Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Ghost of Christmas Past

Every year I think this is it. This is the year I will actually do it. Sit down and write those pesky Christmas cards. I save the return address labels. I have a box of blank cards, but I never seem to get past perusing the previous year's mail. Poignantly,  I just found a card from Billie Stathes, my father's oldest friend who died about a month ago. They met around 1922 when she was five, and he was six.

Billie at five

Billie lived at 1832 8th Street NW with her parents James and Cleopatra Stathes, her baby brother John and her Uncle George. She called her neighborhood "the village," and her world was anchored by her favorite place, the Carnegie Library. She remembered four gas stations, a variety of shops and the original St Sophia's Greek Orthodox Church. Billie could also recall the days when the congregation rented space from the Adas Israel Synagogue on 6th and G. This is where she met my father - a zany little boy who loved playing the clown.

Billie and George were lifelong friends; both lived to see ninety and beyond in good health. Even when Billie moved to Florida and became a teacher, they still stayed in touch. She was always beautifully turned out and took no guff.

When Billie came to my dad's funeral in 2008, she gave me a detailed map of her long lost village drawn from her memories and rendered by her cousin Nick Chacos. I was so excited that I took it to the Carnegie Library, but the staff wasn't really sure what to do with it. Feeling the need to share this cool little piece of history, I wrote about it, and six years later, thanks to historian Mara Cherkasky, that posting would lead to Billie's picture landing on a new sign commemorating the old neighborhood near where the Greek church stood at 8th and L NW.

 In 2014, a busload of St Sophia's current parishioners and clergy went on a crazy little field trip to an empty and seemingly soul-less convention room. The only furnishing was a makeshift altar which took on a deeper significance when the crowd discovered they were standing as closely as possible to where the old one was. (Not an easy trick considering this block of 8th Street is part of the building now.)  After a few prayers, Father Steve led the group , all chanting, through the front hall and out the door to the new sign. He thereby sealed the deal by flinging holy water and olive branches around as Greeks are wont to do.

Father Steve Blessing "Billie's" Sign

Billie was thrilled to find out she was included in the project.  On that last Christmas card she thanked me for sending her pictures of everything- including the display which included a photo of her and Uncle George. She was ninety seven when she wrote: " I wept for a week when I received my village long ago. I became seven again, getting ready to take my gang to the library for a couple of hours." She was nearing one hundred when she died, still as independent as ever and living at home in Coral Gables.

Next time you are near the convention center "village," look for Billie and her Uncle George and say hello to this little ghost of DC's past.

Saturday, May 28, 2016


Memorial Day plan?

Thinkin' Lincoln I am. Lately I have been steeping myself deeply in family history which leads me to the Civil War and Kentucky. Kentucky like Maryland was officially a "neutral" state, but "Dixie" was being hummed rather vigorously under many a man's breath. Not one Yankee is to be found in my family tree including John Shelton who was born in Calloway County, Kentucky in 1846. He wasn't a slave holder, nor was his father. He was just a boy like countless others off to fight for "the cause."

I doubt my ancestors were fans of their sad and determined president, but as time goes on I have learned to admire one who so thoughtfully dreaded war and grieved deeply for blood shed on both sides of the conflict.

"Lincoln's Cottage" was built in 1842, high on a hill, originally as a summer retreat for banker George Riggs. In 1851 the property was sold to the U.S. government to become the Old Soldiers' Home. Once the fellows were relocated to a newer building, the cottage was offered to President Buchanan, and once again became a summer get away.  Lincoln was eager to escape the pressures of the White House in the early 1860s although, ironically, he was an eyewitness to both the recovering and the dead buried on the grounds. He would ride there unaccompanied by guards if he could swing it, and survived having his hat shot off by an unknown assailant one evening during a moonlit commute. I was told by a tour guide that travel time then was shorter by horseback than it is today by car.

For years afterwards, the cottage was pressed into service for a variety of uses including as a bar for the inmates, but in 2008, it finally became a part of our National Trust and a non-profit historic site opened to the public.  This Monday there will be a free wreath laying ceremony at 10 a.m. and tours of the cemetery a bit later. I am happy to report bringing a picnic is encouraged.  Might be my Southern heritage, but lunch in a grave yard has always appealed to me. I also highly recommend getting tickets for the tour of the house where the views of Washington from the original windows let your imagination run wild. Grasp the same railing Lincoln used to walk upstairs and commune with the man who tried his best to keep the Union, our America, together as one country.
No easy task then or now.