Baltimore, Maryland has one of the highest murder rates in the USA. It’s a diverse city of historical significance that is overlooked at times. It’s where the original flag was sewn by Betsy Ross and the Star-Spangled Banner was written. It’s the city where Babe Ruth was born and Edgar Allan Poe died. It’s beautiful and ugly and interesting, old and new. Depending on where you are in the city, it can be either very safe or very dangerous – and those two places are often side-by-side.
For me, though, Baltimore is home. Although I didn’t grow up there in the traditional sense of the word, I was born there and we made annual visits to see family. The city is rich with my family’s history, with stories told repeatedly and places pointed to with the pride of relationship. To this day, when I visit, we’ll pass a place I may not know and hear a story about an aunt or an uncle or a cousin or a grandparent or even one of my own parents. I feel connected to Baltimore more than any other place that I have lived.
I didn’t realize how special Baltimore was to me until the past few years when I would go to visit and feel nostalgia for childhood memories. I didn’t realize how deeply rooted and visceral those memories became because I was with family: the crab boils in the backyard that always created tiny cuts on my fingers that tasted of Old Bay, walking to the snowball stand with my cousins on the hot pavement and the pleasure of sticky, icy sweet on my tongue on the way back, the horror movie marathons in my aunt’s basement where I would hide my face and sit close to my brother, my grandmother’s cooking that always involved lots of cheese and butter, hanging out with my cousins and feeling both special and alienated because I lived in another city most of the time while they all lived near each other.
My grandmother, my mother’s mother, passed away recently. I wasn’t there because I was in Taiwan at the end of the school year and couldn’t come home. She was a constant presence in my life either through my mother talking about her or my own visits with her. In my childhood, she was someone who loved me and who would hug me tight when I would go to see her, but someone I didn’t really know that well. I loved her because I knew I should and because she loved me, but I could only talk about her cooking or the way she was with my mom when my mom was little. I had very few memories with her of my own.
As an adult, I finally took the time to get to know her. I learned how to ask questions and listen to the answers. I got glimpses of the little girl she was during the Depression, living with her grandmother, dreaming big dreams and getting her heart broken. I met the young girl who married an emotionally abusive man when she was too young to know better then moved on to someone even worse. I saw the woman who had three children because that was what you did, and any slim opportunity she may have had as a poor, uneducated woman in the early 1900s disappeared.
My grandmother was intelligent. She started off with the disadvantages of extreme poverty and a bipolar disorder. When she met my grandfather, she was suffering from depression, running from an abusive husband with three of her four children in tow and trying to support them. She then got married for the third time. My grandfather was 16 years older than her, an Italian immigrant who spoke broken English and worked the night shift on the railroad, and he was her savior.
Between the two of them, they had six children when they got married; they had four more children together. The picture I have that stands out in my mind is them living in a two-story Baltimore city townhouse with plastic covering the furniture and sticking to my legs in the summer, a hot kitchen with my grandmother either cooking or doing dishes, three tiny bedrooms bulging with too many people, hugs and laughter everywhere I turned, and stories told so many times I felt like I had lived some of them myself even though they took place before I was born.
There was also drama. There were tears and fights. There were mistakes and gossip and family who cut off others only to forgive them several days or months or years later. But there was always love in that house, a fierce love and loyalty that was there even when we weren’t.
Those memories will always be a part of me, and, even though I love the Inner Harbor and Ellicott City and Annapolis, those memories and that two-story townhouse are Baltimore to me.