Over Jackass Hill

By Bob Pellaton

[Editor’s Note: Be sure to check the bottom of the page for classmate comments, which are most welcome. And you can add one, as well!]

There is a wood cupboard at the back of our flower shop that must be over one hundred twenty years old. For fifty of those years, Ditty Smith and this worn storage cupboard shared the Bolton Hill row house in Baltimore next to ours. Each was firmly attached to the brick walls of 1508 Bolton Street – one by handmade nails, the other by ownership and love. Both were moved with difficulty four years ago. While the cupboard quickly found new life in our shop, Ditty continued to struggle.

That surprised us because she was, above all, a survivor. She had endured a lazy husband, a self-centered son, crushing health problems, early widowhood, near-poverty living conditions… and still come up smiling. She accepted the vicissitudes of life, but never let them define her. Bold letters on her favorite apron proclaimed, “I’m not overweight – I’m undertall!”

Already in her eighties, feisty and plain-spoken, Ditty’s Nashville roots could be heard when she talked about “Mah Daddy,” or said of her son, “He hasn’t gotten over Jackass Hill yet!” Once, my wife, Lynn, made the mistake of mentioning President Andrew Jackson’s treatment of the Indians. Ditty, a fellow Tennesseean, took it personally. She called him “Andy,” as though he had just left the room and we were talking about him behind his back.

Controversy never stopped Ditty from inviting us over for “fellowship” by which she meant bourbon on the rocks with a splash of club soda, sweetener, and a dash of bitters. We could have our bourbon any way we liked, but hers had to be mixed the proper way. She once confided, under the influence of fellowship, that even after Prohibition, the maitre d’ at Maison Marconi, kept some sour mash in reserve just for her use. Those were the days when Ditty was a fashion buyer for department stores like Hutzler’s and O’Neill’s. Then came WWII. Ditty quit fashion to join the war effort.

“I worked in personnel for the Glenn L. Martin Company,” she recalled. “Do you know, I had to explain indoor plumbing to some of the workers from Appalachia?” Then one day a huge tarp suspended over the parking lot (and painted with a farm scene to deceive enemy pilots) collapsed during a heavy snowstorm. “I had to arrange bus transportation to get everybody home and back each day and process all the auto claims – the whole whoop-de-do!” It seemed like Ditty could cope with anything.

After the war came marriage, a son, and a house – all on Bolton Hill. According to Ditty, her husband made a postwar career of invalidism and died prematurely, as if to prove a point. She realized that a widow’s benefits and rent from the upper two floors of her house wouldn’t be enough, especially if her son was to get a college education. So by turns she sold encyclopedias door-to-door, tracked down school truants, and arranged bus tours for languishing seniors: jobs she could do while her son was in school.

Still, it wasn’t enough. She moved from the first floor of her house to the basement to gain extra rental income. “It’s my office,” Ditty told the housing inspectors when they looked at her basement. With only a hotplate, she knew that they wouldn’t classify it as a habitable unit, which would then require her to improve the entire building to meet the housing code.

Twice a year, without fail, Ditty would invite thirty or more guests to her uninhabitable office for a party, a feast, and lots of fellowship. She had a clause in her first floor tenant’s lease allowing her to roast and bake in their oven on Derby Day and Christmas Eve. “Mah Daddy always took me took Louisville for The Derby,” she would explain while collecting a dollar from everybody. Then we’d bet on this purse by drawing a horse’s name from a hat.

Christmas Eves were even more festive. Descending the basement steps, visitors were greeted by a host of angels – Ditty’s lifetime collection – all joyously arranged on an elegant bowfront sideboard that had come from the family home in Nashville. She used her best linens, china, glassware, and silver. After each event, she resolutely refused offers to clean up. To do that would take guests past louvered doors, through the furnace room, and into that part of the office lit by a bare bulb and furnished only with a hotplate, a fridge, a sink, a table, and the old wooden cupboard. “I like to spend time with my guests,” she would say,” and there’s nothing that needs doing now, while you’re here, that I can’t handle tomorrow.”

Mobility hadn’t been Ditty’s strong suit for years. One Christmas Eve, Lynn and I discovered just how much she was struggling when she finally accepted our offer to clean up. We also began watching for her car after hearing her tell someone, “I love driving with my grandson. He reads the signs while I steer.” We’d take the mail downstairs, bring in the groceries, take out the trash, and tend the garden. But something was bound to happen. One autumn day the leather soles of her klutzy custom orthopaedic shoes slipped on some wet leaves as she tried – alone – to mount the curb in front of her house. She broke her hip.

In the aftermath, feeling more vulnerable than she had ever felt before, Ditty made a fateful decision: to deed the house to her son, now a stockbroker living in the suburbs, and move in with him and his second wife – to live in their basement. We helped sort through her belongings. Other friends helped her pack. As the moving van pulled away from the indifferent curb with the elegant sideboard, linens, china, glassware, silver, and her favorite apron, we sat with her on the white marble steps. It was all on its way to suburban Ferndale. To Ditty, that might as well have been Jackass Hill.

“Is there anything you want?” she asked, trying not to show how much it hurt. “You can have anything that’s left.” Lynn went back in and, out of respect, took some fallen angels left behind. But we both had a better idea. I broached it. “Ditty, if I can get that built-in cupboard off the wall and out of the basement in pieces, may we have it for the shop?” Ditty grinned as though I’d just served fellowship the way she really liked it. “Sure!” she said brightly, then paused, “…but let’s make up a bill of sale. You know that son of mine. How about $1?” Another pause, “…and visiting rights?”

She got to see it once, in our shop, before she died.

1 comment on Over Jackass Hill

  • Kent Hackmann

    Bob, I appreciate your warm, human story. Bravo. It brought to mind my first view of Baltimore in the autumn of 1945 when my parents, driving from Lubbock, Texas, where we had been while my dad was an artillery officer teaching bombadeering at Air Corps bases in West Texas, to the Berkshires, when through your city. My mother remarked on the civic pride that householders took in scrubbing their marble steps on Saturday mornings. More recently Cynthia and I know Bolton Street indirectly when we view collections at The Walter and the BAM, farther north.

    Best wishes, Kent

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