Eight-Stone Press

HON: Past, Present, & Future

Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore! COVER

Pub date: March 31, 2011

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Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore!
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Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing
~ Rafael Alvarez ~

What passions beat within the heart of a true Baltimore Hon?

Not Formica-deep caricatures, but the day-to-day navigated by a strata of Crabtown about which so much fuss has lately been made.

As my late Polish grandmother put it on many an occasion: “Tain’t funny, McGee…”

To find out what defines a 365-day-a-year Hon, I swung from the branches of my family tree - where the genuine article hangs like a row of gotchkies* on the line - and scratched the genealogy of an old friend from southwest Baltimore.

“I come from a long line of Hons,” said Kerry Ann Oberdalhoff Lessard, a 42-year-old aging into her rightful Hon-ness while laboring to instill those same old-school values in her daughter.

“I die a little inside when she shows no interest in bowling or Yahtzee,” said Lessard.

Now of Ellicott City, Lessard’s roots run deep in Baltimore’s Pigtown and the western edge of Wilkens Avenue near St. Agnes Hospital. Currently pursuing a master’s degree in applied anthropology from the University of Maryland, Lessard works as a counselor at Chase Brexton Health Services on Cathedral Street downtown.

Some basic guidelines from the Authentic Hon operator’s manual as inherited and understood by Lessard:

  • You work hard. You keep a clean house, “because you never know who’s going to drop by.” [And if some neighborhood blowhard is bending your ear about their aches and pains and grandson who’s “on that goddamn dope,” you deftly end the conversation by saying, “I got windows to clean.”]
  • You have a traditional deviled egg recipe - wet mustard or dry? - in easy reach for get-togethers ranging from baby showers to Memorial Day cook-outs to funerals.
  • You hang Christmas balls from the tiles or dropped ceiling of your home - whether rowhouse or “single home” - with curling ribbon and thumbtacks.
  • You know how to have a good time, but you also “know your place.”
  • You’re not cheap - either in your morals or “pocky book” - or else other Hons “will talk shit about you.”
  • You keep yourself presentable and don’t “let yourself go.” [As in, “Did you see Darlene at the bull roast? Boy, did she let herself go…”]
  • You don’t “put on airs” without risking a comment like, ‘I remember her when she didn’t have two nickels to rub together. Now she’s got a little money and she acts like she don’t even know me.’”
  • You stand up for yourself and you don’t let people shit all over you.
  • And family is everything.

Of all the Hons whence Lessard comes, no one quite fits the bill like her “Aunt Hazel.”

“She was my grandfather’s aunt and lived on Eastshire Drive off of Patapsco Avenue,” said Lessard. “She and my grandmother [Evelyn Taylor, 21223] are who I think of when I think of a Hon.”

Hazel Lyons Shanahan was born in Baltimore in 1920 and died here some 74 years later. Her late husband, James Shanahan, worked for the B&O Railroad, about as good a job as you could get back in the day, said Lessard, when an upwardly mobile apprentice “had really arrived” if she married a cop. [Lessard’s great-grandmother, Agnes “Toots” Taylor, was friendly with a Southwestern District officer who now and then would give her a lift to work in a paddy wagon.]

“I loved going to Aunt Hazel’s house, especially at Christmas. My sister and I would be all bundled up and walk from the car into the warmth of Aunt Hazel’s living room.

“From there, we’d be ushered back to the kitchen. I remember the linoleum floor and the Formica table covered with a bright Christmas tablecloth.

“There was always coffee going and she would feed us Christmas cookies and her legendary cheese ball - a blob of blue cheese, cheddar and cream cheese rolled in chopped walnuts and, naturally, eaten with Ritz crackers.

“No Christmas season is complete without the cheese ball. But what I loved most of all was listening to Aunt Hazel talk with my grandparents, and they usually talked about other people! It didn’t matter that I didn’t know half of them. I liked feeling like I was in on something.

“I learned the value of mouth closed, ears open, [and] I still associate the rowhouse table and the smell of strong coffee with gossip. It’s my favorite aesthetic experience. My grandmother [Evelyn] would shoot me a withering look if I acted up, and the punishment would have been being sent to the living room and missing the gossip.

“There were lots of tales of people getting drunk and arguing and ‘running around’ on one another.” [Women who ran around were “trashy” and men who strayed were “no good.”]

Said Lessard: “Hazel and Evelyn would weigh in on what ought to have been done or said in any situation. Together, they were my Emily Post and Dear Abby. What more did I need to understand what was expected of a Baltimore girl?”

In turn, much was expected of Lessard’s daughter, Emma, now a 20-year-old college student who benefitted from growing up next-door to her great-grandparents Evelyn and Bill on Wilmington Avenue.

“Without knowing why, Emma has a clear sense of what’s right and what ain’t, which is what I learned at the kitchen table of Hazel and Evelyn and passed on to her,” said Lessard.

“I didn’t realize my Hon traits until I was old enough to get some perspective and started to hear Evelyn’s voice come out of my mouth.

“It took me too long to stand up for myself. But Emma - who’s quick to give an opinion when someone in the family isn’t being treated right, who says, ‘You know me, I gotta open my mouth’ - understood it right out of the gate. I admire that.

“Like I said, she’s not much on bowling, but will ask the loudmouth sitting next to us at Camden Yards bashing the O’s, ‘Why the hell did you come then?’ She knows there is no greater sin in this town than being a fair-weather fan.”

And worse, like the big hoo-hah up in Hampden that occasioned this essay.

“If you try to steal what we have embraced as quintessentially Baltimore - like a Mayflower truck on a snowy night - you will have your ass handed to you,” said Lessard. “And that’s just for starters…”

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