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Managing childish foibles involved laughter; Solution: A six-adult family police force couldn't put a stop to childhood mischief, so they turned it into good stories.


MY SISTER ANN has a way of handling her 2-year-old twin daughters.

One evening, as Ann was taking out the trash, she opened the back storm door, only to have it fall off its hinges. The little girls had spent the afternoon extracting its hinge pins.

My sister used her head. She removed the door and stored it away until the girls grow older.

Days before, when the pair -- Katie and Mary -- pushed a steamer trunk alongside her bureau and used the trunk to climb atop, then crayoned their parents' wedding pictures, their mother did the sensible thing. Ann laughed and told their aunts and uncles about it.

In doing so, she continued a family tradition of telling stories on each other's behavioral foibles.

I grew up under a formidable, six-person family police force -- one grandfather, one grandmother, one great-aunt, one father, one mother and one uncle. We children couldn't step out of line -- there were adult eyes everywhere.

Did the saturation presence of elders end childhood mischief? Hardly. They were often a willing audience to these innocent misdeeds.

And a big old Guilford Avenue house, crammed from cellar to third floor with cupboards, dressers, closets and store rooms, was a domestic minefield. We loved it. Every corner held a challenge.

My sister Mimi was our favorite in-house culprit. She was a sleight-of-hand artist, accomplished at eluding detection. She was also an expert at hiding when a doctor made house calls.

Like her twin nieces, she was at her best at working the heights.

My mother was given the largest box of chocolates I've ever seen -- a 5-pound monster festooned with gold borders and fancy paper. It was also sealed in cellophane and sold under the name "treasure chest assortment."

As the mother of six children, she knew the bedlam this gift would ring down when opened. She put it out of reach -- high, high up in her bedroom. On the appropriate day, when there were a number of people around to share the booty, the treasure chest would be opened and its contents passed around.

My sister Mimi had other ideas.

Somehow, she scaled the height (she climbed atop the radiator) and snared the bonbons. Now, how to open it? Mimi used her brain. She jabbed it with a can opener.

When found out, Mimi's break-in made for a great family story -- we all got a laugh on that one.

It was considered bad form to misbehave in a public place. The six sets of family eyes were one thing; it was quite another to be observed by a tattletale neighbor or stranger.

As a result, we could be taken anywhere -- and we were -- without fear of damage to the Maryland Historical Society, the Peale Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art or a real test -- the antique-filled home of a fastidious, childless collector.

Sometimes things happened.

One fine spring afternoon, my mother assembled her six for an on-foot expedition to the BMA for a celebrated show, "Three Paris Painters."

The exhibition rooms were packed. My sister Ann stood before a Mary Cassatt painting of a rosy-cheeked little girl cradling a dog in her arms.

Ann always speaks the truth. When she gazed upon the canvas, she exclaimed innocently, "Mama, does that dog have ticks?"

The room full of dignified museum patrons exploded in laughter.

On a family outing to Carroll Park and the Mount Clare Mansion, my youngest sister Josie touched a clock. I had a fit and snitched on her. My mother did the sensible thing. She laughed at me for snitching.

One summer, my sisters and a cousin took off for the Walters Art Gallery. My baby sister Josie darted for a 16th century Franco-Flemish tapestry, ducked behind its folds and created a ripple effect as she raced along the wall. A grievous offense? Maybe.

The explanation? "It had mop fringe on it. It was tempting."

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