November 28, 2017
It’s hard to tell exactly why my memory drifts into overdrive at Christmastime, but I suspect that it’s due to a yearning for the emotional warmth that enveloped me and my family and all its extensions at the year-end holidays during World War II and the 15 years or so that followed.
My mother and father kicked off the baby parade in August 1941 when my brother Mark was born, and the march rolled on until the last of a troupe of 48 first cousins (two of whom died at young ages) crossed the finish line two decades later.
The back-and-forth from both sides of the family as births and birthdays crossed with holidays year after year defined the term hurly-burly. You never knew who might drop by at Christmastime, or where you might be going the day after Thanksgiving, but everything revolved around relatives.
With all that, one thing was clear: There was an undeniable affection for each other by the adults in our lives – my parents and my 17 aunts and uncles – that pervaded every paternal and maternal family gathering. It was edifying to see this up close and regularly, and for me, the deepest memory I retain is the bustle involved in leaving our house in Dorchester to visit Granny Mulvoy, my last surviving grandparent, in Somerville during Yuletide some 65 years ago.
Barbara Mulvoy, aka Granny, was a courageous and stout-hearted woman who, after being widowed in 1915 at age 37 when she was in early pregnancy with her fourth child, planned during the following years of murderous evolutionary strife in Ireland to emigrate from her village of Oughterard, Co. Galway, and make a new home in Massachusetts close to her sister, Mary Mulloy McAuley, and her husband Pete of Somerville, Massachusetts, who vouched for her welfare by putting their property on the line with the city.
And so she did, arriving in Boston in June 1921 with her 12-year-old son and two of his sisters, Celia and Catherine, in tow. Within ten years, Granny had purchased a two-family house, 69 and 71 Garrison Avenue, in Somerville just down from Teele Square and a few miles away from her sister’s home on Highland Avenue.
During those years and thereafter, she worked as a domestic helper for a wealthy Back Bay family, the Sigourneys, a position that required her to be in Nahant for the summers when they were.
My namesake father was for the most part reticent about his growing-up days in the old country and his immigrant experiences. From very early on, though, his total reverence for his mother was obvious, deep, and abiding.
There were the daily phone calls to our house from Somerville throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, and they came with a twist. A call from Somerville to Dorchester carried an extra charge in those days, while calls from Dorchester to Somerville didn’t. So Granny would call us and we would let the phone ring twice. If it stopped after the two rings, Dad would call his mother back.
There was, not surprisingly, given what she had done with her life, a touch of the martinet in my grandmother. She did not abide slackness over duty. During the times when my mother was in the hospital giving birth to my three younger siblings, Granny would come over to stay with us and keep the house in order, and we would try to stay out of her way. I remember her as someone who seemed to enjoy ironing. But we learned to move quickly when she told us to do something, and stifle any grumbles about the orders.
The stretch of road between Aunt Mary’s and Uncle Peter’s home and Granny’s was the gauntlet we children had to run those many years ago to get to Garrison Avenue and fun with our Leary and Ford cousins and their Christmas presents. I learned about our Irish heritage in the stops in between. Each passing year offered a little bit more, but rarely directly, as in, “This happened and then that happened.” It was history by inference as I listened to a large cadre of generation-before relatives – my parents and Bridey Ryan and Mary and Mike Beatty and Tom and Agnes Melia and a number of McAuleys, to name a few – talk things up as they trooped into and out of Aunt Mary’s house or dropped in on Bridey Ryan a block or so down the avenue.
The last stop was always Granny’s house, which, by the early ‘50s, she was sharing with her daughters Celia and Catherine, their husbands, Bill Leary and Billy Ford, and, as time went by, their 13 children. We felt comfortable and welcome there.
It could be rough and tumble if the weather allowed play outside, but inside it was all play, even with the food and the stretch of pancake-eating contests over the years when up to 15 kids would sit at and around the kitchen table as the uncles served up the flapjacks platter after platter and the children served up laughs, squeals, burps, and moans.
This scene, presided over by a grand lady who had not only survived a hard life but endured, is etched in my memory, another reminder of how rich I was in the right stuff when I was a boy.