First Mass Day

My father taught me the Hail Mary when I was little, long before Dee was born. My father would be around for awhile one day, I would see him lying on the sofa listening to a ballgame on the radio, and then the next day when I woke up he would be gone.

“Daddy’s at church,” my mother told me.  I wanted to go with him.

“Not quite yet,” Mother said “You wouldn’t like it much.”

Daddy brought me a little book. Inside the front cover there was a real gold cross and I could stick my finger in the hole next to it but it didn’t go all the way through to the front cover. I couldn’t read the words, but I liked the pictures. I sat on the love seat and tried to understand the drawings. A man in a white dress  stood with his back towards me in front of a table with sparkling things on it, a cross, a golden cup, candles in tall candlesticks. He reached out his arms like he was tightrope walking. In the next picture he held up a white circle. “That’s the Host,” Daddy said. ”This is the offertory. The priest is asking God to forgive our sins.  The Host is Jesus’ Body.” I thought the host was the one who had a party or the most important person on a TV show.  Over and over I brought the book to Daddy and he read the words to me. Then one day he asked me if I wanted to go to church with him, to see what the book talked about.

The next day was a Sunday. My mother brushed my hair to pull out all the tangles and put me in my favorite dress. I wore white socks and patent leather Mary Jane shoes. I carried my Mass book.

“Doesn’t she need a hat?” my mother asked Daddy. She took out a little straws hat with black elastic that went under my chin. I snapped the band and my chin stung. When I complained, she said,”Then don’t snap it.” I took my father’s hand and we walked down the narrow stairs from our apartment to the car. It was grey and it smelled like cigarettes. I sat in the back, and my feet barely reached the end of the seat cushion.  I leaned over and pulled the braided velvet rope that went across the back of the front seat. Daddy lit a cigarette and blew out the smoke as he started the car.

“When do we get to church?” I asked him. “Not long,” he said, backing out of the driveway onto our street, and turning onto the big road. A streetcar bell rang and Dad drove faster. My grandmother didn’t have a car. She only rode the streetcar. But I didn’t see her that day. She went to another church, Daddy said.

Lots of people were going into the big church. A man in a long black dress, wearing a funny black hat, said hello to us. “Good morning, Father,” Daddy  said. I knew Daddy’s father was dead and in heaven so I didn’t understand who the man was.

“That’s Father Cronin,” Daddy said.

“Why is he in a dress?’

“That’s not a dress. It’s a cassock, priests wear them when they’re off-duty,” Daddy said. “He said early Mass. We’ll have another priest.”

The church was full of people. Daddy found us a seat on one of the benches. He went down on one knee fast and then up again, his hand touching his forehead and chest and then each shoulder. I saw other people doing that too. There were no more seats, and men stood under the colored windows on both sides of the church. They stood up all the time. We were far from the priest and the table in front, but I could kneel up on the wood bench and lean out into the middle to see the back of the priest. His cape was green, not  white like the one the priest in my book wore. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he was talking in a low voice. My father took out his black rosary beads that I liked to play with at home. He knelt down and closed his eyes. I looked at the pictures of the priest in my book, with his gold and white cape.

After a long time my father pointed to the front and said the boys in black and white dresses  helping the priest were going to ring a bell three times and to be quiet. Then they rang it three more times. The priest held up a big white circle first and then a gold cup. I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Daddy said it was another language, it was Latin.

Afterwards we stopped at the bakery across the street to get sticky buns and Vienna bread to take home. Mother was Protestant, that’s why she didn’t come to church.  That’s why we had to bring the sticky buns to her. When we got home, I got out my dolls and sat them in my play chairs. I made believe they were on the wood benches at church and I was the priest.  I didn’t have a bell, but I pretended that one  rang. Daddy said girls couldn’t be priests but I could make believe  if I wanted to.

So  I decided to play train, and I was the conductor. Daddy  helped me bring chairs from the kitchen and I had dolls and toy animals riding my train. I gave out the tickets and then I collected them in my special bag. He got off at the Baltimore station and said it was time for my nap. The day was warm and the sun fell on my face, and before I knew it  I fell fast asleep.

Rambling to the Five and Dime

I might as well have been an only child. My baby sister was far too little to be much fun, and my across-the-street neighbor Danny, the singleton son of my godparents, only  wanted to play  “Exploring,” a game consisting of walking to streets adjacent to ours, making large chalk marks –arrows, circles, mysterious symbols that only we understood—on the street or sidewalk, then retracing our steps home. Aside from Danny, Oakcrest Avenue was a playmate wasteland. There were a couple of  teenagers, like the  boy (to me, he seemed a man)  who  washed and waxed his car on Saturday mornings before he headed to his part-time job as an usher at the Colony Theater.  Where our city street met the county line a half block away lived a high school girl who sometimes babysat for me. She  brought an armful of school books and did her homework after I went to bed. Though I fussed a little when my parents went out,   I didn’t really mind being left with the sitter, who taught me  to say, “Bonsoir, Maman” so that I could speak French when my mother  called to say good night.

Because there were so few children in the neighborhood, I thirsted for other diversions. Daytime television, in those days a mere three channels of  soap operas and game shows, held no interest for  me.  I could only read so many beginner books before I yearned to move around. Our yard was spacious enough, but the empty swing set did not beckon me. So  I embarked on regular  strolls to Parkville, five blocks up the Harford Road—alone. I prepared for these outings by invading a stash of old coins in the writing desk while my parents were at work. I informed our housekeeper, Miss Burnell, that I was off to the photography shop to buy film for an old black box camera I had discovered at the bottom of the walk-in coat closet. So long as I stayed on our side of the big road, I was permitted to ramble. “But only up to the five and dime,” my mother told me, giving me that stern schoolteacher look she had perfected.

From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it seems I was given far too much liberty. But nothing bad ever happened.  Parkville was full of people who knew me or my family. In those days, before Daddy  bought his own business on the other side of town, he and Uncle Bernie ran a neighborhood bar. It was so near my house that if I stood at the end of the cement walk right where it met the city sidewalk, I  could look across Harford Road and  see the sign for Mike Bauer’s Café. It  had a steady clientele, all regulars from up in Parkville to down the road in  Hamilton. Mr. Menninger, his face deeply lined from years in the sun, did carpentry for us, and he seemed to be here and there in the neighborhood all the time.  Mr. Swanbeck, with his horn rimmed glasses and straight dark hair that had a habit of falling onto his forehead,  drove a taxi for the Blue & Gray Cab Company. Whenever he  saw me walking by the Parkville taxi stand, he honked his horn and waved. I made my way up Harford Road past the big white mansion that had been turned into apartments, then past the camera shop, where I might stop in to buy film. I hardly knew what I was doing, but the man behind the counter showed me how to thread the film into the box camera, and told me to hold it steady whenever I snapped a picture. Most of my shots were dismal underexposed blurs, and I soon lost interest in photography.

The shoe and watch repair  was another of my favorite stops. I could peer into the large window of the shop  and see both  the shoemaker and the watchmaker in neatly pressed tan work coats. While one Mr. Rossi was occupied in his section of the shop replacing worn down leather heels, the other Mr. Rossi  sat in his small cubicle,  absorbed in repairing a watch. I had never seen adults who looked so much like each other,  and never stopped marveling at this phenomenon of nature.

 But the best treasures of all were at Schulte and Treide’s Five and Ten Cent Store, which drew me like  a magnet pulls iron filings. Goldfish, scores of them, swam back and forth in the enormous tank. I disobeyed the sign telling me not to touch the glass, and pressed my nose up against it. Over several months, I bought at least a dozen goldfish, asking for the ones with a black tail or fins. This made the shopgirl’s task harder, but I insisted on the unusual, not the plain orange goldfish. I brought them home in small white paper cartons of what I thought was  special fish tank water, but never had luck keeping the fish  alive more than a week or two.

 In the toy section, small puzzles and games were laid out in tidy  rows. There were balsa airplane sets and paddles with little rubber balls attached with  thin elastic strands. I loved  the  sewing notions—odd things for a young girl to be interested in, because I had not yet been taught to sew— ric-rac, bias tape and facing in every conceivable color,  spools of thread lined up meticulously by some conscientious shop girl, the colors descending from white to lemon to orange, and darker and darker, to indigo and black. I opened and closed paper books of sewing needles and envelopes of pins, needle threaders, Singer sewing machine accessories, and tape measures. Nobody ever shooed me out or questioned me, except to ask, “May I help you, little girl?”

Best of all was the counter full of hair notions and makeup:  bobby pins, combs, brushes, hairnets, curlers, crimpers,  rinses for the blue haired set and peroxide for  would-be Marilyn Monroe or Kim Novak  blondes.  There were rows of Tangee lipstick, red plastic boxes of Maybelline cake mascara with tiny applicator brushes, powder puffs, and  oval boxes of loose powder. This was not the expensive cosmetic arsenal of my mother’s dressing table, the DuBarry rouge and Chanel No. 5. But it was the enticing stuff of grown up ladies. I could not wait for Christmas shopping time—my mother would be thrilled, I thought, to unwrap a tube of that orange Tangee lipstick. Occasionally  I’d engage in brief conversation with one of the sales clerks, when I had a questions about something. ”What’s this?”or  “What is this used for?” often sparked a short discussion. I learned much from those blue haired ladies.

Across  Harford Road lay unknown and forbidden  territory—the Dor-lin dance studio with its signage, cutouts of a man and woman in evening dress gracefully waltzing, the children’s clothing store, and sandwiched between the bank and the pharmacy, Jack and Van’s Newsstand, where a blind man in dark glasses sold newspapers, cigarettes and candy, his German Shepherd seeing eye dog at his feet. The streetcar loop lay on the opposite corner from the news stand. The yellow cars circled around, emptying out ladies with their shopping bags and men with newspapers who jumped off  and lit up, cigarette smoke trailing as they walked home.

Parkville’s shopping district remains,  though some storefronts are faded, and others are now garish. The taxi stand and filling station have been replaced by a steamed crab operation. The Parkville bank is now a gun shop. Mr. Jack the blind newsman retired and moved to Florida years ago and  has likely gone on  to his eternal reward with his loyal dog Van. The photography store  disappeared, and the five and dime and Sunny’s  Surplus went out of business. On a visit home I drive by, slowing down to see the spot where the sidewalk used to meet concrete stairs leading up to an elevated walk at  Parkville Shoe and Watch Repair. The afternoon sun slants through the picture window, and I imagine  Mr. Rossi once more, turning his tiny screwdriver slowly and  methodically, making everything in the old watch work like new.

Parkville Loop,Photo by Ed Miller, Courtesy of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum,


Thanks to  Donna Rossi Hardesty for her  help clarifying historical facts about her father and uncle’s watch and shoe repair business, Parkville Shoe and Watch Repair, a neighborhood fixture from the late 1940’s to the 1970’s.