The people closest to Evelyn Taylor knew that she’d had a hard life. It was a long one – she died this past March at age 94 – and, as a Baltimorean from birth, most colorful.
Her father, a day laborer named John Henry Meyers, once scolded her for picking tomatoes for pennies on a farm near their Debelius Avenue home in Orangeville, a salt-shaker in her pocket to savor a love apple or two while going down the rows.
“She was about seven. They didn’t have much money and her father was disabled; his legs were horribly swollen. Mom was running out of the house, excited that she got a job and could help out,” said Joanne Taylor Ryan, one of Evelyn’s three daughters. “When she told her father, he pulled her back on the porch with [the curve of] his cane and said, ‘You see that chair? Sit. It’s too hot and you’re too young to be working.’”
John Henry died a short time afterward. Two years later, her mother — the former Mary Gertrude Shenton of Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore – died from a blood infection. Mary left six children to be separated and dispersed to the winds of the Great Depression. Evelyn, the youngest, landed with a family named Mabus across the city in Pigtown.
One of her sisters – Grace Martha Meyers (1924-to-1941) — had been committed to the Rosewood State Hospital and died there under suspicious circumstances. In the Mabus home at 1831 Ramsay Street, the threat was implicit: If Evelyn didn’t keep the house clean and do whatever she was told, she might also be sent away.
Thus, the code she adopted early and passed down to her children (Nancy Azzole and Kathy Acton in addition to Joanne) and grandchildren: “Don’t let’em treat you like shit.”
Life before she was orphaned was a good one and, though brief, cherished. Ryan said her mother “would light up” when talking about her parents. “She said her father was strict but loved her and had memories of her mom holding a mixing bowl in the crook of her arm, stirring cake batter.”
Good times or bad, there was always a cake, a comfort that Evelyn bestowed for decades upon those she loved and a few she wasn’t too crazy about but did anyway because it was the right thing to do.
Her eight years on Ramsay Street were for the most part, hell. She left school after the eighth grade and got jobs making slipcovers and work at the mammoth Montgomery Ward building nearby on Monroe Street.
That life ended when she married a neighborhood boy from 1925 West Lombard Street named William Samuel Taylor, a World War II Navy vet and Baltimore Sun delivery truck driver. When Bill Taylor died in 2011 the couple had been married for 65 years.
“They met at the Horn movie theater on Pratt Street [near Payson] when my mother was 13 and Bill was 15,” said Azzole. “It was a horror movie and Mom got scared and grabbed onto Bill. They wrote to each other when he joined the Navy and he promised to marry her when he was home on leave.”
Bill kept his word, and they were wed at a local church rectory on New Year’s Eve, 1945. Then Baltimore Mayor Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin (1900-1974) was having a holiday party at City Hall – where Bill’s Aunt Noreen worked – and hizzoner posed for a photo with the newlyweds after they paid for their marriage license at the courthouse downtown.
As in their childhoods, money was scarce at the beginning of the marriage and Nancy, their first born, arriving October 10, 1946, heard stories of them eating mayonnaise sandwiches to get by. But the Taylors prospered after the war along with most of the country and, with the help of the GI Bill, bought a house in 1947 at 1083 Wilmington Avenue near Saint Agnes Hospital.
There, Bill built a classic Crabtown “club basement” and relaxed there with a couple of cold beer or two while reading the paper near a shrine to Baltimore football legend Johnny Unitas.
Upstairs, Evelyn might be “straightening up” or watching an Elvis movie with her granddaughters while eating potato chips with cream cheese dip, telling them about the time at a Don Ho concert when the star kissed her a bit too presumptuously. Or, like her mother, baking a cake.
Peach cake, oh yes. Pineapple upside down? Of course. But the one her granddaughter Kerry Ann Lessard, who lived with her grandparents for several years, remembers best was worthy of Blaze Starr.
Driving to Calvert Street downtown with their grandmother to pick up Bill Taylor after his early “bulldog” shift distributing bundles of the Sunday Sun, Kerry and her sister Heather fought over who got to hold Pop’s cold beer so he could quench a working man’s thirst on the ride home. Those excursions made the youngsters familiar with the Block at a tender age. Thus, one of Evelyn’s more notorious cakes was not much of a shock.
“Decorating cakes was the thing my grandmother loved to do,” said Lessard, a student of all things Baltimore. “In the 70s when I was a kid, she’d take a cake that was dome shaped and frost them to look like boobs and then put maraschino cherries on top for gigantic nipples.”
All in good fun. And a lot of hard work while she smoked Kool cigarettes, amped up on black coffee while helping her husband with newspaper deliveries, known to the other drivers as “Heavy Evy,” because she was rail thin.
“My mother was Dad’s newspaper boy,” said Nancy. “She’d go with him on busy days, unlock the box and put the papers in.”
Over her many years, Evelyn dipped ice cream at a High’s Store (a cone of butter brickle was a favorite), played dominoes on Sundays with a niece named Skeeter and bingo with the grandchildren on Christmas Eve, though she was more partial to Yahtzee. She got a kick out of Barney Fife on the Andy Griffith Show (which she watched just a day or two before her death) and loved yellow roses, a bouquet of which was laid on her grave in Elkridge.
More than anything, though they sometimes drove her straight up the wall, she loved her family.
“I could tell sad and funny stories about her all day,” said Lessard. “But the main thing is that I loved her, and she loved me. She loved each of us fiercely and we knew it.”
Rafael Alvarez is co-editor of A Lovely Place, A Fighting Place, A Charmer: The Baltimore Anthology from Belt Publishing. He will host a reception/reading for the book on Thursday, June 30 at the Southeast Anchor branch of the Pratt Library. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org