Some might call it morbid, but I’ve always been fascinated by dead people. . . and nearly dead people, which is how I viewed my dad’s parents when I was growing up. In truth, they weren’t (much) older than my mom’s parents, but where there was liveliness and humor and tenderness on the one side — all obvious signs that Papa Joe and Nana May (my mom’s parents) were of this world, Nana Morrissey and her perpetually scowling partner Gama were stern, dull, and disapproving. I grew up believing that Nana May and Papa Joe were the kinds of grandparents that one could more easily love and want to be around, to nestle (maybe) in their laps, and that Nana M and Gama were unhappy people who were born old and whose only concern was that we children not touch any of the fragile furnishings (and they were ALL fragile) in their tiny, old-fashioned home that perched — cramped and awkward — on a rocky ledge uphill from the Mystic Valley Parkway in Medford. As a child, how freely one could run around and get dirty, maybe even break things (and each other) were immensely important activities, and our degree of freedom to do so defined how we adjudged the character of our four grandparents. It was unfair and shortsighted, but that’s how children are.
Recently I acquired (from that same tiny house on the rocky ledge) a cache of archival collections and loose photos that belonged to my ancient Aunt Ginny, my dad’s only sibling. She lived to 103 years old and displayed an enduring reverence for “the family record”, maybe a by-product of her long career as an attorney. Taken together, the photos tell a story that I never knew, one that upends (in a most meaningful way) my conclusions about my Medford grandparents.
“Circus Day” in May 1959 was one of those occasions for which there are several photos of Kevin, Tom, Chris, and me. We’re all spit-polish, scrubby-clean top to bottom, ready for Aunt Ginny to widen our country-dwelling horizons by treating us to The Greatest Show on Earth, an annual extravaganza held at Boston Garden. Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus was 88 years old in 1959. I was a little over three years old, the baby of the family. (For nearly five years I was able to enjoy that vaunted status until the second half of the family began to arrive.) In at least three of the snapshots, I’m leaning cozily into my Nana M and she’s got a protective (one might say “loving”) arm around me. To me, the gesture looks natural. As an adult with a lifetime of opportunity to reshape the narrative, could I really have had it all wrong? Were Nana M. and Gama just a typical couple of a certain age and time period, grandparents whose lives ran parallel to but distant from our other set?
And so I begin to remember things.
My favorite birthday cake is — and always has been — “Hershey’s Chocolate Town Special Cake” with “7-Minute (Boiled) Frosting”. Although I can’t remember how established it was as a tradition, Nana M. began making it for me for my birthday when I was very young. Each year when she presented it, I was dazzled by its exquisite, snow-white beauty and, of course, would be nearly insensible with joy as I shoveled it into my mouth. Whenever I make the same cake, I use Nana M’s magnificent creation as my benchmark, striving to achieve a rich, moist cake texture and swirly snowdrift frosting perfection that I recall her cakes having. And I can’t help but conclude that she made that cake. . . for me. . . with love and pride.
It seems that I never knew my Medford grandparents at all.