The Alden Graveyard

High on a hill above the Taunton River in the south section of Bridgewater, Massachusetts sits the tiny, 19th century Alden Graveyard. It also goes by the name of Great Woods Graveyard, which I suspect was a name given in later times, although the name pays homage to the tall, straight white pine trees that were harvested over time for use in the region’s boat-building industry. (The graveyard’s earliest identification on Plymouth County deed transfers had it simply as a “burial lot”.) The graveyard is surrounded by a low, lichen-textured, New England-style stone wall, the kind that was constructed with “two-handers” (boulders that required two hands to carry.) The graveyard had a single, u-shaped carriage drive that would deposit “attendees” at the door of the centrally located Alden tomb. 

The high perch where the graveyard sits is surrounded on three sides by rolling, terraced fields. We knew it as “Titicut Hill”, but there was also a brief and casual reference to another name — “Hill of Sorrow” — because a sachem’s daughter was murdered there, so Mom once claimed. I grew up next to the Alden Graveyard. The lot of land upon which our little home sat was owned in the early 1800’s by the Deacon Asael and his wife Sarah (Alden) Shaw. It was either Sarah’s two brothers — Solomon and Amasa — or, more likely, her father, Solomon, who — along with his son, Amasa — donated one acre of bordering land in the late 1700s for use as a “burying lot”. 

It pains me to admit how much time my siblings and I spent playing among the headstones and upon the central tomb (and — as a fitting punishment — knee-deep in poison ivy that naturally loved the stone walls). If you stood on top of the earth-covered tomb, which in appearance resembled a hobbit home, and faced southwest, you had a sweeping view of rolling, terraced fields.* Beyond the fields, you could see the silvery thread of the Taunton River. Ok, so I want to believe that, but it’s a lie that I had so thoroughly convinced myself of. Bob — and my four other brothers — assure me that you couldn’t see the Taunton.**  It suggests that the forest was working at its own regeneration, spreading outward from the banks to reclaim what it had lost in the prior centuries. 

It can be expected that colonial era graveyards — with their utter lack of adornment — don’t excite interest beyond the occasional visitor. Visitors who, like me, enjoy musing about the somber and strenuous lives of 18th and 19thcentury New Englanders. They’re quiet, reflective places. That is, unless you’re a young girl who allows herself to be talked into entering the tomb. I will never forget the day I foolishly stepped into that dark, dank, silent space. There had to have been an insanely attractive reward offered by one of my brothers. Most likely Chris. I do recall descending at least one or two of the granite steps. (That must have been one of the conditions for my reward.) The heavy metal door was pulled shut and I was alone in the tomb, or “alone” only in the sense that I was the sole breathing person in a room that also housed dead bodies. I pounded and screamed for hours. Once again, that part is untrue. I think I pounded and screamed for five seconds. . . which seemed an interminably long time.

When the fields on the far side of the graveyard were covered with snow, the whole Alden Square neighborhood took to toboggans and skis and saucers and Flexible Flyers for hours of outdoor sledding. Alternatively, and when we needed a more immediate rush, we’d dash over to the graveyard; from the tomb’s summit, we’d either roll our bodies down (doable at any time of year) or — when snow cover allowed — steer our sleds along a twisting path, avoiding (as best we could) the headstones, much as skiers do on alpine courses. Like, very short courses. . . maybe 15-meter. (For those readers who are at this moment cringing, I promise that, as an adult, I’m much more respectful. . . and not as idiotic where it concerns personal safety, but I doubt your thought process ventured so far as to reflect on the hazards to personal well-being.)

For me, it wasn’t all about play, however. I came to know the families who slept quietly there, and would read and re-read the inscriptions and epitaphs. The earliest known owners of our home made that graveyard their final resting place. The Deacon Asael Shaw is truly “rest[ing] from his labors”, having lived to the surprising age of 92. And “resting place” really does have fulsome meaning, for 18th and 19th century folk believed that admission through the pearly gates could only be secured by presentation of a notarized form vouching for a life of hard work, sacrifice, misery, and really plain and uncomfortable “waring appearill”. (I love to insert that expression whenever possible.) 

My fascination with graveyards, as you can imagine, has been a natural outgrowth from having been next-door neighbor to the bones and spirits of colonial era yeomen and the like. I intend to continue cultivating my interest when opportunity permits — if you’ve ever driven with me, you’ll no doubt have seen my head pivot when I spot a tiny graveyard. I only occasionally, however, will respond to the tug to stop and walk around. Maybe it’s because of the residual sense of terror it inspires — what if someone were to shut me in another tomb? Or, maybe it’s because I am too fearful of the day that my own flesh will mingle with the dust. I don’t want to rush things.

~

*By the way, it didn’t pay to take in the north view from Titicut Hill. All those red-brick buildings with bars covering the windows were a disturbing reminder that ours was generally known to the rest of the town as the “prison neighborhood”.

** Bob, bless his little heart, allows me to save face by qualifying his statement; it was possible that one could see the flood waters that would occasionally breach the banks and travel as far the pigeon coops.

Attaching Value to Objects

On a shelf in my garage sit a clunky set of headphones and a 1980’s era Sony Walkman that no longer serve any purpose. I can’t bring myself to part with them, though. They belonged to my husband, and he wore them (for over three decades) every time he cut our acre of lawn. His Sony Walkman would be holstered on his belt, and each week of the cutting season, a different cassette would whirl reel to reel, pleasantly mixing with the muffled engine sound outside his head. When he exhausted the playlist options — it wouldn’t have taken long — the cycle would repeat. Long after cassette tapes fell from favor, George stuck to his habit. I look at his headphones and the memories mushroom up and fill me with nostalgia.


In my retirement, I begin most days with some type of inspirational or thought-provoking article. This morning I ended up on the Smithsonian Magazine website, as I often do when I want to explore topics that are historical or scientific in nature. In January I posted about NFT’s (“non-fungible tokens”), so it was natural that I would be interested in a bizarre stunt pulled by a self-styled philanthropist who has hitched his star to the potential profitability of NFT’s.

Martin Mobarak is the founder and CEO of Frida.nft who, in July, had high hopes of blazing new trails in the world of priceless art collection. . . in the virtual sense. Attired in a sequined blazer festooned on the back with the face of Frida, he made a showy display involving martini glass, blue rubbing alcohol, and lit match. He thus irrevocably “transformed” an authentic (and irreplaceable) drawing done by Frida Kahlo in the 1940’s, a sketch entitled “Fantasmones Siniestros”. Its estimated value is. . . was. . . ten million dollars. But was it real? And what if it wasn’t? While the extravagant spectacle received little attention at the time, Mobarak’s impulsivity has now landed him in a heap of trouble.

On the one hand, if the drawing was indeed authentic, Mobarak faces criminal charges. (According to a statement made by the Mexican government in September, “The deliberate destruction of an artistic monument constitutes a crime in terms of the federal law on archaeological, artistic and historical monuments and zones.”) If the drawing that was permanently “transformed” was a reproduction, he is in violation of copyright laws. Lastly, he may be guilty of deception and fraud. No bueno, in any scenario.

I’m straining not to react with pure disgust. Who in their right mind burns a Frida Kahlo work? It seemed important that I venture down the rabbit hole, in this case by mining the annals of Martin Mobarak, flashy businessman from Mexico, currently home-based in Miami. The quick and dirty synopsis looks like this: fisherman in the Bering Sea, prospector (silver mine), developer of an internet service in Alaska, food service provider as well as aviation services in Florida, a B&B in Mexico. One has to admire his enterprising nature and sheer pluck. And I do. . . admire that.

After I sifted through the layer of news about the current Mobarak-Kahlo controversy, I was able to temper my feelings about the permanent loss of priceless art. Built into the scheme is a charitable offshoot. Inasmuch as the endeavor was to enrich Mobarak (in his wildest, non fungible dreams), 30% of proceeds are — or were — intended to benefit charity. The causes about which he feels most passionate are rare childhood diseases and abuse of women. On the surface it would seem that careful and deliberate thought went into his charitable choices, more so than the hastily-planned “transformation” event, which was likened to “the ice bucket challenge, but with fire” (according to Gabrielle Pelicci, who helped him plan the risky stunt).

In the end, the Kahlo NFT’s have not been selling — the intent had been to fractionalize the ten million dollar iconic work into 10,000 NFT’s. That didn’t even come close to happening. Apparently, the “Fantasmones Siniestros” sketch is nothing more than a few unrecognizable flakes of ashy residue, reducing Mobarak’s speculative move to a tragedy, one that — but for his ego (and a sense of desperation) — was completely avoidable.

Perhaps my sense of alarm is so great because I haven’t bought into the idea that we now fully exist in a sphere where things of value can be digitally “memorialized”. When I recently digitalized several hundred family photos (including daguerrotypes, tintypes, cartes de visite, cabinet cards, and — additionally — all manner of photographs from the 20th century) and made them available for family to view on Flickr, it very much occurred to me that the digital images will ever fail to evoke the same emotion that the physical ones do. When I hold in my hand the ambrotype of my great-grandfather, I’m better able to imagine the moment in which the photo was taken. I imagine, even, the thought process behind my great-great-grandmother’s decision to have the picture taken in the first place. The high school portrait of my dad, still sitting in its frame, presents an opportunity to reflect on, not just his life, but his parents’ as well, even the society into which he was born. The portrait would have hung on one of the walls in their home on Warner Street, Medford (“on the Somerville line”), later in their home at Wolcott Park; it would have kept the wallpaper underneath it bright and light as all around it faded and became dingy. Of course I only knew my father as an adult, a parent, never as a seventeen year old. At seventeen he had yet to confront the real obstacles that life predictably serves up. And he had yet to be judged harshly — or, in fact, be coaxed himself to judge, for example, the sobering calculus that would result in 7.5 million American service men and women being sent overseas to safeguard democracy in the 1940s. Dad’s face is smooth and unlined; he looks serious, but innocence and vulnerability can be read in his dark eyes.

We have a habit of needing to attach a monetary value to all that we own. I can’t do that with some of my possessions. In many cases, to do so would miss the essential point. Value so often resides in the stories that objects hold and the historical moments they beseech us to preserve.

Is it unwise of me to think that NFT’s are a fad, that their popularity will eventually fade? Are we too deep into a world that is virtual that we’ve lost reverence for all things tangible? George may have defied the march of technological advancement, but even he was alert enough to know that his headphones and Sony Walkman had passed from being “cutting edge” to being quaint, outdated. And an 8″ x 10″ grayscale, monochromatic high school portrait in a simple 1930’s frame will only ever hold sentimental value. What, then, will NFT’s be replaced by? I wonder.

It would grieve me to think that any of us are okay with destroying an original, as Martin Mobarak did, in order to inflate the value of its representative equivalent. Moreover, let’s never lose sight of why we strive to preserve objects of value (such as a Sony Walkman or a family portrait), or — of greater consequence — why we place our treasured artifacts (important documents such as the Declaration of Independence, priceless works of art, etc) in museums. They trumpet our achievements and our trials — in short, our story. As authentic artifacts, they evoke curiosity and emotion, and sustain interest much more effectively than any cryptographic asset can possibly do.

Maybe that’s why Mobarak’s scheme failed.

Sources of Information:

Pantry Thief

I want to say I’m ten or eleven years old, but, no, it’s 1969 and I’m thirteen years old. I should know better, but I give in to temptation nevertheless. I’ve hopped onto our washing machine, careful not to let my bare toes “clunk” into its frontside. Crouching-standing on top of the washing machine, I reach with my right hand to push aside the line of forward-facing common dwellers, solid-feeling containers of flour and neglected items long past their ”use by” date. They stand sentry on the top shelf, alert now, positioned to conceal the treasure sitting somewhere behind. Unseeing, my expectant fingers caper across one or two unfamiliar shapes before encountering the familiar smooth surface — my brain’s pleasure center lights up. With both hands now cradling my prize, I sit back down on the washing machine and quietly lift the cover on the bakery box. I’m smug in the knowledge that I have found it before anyone else. I’m sure others have already searched. 

Aunt Ginny’s wedding was yesterday, thus bringing to conclusion a well-seasoned (decades-long) engagement. Jimmy’s a sweetheart, and we don’t mind adding “Uncle” to his name. My three older brothers and I stood stiff and awkward in our “best attire”, clothing that hung on us as uncomfortably as hair shirts. It wasn’t just the clothing — we don’t do formal very well. Give us rolling fields, ponds to swim in or skate on, sunshine, and fresh air. Especially, give Kevin hard-packed lanes across those fields so he can race a car — better still, if pursued by patrol cars supplied by the nearby prison. Let us brawl. But dressy and solemn are not our jam. 

We spectated in silence through the church ceremony, standing when others stood, kneeling, too, genuflecting just a beat late, yet casual enough to suggest we do it all the time. I cried in the church. I was thinking about my younger (and only) sister, Margaret, who should have been there — she had a new dress, too, but she was in a hospital (trying to remember who she was and who she belonged to, after a really bad car accident). We maintained our silent observation throughout the reception, bewildered by the tender father-daughter dance. Our grandfather, whom we all call “Gama” (rhymeswithllama), is still in deep grief, adrift alone. His Anastasia, our Nana, died last year. 

We all noticed the white bakery box that came home with us. No discussion. We are all in silent competition. Bakery boxes never come into our house. With no thought to dignify the act with fork or plate, I dip my fingers into the delicious cake. Inches of creamy and smooth white frosting give way to moist cake. My fingers — rapacious little grubbers — clutch mounds of cake and frosting. I shove the sweet, spongy confection in my mouth in helpless desperation. It’s as good as I had hoped. And well worth any punishment by Dad — or expressions of disappointment by Mom — when I’m found out. Wary of being discovered, I replace the cover and return the bakery box to the high shelf, arranging for its concealment once more. I will see you later, I promise, as I leap to the pantry floor.

Grandparents

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” (May 3, 1959)

“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. 

Family Research — The Stories That Really Matter

It’s a simple truth that anyone doing serious family research will — at some point — hit a brick wall. The more obdurate that wall, the more determined we are to surmount it. Given the ease with which we can obtain contemporary information about people, it vexes us that with a little earnest effort we can’t find out all we’d like to know about our ancestors. Since we Morrisseys descend nearly entirely from Irish forbears who left the Isle in the period extending from the Famine (latter half of the 1840’s) up through the 1880’s, with few exceptions our ability to confirm lineage beyond the ancestors who immigrated is hampered by several factors, such as:

  • Vague references by those who settled here as to their home of origin. In most cases, we have the county name only (if that).
  • Inconsistency in the self-reporting as to year of birth, especially on census records and death records, but also marriage records. Rather than assume that the variance was born of suspicion and distrust, the inconsistencies are most likely attributable to their own uncertainty about their birth — bear in mind that in the 19th century and earlier, knowing precise dates was unimportant (unless you were Irish and neglected to register a birth within a required time period, in which case you would simply alter the authentic date to comply with the law.) Family bibles have been perhaps the most reliable records of births (or more importantly, baptisms). . . if the researcher has access to them.
  • Early census records (19th century) for Ireland were destroyed in the fire of 1922 at the Public Records Office. As a “census substitute”, Griffith’s Valuations is the go-to, but despite its voluminous listings of tenancies, teased out by townland, barony, parish, and county; it has severe limitations. (A more thorough examination would be better suited in a separate essay.)
  • Civil registration for births, marriages, and deaths in Ireland did not begin until 1864. Wouldn’t you know that most of the ancestors for whom the trail runs cold is right before that year — it inevitably seems that the 1850’s is the period of time that we most need to examine? For Roman Catholics (as nearly all our ancestors seem to have been), having the name of the diocese (as well as a fair idea of year) is crucial if we want to do a work-around and establish dates and confirm family connections. (Even here, the records are incomplete, especially regarding burial information — fewer than half the parishes kept burial information prior to 1900.)

When we pause to consider the driving force behind our research, it seems we are most motivated by our curiosity about our own part in the ongoing narrative — why am I dreamer, for example? Do I get that from my dad? And, in turn, where did he get it from? Is Margaret’s (or Michaela’s) widow’s peak a genetic trait inherited from Gama’s family? Is Tom’s intensity something passed down from the Morrissey side of the family? (They were, it seemed, a very competitive and intense lot.) Surrounded as we are by blue or green-eyed siblings, Bobby and I have brown eyes — are they a Murphy characteristic? And, let us not overlook shortness — is that from the Gildeas or the Morrisseys? (The Murphys — at least the women — were on the tall side, but Annie Mulhern — Papa Joe’s mother — was purportedly a “very tiny lady”.) Following are some of the questions to which we are always seeking answers in our researching of ancestors:

  • What did they look like?
  • What types of personalities did they have?
  • Did they get along with each other? And with others?
  • Did they have any health issues?
  • What types of livelihood did they have? (And how much of that was by choice or through coercion?)
  • What was their academic life like? (Achievers? Underachievers? Smart? Lazy? The educator part of me would want, furthermore, to tease out multiple intelligences.)
  • What did they do in their spare time? What were they passionate about? (Sports, social or political causes, travel, The Church, etc.)
  • What should each one be remembered for? (I always am most moved by the ones who would otherwise be forgotten over time — the ones who strayed or disappeared. . . or were institutionalized, and the ones who never had their own children. Who can assure their legacies? Who will perpetuate their memory?)

Sentenced to The Chair

(This story first appeared in Scosche of Class some years ago, but has been expanded upon to include additional characters in my life.)

It may not be the very least favorite place in my world, but it comes pretty darn close. This morning was my scheduled six-month check-up/cleaning, and I was prepared for the usual tsk-tsking about the sad condition of my mouthful of teeth. If you walked down the street and asked every person who looked to be at least 65 years old to open his or her mouth, you’d quickly determine that about 50% lacked dental insurance in the critical early years, maybe even later years. Until I was 14 years old, I only ever went to the dentist when my mouth was exploding with pain caused by a cavity. . . likely from eating too many Snickers. By the time I made it to “The Chair”, the dentist’s course of treatment nearly always was: pull it!

I really and truly tried to make amends starting as a teenager, but it may have been a case of too little, too late. I’ve only once heard, “Your teeth look good.” I think the dentist must either have, just prior, dipped his ladle in the well of happy gas; or had momentarily suffered a mental lapse, thinking he was still talking with the patient he had treated just before me. 

The hygienist never seems to come over to my side, either, on the issue — why can’t I just have fewer teeth? In fact, why is it necessary for humans to be assigned a set of, what is it, 36? Isn’t there some redundancy in that? Instead, what I hear is, you need to floss more, use a mouth rinse regularly, and stop eating Snickers bars as an apres-lunch (apres with that little backwards accent mark above the e) snack. No, the hygienist did NOT say that about the Snickers bars; she doesn’t know about them.*

Deep breathing gets me through most sittings, but it doesn’t always work, especially when my jaw is being pressed so hard that oxygen — one of my closest friends — concludes that there is no discernible pathway to my lungs. Oxygen takes the high road, and I’m left with the choice of either passing out or most inarticulately communicating that, “ahhhng url reeeee!” I choose life.

Dr. Tim is the cheeriest dentist that I’ve ever met, and I’ve had plenty. He typically begins our “sessions” by investigating my newest handbag, showing real interest in my handmade products, but — invariably — pointing out that he can find lovely alternatives for his wife at Marshall’s for a fraction of the price I advertise on my shop’s website. It always goes this way, and he remains ever unconvinced when I point out that custom, one-of-a-kind products come at a cost. He smiles, asks me how my business is doing, and then gets down to his business. I once asked him how he managed to always be so happy. (His resting face always features a smile.) He responded, “It’s easy; you just surround yourself with positive people.”  “But, how’s that possible in your line of work?” I wanted to know, because he obviously had to deal with unpleasant patients on occasion. “I just refer them elsewhere; problem solved.” And he smiled. 

There is a most wonderful up-side to the dental chair. . . after the initial twenty minutes or so of jackhammering to remove plaque buildup. One can become — by focusing on the fish mobile in the corner of the room — very reflective. It begins by noting the fascinating differences between those vividly painted fish. Before you know it, you’re drafting thank you notes, deciding on a new color palette for your living room, heck, you’re adding on an additional 500 square feet to your current home (which doesn’t need it, but instead needs some deep cleaning and a Marie Kondo-esque tidying regimen).

As woeful is the state of my mouth — as evidenced by the vast number of porcelain-crowned occupants, I feel profoundly blessed that I can — because of insurance — visit the dentist every six months for a cleaning. I’m reminded of an occasion several years ago in which my mother — a woman of great ingenuity and audacity, but inadequate dental insurance — took it upon her own initiative to solve a dental dilemma (and thus avoid a trip to “The Chair”). I had just arrived with my young daughters at the home she shared with two of her siblings on Manomet Bluffs and, as soon as the excitement and frenzy over our arrival had subsided, I detected something “off” about her face. Looking more closely, it became clear that her smile — ever broad and confident — had an altered appearance. “Mom, what’s going on with your mouth?” She exchanged a quick, knowing glance with my Aunt Marie, co-conspirator in all their screwy schemes, and the two burst out laughing. Mom took a fresh gulp of air, swallowed, then explained. As she launched into her story, her voice dipped. . . conspiratorially — it always did that when she began a narration, “Funny thing. A few days ago I lost my front tooth when I bit into a toffee bar. . .,” (she had dentures) “. . . so Re and I decided we could re-implant it just as easily as the dentist does, with a little Super-Glue. I didn’t notice until it was too late that it was crooked.” She smiled broadly, Aunt Re giggled, and the two of them were then lost in fits of uncontrolled laughter. Seeing Mom’s two lines of generally compliant little soldiers standing rigidly shoulder-to-shoulder at attention (north and south in her flexed mouth) but with one of their ranks keeling over, I was instantly reminded of those old cemeteries where the headstones sit all akilter.  I had to look away.

In any event, and despite all the efforts to rinse and spit and wipe with crinkly bib, I leave the dentist’s office with a face reddened from exertion, and with that gritty feeling still in my mouth. I’m confident, however, that everyone I acknowledge with my exaggeratedly wide, teeth-baring smile will observe how white and beautiful my teeth are. And with all that time in the chair to reflect and sort things out, I cannot help but think: isn’t life grand?! So what if next month I have to return to have my cracked molar “assessed”? That white-knuckled ride is a whole month away.

*By the way, when a hygienist asks how often you floss, it’s pointless to lie — they already know the answer to that question.

Happy Birthday Messages

(In order to protect the privacy of family I’m using initials for siblings and spouses.)

The author wins with an early (tactile) greeting!

The COVID-inspired group texts began as an affectionate reaching-out among the siblings, a way to acknowledge each other’s birthdays, a way — too — to preserve the threads that bind us together. I don’t remember when it started or who started it (probably it was “PM”; no, surely it was her), but it was a simple happy birthday message and because it included the group of siblings and spouses, it served as a reminder to those of us who might otherwise forget the birthday. As with most things in this family, the thoughtful gesture kindled the competitive spirit that often defines our special relationship. The birthday greeting soon became sport, today’s version of sport. . . which is to say, competition that must also entertain. The back-and-forth volleys continue all day long and sometimes resemble stream of consciousness, entering and exiting topics to the point where the message’s focus and clarity are often temporarily lost. No rules guide the conversation, but it all concludes with an acknowledgement of who the winner is, not that that’s ever in doubt; quite simply, whoever expressed happy birthday first is the winner.

At our age, and as we grapple with all the COVID-generated challenges that carry uncertain implications, the simple gesture of wishing each other a happy birthday takes on added value. It brings a little bit of joy and humor to our day. (I wonder if the others have come to depend on this new ritual as much as I have. I’m retired — I have plenty of time not to forget their birthdays.)

Our family’s interactions — even via text messages — illuminate who we really are and the powerful yet concealed dynamics that shape our hierarchy. It might be obvious who among the thirteen siblings and spouses enjoys great respect by virtue of birth order (the oldest) or who gets teased the most (the youngest), but we rarely dive deep to try and understand, say, why one sibling — always willing to try something new — eagerly (and optimistically) cartwheels right into the middle of things, why another is content to stand apart and simply observe what’s going on, why another converts a thing said or done into a joke, and yet another offers words that always pull us close together when we’ve unwittingly drifted onto potentially dangerous emotional minefields. We fall quickly and easily into our typical roles.

For many of us, deprived of the freedom to move easily among people (haven’t we all become more deliberate in our social contact?), we’ve been compelled to fill the void by instead connecting with each other through words, and this seems like a positive byproduct of social distancing. And words are never just words; they carry overt, as well as subtle and implied meaning. I never have bought into that saying about sticks and stones — it’s just a hollow attempt to excuse meanness. The messages, emails, face-time, and even cards and letters, do much to reduce the space between us; they serve as timely signposts that we’re being thought of, that we’re part of something essential.

Now, for your entertainment, I offer you a sample of one of our birthday exchanges; it just happens to be the most recent one.

Key to actors:

  • KM = brother #1 (oldest)
  • TM = brother #2
  • MGM = wife of brother #2
  • CM = brother #3
  • PM = wife of brother #3
  • JTM = middle child of 7 (and author)
  • MD = sister (5th child)
  • TD = husband of sister
  • M-nmn-M = brother #4 (6th child)
  • JM = wife of brother #4
  • RM = brother #5 (7th child, youngest)
  • MM = wife of brother #5

(KM): Let there be no equivocation, JTM is the winner of the birthday greeting sweepstakes. (text is accompanied by photo of opened birthday card.)

(MD): That is cheating! No early entries. But really she is the winner!

(JTM): (laughs at “That is cheating!…winner”)

(KM): I consider a card the highest form of fraternal affection so JTM wins not only relative to the timing of the occasion but also in the form of said expression.

(CM): I’ve been planning next year.

(KM): Clearly a capitulation to the stylistic and expertly conducted campaign by JTM.

(CM): no, this was in my plans all along due to the extensive nature of the preparation as well as the significant capital deployment.

(TD): . . . in other words, no card, no gift?

(CM): and no text

(KM) By your words you have obviously conceded that you could not compete with the emotional commitment and outlay of a simple but meaningful gesture.

(CM): Dah.

(TD): (laughs at “and no text”)

(KM): I offer the old but sage expression, “It’s the thought that counts”

(KM): As I plan my celebration of my entry on this orb, I plan to arise with the sun, walk the beach in deep contemplation of all the gifts and talents I have experienced over the course of a lifetime devoted to the pursuit of communing with my fellow man.

(KM): I then will repair to my humble abode and prepare a sumptuous petite dejeuner of crepes and imported mixed fruit compote with which to share with my devoted wife of 28 years.

(CM): Somebody break KM’s phone.

(TD): (submits an animated GIF of his wife MD looking either bewildered or “out of it” or perhaps long-suffering. It’s hard to tell.)

(KM): Having so sustained myself I will head over to the local St. Vincent DePaul thrift store where I will offer my services for the poor and indigent. Thus having restored both body and soul I will return home for a luxurious nap.

(PM): (laughs at “somebody break KM’s phone.”) Then, (laughs at “having so sustained myself. . . nap”)

(TM): This has been so much fun. Can we do this again tomorrow? Oops, it is tomorrow. So, Happy Birthday, KM.

(JM): Happy Birthday Kev! Enjoy the crepes & compote.

(MM): HAPPY BIRTHDAY (with party/celebration icon)

(KM): Thanks to all, love you

(MD): Happy birthday!!! (with party/celebration and cake icons)

(MGM): I am the late bird. Happy happy birthday, KM!! (with several celebration icons) Hope it’s a great day and year!

(CM): HB, KM

(And where’s RM, people?!)

*************************************

Alas, my feelings of victory are hollow ones because (I must confess) the card arrived earlier than KM’s birthday only because I can never remember the precise date!

My Introduction to Dough

I set out recently to learn a new skill. I’ve never been able to work with dough, not the gratifying kind that earns interest. . . well, maybe that, too, but rather the sticky goop that insists on shrinking when you manhandle it with a rolling pin and yell at it to expand. As if in a cruel twist of irony, all the other necessary ingredients and supplies that you remove from your cabinets do very much appear to swell to eventually consume the entire expanse of your kitchen island, as well as all remaining open counter space. (I never concern myself with the rogue bits of cheese and diced vegetables that descend to the floor, as the dogs will work conscientiously to address that issue.)

My husband George was the pizza expert in our house, having acquired mastery in the years he worked (as a high school senior and then while a student at North Shore Community College) at Monty’s Restaurant in Lynn (of the “Monty’s Monty’s by the sea, buy two pizzas get one free” renown.) Over the years he perfected his own recipe, very similar to the thin-crust sort that Monty’s sold. We were all big fans of his style of pizza. Sadly, he never wrote down the recipe, nor did he share it orally with any of us.

This past Christmas Eve, my older daughter and I joined our McKenna relations in Beverly and had a relaxed dinner featuring pizza with crust that very much resembled George’s, nice and thin and crispy. I consider it close enough to say that it is. . . well, close enough, so I have an acceptable contender for the crust. I’m still working on what goes on top of that, as well as my skills in making it look round and even.

Not content to satisfactorily make just pizza, I got it in my head that I wanted to learn how to make English muffins. I blame it on Judy, because she came to one of our “girls’ breakfasts out” with bags of homemade english muffins for each of us. Darn it, but weren’t they the most delicious?! That was at least a year ago, and now that I’m working on my dough skills with serious purpose, I decided this past weekend to make some myself. “So easy”, “the simplest recipe”, “a snap”, “a cinch” — such lies those culinary bloggers boldly (and cheerily) posted. Maybe my first mistake was consulting people who spend their days in their own home test kitchens. It would have been more helpful to land on a blog in which the blogger admitted frankly that they don’t know what the f**** they’re doing in the kitchen. It would serve as a vital object lesson for all other amateurs (and by “amateur” I mean a total ignoramus).

If you saw the resultant state of my kitchen (both days, since you are advised to “proof” it overnight and do a second proof on day 2), you would be struck by how uncannily similar it appeared to the Ardennes Forest in the Battle of the Bulge. Every surface staggered under the weight and chaos of bowls, skillets, whisk, sheet pans, spatulas, flour, cornmeal, more flour, more cornmeal, small bowl for milk (that I failed to warm up), additional bowls (because “medium-size” is such a relative term), melted butter (because I was too aggressive with the microwave), specks of yeast (because those packets are impossible to open neatly), cooling rack, and all manner of measuring utensils. But not, significantly, a metric weight scale. I won’t go into the specifics and tease out where I first went wrong (and where I subsequently went wrong), but I will say that despite sensing at nearly every stage that I should scrap the mission, I persevered. . . nevertheless.

Lacking the highly desirable nooks and crannies, and denser than the expected “light and fluffy” quality, and not so much round as asymmetrical and somewhat oval and of varying sizes, they have — in the end — a mild and satisfying flavor. I’ll take it! If George were here, I think he’d applaud my efforts. He’d probably gush — as he poured syrup all over them — about how delicious my pancakes are, and I wouldn’t feel the least need to disabuse him!

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth*

I had every intention of letting the rejection just roll off my shoulders. But I thought about it again today, and I think I’m even angrier. So this is primarily a rant (which I promised I wouldn’t do in this new blog space. Gee, that didn’t take long.)

A couple days ago I reached out to the Schlesinger Library, a special collections library within the Harvard Library with what I considered a generous offer. I’d long known about their status as a research organization; in particular, they champion efforts to highlight the accomplishments of women. In their words, they stand apart as “the leading center for scholarship on the history of women in the United States.” I assumed that a copy of my mother’s World War II album would be a welcome addition to their holdings, useful to those doing scholarly work about women’s contributions at critical moments in our nation’s history. I personally do not gain by donating the book; in fact, I would incur the printing and shipping costs, but as someone who gives my time freely to a local historical society, I understand the value of firsthand accounts by people who played a part or were witness to pivotal events in history, whether those events were at the community level or much grander in scale.

Nagasaki after atomic bomb, August 1945

It may be that we all imbue treasured family artifacts with inflated value, but there are elements in my mother’s story that — through photos and notations — dramatically capture important subtleties, as well as complexities, in a war that likely will always hold our gravest lessons about the depravity of humankind. For example, my mother, in her military role as dietitian, was deployed to Namur, Belgium in February of 1945 (in a mission referred to by its acronym RAMP) to serve as part of the team that would intake and treat liberated and recovered Allied POW’s.** Incorporated also into the album are a few photos that were captured by one of the first photojournalists to arrive on the scene after the Americans dropped “Fat Man” on the city of Nagasaki, Japan August 9, 1945. The photojournalist who gave the pictures to my mother’s family was able to memorialize one of the most controversial actions of the war. To see these pictures — in stark and minute detail — simply leaves one without words.

In boldly bragging about “its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism,” the Schlesinger Library nevertheless is spurning a great opportunity to preserve a relevant first-person portrayal by a self-styled feminist. The final insult in the Library’s rejection letter, after offering the now-customary excuses about pandemic constraints and hurdles, is that if it had been a chronicling by someone who fit within their “strategic priorities”, for example, by a woman of color or a conservative woman, they would gladly accept it. They apparently don’t see the hypocrisy with their stated commitment to deepen their holdings by “women of all political philosophies” and to promote “a more complete story of human accomplishment.” As if it weren’t already fairly remarkable to be a female commissioned officer serving in France, Belgium, the Philippines, and Japan during World War II.

Unlike New England School of Law, which was thrilled recently to receive my aunt’s overstuffed scrapbook from her years at Portia Law (Cl. of 1939), the Schlesinger suffers by its hasty rejection. The word arrogant comes to mind. Perhaps I should be more sensitive to the organization’s efforts to level the playing field, whereby it gives more space to underrepresented groups. I would argue, however, that any primary source material that succeeds in deepening our understanding of complicated and consequential events in history would be inherently desirable.

It’s their loss.

And I’m sorry I even thought they were worthy.

For an account of “Hospitalization and Evacuation of Recovered Allied Military Personnel” (RAMP), click here to visit the WW2 US Medical Research Center.

*See how I found a way to connect with my earlier Greek mythology posts?

**There was an interesting distinction made inside the hospitals that were set up to treat our recovered POW’s. When the Allies opened up the concentration camps (or they were abandoned by the retreating Germans), some PW’s followed orders to remain in place until transported to the hospitals, while others responded to a primal urge to put distance between themselves and their misery. The first group’s members were designated “liberated” and were given priority over the second group of “displaced” PW’s, those who often just wandered staggering into the army hospital grounds.

Spectator Par Excellence

From the moment I could toddle without great risk of thumping my head on objects in my path, Mom’s unvarying instructions to my older brothers before they hurtled out the door for all manner of improvised adventure was always, “Watch your little sister, please.”

“Sure, Mom,” was their standard reply, never breaking stride and never glancing back, but assuming — accurately — that I would tail them wherever they went. Whether I have a right to be, I am reassured in my belief that they took that responsibility seriously, and would never let harm come to me. At least that’s what I say now. As a child, I was pretty skeptical that they were in full accord with the mantra of “leave no soldier behind”.

Gildea cousins at the First Pond (Papa Joe’s birthday, 9-Feb 1965)

Behind our grandparents’ farmhouse at 1777 South Street were three small ponds tucked into a wooded area.  They were imaginatively named “The First Pond”, “The Second Pond”, and “The Third Pond”. Rarely were they ideal for skating because the surface would be covered with leaves, twigs and branches, or snow. For early efforts at learning to ice skate, however, they should have been perfect. There were frozen streams, too, that connected the three ponds, allowing you to conveniently skate from one to the next. I was forever pursuing my older brothers, who, without warning, would all race off to the next pond. I think I cried a lot when they did that; without their reassuring nearness, scary woodland creatures could easily pick me off. As I watched their receding figures cut a swift and serpentine path away from me, I couldn’t help but contrast their elegance with my own on-ice conduct. Where their movements were fluid — there’s undeniable and exquisite beauty in skating (especially on those long stretches of straight-away where the arms and legs form a harmony of sweeps and arcs as one’s stride lengthens) —all I managed to do was walk around gingerly, tentatively, objecting to the foreignness of my figure skates. With crooked ankles nearly grazing the ice and arms akimbo, mine was a style that forced my body to either do splits every eight feet or so, or go horizontal to land flat on my back, whereupon I lay motionless and studied the undulating tips of the trees stroking the sky directly above me.  One can only hold that position for a few minutes before the cold forces you back on your feet.

Whenever the command “move!” was issued as I crossed into areas where frenzied hockey action was taking place, I responded with a fresh startle reflex much like an infant who has been presented with a sudden loud noise or a bright light, my feet shooting out from under me and my arms splaying. I was better at locating logs to sit on. . . and even better at experiencing hypothermia, giving me yet another reason to cry. I should add that I did have an indispensable role; whenever the puck sailed into the surrounding woods, I was sent to retrieve it.  It was an honor to be serving in such an essential role. Consequently, my skates were regularly being taken to the shop for sharpening. (I can’t even say that with a straight face.) I grew up not very fond of skating. . . until I met David, and Johnson’s Pond in Raynham provided a new venue for that dance that teenage boys and girls do in large unsupervised groups.  My feet were just as cold then, too, but I didn’t mind. At least I didn’t cry.

Watching a high school game (possibly 1972)

All my brothers were groomed from an early age to be ice hockey players, and I was groomed to be spectator par excellence. Mom and Dad imagined themselves, at least in the beginning, as devoted hockey parents. Mom, for her part, was always there when called upon to shout at the refs or rattle the cow bell when a goal was scored. Easy to spot in her red quilted “car coat” among the fans in the bleachers, she was a little woman with a big voice. She did not need the cow bell. My grandfather, whose world revolved around music, had only ever foreseen for his oldest daughter one application for all that training in voice, that careful development of the diaphragm, and it wasn’t to give full and honeyed expression to the soprano section of dedicated fans. It was to skewer the referee with comments like, “Hennessy, you’re a dink!”

In rinks all over the South Shore I watched my brothers on the ice, and I watched Mom watching them. As a teenager, I then expanded my spectating to include my younger brothers who began their training by pushing wooden boxes or kitchen chairs all over the ice. Organized youth hockey programs were just taking off in our region; their popularity quickly skyrocketed, propelling hordes of youngsters throughout my town to the area’s frozen bodies of water; there were several ponds and lakes — as one would expect in a town called Bridgewater — that provided great conditions for skating: Carver Pond, Skeeter Mill Pond, Sturtevant’s Corner, and the Ice Pond (aka State Farm Pond).  Unfortunately — but unsurprisingly — ice skating never struck me as especially fun; on those occasions when I did take to the ice myself, I would be the lone skater, trying over and over to perform a simple move such as stopping forward motion or resuming forward motion. . . artistically.  I never progressed, and as impressed as I was with Peggy Fleming, her moves just totally confounded me; how did she spin so fast and leap so high. . . all with such grace and beauty? I only knew it had something to do with physics. . . I think.

The 1960’s and 70’s were the sweet spot, I believe, for pick-up hockey games in which teams were naturally selected by blood ties.  The baby boom generation — lots of families with lots of kids — provided a ripe culture for casual team sports.  The Bruins’ success, too, in the early 70’s converted young spectators into NHL aspirants.  Although gear was optional, hockey gloves were one of the more prized pieces of equipment, given that rules of engagement were rather loose, and hands were constantly getting smashed.  It didn’t matter if they were mismatched, or had holes, or even fit properly; when two players squared off, as long as those gauntlets could be thrown down in a flash, they served their greatest purpose. On the other hand, a helmet, perhaps the most important appurtenance from a long-term health standpoint, was audaciously absent. Although randomly assembled teams were a perfectly suitable option, in many cases entire teams could be made up of a single family or a neighborhood combination of families.  Hence, there were rivalries that evolved rather organically; the Morrisseys and Maloneys, for example, nurtured a competitive relationship that regularly included family sponsored fighting.  Kevin, of course, in his typically zealous manner, nobly did his part for the Morrisseys.  As feared as he might have been by his foes, there was genuine admiration of his skill set, which extended even to ice surface management. Few kids, for example, would risk submerging their own vehicles in order to clear the ice of snow. As the shinny baton was later passed to younger brothers Marty and Bob, the family names changed; the Heslin brothers and the Blakelys brought greater finesse and skill to the pond hockey scene. At this point, kids could just generally boast a more expansive indoctrination. Organized hockey had truly arrived in Bridgewater.

Pick-up style hockey continued to enjoy popularity in subsequent decades, but, naturally, the game has experienced a metamorphosis. What we observe in the sport today is akin to a coming-of-age; rarely do we see genuine, improvised games on local ponds. It catches our eye when we do see a small clutch of kids with sticks in hand, movement back and forth between two makeshift goals on a suitably frozen pond. Even the length of the season has shortened; in earlier years it might have been possible, at least in coastal Massachusetts, to take to the ice in November; extended periods of cold are much rarer these days.  

Baby boomers never really left their passion behind, however. Pick-up games now more readily conjure ice rink settings, and schedules are firmly set, leaving one to wonder about the persistence of the name.  And if you live in cold winter states such as Minnesota or Colorado, outdoor pick-up tournaments, which draw thousands of participants and are often sponsored by big-name purveyors of beer, bring you that much closer to your unfulfilled dream of playing professionally. They’re highly organized programs, with perimeter boards and goalie nets that are the real deal, (one even boasts Zamboni service!), so prepare accordingly. Make sure you arrive with matching gloves, fashion forward attire and a mouthguard for your few remaining original teeth.  

As impressed as I am with the dedication and zeal displayed by players in the “well beyond their prime” age bracket, there is no other way to describe my own experiences on the ice than to say that they were fraught. My tenure as spectator — of the plein-air and local rink sort — provided more pleasurable memories, even if these days I now greatly prefer an experience that involves a large screen TV while sitting on a couch. . . with a cozy afghan. . .  and a beverage (cold or hot, it wouldn’t matter). My heart twists, though, whenever I inveigh against a controversial call by the ref; it’s as if I’ve been transported back to those state rinks throughout the South Shore, when several times in any given game my mom’s voice would boom across the ice, poetically goring an earnest ref whose only crime was wielding a whistle. Good memories, after all.

(This is a revision of a story that first appeared in my Scosche of Class Blog in March, 2019.)