March 2, 2015
He was the oldest of three boys, one of ten children brought up on Wrentham Street in Dorchester. My mother Mary was the oldest, born in 1907. Their parents were Irish immigrants who met in Waterbury, Connecticut and later moved to Boston where their father, Bert Ward, got a job as a bus driver for the MTA.
In those days the husband worked and brought home a paycheck but almost everything else was left to the wife. Child rearing was considered woman’s work. The oldest daughter was expected to help.
My mother looked after her sisters and brothers while she attended Dorchester High School and then worked for the telephone company. She married late (1937) but well; a handsome young doctor from Fields Corner, Ralph Dolan. She always looked after her brothers and sisters and many nieces and nephews, but her favorite was her brother Gordon.
He was a tough kid with a reputation that earned him the nickname “Gator.” During World War II, he joined the army and became a drill instructor, training recruits at Fort Lewis in Washington state. During a training exercise, a mine that was supposed to be a dud exploded, severely injuring his leg. After many months in the hospital, he was discharged and eventually received a disability pension.
Like many veterans after the war, he went to work for the Post Office. Like many Irishmen, Gordon took to drink. Unfortunately, with so much enthusiasm, he became an alcoholic and a brawler. Somehow my mother convinced him that she should manage his money for fear he would drink it away.
Occasionally he would show up at our house intoxicated, demanding money to take some of his pals, who were sometimes waiting outside in a cab, out for the night. When drunk, Gordon could be fierce, angrily demanding that she give him “his money.” She would calmly refuse and instead suggest he sit down and have something to eat.
He became increasingly angry and intimidating. Sitting at the kitchen table, I was alarmed, fearing he would lose control. But inevitably something unusual happened. He would give up and start to smile, knowing that he could never intimidate his big sister. She was as tough as he was and he knew it. She would than start to kid him, and before you knew it they were bantering with each other.
She would feed him and have him doing the dishes and he would be laughing. These encounters happened periodically as I was growing up. The love they had for each other simply overwhelmed the antagonism of the moment. No matter how drunk he was, his love and respect for the woman who had helped raise him prevailed.
Later in life, when his drinking was under control, he would marvel how she handled these confrontations. Her lion of a brother became a lamb, sheepishly drying dishes and joking with her. He never got his money but always had her love. Every time I visited your house, I wound up doing the dishes, he would later say with a smile.
The years passed and Gordon, who never married, had accumulated enough money to buy a home. His sister encouraged him to use the funds she was still holding to buy a place. She found a cottage on White Horse Beach in Plymouth, which he bought and winterized. He loved it and particularly enjoyed entertaining his numerous nieces and nephews at the beach. When he died, he left the place to them.
While raising her own family, my mother remained an important influence in the lives of her brothers and sisters and their children. She went out of her way to support and encourage them. She would have liked a job, but back then doctor’s wives, in particular, were not expected to work. Instead, she invested all her considerable intelligence and energy in her extended family. She was a strict disciplinarian but the one you would go to if you needed advice or help.
Being the oldest child in a large Irish family was a burden that she carried with grace and good humor. Even today, many of her nieces and nephews remark on how important she was in their lives. “Gator” would have understood.