met. They had known me -- by reputation -- via a string of conversations over 40 years from the absent fifth member of our group.

The common bond among the four of us was a friend, the late Dorothy Croswell, a woman my mother met in 1940 when both were beginning careers at the city's Department of Public Welfare.

Dorothy, who died in 1995, lived for two decades immediately next door to our family on Guilford Avenue, where she was regular at meals and the lengthy conversation sessions that followed coffee and dessert. In many ways, she was the 13th member of the household of 12.

That night in Little Italy, I met fellow social workers Norma Jean Moore and Nancy Pitchford and Nancy's husband Lynn and we reminisced about how Dorothy had so marked our lives.

Dorothy would have liked this. She delighted in social settings -- especially the luncheons and dinners she staged at the apartments she occupied over the years in Charles Village.

Ever the social worker supervisor, she placed you at the table, directed your menu and then asked you to take the trash out when leaving.

It was fitting that the four of us met at this time of the year -- the weeks before Christmas when Dorothy staged her annual treasure hunt. The first of these took place in 1960; they continued for another 30 Decembers.

Dorothy would hide presents all over her apartment. The clues to the hiding places (in rhymed verse) were written in her illegible hand on three-by-five index cards.

Dorothy kept meticulous records, and each year's hunt included a reading from a brown, spiral-bound notebook of every gift she had given to family members, going back to the 1940s.

By the end of the 1980s, Dorothy made a decision to leave her beloved Baltimore and Charles Village, where she walked the streets as she hummed a tune and swung a large purse or shopping bag. As part of her exodus (she moved to Florida to be with family), she summoned us to her apartment for a rare, non-December treasure hunt.

She wanted us to remember her by one last worldly possession. We were to ask for some component part of her material world -- to recall her after she got on the plane for Florida.

If ever I was asked an awkward question, it was this. What do you say on this occasion?

I decided to speak the truth. I asked for a linen lamp shade that I'd long admired. It was the color of tea and came from the Wilson Electric Co. in Towson.

Dorothy, ever the director of all events, approved my request -- with a clause attached. If I took the lamp shade, I had to take the converted oil lamp beneath it.

Now I was in hot water, because she still needed a lamp for her living room. So, she agreed to swap it for another lamp. As to a new shade, though, I told her she was on her own. She agreed and found a replacement for 10 cents at a Goucher College rummage sale.

Now, each year, as I write my Christmas cards and letters, Dorothy's lamp remains lighted.

Pub Date: 12/05/98

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