Thursday, April 13, 2017


If you grew up Catholic in the days before Vatican II, you always remember the smell of church. It wasn't so much incense, although there was that. It was mostly the smell of candles--pure beeswax, lit by the altar boys with a long stick that had a wick on one end and a snuffer on the other side. Low mass, which we usually attended, didn't include incense, but there were always candles. I don't have many memories of Saint Patrick's, except for the statues. You walked upstairs (the school was on the first floor, the church on the second floor) and at the top of the stairs was a life-size, painted version of the Pieta, with blood stains and wounds. Inside, there were statues of Saint Theresa, carrying a cross adorned with a dozen red roses, and Saint Patrick, and Saint Anthony, and of course the Blessed Mother. Irish Catholics mainly referred to Mary as the Blessed Mother. Not the Virgin.

What memories I have of Saint Patrick's seem to be in the spring or summer, when the doors and windows were open and air and sunshine poured in. We left by way of the fire escape, out into the fresh air. I was too young to go to daily mass by myself, which may be why I have fewer memories of going there. When we moved to Cottage Street, maybe a mile away, it automatically meant changing churches, and we began to attend Sacred Heart, which is what I mainly remember. Sacred Heart had a formal church with high ceilings and elaborate stained glass windows upstairs, and a chapel downstairs with a low ceiling and stained glass that was merely designs.

I walk in and I dip my fingers in the holy water font and make the sign of the cross. Near the door is a lost and found, where stray winter gloves and hats and handkerchiefs may be found, but also left-behind prayer books. I want a prayer book so bad, and I often consider stealing one of the ones left there. No one has claimed it--would that really be stealing? A Saint Joseph's Daily Missal, with ribbons of red, green, purple, black, white--the liturgical colors, so that you could mark the Ordinary of the mass and also today's saints day, and special prayers at the back or front. The mass was written in both Latin and English, so that you could follow along.

At some point, in around 4th grade, I use S & H Green Stamps to buy a missal (how and why are the stamps mine to spend?) Mine is a Marian Missal, not a St. Joseph's, which is a little disappointing. Shortly after getting it, I am allowed to spend the night at Joan Page's house for a sleep-over--the first, and to my recollection, last sleep-over I ever had. The next day is a Holy Day of Obligation, so I take my missal with me in my suitcase, which is the shoe carrier I use to carry my tap shoes in. I am so nervous getting ready for bed in a strange house that I manage to drop my new missal into the toilet! The red ink that edges the pages bleeds onto the pages and the paper remains crinkled for the rest of the time I own this missal.

My memories of going to Sacred Heart church are all winter memories. We went to daily mass during Lent, which starts in the dead of winter and gradually transitions to spring. Mass is at 6:45, so I get up at 6:15 and put on my uniform and walk through the freezing cold morning to mass. The church is nearly full. Many people attend mass on their way to work. The nuns all walk in as a group, eyes downcast, and sit together in the front two rows. There is no singing, unless it happens that someone has paid for an anniversary mass to commemorate someone's death. Then a woman stands in the back and puts her finger in her ears and sings in response to the priest. Some of the priests have pleasant voices, but some drone, and the worse they are, the slower they sing.

Foreign-looking women, maybe Italian, mutter the rosary half-aloud as they pray. I think they don't know how to think words inside their heads. Someone leads the congregation in the rosary while waiting for mass to begin, and it continues over the start of the mass, I think. the priest has his back to us, and the priest and the altar boys alternate lines: Introibo ad altare Dei. Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam. Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison, Kyrie elaison, Christe eleison  Christe eleison....I know that this is the oldest part of the mass, and in Greek. The rest is all in Latin, except the gospel, which I think even on weekdays is read facing us and in English. Or maybe not. The whole thing is a little rushed, a little perfunctory, mechanical --and yet soothing for being so, comforting, eternal and unchanging. The bell rings urgently, and we look up and see the priest raising the host. Then we come forward and kneel at the altar rail, while the priest walks along accompanied by an altar boy who holds a gold plate under our chins in case we somehow manage to drop the sacred host.

There are a few working people who receive communion and immediately leave, to catch a bus or drive to work. But for most of us, the time after communion is the most important part of the mass--you cover your face with your hands and feel something--wrapped in love, held and comforted, alone with God, who is in you.

It may have been still quite dark on the way to church at 6:30, but by 7:15 going home, it is light, I am light, I feel whole, and holy. Breakfast is waiting when I get home, the washer is going, the radio is on.

I also go to daily mass during the month of May as well, Mary's month. That is a different feeling. Lent is the feeling of winter's last gasp, a little depressing, but also cleansing. May is pure jubilation. Lilacs bloom and we cut them and place them in front of Mary's statues. I have a very delicate and beautiful statue of Mary that I won in a raffle in the second grade. It is my treasure. I make a May shrine, using flowers made from tissue paper or even just Kleenex tissues.

I believe all that I am taught with no questions. Although my own grandmother and great-grandmother are "protestants," (which means merely, not Catholic) and do not go to church or believe anything, I feel as if the Catholic faith is omnipresent, omnipotent, ubiquitous, no more to be doubted or questioned than gravity or the national anthem. I love it all. I love going to confession and receiving communion and daily mass. I love the Stations of the Cross, which is followed by benediction, when they break out the incense. The priest is wrapped in a special stole, in addition to his usual vestments, and with great ceremony, lifts a golden cross with rays of the sun surrounding the host, and blesses us all. There are special songs sung at benediction--Pane Angelicus, I think, bread of angels, written by saint Thomas Aquinus himself. We also sing a gloomy song at the stations of the cross, intended to make women weep--At the cross her station keeping, stood the mournful mother weeping, close to Jesus to the last. I try to make myself cry, but even then, crying did not come to me.

I also tried to see visions. Lots of saints saw visions, and I did have some hope that I might be a saint, and if I could see a vision, it would make that more likely. But I was no good at that either. There were holy cards that had a picture of Jesus in reverse, and if you stared at it a long time without blinking, and then looked at the wall, you could see Jesus on the wall. A forced vision. That's as close as I ever got.

My favorite saint was Saint Theresa of Lisieux. Actually, she was almost everyone's favorite saint, at least the girls, but I read her story over and over again. The Houghton branch library had a biography of her that began "Le bon Dieu," the good God, and tells how her mother taught her little girl to love God from childhood, and how she insisted on joining the Carmelite convent at age 15. That didn't seem young or strange to me at all. Later I read her "Story of a Soul" in which she tells her own story (somewhat expurgated, I later learn.) It is her story that gives me a fascination with dying young of tuberculosis. I also love the child visionaries, Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, and especially the three children of Fatima, Lucy, Francisco and Jacinta. I have no sense whatsoever of when or where these people lived, or even the shockingly young ages at which they had their world-shaking visions. They are as real and as near to me as the many martyr saints from 200 or 300 AD.

The nuns told us many stories of shocking suffering--scourgings, burnings at the stake, being roasted alive, being torn apart from lions, being threatened with boiling oil. These stories were encased in a patina of piety and love and didn't shock or offend. They were all a holy blur, from ancient saints dying to protect their virginity to Saint Maria Goretti, fighting off an attacker and dying of stab wounds, to dear Saint Theresa coughing up blood and rejoicing that she would soon die and go to heaven.

I have no regret or bitterness about the things I was taught and believed. I moved from belief to belief, attending Quaker meetings, Pentecostal churches, Baptist, Church of Christ, back to Catholic, and then losing all faith that there is anyone there at all or any life beyond this one, but I cherish these memories. My feeling is best summed up by Thomas Hardy:

The Oxen
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

I wish it were so. I wish that all things worked for good, that the good were rewarded and given justice, that there was someone who never gave us more than we could handle, or that everything happened for a reason.

But it is not so.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


We were sick so much when we were kids. Immunizations protected us from smallpox, and supposedly from diphtheria and whooping cough, but childhood diseases were just that, a normal part of childhood.

I remember measles as the first serious sickness I had. Mummy knew to look in your mouth and see measle spots on the inside of your mouth first, which meant that you were coming down with it. I remember red splotches on my skin and fever. Nanny walked over to our house to sit with me and keep me company. There were little orange St. Joseph's aspirins, and cool damp clothes on my forehead. Eddie had a tendency to high fevers and sometimes became delirious. One time he screamed that there were worms on him, and another time he was screaming that he was covered with "wee-wee" (shit.) I don't think I ever became delirious, but I remember that things would get smaller or larger.

Dr. O'Brien was an old-school doctor who prescribed things that younger doctors didn't truck with. Mustard plasters. Sweating out a fever. I remember putting my feet in a basin of hot water while wrapped in blankets, to bring on a sweat and break a fever. Mustard plasters were made using a clean baby's cloth diaper. A paste of mustard powder and water was smeared on the cloth, which was put on your chest or back, covered by a cotton undershirt. It drew a great amount of heat to that spot, but if left on too long, could actually blister and burn your skin. I remember being given paregoric, which was supposed to stop vomiting and diarrhea, but I threw it right back up. It tastes like whiskey but also contains opium or cocaine. (Now I see ads on tv for treating opioid-induced constipation. Seems that it works to slow the intestinal tract down!) People sometimes rubbed it on babies' gums when they were teething. You had to sign your name in a notebook at the drug store when you bought it.

One time I had what we called "the grippe," which was what we called vomiting and diarrhea, and I couldn't keep even a sip of water down. The doctor came to the house and it seemed that he threatened my mother: If she gets dehydrated, we'll have to put her in the hospital! This was not only frightening but also meant expenses we couldn't afford. The doctor told my mother to boil Coca-cola on the stove to remove the bubbles and concentrate it, and then spoon it into my mouth. When you were sick, a bed was made on the couch, and a bucket was placed beside it. Mummy had work to do (keep up with the cleaning schedule!) and you weren't supposed to bother her. Sympathy would only prolong the sickness, so she was brusque.

When I was five and my little brother Richie was only a year old, we were both sent to the hospital to have our tonsils taken out. I remember Mummy told me to take care of him, and this worried me, because I didn't even know where he was! He was not in the same room with me. I remember the ether--they put a mask over my mouth and told me to count to 10, and then it felt like I woke up immediately. I woke up in a ward with other children, and a baby who cried and cried. They told me that the baby had no tear ducts and that's why he cried. Where was my brother? I was supposed to take care of him! I wore a pretty yellow dress with black buttons to go home in.

I actually have more memories of my brother Eddie's tonsillectomy than I do of my own. Was his before or after mine? I'm not sure. He was sick a lot with earaches and infections. He had a Mickey Mouse toy that was his special thing to hold when he sucked his thumb. He took Mickey Mouse with him to the hospital and it got lost and he was inconsolable, so someone bought him a new one, which bore little resemblance to the tattered and worn one, but they told him that the doctors had fixed it all up. I knew this was a lie. When Eddie saw the new Mickey, he said "Mickey!" in a really high voice, and my mother thought maybe the operation had permanently made his voice like that. He ate popsicles to soothe his throat.

One summer I had German measles while I was at a cabin in New Hampshire with my grandmother. German measles was not like real measles--you might not even know you had it, and you could still go out and play. But watch out, it is dangerous for pregnant women! My mother suspected that her baby Liz might have had mental retardation because of a mild, unrecognized case of German measles. That's probably not true, because she had Down Syndrome, but my mother had a recollection of having been mildly sick early in her pregnancy, and maybe that's what caused a 21- year -old woman to have a Down Syndrome baby? Maybe.

Another summer, we all got chicken pox. My two younger brothers and baby Kevin had mild cases and were still able to play, but I got a high fever and lots of spots and had to stay in bed. I now know that the more exposure you have, the worse the disease, and those who get it from a family member tend to have a worse case than those who pick it up in passing. Don't scratch the scabs or it will leave scars! I did scratch, and I can still see the scars at age 65! But I think the scars might happen in any case. (Karen was not born yet when we had chicken pox, and she got a horrible case as an adult when her son had it.) (Kevin had shingles in his 40s, so apparently the chicken pox virus was in there!)

We also all got the mumps. Mummy feels your neck and finds swollen glands and it hurts to swallow. As a girl it was mild for me, but my brothers were sicker, and Mummy worried because mumps can make boys sterile. (Did I know that then? I knew she was worried and it was worse for boys. I doubt if I knew why.)

Measles, mumps, rubella (MMR), chicken pox. Everyone had those. Polio was the great fear, and thanks to my mother's worrying, I avoided that. Her sister had had a relatively mild case of polio in 1949 and was unable to attend my parents' wedding. Whenever we had a fever, she would test us by bending our knees back towards our chest--if you couldn't do that or if you screamed in pain, it meant polio. We couldn't swim in ponds, like other children, because ponds are dirty and could carry polio. There was a wading pool in Barry Park with a fountain in the middle, but that was also a polio risk, to be avoided. When there was news of polio, we couldn't go to things like carnivals or circuses. Polio shots came out when I was fairly young, and later, in 5th grade, there was a new oral drink for polio which we all received in school. There was a boy in my class at St. Patrick's who wore braces from polio, and my college roommate was badly crippled from polio.

I was very unhappy as a 12- and 13-year old, attending a new school where I had no friends, and more sickness seemed to assail me. I got scarlet fever when I was in the 7th grade. I had a high fever and a thirst that could not be assuaged by drinking water. I read the home medical guide that we had and figured it out for myself--I had strawberry tongue! My tongue was coated and bright red and moisture couldn't penetrate it. Then a rash started on my knees and elbows. I think that was one of the last times the doctor came to our house, on Willis Court. There were public health restrictions--my father wasn't allowed to work for a week because there was some law about food handling and scarlet fever, and my brothers had to stay home from school even though they weren't sick! I was quarantined and had to have a note from the doctor too allow me to go back to school.

Maybe it was the next year that I had pneumonia. My grandmother would rub my back, and I drank hot Horlicks. My mother and father re-arranged our bedrooms, because my room was the coldest room in the house and maybe that's why I got sick. So they moved into what had been my room and I moved into what had been theirs. This must have only been temporary, though, because I remember mostly having the back bedroom, which was very cold. When Karen was 2, 3, 4 years old, she used to get into my bed and we'd snuggle up to keep warm.

The most dramatic illness I remember was whooping cough. Karen was a toddler, still in the crib, and she got it first. I think she was too young to have had the shot to prevent it. It was terrifying in a little child--she would cough for so long that she would start to turn blue, and then finally, when you thought it would never stop and she would die, she'd be able to inhale, with a horrible whooping sound. Then I also got it. I think I was 13. It was summer, and I had to stay in the house or yard all summer. I remember coughing so long and hard I would throw up, and my ribs hurt so bad. I had had the immunization, but it didn't work. My mother blamed the doctor, a different doctor who had an office in his house on Wyman Street (?) that the material must have been old and ineffective. Now I know that whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine is not always very effective.

I think it was the fall of 7th grade when I spent a week in the hospital, for a phantom disease that was probably just anxiety and the misery of being 12 and being unhappy in school. I was throwing up every morning and had stomach pains. Mummy took me to the doctor (again, I think the "bad" doctor with an office in an odd neighborhood. I don't remember his name.) He did a rectal exam on me,  which upset my mother, but he claimed he was checking for appendicitis. Then he decided that maybe it was rheumatic fever and that I should be hospitalized and kept on complete bedrest, because otherwise, it could damage my heart. (Looking back, it seems he didn't have a single clue.) Being in the hospital was kind of gratifying. My mother hugged me before I went, which alarmed me because I thought it meant she expected me to die! They did chest x-rays and made me use a bedpan so that I could stay completely in bed, and the water there tested like plants. My Aunt Bobbie sent me a flower arrangement that looked like an ice cream soda. There was a girl down the hall who screamed and cursed all day and much of the night--I learned that she had been in a car accident and that she was a bad girl! I wasn't supposed to even hear the words that she used. (Nurse! Help me! It hurts so fucking bad!) I got sore elbows from the roughness of the sheets. The nurses made me roll to one side of the bed to make that side and then roll to the other side to make the other side--so that I could have complete bedrest! Then they decided that there was nothing in particular wrong and when I went home, I was so weak I could barely walk and had to stay home from school for several more days.

I think it was after that that I started to have asthma. I wheezed loudly and my back hurt and I had to sit up at night to breathe. There was no decent medicine, but I got some sort of inhaler that had to be filled with a liquid and stored in the refrigerator. Walking to school on the cold weather left me gasping. One time we tried to drive to Nova Scotia for a vacation and I had a cold and got so sick that we had to turn around and come back. That night, I was struggling to breathe and Mummy called Dr. O'Keefe, who was both pediatrician and immunologist, and he told her to put a fan in the window and sit me in front of a fan, to force more air into my lungs. Another time, probably in 9th grade, I had an asthma attack so bad that they rushed me to another specialist and he gave me a shot of probably epinephrine. I remember being in the car on the way there and thinking I was dying. He also had me do a lung capacity test and telling me I had emphysema. My grandfather had emphysema and let me use some of his medicine. (50 years later, I had similar tests, and they told me the same thing. Chronic, I guess.)

The asthma diagnosis was so rare in those days that it got me special privileges. A note from the doctor exempted me from PE classes all 3 years of high school. And since it was on my record, when a guy showed up at my high school from Mass. Rehab. looking for students with handicaps who needed a scholarship to enable them to become productive members of society, they called me down to the office. I was sent to a psychologist for an in-person IQ test, to determine if I had the capacity for higher education. I remember the psychologist seeming to be surprised (I think he may have said that I was scoring higher than he had), and I seem to think they told me my IQ was 139, though that seems suspiciously precise. In any case, they decided that I was definitely "college material." Then they asked me about ways in which my handicap limited my career choices. I wasn't having much trouble with asthma at that time (it seems to come and go with my emotional state), and I said I wanted to be a teacher and it had no effect, but this was the wrong answer. Could you play professional sports, if you chose to? no, of course not. See? Then it limits your choices!

And they gave me a full scholarship, including books, for college. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

More school

First grade memories are quite distinct. The following three years blur together. Sister Cor Marie was our second grade teacher. I remember that she was pretty, with pink skin that would turn red when she bent over or got angry. And she did get angry. There was a boy in class who was the "bad boy" of the class. It so happened that his house was just across the street from the school, and one day when he got in trouble, he ran out of the school and ran home. His mother brought him back, and Sister Cor Marie put him over her knee in front of the whole class and spanked him with a yardstick. That was just physical punishment, and not really unusual or noteworthy, but I also remember that she stood him in front of the class and told him that no one in class liked him, that no one was his friend, and she asked if anyone liked him. No one did. That was more cruel than any spanking.

Second grade meant First Holy Communion, which also meant first confession. Before we could go to confession for real, we had to practice. We had to learn how to begin: "Bless me father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession, and these are my sins." (Ever after we would say, "It has been one week since my last confession and these are my sins.") Then the list of potential sins: I disobeyed my parents 3 times. I told one lie. I hit my brother or sister 5 times. There were lists of commandments to consider, things we didn't even understand--impure thoughts, impure deeds. But I think those must have come later. We were seven!

One day Sister Cor Marie dragged the lot of us up to the church (which was upstairs in the same building as the school) and sat us in the benches, and she went into the priest's cubicle in the confessional, and one by one we took turns going behind the curtain into the confessional, kneeling down and waiting for the screen to open, and then practicing our confession with the nun. This, of course, was only make-believe! We didn't have to say real sins, and she couldn't actually forgive them.

I don't remember my actual first confession, only the practice one. I have a picture of myself on my first communion day, and I can't tell whether I remember it or if I only remember seeing the picture of it.

Was it first grade or second grade when I used to take a world atlas to school to read? Maybe first. I remember sitting on the curb in the schoolyard, poring over charts of grain production in various countries, and some older kids came over and wanted to know what I thought I was doing. I'm reading this book! They challenged me to read some of it, and I did, and they backed off: that little kid can read that book!

Second grade was also when I was bullied by a much older girl, a seventh or eighth grader. I was running home for lunch and she stopped me and questioned me like some sort of Gestapo agent: Where are you going? Why were you running? What grade are you in? "Second." "A second grader. About to make your first communion, and you run on the sidewalk like this? What would your mother say?" I remember that she said the thing that bullies and abusers always say: "Don't tell anyone about this. It will just be between you and me, and I'll try to get you off the hook." Although I knew perfectly well that there was no rule against running home for lunch, I did keep it a secret. Fear was always justified. There was much to fear. Now that I was seven and had made my first communion, I had reached the age of reason, and was responsible for my sins. If I ate a hot dog on Friday, or missed mass on a holy day of obligation, I could go to hell. Only if I did it deliberately. If I ate a hot dog by mistake, I could just confess it, but if I did it on purpose, knowing it was a mortal sin and just defying the rules, then I had full responsibility for it.

We memorized these rules as part of our catechism. What is required to make a sin mortal? To make a sin mortal, the action must be a serious sin and I must know it is a serious sin, and I must do it deliberately.

Third grade barely exists in my mind. My teacher was Sister Thomasina, who was ancient. Her mouth was twisted and she talked out of one side of her mouth, like Popeye. She had taught my grandfather, and my grandfather was 58 when I was born, so 58 years before, he too had been a third-grader at Saint Patrick's. If she had been 20 when she taught my grandfather, that made her 78. It was believable. To teach third-grade for 58 years in one school--it could happen. These Dominican nuns had their Mother House in St. Catherine, Kentucky, but the ones that taught us were all from the Boston area, talked the same way we talked, and there were only a few schools in the Boston area that Dominican nuns taught at. They didn't move them around as much as some other orders of nuns. Also if you got good at teaching third grade, why not let you keep doing it?

We were afraid of fourth grade. Word was that Sister Amelia was tough. But the summer before we entered her class, she has surgery for gall stones, and she was as sweet as honey the year we had her. She was fat, a round plump older woman. What I remember about her is that she told us not to eat potato chips because that's what gave her gall stones. The nuns used to sell candy bars for us to have at recess, 5 cents apiece. They kept a carton of them in what was called "the press." (A large wooden cabinet.) This was a way to earn a little money for the school.  I think they also sold chips, but Sister Amelia was against chips.

I remember a few things I actually learned in 4th grade. We memorized the Great Lakes using the acronym HOMES. We had "picture study," in which we glued a postcard of a famous painting into a notebook and wrote about what we saw in the picture. we had "class poets" and "class artists" and "class musicians." Mozart was the class musician in 4th grade. We studied a famous painting by Chagall, and Sister Amelia told us that she had milked cows as a girl on a farm in Iowa.

This was also the year that John Kennedy was running for president, and of course normally nuns did not involve themselves in politics, but this was the first Catholic, and one day Sister Amelia told us to put our heads down on the desk because she had a surprise, and when we looked up, she had a great big Kennedy for President pin fastened to her white habit. My grandfather showed me a quarter he had gotten in his change with a red skullcap painted on Washington's head--an anti-Catholic warning that if Kennedy was elected, the Pope would take control of the country.

We had a radio in the classroom, and every morning we tuned in to the Cardinal and a group of priests reciting the rosary over the radio, and we prayed along with them, "The first joyful mystery, the annunciation." We also recited the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary after lunch each day. Queen of mercy, pray for us, queen of all saints, pray for us, virgin most holy, pray for us, virgin most pure, pray for us, tower of ivory, pray for us. The rhythm and the poetry of it slipped into my soul, and I love to hear it, even now. And we all found that after a few months, the words were all memorized, without our ever intending it, and we could say the whole thing by heart.

It was also on the radio that we heard the first American go into space. Alan Shepard, 1961. The whole thing only lasted 15 minutes, and we prayed the rosary the whole time, all the adults expecting disaster at any moment. Sister Amelia beseeching us, Pray children, pray! We prayed him up and prayed him down safely.

The whole of my experience of Saint Patrick's school feels like I was unconscious. Everything was predestined, every part fit exactly where is  belonged. Everything would go on like this forever. World without end, amen.

And then it ended.

I started fifth grade as usual, but I have no recollection of who my teacher was those first few days of fifth grade. There was trouble. The "Milk Wars" were going on and my father's pay had been cut. There was another baby at home, and we had moved from Linden Street to a much nicer house on Cottage Street. There wasn't enough money to pay the tuition for me and my brother at Saint Patrick's. My mother went to the priest and explained and asked him to let us stay until she could pay. And the priest said No.

My mother cried and told him that our family had gone to this school for 3 generations, maybe more. He said No. My mother said we would have to go to public school! He said, Then you'll have to do that.

So we were pulled out of the only school we had ever imagined, and put into a class at Breed Elementary. Strangers in a strange land, the moral equivalent of reform school or a house of prostitution, for all we knew. I remember wondering, In Catholic school, they teach us to love God. In public school, do they teach then to love the devil? Now I would find out.

Monday, December 5, 2016


My mother and her two sisters had attended Saint Patrick's Grammar School, as had her father and aunts and uncles. So I too would attend Saint Patrick's School. We lived just a few blocks away, but I was too young for first grade. The cut off was probably December 1st, and my birthday wouldn't be until February. But I remember my mother asking me if I wanted to go to school, and I must have said yes, because I did. I remember that she knew the nun who was the superior, and so it was decided--I would start school. Was I five, turning six in February? That seems right. My mother had her hands full with a 4-year-old brother and an infant. I needed to get on with it.

But I was an immature five. I would have to walk to school by myself, and I remember practicing: down Linden Street to the corner, turn right onto Cottage Street, walk to the end, and then my mother asking, "Now which way?" and I pointed right, to Saint Michael's School, where the Polish kids went. No! Across McDonough Square and down Light Street. She hired an 8th grade girl to walk me to school, and paid her a dime a week.

In those days, when you started school, it was literally the first day, the first time you left your mother's side There was no pre-school, no pre-K or kindergarten. You went from playing in the house and in the yard, to actual school. You were expected to be able to recognize at least a few letters, maybe the letters in your name, but that was it. School would take children from their mother's sides and get them reading by the end of the year.

The classroom had 50 desks fastened to the floor and 50 seats, also fixed in place. Five rows, 10 desks in each row. The desks had holes in them intended to hold inkwells. (Did the tiny first-grade desks have these or was it only higher grades?) There was one nun per grade, whose job it was to keep order, keep all these children in line, in their seats, and get them up to speed. There were no parent-volunteers in the classroom, no teacher's aides. Just a mob of children and one woman in a long dress.

School began with prayers, of course, and a flag salute. There were 4 or 5 children who had stayed back from the previous year, and they were given roles as leaders, because they knew the Pledge of Allegiance and all the words to the prayers. Then the rules were explained. We were not to call the bathroom "the bathroom." It was to be called "the lavatory," or "the lav" for short. I remember thinking that saying, "I have to go to the bathroom" rather than, "I have to pee" was the height of politeness, and now there was a new, even more refined way to say this simple thing. I also remember thinking that it was "the lab" and it took a while to get all these children to call it "the lav." We were to raise our hands if we needed to "use the lav." One girl didn't manage, and I saw pee running off her chair and onto the floor. There was a boy in my class named Carl, which I misheard as Cow.

Sister John Mary was my first grade teacher. She had tannish skin and a plump face, but that's all I could see of her, because as a Dominican nun, she wore a white habit and black veil and black shoes. She was a young woman and had a sense of humor. At one time during the year, her father came to visit her (an unusual event, since we didn't think of nuns as having parents, and in fact, they weren't supposed to think of that either.) She told us that her father's name was Mr. John Mary. To have revealed her actual family name would have been a complete breach of protocol. So her name was Sister John Mary and her father's name was Mr. John Mary. I only knew that this was funny because my mother laughed when I told her.

Sister John Mary played a prank on us on April Fools Day, telling us that there was an elephant in the back of the room. She also went a little crazy some time in the middle of the winter, when she was faced with trying to get 50 children into and out of their hats and boots and coats and gloves multiple times a day. We were supposed to bring a clothespin from home with our name written on it, to fasten our boots together in the cloak room. But many of us had forgotten to bring one, and our boots were a jumbled mess in the half-dark cloakroom, as 50 small children scrambled and fumbled with finding and putting on our gear. And Sister John Mary snapped. She told us that she had called the janitor and had him take every unmarked pair of boots and throw them into the flaming furnace, and all our boots were gone. I think the janitor even came in and affirmed that it was too late, all the boots were gone. The picture is as vivid in my mind as a sermon about the gates of hell--all our rubber boots, burned up! What would our mother's say? They paid good money for those boots. What would we wear on our feet in the snow all winter? First one child and then another began to cry, and soon dozens of little children were sobbing over their lost boots. Then she told us to walk into that cloak room and get dressed and go home for lunch. And there were our boots! They weren't burned in the furnace after all.

Monday, January 5, 2009


The time before

Saturday, November 1, 2008


The first awakening of consciousness was in a little house on Linden Street, 16 Linden Street in Lynn. In the kitchen there is a large stove that also serves as a heater. The sink has our toothbrushes next to it, because the bathroom upstairs has just a toilet and a bathtub, no sink. There are two rooms, which we call the living room and the kids' room, though the kids' room was meant to be a dining room. But we don't dine. We eat in the kitchen. There is a large heating grate, I think 30" square, that is positioned in the doorway between these two rooms. All the heat for the rest of the house simply rises up through this grate from the oil heater in the cellar. If you come in the kitchen door, you turn left into the kids' room and then left again into the living room. Facing the front door, you will see the stairs to the second floor.

Upstairs, there are 2 rooms. At first, Eddie and I share one of these rooms, and Mummy and Daddy the other one. (Later, after Richie is born, Mummy and Daddy sleep on a sofa bed downstairs, and the boys get their room and I have a room to myself.) The ceilings slope down, and there are eaves, little closet doors that open into the space at the edge of the roof, behind which things like Christmas ornaments are stored. There is no heat upstairs, except what rises naturally from downstairs, or what is imparted by the sun on the roof, so we have an electric heater in the bathroom, which warms the room for bathtime.

What are my earliest memories in this house?

I don't remember my mother being pregnant with Richie, specifically. I don't think I remember his birth. But I have memories of his surgery for pyloric stenosis, when he was about 3 weeks old. I think I woke up one morning to find that Aunt Bette was there and Mummy was at the hospital. I remember seeing his stomach glued shut rather than stitched. I have vague memories of my mother rocking me in a chair in the kids' room and being sad about Liz, who died before I was born.

I remember that Daddy worked for the city in the Parks Department, cutting down trees after a hurricane, and I remember worried talk about Civil Service tests, and his inability to pass it. He worked for a while for the Health Department as a Health Inspector, and he told us about evicting a family of gypsies who were living in a store-front where they also told fortunes. He had his own memories of being evicted from his home as a child--the sheriff putting furniture out on the street--and his job was insecure and he could imagine all too well being unable to keep his little house, so it can't have been easy to put that gypsy family out. I imagine dark-eyed children hiding behind their mother's skirts.

Mummy worried too, to the point where she could hardly leave the house. I was sent to Mike's grocery store on the corner with coins in my mitten to ask the Polish grocer for a pound of hamburger. I waited and waited while he spoke in Polish to old ladies. To my, Polish sounded like it had no individual words, just long continuous streams of sounds. My mother used the expression that he "chewed the fat" with those old ladies. That seemed about right. When you ordered a pound of hamburger, he put meat into a meat grinder and it came out in little curls.

In the back yard on Linden Street, there were a pear tree and an apple tree. The smell of the yard in the late summer was of rotted fruit. Sometimes the apples hid little worms. I played in the yard most of the time. Once our dog Suzie got out of the chain-link fence and got into a fight with a neighborhood dog, and ended up with a deep cut on her neck. The vet said it couldn't be stitched because it would get infected, and it had to heal from the inside out.

It is from this house that I first went to school--Saint Patrick's. We lived there until perhaps the middle of second grade, when we moved to Cottage Street.

124 Cottage Street. There was something amusing about the numbering of our homes. The first house we lived in in Lynn, before my memories begin, was 124 Wyman Street. There were rats in that 3rd floor apartment, and my mother was so happy to have her own home, 16 Linden Street. Then we bought a second house, 124 Cottage Street, and later, we moved to 16 Willis Court. No one could explain the significance of 124/16/124/16, but surely it must have had some meaning!

The little house on Linden Street, with its dirt cellar and one heating vent and no sink in the bathroom, had been bought with a down payment of $500 that was Daddy's separation money from the Coast Guard, I think. It seems to me that the house cost $5200, but I could be mistaken about that. The new house on Cottage Street was far more grand. It had a cellar that had a door opening to the street and a wooden floor, and we were told that a bootlegger had run a shop there during Prohibition. There was a safe in the cellar hallway, and Daddy spent a lot of time and effort drilling into it, hoping to find some treasure, but when it was finally opened, what a disappointment! There was a huge hole in the back, and nothing but plaster dust was left inside.

Upstairs, there was not only a kitchen, pantry, living room and dining room, but a lovely sunroom on the front of the house. That room was unheated, and so could not be used in the cold months. Upstairs, there were 3 bedrooms and a bathroom. And off the back of the house, there was "the spare room," another unheated space that was actually an extra bedroom, but we used it for storage. The floors were hardwood, and the overall feel was that we had really moved up in the world. The yard was large and had room for a little grove of lilac trees, a swingset, a picnic table, a garden which also served as an ice-skating rink in the winter, and we were the proud owners of a double garage. You could rent out a garage stall in the winter for some extra cash.

Not long after we moved in, however, I remember that there began to be worries and anxieties about being able to pay the mortgage. We had bitten off more than we could chew. Talk was of Milk Wars, with the two milk companies under-cutting each other's prices, and I remember my father coming home with a pay envelope that held only $43, and my mother saying Oh Eddie!

A few weeks into 5th grade, we moved for the last time of my childhood, to 16 Willis Court. This house was a 2-family house, and the rent income from renting out the top floor would help make the mortgage payments much easier. Who lived upstairs when we first moved in? I am not sure, maybe it was empty, but early on, we rented it to the Sciarappa family, who also had 5 kids, as we did by that time. There were really only 2 bedrooms, and 7 people, but we made the front room a bedroom for the boys, and the back bedroom a bedroom for me and later Karen, and the side bedroom was Mummy and Daddy's. Eventually, we asked the Sciarappa's to leave, and as their parting shot they let their washing machine flood the house, and our ceiling collapsed. After that, Grammy, Pappy, and Nanny lived upstairs.

We bought a lot of land next door to the house, which somehow alienated all the neighbors right off the bat. It had been a kind of communal property, and no one was happy when we put a fence up to mark it as our own. There were lilac trees in that yard too, and a garden, and later a lean-to greenhouse.