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Mama was the sweetest on Valentine's Day; Gifts: Mother was never more enthusiastic about a holiday than on Feb. 14.


MY POSTAL deliverers have been busy this week, depositing a succession of Valentine's Day cards at my home. I don't have to open the envelopes to know the identity of each sender. I can tell by the handwriting which of my siblings has remembered their older brother with a card.

If I had to say why my family gets into the Feb. 14 spirit with so much enthusiasm, it would be that the day was one of my mother's favorite holidays. There were many years when she mailed far more red-heart cards than Christmas greetings.

The observance of the V-day nearly coincided with another happy event, my father's birthday, which falls today and will be celebrated in proper fashion with a roomful of happy Kellys.

I've often wondered why my mother got so worked up about Feb. 14 and came up with a couple of answers. She possessed the knack for remembering people and their little tastes, recollections that were quietly sentimental and salted with a good dose of hearty humor. Her notes and letters are still a joy to read and read again. I often think of all the Valentine cards she mailed to the pet cats of the presumed lonely spinsters in the neighborhood.

Mama bought heavily -- and economically -- for the Valentine's celebration. She wore down a lot of shoe leather in the process. Her philosophy was that you didn't need to get a dozen American Beauty roses delivered by a fancy florist to have a successful Feb. 14. What counted was the remembrance -- the act of doing something to remind a sweetheart or child, mother-in-law, friend, cloistered nun, companion or lonely neighbor of your thoughts and affection.

So, in search of Valentine's reminders, my mother and many or all of her six children, with the occasional grandmother and great aunt, fanned out within the shopping districts of old Baltimore early in February.

My mother was a born shopper. She would turn to anything to escape the routine of keeping a house and the prison of its four walls. One of the urban treks would typically begin on the southbound No. 8 Greenmount Avenue streetcar, which we boarded at 29th Street. We'd be getting impatient by the time the car stopped at North Avenue (ever a lingering red light), which Mom handled by launching into an animated oration about Green Mount Cemetery and how John Wilkes Booth was secretly buried there.

Then she'd pull the buzzer at Forrest Street and we'd be off to the Belair Market, where an elderly Greek candymaker had an inventory of milk chocolate hearts lined up atop a marble and glass counter. I got the impression he made these in some East Baltimore basement.

His prices were right. So was the atmosphere. The Valentine season overlapped with muskrat-trapping time. You stepped past the muskrat displays (never a sight for the fainthearted) as you left the place.

Downtown Baltimore had a host of other confectioners a long walk up the Alpine-like Saratoga Street hill. These sweet-makers' wares had tastes as individual as the handwriting on a Valentine card. My grandmother and her sister preferred the rather pricey selections (delicious almond paste) from Maron's, the fancy place on Lexington Street, where the candy came hand-packed in shocking pink boxes.

My grandfather, Pop Monaghan, and his son, my Uncle Jack, liked 60 cents worth of molasses taffy from Ortmuller's stall (later Konstant's) in Lexington Market. No fancy box -- only a brown paper bag. Family friend Mary Boniface liked light milk chocolate bon bons from Rheb's, also in the market and, to this day, mobbed pre-Feb. 14.

There were other candy makers too. I recall Martha Washington (downtown and Greenmount Avenue), with its lace curtains, banjo clock and portrait of the first First Lady. There was Sordillo, on Light Street, near the harbor, in the same block where my great-grandfather lived.

Another South Baltimore chocolate landmark was Harger's, which operated out of an old brick Fort Avenue factory. You could buy it there or from the candy section of Hutzler's, the much-lamented departed department store. Other Baltimore makers are still in business -- Glauber's and Wockenfuss.

There was one last custom Mama observed when she delivered her gifts. On the night of the 13th, she roamed around the front steps and porches of Charles Village -- or wherever. She dropped off her cards, gifts or candy -- rang the bell -- then bolted. There was nothing like the unexpected element -- the surprise -- to accompany a Valentine thought.

Pub Date: 2/13/99

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