Saturday, December 20, 2014

An Acre Memory- Christmas (The Finale)

All during the day and for the weeks before the record player droned out the tunes of the season.  We had a pile of 45’s that we played over and over.  You could stack about 5 records on top of each other and each would drop down onto the player.  The needle arm would move over and play the tune.  I mostly recall the Harry Simone Chorale’s rendition of the new hit, “The Little Drummer Boy.”  My mother loved that tune and when it came on the radio she would reach over and turn up the volume.  There was always Bing Crosby’s I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, Perry Comeau’s Do You See what I See?, and other songs and hymn whose singers mostly dating from the 1940s.

My parents explained that Christmas was much different when they were young growing up in the Lowell of the 1920s.  My father said he remembered very little except the deep snows of the seasons and actually seeing horse drawn sleighs still in use on Broadway Street.  Ice skating on the Merrimack River was something every Acre kid looked forward to.  When he was young there was an annual package delivered from Scotland.  It was something his parents always looked forward to.  Inside were tins of shortbread and oatcakes.  He also remembered letters from cousins in Glasgow who asked for money to be sent home and requests for sponsorship so they could come to America.  He also recalled the throngs at Midnight Mass and how people would keep warm for the long walk to church by having a few drinks on their way.  My mother’s memories were more clear.  Gifts were usually very limited.  A scarf or hat.  A small bisque doll.  They used their own stocking to hang for Santa to fill.  In it were wrapped candies, nuts, along with oranges and coins.  A thing like an orange was very precious in this time.  She kept that tradition up with my sister and me.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that I found out reading in a history book that since the earliest days Canadian children were given fruits and coins to wish them health and wealth in the New Year.  Their tree was never decorated until Christmas Eve and often was set up by her parents after all 13 children had gone to bed.  Midnight Mass for my mother was at St. Jean Baptiste Church on Merrimack Street.  A behemoth of an edifice it had a triple choir loft that reached to the very rafters of the church.   She recalled the thrill of being so high up in the church and singing the hymn Minuit Chretiens (O Holy Night).  Minuit Chrétiens c'est l'heure solennelle; Où l'homme Dieu descendit jusqu'à nous. Pour effacer la tache originelle; Et de son père arrêter le courroux.  Right into her final years at some point in the season she would break into song, you could see her eyes fill as she returned to the joys of her youth. 

One year we awoke to a scene directly out of a Hallmark card.  Overnight we were blanketed in more than a foot of snow.  Nothing was moving on the streets.  At dinner time I had to make my way down Walker Street to my grandparent’s house to deliver their meal.  In the freezing cold my mother warned me to hurry not so I wouldn’t get frostbite, but so that the meal could remain hot by the time I got there.  The mince pie!  Don’t drop the pie.  My grandmother met me at the door and sure enough the pie was the first thing she checked on.  Memere always had a sweet tooth.  My mother would often catch her sneaking a brown paper bag home from the store which must have contained black and whites or maybe even a napoleon or a bismark.  My mother would get on the phone and let my grandmother know she was caught red handed.

What was a perfect day was ruined when my mother announced that in the subfreezing Arctic cold snow laden blizzard we had to go to Mass.  She knew there was a 5:30 Mass and it was a holyday of obligation which meant the fires of hell were promised to us who committed a mortal sin.  The church was over a mile away.  We bundled up for the long track.  The four of us hit the streets.  They were still covered in white.  The lights of the candles in people’s windows reflected in the snow piles in front of people’s houses.  I swear that not even one car passed us on the road during our journey.  Looking in windows you could see families celebrating and sharing the joy of the day.  We walked down the middle of the street in the dark since most people hadn’t gotten a chance to shovel yet.  Even Cukoo O’Connell’s bar on the corner of School and Broadway was closed up.  Probably the only day of the year it was.  I imagined the street light turning from green to red were that way to celebrate the season.  Don’t stop.  Keep going.  It’s Christmas.  Just as the last of my energy and heat escaped my body we reached the church.  My Dad grabbed the metal handle of the massive green wooden door.  Locked!  Locked?  Locked!!!  The four figures turned around.  No one said a word.  Maybe it was the sacredness of the moment or the fear of catching my mother’s wrath.  We walked home.  I felt the cold night through my black rubber boots with the dozen impossible buckles.  My thoughts now are of the drum set waiting for me in the good room and the candy cane that hangs on the tree that’s ready to be eaten.  I look up.  There is my father looking up Broadway Street.  He’s on my left.  Next to me is my sister with her white rabbit fur muff to keep her hands warmed, probably thinking of attacking those same candy canes.  On the far right was my mother with her fur lined black boots.  Hat on her head as every good church going lady had at that time.  She was probably saying her prayers for missing Mass knowing that dragging her family out on this special night was the right thing to do.  The crunch of the new fallen snow the only sound to be heard.

It is like a photo in my mind.  The four of us making our way home.  We’re on Broadway Street right at the gate house over the canal.  In the distance I see the candles in the windows of our apartment.  Frost is making its mark on the glass panes, and if I squint the orange glow almost makes the electric candles look like stars.  The street lights cast our shadows before us.  I can see it now.  I am right there.  Our little family was together and we were going home.  In my head I hear,
Silent Night, Holy Night,  All is calm, All is bright.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

An Acre Memory- Part 2

That being said and done the next day was tree decorating day.  A day I hated and feared.  We used the large bright bulbs with the old fashioned wiring.  It was my job to test the lights before trimming the tree.  The problem was that if one light went out the entire string went out.  Children of today have no idea how gifted they are to have the lights they do.  Each individual light had to be unscrewed and tested until the faulty perpetrator could be found.  On top of that, the lights would heat to a searing temperature that would burn the fingertips.  You could tell who had the job of being the light tester in each family because of the band-aids on each finger tip.  My mother demanded that there was an even distribution of colored lights.  The pattern had to be followed and could not be broken.  This often necessitated an emergency trip to the 5 and 10 to buy replacements.  That’s until she came upon what she thought was an ingenious idea.  If she had too many blues and not enough red, she would scrape the blue paint off of one bulb and using red nail polish she’d paint the scraped bulbs.  Now if you don’t believe in guardian angels this may convince you.  As I said the bulbs would literally burn at a very high temp and using the nail polish only a Christmas miracle saved us from the vapors of the nail polish igniting the dried out tree into a Christmas bonfire.  One often picked up a copy of the Lowell Sun to find that a home was burnt to the ground because of faulty wiring and a dried out tree.  I was constantly reminded of this since it was my duty to climb under the tree daily and fill the reservoir.  And if the house was to burst into flames it would have been all my fault.

Some of my friends had those new sparkling aluminum tree with the color wheel that spun around.  Their ornaments were the fancy, Styrofoam ones wrapped in colored silk thread.  Not us, we had old fashioned glass ornaments, some 10, 15, or 20 years old.  There were delicate glass strawberries , enormous red balls, beautifully painted shapes that mirrored the colored lights.  We had some very old ones from memere’s.  I especially remember a little cloth Santa that had its place on the tree.  The icicles.  We had dozens of these hard plastic white icicles that were placed ever so gingerly on the tips of the branches.  Then came the tinsel.  They don’t even sell tinsel any more.  I think it was one of the causes of global warming.  My mother bought boxes of it.  I would throw gobs of it at the tree.  In frustration my mother would tell me to leave as she went about adding her piece de resistance.  Every individual strand had to be placed just right.  In my memory I can see it now the entire tree shimmering and shining, the tinsel making the tree look like an ice glazed wonder.  The star we used was another ancient piece dating from WWII period.  It was white with a slight outline in red.  When a bulb was inserted in the base the glow was soft and tranquil and set the perfect image of peace on earth, goodwill towards men.  All of that was so until the cat ate a piece of tinsel and we had to pull it out of her rear, or until my mother would topple into the tree as she was trying to perfect her already perfect tree.

While the tree was the focus of our decorating frenzy there were other additions to our attempts of making our Christmas Wonderland.  Probably the first sign of the season to appear would be the wreath on the door.  Today’s Martha Stewart hyper stylized self important foo foo wreaths paled in comparison by what hung on the doors along Broadway Street.  There were the white tissue paper wreaths that were made from bent coat hangers with dozens of tiny torn pieces of tissue wrapped around the form.  The good Sisters at Saint Patrick School began the project early in the season.  By early December students brought them home in many stages of completion.  Some homes displayed full rich wreaths that must have taken a tree’s worth of tissue paper to fill.  Other looked half done and hung sadly from a nail.  The worst tragedy is if we had a wet snow and then dozens of toilet paper wreaths met their doom.  On other doorways wreaths were made of folded computer cards (which was accompanied by the infamous folded TV Guide Christmas tree that matched).  Of course there was the economical plastic wreath that barring a nuclear explosion could last in a state of preservation into the next millennium.  One of my mother’s pride and joys was the gold sprayed pine cone wreath made by my Aunt Nita.  It was by far the largest and most luxurious of wreaths in the neighborhood.  It lasted many years and even though each year one or another of the pine cones would fall off or disintegrate it hung until it breathed its last many years later.

It seemed almost every family put electric candles in the windows.  The meaning of this ancient sign of welcome may have been unknown to the residents of the Acre but the effect it made on the snow-covered streets was spectacular.  Almost everyone used orange or red.  That may have been one of those unwritten rules of Christmas that was enforced by peer pressure.  Those who could afford it may even have a 3 candle candolier.  Soon followed the 5, then 7 candle condoliers showed up in widows  Even in the 1960s people tried to outdo their neighbor.  There were always the renegades who used blue or white lights, or even God forbid multi-colored lights!  The ladies of the tenement neighborhood would remark that while everyone in the block had orange Mrs. So-and-so wanted to defy standards and put green bulbs in her electric candles.  Soon enough the malcontent would do her penance and change her bulbs to the right color.  Peace was restored to the Acre. 

Stamps must have been far cheaper in that era because the Christmas card was a major decorating item in that period.  The mailman often made two trips to the mailboxes and even worked on the Sunday before Christmas.  Lord knows who sent all those cards, but we received dozens if not many dozens of Christmas cards.  I had no idea who many of the cards were sent by.  They were cousins of cousins and then there was the frantic, “Oh my God I didn’t send one to them!!!”  This was followed by a mad dash to the mail box in front of Dostaler’s Market.  With tape in hand my sister and I would line every door jamb with the season’s greetings.  “Be sure the horizontal cards were along the top and the verticals went along the side.”  It was a contest with my cousins who had the most cards hanging.

In between the living room and the “good” room was always displayed the red paper tissue folded bell.  These were inexpensive items that were picked up easily at the local Woolworth’s, Kressge’s, or Green’s. Other items of décor included an illuminated Santa with a bubble light in his hand.   Again, I have no recollection where the item came from or why poor Santa carried a bubbling light bulb in his hand but the Santa was used as a night light on the kitchen table during the season.  My sister had the Frosty the Snowman light.  With a blue bulb inserted in the back it was just like a real snowman, that in your dreams may come alive and march through the house.  I never liked that figure.  My mother also bought 4 Santa Claus mugs from Stuart’s Department Store on Market Street.  As the years passed the poor Santas lost their paint until finally he looked like a victim of the plague.  Advent calendars were opened daily revealing little pictures as the big day approached.  Every now and then my mother would buy one that when the window was opened there was a Bible verse.  Why would someone put Bible verses on Advent calendars?  The meaning was lost on an 8 year old boy.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

An Acre Memory- Christmas (Part 1)

Christmas on Broadway, 1955
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 become 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.

If my memory serves me correctly at some point my mother was barred from the quest of getting the tree. Since we had no car, as did most in that neighborhood, it was a traipse to the several neighborhood dealers. Somehow we always picked the weekend when snow and the temperature had fallen to the point of frostbite. My mother demanded the perfect tree. Not too short, not too tall. Not too narrow, not too full. A skimpy tree meant there weren’t enough branches to hang the ornaments. A tree too full wouldn’t allow the ornaments to hang just right. After my mother commanding my father to try this tree and that, and then back to this tree and finally deciding on that one, only to find someone had bought it, there was an unspoken decision my father would play hunter-gatherer and get the tree himself. And so, wearing double layers of socks, a pair of woolen leggings, the mandatory hat with earflaps pulled down and strapped under the chin, accompanied by the god-awful black rubber boots with the gazillion impossible buckles, we would leave the safety of the primeval cave and enter the world of the Christmas Tree Man.

Now finding a tree was not a matter of shape or form to my father, but being the son of a Scotsman, was all about the price. I truly believe in the whole time we lived in the Acre we never paid more than $3 for a tree and more likely $2. Ahh, it was a dance that was performed between my father and Tree Man. Banging the tree stump on the ground to proclaim the needles falling off. The shaking of the head at how poor a selection Tree Man had. The proverbial question of, “Is this all you have?” Many times this was enough for Tree Man to give in and acquiesce to the Great White Tree Hunter. But every now and then Tree Man held his ground. That’s when my dad would pull out the big guns. I think subconsciously my dad hoped he could pull off this coup-du-gras. It had to be timed perfectly. The hand gestures, facial expressions. When Tree Man did not bite my Dad’s bait of “I’ll give you 2 bucks for this one,” my father would shake his head and say “Come on David, let’s go.” I would lower my head and follow a few steps behind. Inevitably just as we were leaving his lot, Tree Man would call out, “Wait!” Though Tree Man couldn’t see it my father’s face would beam. The hunt. Now the kill. With my Dad taking the lead, we would carry our catch down Broadway Street hill. I taking two steps to his every one. The crunch of the snow beneath our boots helped keep the rhythm to our steps. As the door opened to our house Dad would again tell the story of how once again Tree Man dared to take him on, and the victory of getting a two dollar and fifty cent tree. To complete the annual expedition my mother would proclaim once again that she had no idea where was she going to hang the ornaments on such a skimpy tree.

Once the tree was brought home it had to be put into its stand, which consisted of a green metal bowl in which water would be poured to keep the tree moist. Three red metal legs had to be attached to keep the stand steady. A degree in engineering was needed to assemble the device. Only the most delicate of maneuvers would hold the legs together in such a state to put the stump in the tree without it falling apart. Placing of the tree was also of major concern. “Move it to the right. More. More. Too much. Left. I said left. Put it back where it was.” The Commanding Officer, my mother, would bark out the orders never content believing that turning it just the right way would make the difference. There was an unwritten rule in the house that the tree had to “stand” for 24 hours. It was the belief a lot like “no swimming for one full hour after eating before going in the water.” If you decorated the tree before that time the needles would fall, and Christmas would be ruined forever and all time.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Doris Kearns Goodwin & Some Good News to Share

I'm sure many of you know her name.  She's been on PBS, talk shows, and has made guest appearances on Meet the Press and even Oprah.  There are few people I would give up a Saturday to hear, but she is one of them.  New York native, but proud Red Sox fan, she thrilled the audience at Barnes & Noble with stories of presidents, their successes and their woes.  She spoke of her meeting with Daniel Day Lewis, during the filming of the movie Lincoln, and how he would maintain the persona of the president even between scenes being filmed.  In the early morning hours while visiting the White House and the Clintons, they went from room to room identifying where Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, and other notaries slept.  She shared how she was the first female allowed in the Red Sox locker room.

I noted that as she spoke she was talking history by weaving stories.  And then she concluded by saying just that.  As a child in New York she listened to her father and neighbors and understood that the personal narrative is the way to reach people.  Later her father would have her tell him the outcome of baseball games, not by giving the score, but by recounting the game play by play.  He wanted the story of the game.

Maybe that's why I connect with her.  I see history as a story.  I tell my 5th graders that and my college students as well.  Make it personal.  Make it connect with their lives, and they'll listen.  I was fortunate to be surrounded with the same types of people growing up.  I was a quiet kid and still am.  I would listen to my dad's recounting of life in the Acre.  I'd hear the old timers at St Pat's tell their stories of swimming in the canals and getting their knuckles slapped in school.  I've always wondered what to do with those stories.  That's why I started this blog.

And that leads right into some good news.  It seems a publisher has been following the blog and has asked me to author a book on the stories of the Irish in Lowell.  I'm very excited about it, and very intimidated.  I think we're all put here for a reason.  Perhaps that is why I do what I do.  But anyway it's real and happening.  The story of Lowell's Irish should not come just from my small circle.  That's why I am reaching out to you.  I want, no, I need to hear from you.  What's your family's story?  How did your family get here?  Why Lowell?  What was their challenge?  Their joy?  How do you express your Irishness?  I'm going crazy trying to find photos of neighborhoods, school photos, church events, holidays that show the Irish celebrating family and culture.  Think about it. 

I was so fortunate to be brought up where I was and with the people that made up my circle of family and friends.  But as time passes our stories are fading.  In the last year we have loss so many of our older members who had stories that could have been passed down.  This is our time.  The next generation needs to know how the story of Lowell's Irish began and continues.  Please join me in this adventure.  (Interested? Email me: )

Sunday, November 16, 2014

An Acre Memory: Thanksgiving

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 spared 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 I 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. After all we had bridge mix!
The night before the feast 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’d 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’d 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 at Thanksgiving. 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….”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Rites of Fall in the Acre

Photo fr. Pintrest
I truly believe I was given a gift of being brought up in the right place at the right time- the Acre of the late 1950s. One of the first rites of Fall was the hanging of the storm windows. Now anyone under the age of 55 will have no idea of what I speak. In the cellar of the tenement I was brought up in were stored the 14 storm windows that had to be put up when the leaves changed, and taken down when the lilac buds showed. These windows weighed as much as a full grown adult and had to be lugged up the stairs and brought outside for cleaning. Our apartment, like most of the time, had no central heat- just a space heater and the kitchen stove. Having ice form on the inside of the windows was no foreign occurrence. Back to the storm windows.

My father would take out his wooden, 6 ft step ladder. The one that listed at a 45 degree angle. As he said, it was in perfect condition, why get a new one. With a mouthful of 8 wood screws per window, he'd climb the ladder. I would also climb the ladder doing a flying Wallendas routine of holding the window against the house and standing on the opposite side of the ladder from my Dad. Misters Black and Decker had not invented the portable screwdriver yet, so good old Dad, with lightning speed would attach the windows. This was also the time that I learned how religious my father was as he called out to "Jesus Christ Almighty" so many times.

You knew it was really Fall when my mother would hang up the Indian corn. You don't see a lot of that now. Many houses today have blow up figures, strings of orange lights, and plastic pumpkins on the doorsteps. My folks would never waste money by putting a pumpkin on the step. We'd open it up and roast the seeds in the oven. My aunt would make pumpkin pies. But my mother used the same Indian corn for years.  The sad part was that birds, rain, and the years got to the corn, and each year she hung it up it looked more like she was hanging up just the cob minus the kernels. She often bragged how many years she kept the same corn with the faded bow.

Another rite of Fall was walking by Waugh Street and waiting for the horse chestnuts to fall. Before the blight which wiped out many of these beauties, Waugh Street was chestnut tree lined and became our own little "run the gauntlet." A horse chestnut is covered with hard spikes. When it falls from the tree it resembles a medieval torture instrument. The trick was to run under the trees before being brained by the spiked bowling balls. It was most fun on a windy day to see who could collect the most chestnuts without suffering a concussion.

But the best rite of Fall was Halloween itself. I don't remember buying a costume. I think I was a hobo from ages 5 to 11. When I turned 12, I revolted and was a vampire. I thought I was cool with a cape and blood dripping from my mouth. That's when I learned not to use red Magic Marker as fake blood. It was also a let down when a friend pointed at me and said vampires never wore glasses. So I took them off, and then looked like a blind vampire tripping on stairs and walking into doors. That was my last year of trick or treating.

What I remember most is getting my paper, orange, trick or treat bag from Greens in downtown Lowell. I think it cost a nickel. It was nothing more than an orange paper shopping bag, but by night's end it would hold a bounty of cavity producing treats. My Dad was often given the chore of walking with us. It often became a history of the Acre lesson. Being an Acre Boy himself, he'd tell me this is where he helped light the gas lanterns when he was a kid. Or this is where the Keyes sisters lived and he'd run errands for them. We'd walk by Lovejoy's mansion where UMass is now. Everyone knew it was haunted, and I'd walk a little closer to him. He'd pretend to see ghosts in the broken windows. One year right in front of Lovejoy's it started raining, hard, and my little trick or treat bag got soaking wet and broke. I was in a panic. Do I stop and pick up my candy, or do I let the ghosts drag us in to Lovejoy's basement and my mother would never see us again? I did what any 6 year old would do. I cried. My father said another prayer to Jesus Christ Almighty, put as much candy into my little hobo hands as could fit, picked me up, and walked me home.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

When the Battle is Over

Major Donovan's monument,
St. Patrick Cemetery
What happens when the flags are furled after the last battle?  When the victor returns home to the cheers of family and friends?  When the last four years have been filled with blood and battle and you’re expected to return to the life you knew before?  What happens?

When the news that soldiers from the 6th Mass Regiment had been attacked and killed by Confederate sympathizers in Baltimore in April of 1861 the citizens of Lowell rallied to the cause of the North.  The first to do so were a band of Irishmen who formed the 16th Mass.  Before marching off to war, the soldiers attended Mass at St. Patrick church.  When the host was elevated at the time of consecration the officers withdrew their swords from their scabbards to salute the sacrament.  The men were then marched to the train depot where they would meet their fate.  Of those who served in the Sixteenth, 150 officers and men would be mortally wounded, along with 93 who would die of disease.  A few would have their remains returned and interred in the consecrated ground of St. Patrick cemetery, most would not.  This was the story of one who served and returned.

Matthew Donovan would eventually achieve the rank of major, but not before enduring bloodshed, imprisonment, and disease.  Born in Ireland in 1830 he appears in Lowell about 1850 as a housepainter.  Father Timothy O’Brien witnessed his marriage to Ellen Rowe in 1852.  Soon there were 5 little Donovans, including a set of twins.  The growing family moved from place to place along Broadway and Lowell Streets.  Perhaps it was to accommodate the growing family or the financial need, but the movement was almost yearly.

When the call for soldiers to defend the North was made just after Baltimore, Matthew was among the first to enlist.  His Civil War career included battles at Fair Oaks, Second Bull Run, and Spotsylvania.  He spent months in a hospital in Annapolis, probably from wounds he received at Fair Oaks or from one of the camp diseases that spread so quickly.  His account of the 16th’s engagement at Gettysburg tells much about the man.  He told of hours of doing nothing, looking for a place to let his men bathe, and waiting for the inevitable as more and more troops filled the town.  The 16th was in charge of protecting the Emmetsburg Road.  They dug trenches and at times hid in the woods as they were often shot at from different sides.  Eighty-one men of the 16th were lost at Gettysburg.  On the 4th of July he reported that the enemy went “skedaddling.”  On another occasion Donovan had to write home to the family of a Lowell soldier, Private Barry, who died in Donovan’s arms with his last words being, “Tell my mother I die a brave Union soldier.”    Newspapers reported that Donovan spent an extended period in the hospital after the Spotsylvania campaign.  He’s mustered out in 1864, before the war ended.

Upon his return to Lowell he attempted to reopen his house painting business and met with limited success.  He turned to a trade that had shown success for many of his fellow countrymen- liquor.  Just after the war he opened a restaurant and referred to himself as a “restorator,” using the vernacular of the day.  He also became involved in local Republican Party politics and started accepting small city appointments, such as surveyor of highways.    He became well-known at political conventions and became a “chief officer” for the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish republican group with hopes of freedom for Ireland.

If he wasn’t busy enough he maintained a position in the Sergeant Light Guards, a local militia group.  He was present at every muster and parade the group has and was named commander.  He took a prolonged trip back to Ireland, accompanied by a friend, the purpose being started as “business.”   What kind of business was not mentioned and the trip was extended to the point where the Light Guards was disbanded due to its “officer” not being present and uniforms and arms not being maintained.

But Donovan’s story does not end here.  While he was keeping this small place for serving meals on Merrimack Street, he also started serving and then selling liquor.  The liquor laws in Massachusetts vary over the years, but there were strict rules as to when and how much alcohol could be kept or sold.  Donovan was arrested at least 10 times between 1865 and 1873.  He was fined hundreds of dollars, which would be a great amount at the time, but he reopened and continued his sales.  He was even put in jail several times for days and even weeks, but still he persisted.  One wonders what his family would do during this period.  Interestingly his name appeared more than any other in the arrest records of constables seizing or fining him on the spot.  He was not alone, and a few other names were mentioned again and again.  Just before his death an investigation was put together questioning why the same names appear and asked if all the money that was given as a fine was returned to the city.  This does not stop Donovan and he was once again fined and imprisoned.  As soon as he was released he was marching in the GAR parade, toasting at the St. Patrick’s Day banquet, and most amazingly, the city continued to grant him his yearly liquor license.

In December of 1873, while speaking to a friend, he offhandedly said he felt he would die quickly, and he did.  At age 47 he was found dead in his bed.  Cause- heart disease.  He was carried to his grave by his fellow GAR members, the Knights of St Patrick, and the Lowell Coronet Band, whom he sponsored.  His marker bears the kepi and insignia of the 16th Mass. with the epitaph, “Life’s battle is o’er.”