Friday, March 27, 2015

An Acre memory: Easter

Easter on Walker St., 1960

There was a strict rule in my home on the corner of Broadway and Walker that you can’t have Easter without Lent.  It all started on Ash Wednesday when the Sisters would march us over to church to receive ashes on our foreheads.  We’d stand there comparing who had the biggest smudges like they were badges of honor.  It wasn’t uncommon to see most people in the neighborhood wearing ashes.  It was accepted that it was something we as a community did.  Not too long ago after wearing my ashes downtown, a teenage girl asked why I had something on my forehead.  Her mother shushed her out of embarrassment.  How times have changed. 

Before I continue I have to tell you that my mother was a strict observer.  As a matter of fact I found out many years later she often made up her own rules.  For example even though I was maybe 8 or 9 everyone in the house had to keep a strict fast for the 40 days.  This was not the church’s rule, but Ma’s rule which superseded any canon of the church.  Supper on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent were meatless.  That was no big deal we were used to that.  Lunch at school was always white American cheese with butter on Wonder bread.  That was it.  My friends would have peanut butter and jelly or tuna, but not in our house.  It was Lent!  There was a Sister on duty in the school cafeteria where we ate in silence.  If the smell of baloney (or is it bologna now?) wafted across the room, the Sister would make a bee line to the offender and remove the victual before mortal sin could be committed.  A soul was saved!

Suppers weren’t too different; maybe grilled cheese or tomato soup.  Because of my mother’s Canadian background we might have crepes with Vermont Maid maple syrup.   I don’t think there was ever a bottle of Aunt Jemima’s or Mrs. Butterworth’s in our home.  

Since we couldn’t eat anything between meals I came up with a plan on how to stretch supper out and fill my belly.  We’d have supper at 5 and then I’d run over to my friend Ricky’s house where they had supper at 5:30.  His Mom would invite me in and I’d sit at the table.  So for 40 days I ate 2 suppers almost every day.  Some Catholics used the fasting to shed some winter pounds.  Me?  I gained them.

My mother must not have been too good at math because according to her Saturday and Sunday did not count as Lenten fast days.  That meant a food free for all on weekends.  I recall one time I emptied out my piggy bank and bought one of those giant Hershey bars and ate the entire thing on one Saturday afternoon.  I was sure the belly ache I had was God’s vengeance for trying to outsmart Him.

When Passion Sunday would arrive every statue in church was covered in purple.  Palm Sunday was the Gospel that would never end, but it didn’t matter to us we’d be slapping each other with palm branches while it was going on.  Then on Good Friday there were the 3 hours of silence from noon to three.  I’ve heard others say they had to do the same, but I swear my mother invented it just to keep us quiet.
Without any exaggeration my earliest memory was of an Easter morning.  I couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 but the trauma has strayed with me.  I’m sitting on the living room floor and my sister grabs my Easter basket.  It haunts me to this day.  Now that I think about it, this could be the reason why I still hide candy around the house.

Because of fasting regulation we could not eat for 3 hours before Communion, which meant the Easter basket would be in my room when I awoke, but nothing could be eaten until after Mass.  (This might have been the last of the Lenten disciplines.)  Our basket was a straw one from Green’s 5 & 10.  It had this terrible grass on the bottom on which any candy that was unwrapped would stay permanently stuck and you’d end up ingesting cellophane grass.  (We often found pieces of grass days later in the cat’s litter box.  Don’t ask questions.)  The centerpiece was a giant coconut egg, which some years was consumed on the same day.  (Read: bellyache)    Of course there were those gross yellow Peeps, also stuck to the cellophane grass, some robin’s eggs, and to fill in the rest of the basket at least 5 pounds of jelly beans.  One year I found empty peeps cartons in the garbage before Easter.  I asked who was eating candy during Lent.  My mother swore it was not her, then she’d put on her kerchief to go to confession.

We did not go out for Easter dinner.  My mother would never spend good money on what she could cook at home.  The menu was always the same baked ham basted in Chelmsford ginger ale (seriously, try it!), carrots, cabbage, and mashed potatoes.  Dessert was a bunny cake.  Yes, a bunny cake.  Two round cakes cut into the shape of a bunny’s face.  It sort of looked demonic with its black jelly bean eyes, but it was tradition.  The rest of the afternoon was filled with watching Victor Mature in The Robe, Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah, and Victor Mature in Demetrius and the Gladiators.   

My mother always received a one pound box of chocolates from Mrs. Nelson’s Candy House.  She’d bite the end off each one.  What she didn’t like she’d hand to my father for him to finish off.  I’d sit on the rug and sort my 5 lbs of jelly beans watching TV as Nero set fire to Rome and Victor Mature would battle in the Coliseum. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

An Acre memory- St. Patrick's Day

Reunion Booklet, 1920
Saint Patrick’s Day is really one of my favorite holidays. Sure there’s the big three: Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter. Even Halloween and Valentine’s Day have their good points. But March 17th is something special. Once, when landing at Logan, a young business woman who was visiting Boston for the first time, randomly turned to me and asked what it was about St. Patrick’s Day and Americans. Some might say it’s the search for identity. Others might say it’s about the craic. Others might think of it as the Irish form of “Festivus for the rest of us” (a la Seinfeld). Today my family celebrates far differently than my parent’s time. My wife and I took a trip down memory lane and reminisced on how the day was celebrated when we were kids in the 1960s.

Growing up when and where I did in Lowell’s Acre almost made St Patrick’s Day a holy day of obligation. This wasn’t just a religious holy day, it was cultural as well. Much like Advent prepares us for Christmas or Lent for Easter, once the calendar turned to March, arrangements began. Certain foods had to be prepared, special songs were rehearsed and every item of green clothing had to be readied. At Saint Patrick School, the annual reunion show was planned weeks in advance. The show goes back to the late nineteenth century, if not earlier. Records show that the Parish would have entertainments of various sorts put on by the different societies, grade school children, and parishioners. The Parish Archives has copies of programs going back almost 100 years.
When I was attending St Patrick’s, about half the class had Irish surnames. Most of the students were half Irish and half something else, like myself. A few had no Irish in them, but still were required to sing, “Galway Bay.” A friend of mine, with whom I am still friends these many decades later, surprised me when I asked if he remembered the old songs. He confessed that he despised having to wear the green and to this day can’t stand the sound of “Oh the Days of the Kerry Dancing.” I still do not understand that.

The show was the big event of the season. The Sisters would walk the entire student body, about 400 kids, from the School to Market Street to Prescott to Merrimack and to the Auditorium. We walked 2 by 2 the full 2.4 miles. The show was always at 7 pm on March 16th. If one can imagine the entire Lowell Memorial Auditorium was completely sold out year after year. I’m not sure if it is even there today, but behind the maroon curtain and stage was seating for the entire school chorus dressed in white shirts with green ribbons for girls and ties for boys. The Sisters, wearing a single green ribbon pinned to their habit, stood guard to ensure no shenanigans would besmirch the good name of Saint Patrick School.

The show began the same each year with the pipes and drums of Clan McPherson Band from Lawrence. The drum major in his tall bearskin hat would lead the pipers in with his silver baton flashing in the spot light. The bass drummer wearing the leopard pelt would twirl his drum sticks. You could feel the vibrations of the drum beats, not only physically, but in your very soul. The pipers would all lift their pipes and march into the hall playing “Scotland the Brave.” For you purists, remember we’re all Celts.
School Children Prepare for Show, 1950s
Singers would sing songs from the auld sod like “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” or “It’s a Great Day for the Irish.” The audience would frequently chime right in with the singers, after all these were the songs we were raised on. Little did most of us know that many of those Bing Crosby favorites were not from the auld sod and were not even written by Irish-Americans. The genre at the turn of the century was an appeal for Irish type vaudeville music and every musician, no matter the background, penned Irish sounding tunes. Those became the standards heard in every Irish-American home. But the music did its job; it joined the crowd into one communal voice.

Part of the entertainment of the night was seeing the first and second graders do a little song and dance on the stage. What would really tear up Nana and the crowd was that the girls wore little shamrock print skirts with aprons and dust caps. The boys wore green, silk pantaloons with a cummerbund. We had to go on stage and act out Mick McGilligan’s Ball. I remember this well, because I still have my pantaloons. I stole them. But my clearest recollection is how silk pantaloons, that were homemade using a loose elastic band to hold them up, can very easily slide down as you dance around a stage. And, how funny it is to see a 6 year old holding up his silk, green pantaloons in front of hundreds and hundreds of people. Yes, I’m speaking from experience.

The high point of the evening were the Irish step dancers. Step dancing had been a tradition at St Pat’s School for decades. My mother-in-law attended St Pats and took lessons back in the 1920s. When my time came around, it was common for boys and girls to go to the school hall each Saturday with their ghillies (soft shoes) and brogues (hard shoes) and Jim Madden would put them through their routines. Jim was a task master, but his mother (from Ireland) was a bit more brutal. When my own kids took part in competitions, at their first feis (competition) who was there but Jim Madden, a bit older, but still with perfect posture. The crowd at the auditorium always listened to see if the girls made their clicks with their hard shoes. Their green dresses with simple gold braiding seem plain compared to today’s outfits. (One of my daughter’s dresses cost $1500 and had to be imported from Ireland.) At that time, dancers could wear their medals won at feisana (competitions) and to see the medals all lift and fall to the beat of the music was part of the thrill.
Brenda in Step Dance Costume on Suffolk Street
At the end of the evening the pastor would always walk out and declare the news every schoolchild had been waiting to hear- there would be no school the next day. That did not mean you could sleep in the next morning. Mass was at 9 am, not just Mass, but Solemn High Mass. The celebrant wore the gold cope with the embroidered image of Patrick on the back. The opening song was “Hail Glorious Apostle Selected by God” and the closing would be “Hail Glorious St Patrick, Dear Saint of Our Isle.” Every seat in the church was filled. It was like Christmas when folks you hadn’t seen all year would show up. They were coming home.

And then there was the feast, or so some say. Personally I can’t stand corned beef. I want to be very careful here when we talk about corned beef. Every Irish American talks about the sainted grandmother’s recipe for corned beef and cabbage she carried off the boat from Ireland. The debate about this can cause whole families to stop speaking to each other. Corned beef is not the most traditional of dishes in Ireland. At the time of our ancestors beef was pretty expensive. When they came to America beef was more accessible and corned beef fit right into their price range. So maybe Nana’s recipe isn’t so Irish. In my house, corned beef was served, but it was more likely to be a boiled ham shoulder with cabbage, turnips, and boiled potatoes. Hey the Irish have great humor, literature, music, and poetry. No one ever said they had haute cuisine. Then there’s the debate over soda bread. With caraway seeds or without? With raisins or currants? Let’s not forget the green beer too. To round off this Irish meal, my French mother would make cupcakes with green frosting, and then remind me that St Joseph Day was only 2 days away.