This is a very Baltimore story.
It’s about a hometown girl crowned queen of the hometown ball club, and even marrying a guy on the team. It’s about her parents who raised her in that close Smalltimore way where a community becomes family. And it’s about how that girl, now all grown up, returned home to tell that story as a tribute to her mother, now slowed by age but keeping the funny and the home fires burning.
“My mom inspired me,” says Bonnie Habyan, Miss Oriole 1987, wife of former Orioles pitcher John Habyan. She’s also author of “The World According to Bess: A Funny, Unfiltered Memoir of Life Lessons from My 90-Year-Old Mom,” a collection of the witty words and wisdom from the mouth of her mom, Bess Lorber, who still lives in the Bel Air home Habyan was raised in.
“She was always saying funny things like ‘If you don’t feel good, take a bath’ or ‘Dancing on tables is something everyone should do,’” Habyan says. “She says ‘People think I’m funny. I guess I’m funny.’”
This is the first book for Habyan, a marketing executive in New York and Florida. She now lives in the Hilton Head, South Carolina, area, where her husband is a coach for the Kansas City Royals’ farm team. Habyan will be signing copies of her book on Saturday at the Barnes and Noble store in Bel Air between 2-4 p.m., and is hoping that the book’s titular inspiration “will be right there next to me. It’s my dream she’ll be there.”
But these days, 91-year-old Bess, who has dementia, has lost some of her strength but none of her wit, which makes the book even more poignant, according to her daughter.
“It started just with her funny sayings but started to become a little more about aging parents, and the life lessons I’ve learned through that,” says Habyan. “It was cathartic. (Bess) still has her humor. Throughout her life, she’s been funny as hell. And she’s even funnier now.”
As she writes, “Lest you think she was a sweet June Cleaver-type of maternal figure. that’s not the whole story. She was June on the outside, well-coiffed and buttoned-up, but inside her was a quirkiness Mrs. Cleaver would never have considered, not even in the name of good housekeeping.”
I came across Habyan in a very Smalltimore way, through my friend, actor and Edgewood native Johnathon Schaech, whom I met on Twitter because both of us have kids with Orioles-related names. That’s how this town works. People find out you’re both from here, and boom! Instant connection.
“Baltimore is so darned loyal. There’s such a sense of ‘If you’re in Baltimore, go here, look for this person,’” she says.
Habyan, 57, was born in Baltimore and grew up in Bel Air, graduating from The John Carroll School. Her ascendance to Miss Oriole came when she returned home from college in West Virginia. Not sure of her next move, friends told her about the contest, which was decided by fans. So she hit the campaign trail, which, because this was the ‘80s, “was going to different bars and meeting fans. You voted at liquor stores! I think my dad stuffed the ballot box.”
She was crowned after a series of interviews by notables, including eternal WJZ personality Marty Bass, because as we said, this couldn’t get any more Baltimore. Habyan began her official reign out on the Memorial Stadium field on Opening Day. “It was the best summer of my life!” she says. “I got paid to go to games, go to radio stations. I even had my own poster and got to sign autographs.”
One day after singing the national anthem — a song which is, itself, a Baltimore native — outfielder Ken Gerhart approached her offering to introduce her to his friend, John. “We weren’t supposed to fraternize with players,” she says, but the two began quietly seeing each other about a month before her tenure was supposed to end. Instead of getting in trouble, “they invited me back for another year!”
Miss Oriole marrying an actual Oriole is like the happy ending of a Baltimore rom-com, delighting everyone, including her father Buck, the probable ballot-stuffer. “I remember driving home as a child, and my dad would have WBAL on listening to the games, with my skin sticking to the vinyl seats. Everything was crabs, beer and baseball. Can you imagine your daughter dating an Oriole, and marrying one?”
After she got married and moved to New York to further her career, she was encouraged by her mom, who was, like many women of her era, a homemaker. “I think that’s where she got her self-worth,” Habyan said. Still, Habyan believes Bess’ life may have been different if she’d grown up in another time.
“She dropped out of school in ninth grade, and no one really encouraged her” to go back, she says. “She said to me that she wishes she would have become a nurse. She taught me that family was important, but never to depend on a man, to get your own education and earn your own finances. Our generation did that, and my daughter Holly’s generation is ten times more ahead of us.”
Habyan gets back to town every several weeks. She says she and her brother, Charles — who still lives in town — as well as her mother’s caretakers, have worked hard to keep the promise they made to their late father that “we would never put (Bess) in a facility, and she doesn’t want to be in one,” she says. And she’s praying that her mom gets to come to the book signing to appreciate the example she set for her daughter, to find the funny even in the hard times.
“I hope this inspires other caretakers,” she says. “It’s a really hard job. There are times you have to laugh. What else are we gonna do?”