Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lost in Time in Baltimore: Guest Post by Craig McBreen

Instead of writing about my lineage and the clan on the deliriously crazy, Irish McBreen side, I thought I would focus on my mother's side of the family. 

I would like to drill-down even further and describe a typical Thanksgiving Day spent at my grandmother's Civil War era home.

Yes, I said Civil War era.

We arrived around 11:00 a.m. Smells emanating from the tiny, worn kitchen were quite a mix. The largest bird available, taking up the entire space of the pocket-sized oven was the cause of much fuss. 

The old lady loved to baste, and boss. A four foot eleven octogenarian with less-than-drill-sergeant-like qualities, but possessing an amazing ability to command quiet respect. Orders were obeyed, for there was work to be done. Grandma Walsh was in charge.

This was the house where my mother grew up, as one of nine children. 

A seasoned old house, built to last, and almost bunker-like in solidity. Sturdy construction with substantial walls of large stone, crafted in a bygone era. Imposing and large from the outside, tiny and timeworn inside.

This is also the place where I spent many days, weekends and holidays. We always came here for Thanksgiving. I remember the enclosed porch and the coal shed. The deserted upstairs bedrooms inhabited by ghosts of Baltimore's past, I was convinced of that.

The venerable stone building was on Clipper Road, in an aged part of Baltimore City. It honestly felt like the land that time forgot, with the rows of 120-year-old homes, the stone walls and the old London Fog factory just down the way. A lost world in the middle of the city.

My mother's mom was a woman who grew up poor, never had a driver's license and lost her husband — the grandfather I never knew — when my mother was a young teenager.

I'll always remember her quiet, but sturdy presence.

As my aunts, uncles and cousins arrived the atmosphere became more jovial. The crack of beer tabs, the squeaky oven door, my uncle's jokes and the old boss at the helm.

Before dinner there was much commotion and traffic between the pint-sized kitchen and the living room, where my uncle Jim always used to fall sound asleep beside the age-old coal-fired stove, in a room that often seemed to exceed 80-degrees fahrenheit. We always needed more coal and my job often involved a coal bucket. This was the early 1980s, but it often felt like another place and time.

Dinner would commence at 2:00 p.m. sharp, but the show began shortly after.

My aunt loved to do one thing in particular, I kid you not. Take that old carcass to the back yard, with scraps aplenty. The cats would soon descend upon it. I was often amazed at how many there were. Undomesticated mousers coming out of the woodwork it seemed, tearing the cooked bird to shreds and in the end leaving nothing but a few thin bones. 

This piranha-like crush of felines was a sight to behold, and my mom was always embarrassed. Although for a kid, this was the ultimate spectator sport, an event which happened just one time every November.

With Irish-American traditions of Jameson, more Jameson and plenty of jokes and singing, this soon became a very happy place. More uncles, aunts and cousins arrived after dinner and into the evening.

As a kid I remember my uncle Pat's guitar playing. His baritone, his strumming, and all the singing along.

I think back to being relegated to the kid's table, on the cold, enclosed porch.

I treasure the homemade noodles that eventually became a tradition at my house.

I recall the cats, my sleeping uncle, the coal, and the sauna-like living room.

The haunted upstairs I always had to dare myself to check out.

The squash of family in the tight kitchen, which felt kind of special and overwhelming to an only kid.

But most of all, I'll remember my kind, old grandmother and the house she inhabited. This was her special time and those late November days of the past will forever be etched in my memory.

More from Craig's blog:

Craig McBreen owns and operates McBreen Design, but you can also find him at craigmcbreen.com or Twitter. A student of social media, Craig is originally from Baltimore, Mayland, but now resides in Seattle, Washington with his wife and two sons.


  1. Craig...Thanks for the trip to Grandmas house. I wonder, did all Grandmas who lived in the city have tiny kitchens? Mine did too. I was always amazed seeing we had a huge farmhouse kitchen. The Uncle that falls asleep has got to be in every family, I think that's an unwritten rule, though how they slept through all the noise is beyond me!

    Now on to read your other blogs. Thanks to Betsy, I've met a new blogger.



    1. My experience is the same as yours, Jane. Small but cozy kitchens where everyone congregates to talk, leaning against available counter space. When my mother-in-law remodeled hers I was sad. The new one isn't "her". I miss it! When we all go to visit on holidays we are jam-packed! Especially when our faily shows up. But I like it small and tight. It doesn't bother me at all. It's what we're used to. The creeping and exploring upstairs is what my kids love to do when they can retreat unnoticed!The mischief they get into!

    2. Hi Ann,

      You're welcome. I think just an average kitchen today is about three times the size.

      Funny thing about the uncle, he always, always fell asleep and was snoring away in the 80-degree room, every Thanksgiving, like clockwork. He could sleep with 10 kids in the room. :)

      Thanks for the comments.

  2. I never got to meet my grandma from the maternal side but yes, my paternal grand mom was a darling. And your story reminded me of her, we lost her to paralysis and brain tumor a few years back.. ok, enough of the sad story!

    But my grandma had a huge kitchen and she was upset to be leaving it all when she had to come live with us! And though the kitchen at our house was big; it just wasn't Grandma - huge! ;)

    Here's to lovely grandma's and even wonderful cooking! :)

    1. Hi Hajra,

      Sorry to hear about your grandmother.

      I imagine she was upset about losing the big kitchen. Mine made it work somehow, even though moving was close to impossible with just a few people in the room. But she was the boss lady that day for sure. :)

      Yes, to cool grandmothers everywhere.

      Thanks, Hajra.

  3. Hi Craig,

    I really enjoyed this. Both sets of my grandparents moved around quite a bit so by the time I was born they had long since sold any houses they had once owned.

    I heard stories about the places they once had family events, but never did get to experience it first hand.

    So my parents took on that task and we had most of the holiday meals at our house.

    But the kitchen is the heart of the home and I grew up knowing that would be where I wanted to swing through. Loved trying to snag some food before it was "ready."

    Heck, if you listen you can probably hear everyone yelling at me to get my hands "out of there!"

    1. Hi Jack,

      Thanks! These events are certainly etched in my memory.

      Sorry you missed out on those experiences. Of course I've only written about the good memories, but it was always pretty peaceful, really. Hard to believe with all that family packed in to a small house.

      Everyone always ends up in the kitchen. Heart of the home ...so true.

      I heard "get your hands out of there" more than a few times too.

      Thanks for stopping by, Sir.

  4. Craig! I didn't realize you were in Seattle! My brother, his wife and two kids are there! I went there as a teenager to visit my Norwegian relatives...and the Space Needle and the Farmer's Market! Just a little aside!

    1. Hi Betsy,

      What part of town are they in?

      Plenty of Norwegians here. I think it's the weather. :) If you can get used to the weather here, you'll make it anywhere.

    2. Somewhere on Northwest 87th street...that's all I know. He has been there forever and I've never been out to see them.

    3. Ah, Ballard! The Norwegian hangout. :)

    4. NO WAY!! I don't think he knows that! My dad's ancestors on two sides lived around there. And one of those lines is Norwegian! HA! I'll have to tell him. He'll get a kick out of that!

    5. Yes, lots of Norwegiann history there!

  5. Family memories can be a gleaming treasure to be sure. My fondest family memories are of a summer lake cottage in upstate New York. I can still hear the gentle lapping of waves, the creaking boat hoist as we raised and lowered the lightning, the laughter of children, fireflies amid the ferns, kool-aid, and Grandma Brown's beans.

    Thank for sharing this wonderful story with us, Craig.

    1. "Nightling bugs". That's what my kids always called fireflies! Thanks for coming over, Stan. It's so fun to share these family memories with our friends. Isn't it?

    2. Thanks, Stan.

      I really miss those "lightening bugs." We don't have them here.


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