Gloria Alvarez at St. Casimir on Thanksgiving morning, 2021 (Credit: Jim Burger)

My father has now been gone about five months and my mother talks aloud to his portrait throughout the day; narrating whatever is going on (oatmeal for breakfast, time for a nap, a neighbor’s visit) like a play-by-play announcer describing a game with two people in the stands.

Just Manny and Glo in extra innings that lasted nearly 68 years. Her discourse is touching; at times, unsettling.

This past Thanksgiving morning, I asked her: “Did you have an imaginary friend when you were little?”

“No, just baby dolls.”

We were at the house in Linthicum where, for more than a half-century, Mom and Dad kept a welcoming home warmed with cuisine from one side of Europe to the other and the fruits of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Come on,” I said, “let’s take a ride.”

“I already told your father we were going out today.”

She bid goodbye to the urn alongside his photo and off we went, though I didn’t tell her where – nine miles and a cosmos away into East Baltimore and the vanished world of her childhood, the warrens of Old Canton.

Once a powerful manufacturing engine between Fells Point and Highlandtown, long-ago Canton was a Polish colony where brooms were made, beer brewed, copper smelted and ships brought in raw material before sailing off with finished goods.

There, Mom recited prayers in Polish at St. Casimir’s, enjoyed fresh cherries from the local a-rabber, and put on a coat in the winter to use the backyard outhouse. A small rectangle of concrete, the yard was not much bigger than the washtub in which she splashed around in summer.

She had a dog named Patsy that took its last breath behind a pot-bellied stove in the middle room, watched her mother stuff kielbasa into casings with a hollow steer’s horn, and, as noted, played with baby dolls.

Gloria Theresa Jones, born December 13, 1934, grew up with a strong mother (Anna Potter Jones) who supported the family in sweatshops before earning a living wage via the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which fought for its members from 1900 to 1995. During World War II, Anna sewed burlap sandbags for the Allies.

Mom’s father (William Zamenski Jones) was a laborer who bounced around before landing steady work late in life at the National Brewery a half-mile or so east from their home at 2729 Dillon Street.

Willie suffered – and begat shards of that suffering – from an unforgiving thirst. Except for going on the wagon for 40 days during Lent, he soothed his demons at Aggie Silks, a gin mill three blocks away that endures at the corner of Lakewood and Hudson Streets.

Mom remembers accompanying her mother to Silks on Fridays to badger Willie (at the door, never inside) for what remained of his paycheck. She was still in grade school and the negotiations rarely went well.

My father was a prudent, fun-loving, working class gentleman who saved Mom (and my brothers and me) from such misery, though my mother’s early wounds are never far from the surface.

But revisiting heartache was not the purpose of our journey on the day the nation gives thanks. It was a count-your-blessings, life-is-hard but life-is-good excursion that revealed itself as we headed east on Boston Street toward St. Casimir, a neo-Renaissance sanctuary dedicated in 1926.

Near a Safeway standing on the site of the shipyard where the frigate U.S.S. Constellation was launched in 1797, we crossed a short bridge over a drainage culvert that was once Harris Creek. Mom said it was the spot where Dad proposed.

According to her, Dad pointed over to the twin, golden cupolas of St. Casimir high above Lakewood Avenue and said, “I guess you want to get married in that church.”

Photo of Manuel and Gloria’s wedding album, 11.14.53 (Credit: Jennifer Bishop)
Photo of Manuel and Gloria’s wedding album, 11.14.53 (Credit: Jennifer Bishop)

She did. To make it happen, Manny jumped through the mandatory hoops to convert, having been raised without religion by a Spanish-born father who loathed the Catholic church and its support of the Fascist dictator Franco. They were wed on November 14, 1953.

We walked through heavy wooden doors to the site of that ceremony near the end of Mass and sat in the back. The church has a capacity of 1,400 and a hundred or so were in attendance.

As a kid at Easter Mass, before breakfast on Dillon Street (we had to take a bite of “blessed” food brought to the altar earlier in the day), I’d stare at the murals and make up stories to go with pictures of missionaries engaging Native Americans. One I could never stop staring at depicted the hatchet to the head martyrdom of Saint Isaac Jogues by Mohawks in Ossernenon, New York.

Today, my focus was on Mom. Though unsteady without her walker, she sat, kneeled and stood with the choreography of the service by memory nearly as old as the limestone church itself.

As Mom steadied herself on the pew in front of her, I ran up the block to 2839 O’Donnell Street to score a pie from Dangerously Delicious, a bakery on the site of B. Tiefenbrun & Son, a former furniture store that began as a shoe store in 1891. The initials BT remain vivid among the small, flooring tiles on the front step.

But it was already past 11 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, they were almost out of pies (Mom likes coconut custard, I’m partial to blueberry) and we were out of luck. Back to church to get Mom.

Given her age and assorted health issues, time away from the rocking chair next to Dad’s portrait is always brief. But she was game for a quick spin around the corner to see her childhood home, the house where her mother was born by midwife in 1911 and had a fatal heart attack in 1996.

Small even by old Canton standards, 2729 was purchased with precious pennies early in the last century (Anna had a “bank book” at St. Casimir Savings & Loan) and is now worth a pretty penny. The Formstone has been removed, the bang-your-head-on-the-rafters basement dug out properly and the old “mud room” that served as the kitchen enlarged.

We double parked out front (the alley behind the 2700 block of Dillon Street is so narrow that a child could not stretch out both arms without striking brick) and Mom stayed in the car. I got out for a closer look at the spot where coffee was always percolating, a ham and a case of beer were always in the fridge and “A Picture for a Sunday Afternoon,” played on a black-and-white Zenith.

A family happened by with coffee on their morning walk and – geez, how does one know such things? – you could tell that they weren’t from Baltimore. The mother was in town from California visiting her 20-something daughter, a nursing student newly landed in Canton to attend Johns Hopkins.

Did we tell them how many times Willie Jones fell into the Christmas tree? Or that the Ace Hardware around the corner was once Roberts “packing house” where Anna snipped string beans and skinned tomatoes while little Gloria sat on an upside down bushel basket playing with the baby dolls she remembers so well?

Or the handsome priest that had a special friendship with one of my grandmother’s lady friends?

Nope. We said it was a great place to live and wished them a Happy Thanksgiving.

Back in Linthicum, I helped Mom inside and, as she gently eased down into her rocking chair, she told Dad, “We’re home, hon…”

Rafael Alvarez can be reached via patreon.com/rafaelalvarezbaltimore.

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