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. 

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Long Time Gone

I always figured I was cool  because my grandfather was born in the early 1870s and how many people get to say that?  His father died when he was 12, his mother soon after. Just before then he wrote in his diary about how hard it was to bring his pal the cow to be butchered and how, when the Great Blizzard of ’88 came, the snow piled up past the second-story windows. Later he was lucky enough to get to college and law school, he the child of a woman who couldn’t read or write English – Gaelic was her tongue. This picture shows how he looked when he fell in love with my grandmother Carrie, poor dead girl, in the cemetery these 100 years. He’s the one on the right,with his hands on her doomed and mortal head.

I’m haunted by his story I think because I knew him. I lived in his house. He called me Blackberry Top for the shiny dark riot of my curls. He was a great believer in reaching across racial and ethnic barriers. The Boston Irish called him a turncoat because he opposed the Curley machine and sided with the Protestants when it came to good government. He was a judge and the Chairman of the Boston School Committee and a lot of other things too, but in his mind the best thing he ever did was get the teachers the pay raise they so deserved.

A handsomer man there never was when young but even as when he was old with white hair he was lovely.

I didn’t have a father for five minutes of my young life but still I was happy, because I had him.

His birthday was yesterday and I thought of him all day.