Joy came in with Julia's gift; Tradition: At Easter, it's a relief to know some things haven't changed.


THE TONE OF JOY in my sister's voice accompanied her report from her Delaware home that a gift package had just arrived along with five Easter cards. This cache came from an old family friend, our long-time neighbor Julia F. Hoopper. Could a family Easter be the same without the Julia touch?

Julia and her parents moved next door to my mother in 1925. My first Easter was 1950, and I ever associate this holiday with a ritual as strong as the friendships between the two households.

The Hoopper household numbered three, Julia, her mother and father. We were 12, including six children, plus a noisy dog. We outnumbered the Hooppers 4-to-1. They never made any noise. A few years ago, Julia, who had attained senior status on the block, decided to scale down a bit, to stop overseeing the reconstruction of rowhouse back porches and roofs, and to take a smaller place elsewhere.

That's why the receipt of the gifts was so welcome. The locales and addresses may have changed; the tradition remains steady.

Each year, Holy Saturday evening was spent getting our house in shape for Easter, with the dining room sideboard filling up with potted tulips and hyacinths bought on Greenmount Avenue or outside the Lexington, Cross Street or Belair markets. Or maybe all three.

There was always a certain hour on this Saturday when it was obvious Lent was over. Julia's doorbell ring had the role of signaling this. She was the herald of the events to come, the church services, the Easter outfits and, by extension, the greening of the front lawn and the Maryland spring. In short, Julia ushered in Easter.

She would make only a brief call, not really a visit, to deliver her annual springtime gift -- Easter baskets for everyone -- perfectly made, precise as a schoolteacher's handwriting practiced over the years at the Montebello School in Northeast Baltimore.

Julia's Easter baskets were square in shape. In the 1950s, these baskets were clean, white wood strawberry boxes. When these disappeared in favor of green plastic pints, she switched.

Her Easter boxes were perfectly constructed -- a neat layer of green grass, some high-quality jelly beans, several nice chocolate rabbits (top-of-the-line bittersweet, as I recall). Mr. Hoopper liked his chocolate and he liked it with bite and kick.

A few days later, we returned the empties to Julia. After all, what good is a ritual if it's not repeated?

I'm not too sure how my mother and grandmother reciprocated. I have a feeling some of their homemade buttercream eggs went over the backyard wire fence in the direction of the Hoopper household. I know that quarts of strawberries also went that route, because Julia's favorite food was the same fruit that had once filled her signature Easter baskets.

Long after my siblings moved away, Julia kept up her ritual. Events briefly kept her from continuing her Easter tradition, but this year, with the great-grandchildren of the original Guilford Avenue settlers, it began again.

Pub Date: 4/03/99

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