Old Things

glass liquor bottle 1890sI love old things. One of them you see here, a bottle from the 1890s or before, meant as I am guessing, for spirits of some kind. You can’t really tell with the label mostly effaced.

I came upon this and the item below while going through a nasty drawer full of junk under our kitchen’s utility sink. It was in the 1980s that these two items first came to our notice from their sleeping-place deep down in the earth . It happened when we excavated a portion of the yard to expand our antiquated kitchen.

I don’t know what the builder was thinking when he laid out the original room when the house was new in the 1890s. Even by that era’s standards, it seems a truly terrible space to for the preparation of food. I say this because in all the 90 years before we came, this kitchen had remained the same. Sure, the stove had been swapped out and the old stove still reposes, a slumbering whale in our basement. The refrigerators got swapped out too, from the original icebox to electrified coolers, like the 1920s-era version that also slumbers below stairs.

But the basic layout?  Unchanged in all that time by which I mean to say that when we got here, there were no cupboards above sink or stove or fridge. If you wanted a cupboard you had to walk in to the next room, a room grandly called, in those days, ‘the butler’s pantry’. I called it that myself  – I had grown up in a house with room we called the l pantry – until I realized my small children thought I was talking about a pantry without a butt. (It must have been my Boston accent.)

Additionally, there were no surfaces on which to set things in this kitchen we inherited in the 1980s. Not a countertop in the place. If you wanted a surface, you had to walk into another room called the larder, where there were wooden shelves, wooden drawers and a lone square of marble for rolling your pie dough on. If as the cook, you needed to pare the potatoes you stood at the sink. When you needed to whip the potatoes, you sat at the wooden table in the room’s center and worked with the bowl in your lap.

And when our family of four sat at that table, still situated in the room’s center, we were all squeezed in so tight that someone had to vacate his seat and push in his chair in order to open the fridge for a forgotten item, and another person had to do the same so someone could check the oven to see if the brownies were done.

We couldn’t wait for that renovation. It brought us not only a larger more airy space in which to prepare and serve meals to friends and family, but it also delivered to us this last old item: a railroad spike from… who knows when, as Its irregular shape argues for a vintage older still than the 1890s. Today I am thinking hmmmm: the old Massachusetts town of Concord lies only a few hills and laps distant from here.  Maybe this is the kind of spike driven in to the earth when they first laid that Boston-to-Fitchburg run in the 1840s, and the iron monster  so shattered young Henry Thoreaus’s peace of mind over there in his cabin on the banks of Walden Pond. Anyway, here is ‘our’ spike, seen against one of my cookbooks for scale.


The past is all around us, no doubt about that! Now if I could just talk to Thoreau, or Emerson, or Walt Whitman, or my girl Emily D. over the road there in Amherst. Where do they go, the dead, the silent dead?

Snowday Epiphanies

baby bathIt takes a lot to slow us Americans down, no matter what the weather does. We stand at bus stops, profiles to the wind like those big-domed heads on Easter Island. We churn along snowy roads. We crane our necks in subway stations watching for the light on that first train car to lumber into view.  But if the governor says, “stay home,” we stay home. Anyway, the schools are closed and even the officious bureaucrats have to acknowledge that they too are ‘non-essential personnel’.

And so there we all are on these snowdays, walled up in our houses for the duration.

And it’s hard, at first, to stop spinning our wheels.  We go out and shovel, or try to anyway. We probe holes in the snow for the dryer vent. We probe holes for the car’s exhaust pipe, in the event that we’re ever be able to drive again, which prospect looks pretty doubtful with everything we own getting swaddled in filaments of white like flies by giant spiders. Then, trekking back indoors, we begin on the small household jobs we always forget we have waiting for us.

In the snowdays just past, I catalogued old photos, sliding them into albums I had bought for the purpose nearly a decade ago. 

  • I sorted through many perfectly fine articles of clothing I somehow never wear, and bagged them up to give to Goodwill.

  • I went through my mother’s old collection of recipes clipped from the newspapers of the 50s, 60s and 70s and smiled at the easy, guilt-free way people cooked before food preparation became a competitive sport. ( “For Hearty Fisherman’s Stew,” one recipe begins,  “take a can each of Campbell’s Cream of Celery Soup, Campbell’s Lobster Bisque and Campbell’s Clam Chowder adding to these three canfuls of cream…”)

  • I climbed to the attic and knelt by that old cabinet that holds all my mother’s diaries and read every single entry she made in the last three months of a life none of us knew was about to go to black as abruptly as that famous final episode of The Sopranos.

 But ‘Enough of this clerk work!’  I finally told myself. ‘Enough with this peering and the sorting!’

I drew a bath and sat in the hot soapy water for a full 40 minutes, considering things – and realized, as I studied my feet, that they look exactly as they looked when I sat in the tub at age three while my mother worked a busy washcloth between my toes.

That made me smile and I felt my own inner clockworks slow down at last. I stopped obsessing about how we would ever dig out; stopped fretting over how I would meet my obligations and get to the places I needed to get to in the days ahead.

Then, with the bath drained and me once again dressed, I went into the kitchen and began rummaging among the canned goods – to find there slumbering after all these years, the making of a ‘stew’ of my own, from those trusty soups in the red-and-white cans. 

I had Cream of Tomato, I had Cream of Mushroom and I had Cream of Chicken. It was 1960 again.  And it began to look to me as though  old William Faulkner hit the nail on the head when he said, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”  What at though, eh? Now WHERE did I put mom’s old frilly apron again?



Memory Distorts: The Winter of ’64

Memory sure distorts. I could have sworn the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show the same night I had that party where nearly 60 kids showed up and, as my diary, tells me, “ground chips into the rug, dumped sandwiches on chairs, tore books, spilled Cokes, flicked ashes, broke the television (Freddy fixed it), broke the glass punch ladle etc.” Maybe you can make out the writing for yourself down below here.

I also had the memory that, as the Beatles sang and the party roared on, some of the more poorly behaved boys, the ones who arrived smoking, were seen holding a bottle of Clorox. I know that the next morning I found out my little pet alligator dead, his ivory tummy thrown to the sky  in the shallow water of his enamel tub which smelled suspiciously like a swimming pool. (The party was held in our basement where the washer and dryer were, as well as the clothesline, which we took down for the night. (Clotheslines! Remember clotheslines?))

It’s true all this happened but it wasn’t the Beatles-on-Ed Sullivan night at all. The party was on January 4, 1964 whereas the big night on NBC was February 9 of that year as we were all told again and again yesterday.

How I blush to see what I revealed of myself in that diary: the way I was ‘auditioning’ one boyfriend and easing out another at age 14. The way I so callously described my mother’s poor bloody hand when she climbed up over the counter where we folded the clothes, hoisted the sash of the window she was bent on polishing for this silly party with one hand and then – too late – saw that same sash slam down onto her other hand. I only say that it ‘bled disgustingly’ but  even at the time I remember my heart swelling with love and gratitude to her for trying to make things nice for me and help me work my way in to the big new school.

Here’s my favorite picture of the pre-Ringo Beatles, just as they were just starting out – and here at the top, obviously, is that diary entry too. Long time passing since those days all right!

george john paul at 16


Why I Love Boardwalk

boardwalk nucky & margaretSpeaking of TV shows as we were the other day, the show I find I like best is Boardwalk Empire.

Not, I suspect, for the usual reasons. 

I don’t like it because I find Gillian a fascinating character.

Though I do.

jillian darmody gretchen moll

She ran a house of prostitution but really did seem to insist in maintaining an atmosphere of courtliness there. Think how appalled she was when Lucky Luciano’s men were seen to be taking their pleasure right there in the drawing room.

I also don’t like it because of Steve Buscemi  with his wildly protruding eyeteeth, though I’m a big fan of those teeth. Without them could he possibly have risen in the world of film? Back in 1990’s in The Usual Suspects they made him seem only laughable. Then in The Sopranos when his character Tony Blundetto was getting out of prison and trying to start his life over as a massage therapist they seemed strangely sweet. Now as the corrupt, icy-eyed puppetmaster Enoch Thompson the teeth make him seem above all petty concerns like vanity. Nucky has his eye on the prize; with his wife and child long dead, nothing else even appears on his radar.  

The truth is, I like the show for its interiors.

nucky in his study

I practically faint with nostalgia at the sight of those living rooms. The wallpapers alone! The davenports and easy chairs! Even the draperies, as they are properly called. (My mom would narrow her eyes with contempt if anyone in our house dared call them ‘drapes’.) 

I love the rooms in Boardwalk because they look just like the rooms I grew up in.  

My grandfather purchased our family home for his new wife Grace, three long years after the sudden death of his bride Carrie  who was Grace’s loving sister. Carrie had wide cheekbones and electric blue eyes and she died at 31 carrying the couple’s fifth child. This new bride Grace was older when she came to marry my grandfather. She was 30 and a dedicated schoolteacher. She didn’t want to leave her students – she said so in many a letter to this man who was courting her but in 1913 no teacher could stay in the classroom once she had married.

This is my grandfather Michael Sullivan:


He bought this house for that former schoolteacher and his four little children, who were 4 and 5,and 6 and 8.

Then two years later they had a child of their own

grace maloney w her new baby 1915

….and with five little ones together and a house with such a nice front porch life was good. I know because I have read all the diaries.

Then, tragically,  this happy wife Grace died just after turning 40,

And the house? The house fell under a spell.

Thirty-five year later, when I came to live there, with our grandfather an old man by then, and his two ancient sisters-in-law still there and now my big sister Nan and our mom, the place looked exactly the same as it did around 1920, because, as I believe, no one had the heart to redecorate it.

And so in some crazy way, when I see the interiors on Boardwalk I think “I’m home!” I think that  my  gentle grandfather is reading one of his many histories of the Republic in his wing chair, and the two great-aunts are shuffling about, making jam and clucking over the news of the world. Our mom is working from home every day trying to prop up a failing business and Nan and I are happily lowering baskets of stuffed animals suspended by a string of tied-together scarves from the third floor banister clear down to the entry hall so many steps away.

This was the ‘best’ living room as we called it in the late 1950s. Maybe you can see what I mean.

the living room dorchester

Where is the past then? Where are those faces? Washed away now, like the footprints Atlantic City’s Nucky Thompson leaves in the sand just off his boardwalk.

And yet I have that circular mirror you see on the wall, and  Nan has that desk. I have that little round tip table and my girl Annie has those chairs I even have all the books in the bookcases even, and the very same pink paper on my walls. Everything, in short but those people and how I do miss them. How I do miss them today.

These Children

These children I talked about Monday: somebody said they look like they all wanted i-Pods instead of the toys they are holding. Funny!

I just wish I could find the actual photo of them because these two images here are from a charcoal based upon a tiny snapshot from 1910. Thus it is not a photograph of nameless children like you’d pluck from a bin and buy for a dollar at some antique store. These were unique and particular creatures, as we all are.

Take this dubious-looking one with the old telephone. Some 40 years after this picture was taken she caught that old train bound for Conception mere moments before the last egg dropped down her tubes to make her my mom. “The oldest mother in America,” she called herself, though she didn’t seem old to us kids.

Only kind of strong.

Only kind of kick-ass, in the nicest possible way.

Still, she couldn’t spank us to save her life. Only once did she start after us with a hairbrush to tan our hides. Then she saw herself, a woman 50 chasing a couple of primary school kids around a table. “You little hooligans!” she cried, then sat down and gave herself over to laughter.

That’s what she did all her life with her brothers and sisters: she laughed. They all laughed, all the time.

The boy on the left was the funniest one, though he wasn’t trying to be funny when he signed his letter to Santa that year “Your friend James, a fat six-year-old boy.” He was just offering Santa the description. I remember him making his siblings laugh until they cried when they were all in their 60s and he began recalling memories from the nineteen-teens. “It was one of those Saturdays when Pa took us all to that doctor in East Boston to have our nostrils cleaned out,” he was saying and how his siblings roared. We all did. (But did their father really do that? Possibly. Dramatic interventions of a health-restoring sort were huge at the start of the last century as far as I can tell from my reading. According to this dad’s diaries, every time anybody sneezed it was enemas all around.)

And this seated child, the one with the broad cheeks holding the train?

He was sweetness itself. When my mother started kindergarten in 1912, he could just imagine how scared she would be and so went clear to the edge of the Boy’s side of the schoolyard, himself a little first grader, and held her hand all through Recess.

He came and lived with my mother and aunt for a while when Alzheimer’s was just beginning to trip him up. He kept going to the hall closet to fetch his hat and start out the door. “Rob, where are you going?” his alarmed sisters would ask. “Down to the courthouse to argue a case of course,” he would reply mildly. He had been a lawyer earlier in life, when he was a dead ringer for To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch as played by Gregory Peck.

In the actual snapshot, which I promise I will look for, there were five children smiling in front of the tree. The artist son chose not to portray them, even though he did not know as he chose that they were the cousins; that they were not the people from whom he is himself descended.

I guess that’s enough to say for now. If I start on how their young mother had just died the previous summer I will surely go on too long. That’s the difference between the writer and the artist maybe. The writer can really empty the dictionary on an idea, and still bring you no closer to understanding it. With the artist though, it’s another way.


I was so sad yesterday. In the supermarket, on the road, my eyes kept filling with tears and why? Because I hurt my ankle at dawn in the darkened driveway trying to get Uncle Ed’s wheelchair into my car? Because when I went to get him for his bloodwork he said he felt ‘bereft’ during the whole six days I was gone, causing me to feel I let him down? Because that’s what we all do, let down the people we love who love us back even with our annoying habit of leaving the cabinet doors open as we cook?

Maybe I’m sad because HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” ended last night and I just loved it, the way they got so much right about the year 1920. I once taught a course on the Twenties in America, so I know something about the era. The main thing I know is what that First World War did to people, which you see so clearly in the character of Jimmy Darmody: he has quite simply lost his humanity. (His hideously disfigured friend and fellow-vet Richard Harrow has the same problem only his wounds show.)

How can people recover from such an experience? I heard a segment on This American Life about a child who had been in a Romanian orphanage until he was seven, literally tied in a crib with no stimulation, no human engagement… The couple who adopted him were at wit’s end by the time he was in adolescence; he was that violent. Then this adoptive mother underwent a special kind of therapy to bond her with her son the same way an infant bonds with its mother: by having the two gaze fixedly into one another’s eyes for hours at a time. It is an amazing and hopeful story.

Maybe I was just sad because of my own mother’s death and I shouldn’t really look on that loss as I did here yesterday. Maybe if I lie on my back now she and all my dear ones will come, the way Billy Collins says they do in this 30-second clip, pausing above us to watch til we sleep:

THE DEAD by Billy Collins

The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.