How Can I Not Show This?

I am named for a certain person and this is her wedding gown, which she wore for four short hours in 1903 when she married the lad she had met in college and a fine-looking lad he was as you can see up close by clicking on his photo below. Who knew he would one day become a judge and the Chairman of the Boston School Committee and take on that scalawag mayor of Boston, James Michael Curley? He was but a lad then, the first in his family to get past 8th grade and she the third child of the weaving supervisor at the mill. They were born in the 1870s to people with fresh memories of the Crossing. 


Anyway, yesterday I took out this dress again and noted again how she had sweated into its bodice, this girl who died so young that her children for all their trying could not bring back her face much less the sound of her voice, being only one, two, four and six at the time.

 

My mother was the two-year-old. Reports are that the one-year-old cried inconsolably for weeks calling “Mama, Mama!”

75 years later, when the then-six-year-old lay dying as an old man in a hospital bed, I brought in to him his mother’s silver mirror-and-brush set and he said he could then ‘see’ her again; see her for the first time in his mind as she sat at her dressing table brushing her long, long hair.

I can’t see her because I never knew her; but the first time I saw the bodice of her wedding dress I pulled my T-shirt right off and tried it on. Then I knew about her tiny waist and small breasts. And when I pulled the long silk skirt from the yellowing tissue paper, I kicked off my jeans then and there and tried it on too. That’s how I found out how tall she was.

She was my height exactly and she haunts me, ah how she haunts me. Her death set off a sadness in my family that has ramified down through the decades. I feel so lucky that her young husband did not die but lived to be an old man and grandfather to many, modeling a kind of willed optimism that made of me the merry child I was, when things could so easily have gone in another direction.

A fatherless child, I lived in his house and under his care.  He called me ‘Blackberry Top’ for the tight dark curls emerging on my baby head.

We owe for so much in this life; how can we ever repay it, except through reverence and thanks?  

Some things fade: these flowers are starting to fade, and the dress comes apart in my hands. This silver creamer, meanwhile, seems to endure, as does this image of that Maloney daughter called Caroline Theresa who lived on the little rise of land just across from the mill. 

I Think They’re Still There

I feel such an urge to go back to that beach I visited last month. I keep thinking that this time the women will be wearing long full skirts that sweep the boardwalk and hats that make the Duchess of Cambridge’s lids look like so many Girl Scout beanies.

I spoke yesterday about the doomed couple who were my grandparents: they courted on Revere Beach and also just up the way in Winthrop.

I have pictures of them in these places. And the descriptions of the outings in their diaries, And the excited letters that passed back and forth as they planned these outings and the outings sure took some planning: both of them hailed from western Massachusetts where they met, but then he, Michael, came to Boston to become a lawyer while she, Carrie, stayed behind to take a job teaching in one of those famous one-room school houses of the era. (You should see the pictures of that raggedy band of thin-faced children, the millworkers’ offspring, first generation Irish-Americans just as Carrie and Michael were first generation Irish-Americans.)

Sometimes I feel as if I could build the whole village of Hinsdale, where Carrie grew up; as if I could draw pictures of her living room and then furnish it.

I can do this and I know this because of the writing they did. They left a record. People just did that back then. What a loss if we moderns, we citizens of the last 30 years, turn out to leave nothing behind but a screen that glows for a while and then goes dark as all screens must.

In comparison paper is such a stable medium. Study these images of a day by the water’s edge 100 years ago. Dont’ you suppose the people pictured are still there… somewhere? I will go again soon and look some more.