Saturday, November 26, 2011

An Acre Christmas Memory - Part I

A Christmas Memory
by David McKean

When the skies turn grey and dry leaves do their winter dance, thoughts return of another time.  A time of simple pleasures and innocent wishes.  They come to me like Dicken’s ghost of Christmas past, haunting in a way that invites you to return.  Sometimes it is the notes of a song that lives in the recesses of my mind.  Other times a whiff of cinnamon or an orange peel.  My soul has passed through five decades and four Christmases.  Each leaving its impression upon me and building in my collective memory.  How much is true and how much is dream has become blurred over time.  The expectations  of a young boy becomes the memories of an aging man.  Christmas.  Just the word makes me think of putting on black rubber boots with those impossible metal clips before going outside into snow mounds made by the passing plows.

The tenement I grew up in was located at
761 Broadway Street
in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Weeks before the holiday preparations began.  Dostaler’s Market next door would start stocking walnuts and Gorton (pork scrap sold in cardboard tubs), would once again be found in the cooler where the meats were kept.  In the back large pieces of beef would hang where Paul the butcher would cut the meat to the various needs of the neighborhood mothers.  The Dostalers’ sons would be busy delivering the groceries to the neighborhood.  Cans of SS Pierce vegetables would fly off the shelf.  Don’t forget the Bradt’s crackers and be sure to include some bread that would be left out to stale for the stuffing.  Mr. “Ovie” (Ovid Dostaler) was a kind soul who along with his wife would offer credit to his patrons.  To a six year old the sight of the glass enclosed wooden case filled with penny candy was a feast awaiting.  Armed with the nickel my memere gave me for carrying her laundry I would have to choose between the peach pits, which were such a bargain at three for a penny, or maybe a black licorice record, which was as strip of rich chewy delight with the little red bead at the center at the end.  But oh there were so many other choices, squirrel nuts, mint juleps, malt balls, flying saucer, which we used to give make-believe communion to each other.  Don’t forget the candy necklaces, wax bottles filled with sugar water, and straws filled with colored sugars which would make our tongues turn colors.  God only knows the chemicals we ingested.  If I was dutiful perhaps I saved 2 nickels and was able to get a package of Stoddard’s Twins, better known as black moons.  Two delicious, decadent, delightful, delicacies of chocolate cake with icing equal to the nectar of the gods inbetween.   But I digress. 

Years later I learned that Mr. Ovie was often the voice of Santa on the telephone.  With the constant threat of Santa not coming to our home that year, my mother would swear she would call Santa if we did not behave.  Since our apartment was on the first floor and the Dostalers lived on the second floor across the street, Mr. Ovie could see directly into out kitchen.  Upon my mother’s cue the phone would ring and Santa would begin the litany of faults my mother had previously snitched.  Santa even knew what we were wearing and where we were standing.  There really was a Santa!  We were convinced and well into junior high I knew that though my peers laughed at the absurdity of such a folly, he did exist.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Thanksgiving Memory OR Turkey Day in the Acre

Freedom From Want by Norman Rockwell

I predict in a very short time we will be celebrating a new holiday called HallowThanksmas.  It will be a combination of Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.  Children will tear into festively wrapped boxes of turkeys stuffed with candy.  Right now the week before Thanksgiving, in my neighborhood there are 5 houses decorated with twinkling lights and blow up Santas.  Nearby is a house with a witch on the doorstep and the remnants of a jack o lantern leftover from last month.  Remember when Thanksgiving was its own day and not the day before Black Friday?  Thanksgiving held a different connotation than it does now. 
I grew up on the corner of Broadway and Walker Streets in the Acre section of Lowell.  The block I grew up on was a set of tenements all connected with concrete paved space in between.  Without knowing it, we may have grown up poor, using today’s standards.  We didn’t have a car for many years, but neither did a lot of people.  Many of my friends wore hand me downs.  Mine were from my cousin Armand.  I never fell for my mother’s trick of trying to get me to wear my sister’s old mittens.  The oversized jars of peanut butter and big blocks of cheese should have been a giveaway.  But when it came to holidays, my parents spent no expense.
When I hear folks spin yarns of Thanksgivings of long ago, they’re infused with images of moms wearing aprons, wiping hair away from their foreheads with flour covered hands.  My mother was no Martha Stewart.  Her kitchen philosophy consisted of if it came from a can or a box, it was homemade.  We would be dismissed from school early on the day before, and my mother would have my sister and me walk from St. Pat’s School to downtown Lowell to buy some supplies.  We’d go to Kresge’s and Woolworths to buy bridge mix, a blend of chocolate covered peanuts, raising, and caramels.  (Do they even make that anymore?)  Thanksgiving was also when peach blossoms would appear.  Those wonderful salmon shaded sweets filled with peanut butter.  I recall one year carrying the goodies into the kitchen after making the 1.5 mile track from downtown (How often and easily we made that walk without even thinking about it!) only to find my father sitting at the kitchen table.  Why was Dad home so early?  Over supper they told us he had been laid off yet again from Raytheon, but we’d still have a good Thanksgiving.
The night before my mother, being French Canadian, would begin her stuffing.  The smell of sage brings me back to those days.  I loved looking at the bright yellow box with the turkey on front. The next step was the washing of the bird.  Because neither of my parents had much of a culinary background, they both hated the chore with the slippery leviathan once landing on the floor.  The house would be spotlessly clean, even to the point of the winter curtains being hung.  There was an excitement and an air of anticipation.  Stores closed their doors early.  Folks went home, and stayed there.  This was a day for family.
By the time I woke on Thanksgiving morn the house was already abuzz.  Every pot and pan was put into use.  My job was to set the table with the fine paper tablecloth and napkins we picked up at the 5 & 10 the day before.  The good china, the set my parents bought in 1953 that had a gold crown to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, was taken out.  The silver, which was used twice a year had to be cleaned.  It sounds fancy, but these were the only pieces of value my folks owned, and besides, it was a holiday. 
All stores were closed, except one, the packie (for those of you outside the Merrimack Valley it’s the liquor store).  If you knew the right people you would go to the package store and even though the law said there should be no liquor sales, you could buy what you needed.  In my house it was the smallest bottle of brandy you could get.  It was for the eggnog, you understand.  It was a necessity.  My mother, who never drank, would have her one shot of eggnog and brandy as she cooked.  Within minutes she would declare the house too hot and open all the windows.  Weighing 90 something pounds and under 5 feet, that one little nip would make her tipsy, or so she thought.
My mother was from a family of 13 kids, my dad from 7 kids.  We had family, lots of them.  Sometimes too many, now too few.  In hindsight, it’s interesting that the 2 families never met.  They would alternate holidays.  (Was there something going on I was blind to?)  The Macy’s parade would start off, often with a bagpipe band.  Maybe because with a last name like McKean, but the whole family would stop to hear them play Scotland the Brave.  When it was done everyone would return to their given task.  One by one the family members arrived.  Just as the Underdog balloon would come into view my mother would call me to the kitchen, tell me to bundle up, and bring 2 dinners to my memere and pepere who lived down the street.  I’d whine.  She’s command.  I’d plead to see Underdog; she’d take a shot of eggnog.  Their house was 4 doors down, but I’d turn it into the Long March.  Memere would open the door, I’d put the dishes on the table and attempt to run out.  Underdog was on his way.  In her thick accent, she’d say thank you a million times, but I was too busy to hear or even give her five minutes of my time.  I regret that.
Back at the ranch people were just sitting down at the table and I’d squeeze in.  Then began the beautiful tradition of Grace.  My mother would ask for someone to begin.  Silence.  My mother would look at my father.  Dad would begin, “Jesus Christ almighty.”  Before you think he began the prayer, no, that was his response to anything.  Then my mother would command me to begin.  It was the same scenario every year until adulthood.  Being a product of parochial education, I knew what to say.  What I wanted to say was, “Over the lips and past the tongue….  But that would have gotten me a hit on the noggin.  Instead I began, “Bless us O lord and these thy gifts….”  This was followed by the lifting of glasses.  Most families had wine, we had cranberry juice.  Without getting into it, my mother didn’t allow wine (just her stash of eggnog).  We had all the traditional foods most American families had, along with my mother’s specialties.  Celery with cream cheese, pickles, and pickled onions.  Haute cuisine, Acre style.   Like most families the meal would be done within 8 minutes.  Then men would retire to the TV room, the women to the task of scrubbing and cleaning.
My dad was not a giant TV sports fan, but he was on Thanksgiving.  He’d have me take my place by the TV to turn the channel.  My father’s philosophy was that children were made to change TV channels, since these were the days before remote.  Thankfully there were fewer channels.  Since he imbibed tryptophan, he would soon be asleep. If I dared changed the channel, he would immediately awaken and want the game back.
The meal was not done until dessert was served.  My mother’s theory was that there should be as many desserts on the table as you had guests.  The table would be laden with apple pie (from Table Talk), pecan pie (from Aunt Cis), mince pie (from Table Talk), pumpkin pie (from Aunt Cis).  The one creation of my mother’s was the mandatory Jello.  She’s stand there with plates of wiggling Jello, holding it like she won a Betty Crocker medal.  If you didn’t put a blob of it next to your pie, she’d be heartily disappointed.  After the meal Ma would put the fruit bowl on the table.  My mother wasn’t much of a nutritionist and we didn’t have a lot of fruit, but this was not for eating, it was for show.  Everyone knew you needed a fruit bowl on the table.  That was accompanied by nuts, not shelled, but with the shells.  Then the contest of where the nutcracker was would begin.
One by one folks would leave with a paper plate filled with enough food for a few days, including jello.  Dad would be back to sleep; he did that a lot.  Ma would be in the kitchen cleaning up, but next to her was her eggnog.  Quiet would descend on the house. 
As the years passed, fewer people come over.  We all went our separate ways, even losing contact with some.  Soon my parents were the grandparents sitting at my wife’s and my table.  We kept some of the old ways, but started some of our own.  Now there are even fewer at the table.  As the gray hairs on my head multiply I think more of those days.  The nice part is that I still have cousins whom I love dearly and have reconnected with others over the past year or two. 
Be thankful.  Give the day its due.  “Bless us O Lord….”

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Bishop's Problem

Benedict Fenwick had a problem.  The growing parish in Lowell was comprised of upstarts and trouble makers.  Being the second Bishop of Boston, he had to maintain a delicate balance.  He represented the Catholic presence in Yankee Boston.  While courting the Brahmins of Boston, he needed to meet the needs of the ever growing Irish population that stretched from the deep woods and Indian strongholds of Maine, down the to the mill towns springing up along New England rivers, over to the choked streets of Charlestown, and to the fishing villages of the Atlantic.  All of this with a handful of priests.  It meant a different life from his upbringing.
Bishop Fenwick

The Benedict family was one of the great families of Maryland, founded as a sort of refuge for Catholics.  Because of persecutions against Catholics, his family left England and became major landholders in the colony.  He could have had a life of ease, but chose the seminary, namely the Jesuits.  Soon he was a professor at Georgetown and later a leading prelate in New York City.  He was assigned to help heal divisions in South Carolina.  Probably because of the success he had there, upon the return of Bishop Cheverus to France, Fenwick was elevated to the rank of Bishop.  Donning the purple robes of his status, his ecclesiastical ring and cross, he left to encounter the trials of his life.
He was now the prelate for one of the major dioceses in the United States, but he also knew of Boston’s past.  Christmas, at one time, was banned and still was not fashionable at Fenwick’s time.  Bonfires and burning the Pope’s effigy was still being practiced on the fifth of November, though not as violently as in the previous century.  The trees that filled Boston Common once held the bodies of his fellow Jesuits in Boston’s earliest Puritan era.  Though many of these practices were no longer observed, there was an underlying bias against anything Papist, and with the growing number of Catholics, Boston was on edge.   
In 1831, Lowell was his pride and joy.  The Corporations gave land for a church and later a cemetery.  The numbers justified a full time priest, Father Mahoney.  The church was dedicated in July of that year with imposing ceremonies.  Regular reports were coming in.  While the offertory collections weren’t great, Fenwick had hopes.  A major challenge faced Fenwick when the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown was burnt by an anti-Catholic mob in 1834.  Just days later, news arrived that the Catholic Burial Ground in Lowell was desecrated.

Things go from bad to worse.  The new pastor that Fenwick appoints to Lowell does not seem to be performing his duties.  Though just a few years old, St Patrick Church is too small for the numbers.  Expansions are planned, but the carpenters refuse to work.  Funds that were promised to fund the work do not show up.  He sends priests to Lowell to investigate allegations.  The response is not good.  No money.  Rowdy parishioners.  Priest not showing up for Mass!  There’s trouble in the mill city. 
Fenwick makes several trips by train and stage to check on conditions.  Fenwick recommends that the priest “goes on a spiritual retreat.” Parishioners threaten him with withholding the collections if their priest is replaced.  Fenwick wants the work on the church done.  He writes in his diary that he is afraid Lowell will not make it.  His stomach is upset.  He decides to raise funds by selling pews with disappointing results.  He replaces the pastor even after the threats of some of the more affluent parishioners.  (This same priest returns to Lowell months later, and Fenwick reports the priest is no longer one of his flock.)  They literally board up the church.  The new cleric, Father McDermott, awaits a welcoming committee at the train station that never shows.  He walks to the church and finds he is barred from entering.  He physically removes the boards.  Fenwick has a headache.

We’re fortunate that we have Bishop Fenwick’s actual words to tell us what was going on.  While you could see it as a 19th century soap opera, it reminds us they really lived.  It personalizes the people whose lives have influenced where we live.  It’s important to remember that they were human with hopes and fears, times of laughter, days of woe.  And headaches.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Samuel Murray

In the last 2 years more research has been done regarding Lowell's Irish pioneers than in the past 2 decades.  I'm honored to be playing a small part in it, but I'm just the guy who collects all the stories and data the real historians are gathering.  Needless to say my laptop's desktop is covered with files.  There are dozens of dozens of them.  I need a better filing system.

Over the last months, we've found out much about the life of Hugh Cummiskey, his family, Father McDermott, and other prominent names.  We sometimes forget how tough life was back then.  The name of Hugh has come down through the generations as Lowell's premier Irishman, but certainly he was not alone.  A friend of Hugh was Samuel Murray.  Murray was 7 years younger then Hugh.  There was a strong bond between the two.  Maybe the strongest link was they were both Tyrone men, but it is assumed Hugh brought over many workers from his home County.  One story back in Ireland was that anyone wishing to come to America would go to the Cummiskeys in hopes of making a connection across the Atlantic. 

The two men were close enough they the went into business together running a West Indies Dry Goods store on Merrimack Street.  It would be compared to a modern variety store today.  He was probably quite successful since he later branched out and opened his own store.  Success meant he now how the ability to ask Margaret Holland to marry him, and in the cold of winter 1833 the two went to Saint Pat's Church and were married.  He takes the step to become a citizen in his new adopted homeland.   Life is good for the newlyweds and Samuel, along with his best friend Hugh Cummiskey, are among the first constables in Lowell.  The two men must have been held in the highest regard by their peers and the Town Fathers.  They would have to patrol the Acre, settle small disputes, and keep the peace.  The reputation of the community was on their shoulders.  Hugh and his protege were on their way up the social and economic ladders.  But the Fates must have their way, and Samuel Murray at the age of 39 dies, leaving his young wife alone and in debt.  His will shows that he owed money to several creditors.  The document gives us a glimpse into the life of an up and coming middle class Irishman in Lowell.  Among his possessions were sheets and pillowcases, candlesticks, 3 tablecloths, 1 cane, 5 vests and 1 great coat, window curtains, and 2 looking glasses (mirrors).  The list goes on, followed by creditors.

His young wife has enough to erect a marble stone (not slate like most others) in the Catholic Burial Ground.  Did his friend, Hugh, grieve?  What happened to Margaret, his wife of just 2 years?  Were there no children to grieve?  One wonders if it would have been Samuel Murray's name in the story of Lowell's Irish community   if he lived.  As research continues we find out more about the lives of those who came before us.  They become more than historical figures.  Once again they have a voice.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ora Pro Nobis

Google image

No matter if you consider yourself a survivor of Catholic schools or someone who benefited from such an education, one thing is true- we all loved having holydays of obligation off from school.  After trick or treating you'd fall into a sugar stupor only to be aroused by the alarm to attend the 8:30 children's Mass at St.  Pat's.  This was not an option.  Every grade has its assigned place in church, and every nun sat there like a sentinel guarding her little troop and taking attendance.  All Hallow's Eve was just the intro to All Saints' Day.  Today's liturgies have cute little kids dressed as saints singing, "When the Saints Go Marching In."  Not for us, the bell would ring, the organ would blare the notes of the opening hymn, "For all the Saints, Who From Their Labors Rest."  We'd open up our Pius X hymnals and sing every verse.  That was just the beginning.  We're talking Pre-Vatican II here folks.  Holydays meant they pulled out all the smells and bells the church had to offer.  Being All Saints' Day the chanting of the Litany of the Saints was mandated, in Latin.

Beginning in Grade 3, I believe, Charlie McGrail (Now Father McGrail, a Benedictine monk) taught us Gregorian chant out of little hymnals.  I still own one with its square notes and and various modes.  To this day I can chant the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.  At age 9 I knew more Latin than I do now, but also explains why I did phenomenally well in vocabulary tests throughout my school career.  Truly Mr. McGrail was a gifted musician.  St. Pats has one of the best organs in the city, and when he played, you felt the bass notes inside you.  His music joined earth to heaven.

After the Gospel, the Litany would begin.  The priest would call for the intercession of every saint recorded in the Church calendar, all 1332 of them.  Ok, that's an exaggeration, but when you kneel for that long it feels like it.  Honestly, there was a beauty to the chant.  Sancte Jacobe, Ora pro nobis.  Sancta Matthia, Ora pro nobis.  Sancte Luca, Ora Pro Nobis.  Sancta Anna, Ora pro nobis.  I've attended a Hopi kachina dance, and I've sat in meditation with Buddhist monks.  I've heard the chants from Mt. Athos in Greece and the call of the muezzin at a mosque.  All of them have the same goal- to lift man from his human existence to glimpse into the Great Unknown.

The next day is yet another memorial day in the church calendar-  All Souls' Day.  One of the traditional hymns for that day is a beautiful poem written by an English nun and sung to the tune of an ancient Gaelic tune (Trinity Sunday).  It's called Spirit Seeking Light and Beauty.  Here are the lyrics:
Spirit seeking light and beauty,
Heart that longest for thy rest.
Soul that asketh understanding,
Only thus can you be blest.

Taste and see him, feel and hear him,
Touch and grasp his unseen hand.
God is all that you can long for,
God is all his creatures home.

All this comes back to me because of something I recall and regret.  A good 30+ years ago I was asked to help clean a part of St. Pat's church basement.  At that time, that beautiful space, was no more than storage.  At one time masses had to be held simultaneously in both the upper and lower churches.  That was decades ago.  What I saw hurt the eyes and the soul.  Statues were tipped over.  Pews were broken apart.  The worst is what I saw in a pile.  I picked up what looked like a rag.  It was a chasuble (priest vestment).  This wasn't any chasuble; it was the very old style, black velvet, silver embroidery with a skull and cross bone on the back.  How many All Souls Day Masses or funerals was this a part of?  What stories could it tell?  There it was in a rag pile.  Not far away was a puddle.  But in the puddle was a stack of Gregorian Chant books used by the schola.  These were mammoth books that a group of chanters would stand around and all read out of one book.  They are mostly found in monasteries.  The beautiful notations and lettering were  smudged from being in water.  There wasn't just one, but a stack of them.  The little angel that sat on my left shoulder told me to take them home, but the one on my right said, "Thou shalt not steal."  I wish I listened to that first voice.  I am haunted that I let them stay there, since I learned all of those pieces of our history- our story- were put in the trash.  It was after this incident that I started up our Parish Archives.  A people who choose not to honor their past, have little hope for a future.

Nest week I'll have more to share on research about Hugh and some thoughts about how he ended up in Lowell.