The St. Ignatius choir had barely finished its last "in excelsis Deo!" when Frances Kavanagh began leading a band of guests northward along Calvert Street. She first invited me to her Christmas Eve party in the 1970s, casually saying to drop by 913 N. Calvert St. She and her husband, Jack, were having "a few friends in." And so, for the better part of two decades, I spent the early hours of Dec. 25 nestled in an old Baltimore setting worthy of a perfect Christmas card.
Frances, who was universally known as Chinky, died in March at age 102. I often think of her, cigarette in hand, deep in conversation with my mother, also puffing on a Lucky Strike. The two traded insults, and my mother called her staunch friend "the iron maiden." The truth was that both women were strong-willed, and they were inseparable.
Chinky did not mention it much, but she was an ace Johns Hopkins-schooled Red Cross nurse who worked the battlefields of World War II. She never bragged about anything; her actions spoke for her.
Chinky was a brilliant entertainer who put her guests first. She was also an unforgettable character who resided in the same house for more than 50 years. It was a dazzling Mount Vernon specimen, polished to perfection for Dec. 24. I think of its floor-to-ceiling windows, marble mantels, walls hung with oversized oil paintings, a hall rack for coats and those numerous Oriental rugs. It was a very Baltimore setting. From the back windows, you overlooked the penitentiary and the expressway.
She and her husband (whose family had lived there even longer than she) were devotees of Howard Street's auction galleries and filled the house with pieces that might not fit in smaller spaces. It was not a museum; it was not restored; it was just perfect.
When I got to know her, she was in her 70s and suffered no loss of energy. She kept her kitchen in the basement, in the 19th-century manner, and sent the food upstairs to a formal dining room on a dumbwaiter. She'd be lifting tureens and platters into this little wooden elevator and pulling on the rope to send it upstairs for enjoyment.
She referred to that kitchen as her "laboratory" and often produced new dishes and treats. As a younger woman, she had wanted to open her own restaurant. But her husband did not like the idea.
The house was merry. People would be chattering away. Father John Henry, a soft-spoken Jesuit priest, would settle in among the guests. His calming voice and kind demeanor only added to the spirit of holiday graciousness.
After a couple of eggnogs and a Scotch, I'd settle into a chair in one of the parlors. As I recall, the house had a series of formal rooms, each hung with magnificent chandeliers that once burned gas. The etched-glass shades on their numerous arms didn't always match, but the vista made me think that I had traveled back in time.
I knew it was time to leave when the chime on an antique clock sounded 2 in the morning. My mother and Chinky were still at their cigarettes. I think Jack was ready for bed. Reluctantly, we guests put on coats and went off to face Christmas Day.