My late mother had many tricks up her sleeve on Christmas Day, but none made her happier than the distribution of a couple of dozen gifts to an order of cloistered nuns who were forbidden to receive any item construed as luxury, fancy or special.
She dealt with a present-giving household of 12 and an even larger network of cousins and friends. She didn't drive and often hand-carried her Christmas items home on the No. 8 streetcar.
She loved to give; it was her joy. And to give meant tailoring the present to what would delight the recipient. She truly enjoyed the gift-buying, which tested her skills but delivered some of her sweetest pleasures.
Beginning in 1955, I was enrolled at the old Baltimore Academy of the Visitation, a small school in Roland Park. It was staffed by cloistered nuns who never left the grounds save for medical treatment or some other rare occasion.
While some of the sisters taught in the classrooms, many others lived quiet, prayerful lives in the monastery adjacent to the school. They all had roles within this conservative religious order. There was a portress (who opened the door and answered a telephone), procuratrix (who did the buying and ordering), infirmarian (who worked with the sick and infirm) and the sacristan (who cared for the chapel).
At first, my mother sent out gifts to my teachers, but as she got to know the other sisters, she realized that most did not have family in Baltimore. This lack of family and Christmas Day visitors set in motion an event I still miss, more than 30 years after it ceased.
Early on, my mother realized that any gifts would have to fit the rules of a religious life. No gift could be extravagant, costly or showy. The only worldly goods the sisters could receive would have to be practical — used for the needs of everyday living. My mother personally endorsed these principles as well.
Throughout the year she toured wholesale paper goods stores in downtown Baltimore for sets of plain, unornamented writing paper. Hardware stores were also good sources. She found garden trowels, shoe polishing kits, sets of scissors, heavy twine. She assembled an inventory of presents that would count as a Christmas gift, but still pass the nuns' rule book of what constituted ordinary fare.
On Christmas Day, we all piled into the car (eight or nine of us, depending on the year) and drove to the monastery's big oak door at Roland Avenue and Bellemore Road. We pushed a substantial doorbell and were soon greeted by tiny Sister Mary Stanislaus, the portress.
We were shown into one of the two visitors' parlors, where a latticework wood screen separated us from the cloistered sisters. A wooden turning drum, with a little door, allowed my mother to pass her humble presents through to the sisters.
Within a few minutes, we heard a unique version of the bells of Christmas Day. The sisters were called to receive their plain paper gifts via a 1920s Autocall, the identical paging bell once familiar to department store shoppers.
Each sister had her own set of rings — say three sharp strikes, followed by two. It was a lot of call bells; I loved the sound. The bells summoned all the nuns — Sisters Agnes, Aimee, Alice, Angela, Anne, Clement, Consolata, de Chantal, de Sales, Dolores, Elizabeth, Francis Patrick, Hilda, Ignatius, Jane Frances, Joachim, Loretta, Louise, Magdalene, Maurice, Marie Therese, Miriam Joseph, Paula, Peronne Marie, Rita, Sulpice, Stanislaus, Stephanie, Veronica and Winifred. They'd pop in the room, express their greetings and disappear.
In keeping with the spirit of the gifts that weren't gifts, the visit was fairly brief. The nuns' day was regimented. We, too, had to get home for other Christmas Day rituals with family and friends. We departed with an empty trunk as the big tower bell was ringing the noontime Angelus prayer.