I included this poem in Tales of the Middlesex Canal, even though it took place a few miles away. My mother lived for several years in an apartment building for senior citizens outside Boston. One of residents that she introduced us to was “Jean,” who stood out because she was livelier than most of her neighbors. Also, she was a Cockney. I’ll say more after the poem.


Jean tells how she’d go to pubs and meet
American soldiers—she’d sing the latest songs—
“White Cliffs of Dover,” “Berkeley Square”—
teenager in London in the war years, time
of privation, of jokes in the bomb shelter.
She tells us in the fading light,
surrounded by wings of the building.

Every night, after feeding all her younger
brothers and sisters (mother dead, her father
an alcoholic), out she’d go—it was a wonderful time—
“Sing us another one, Jeannie!”—
as well as a terrible time—“The boy you danced with
could be dead the next week,”
she says.

We hear a siren beyond the garden wall—
a resident being rushed to the hospital.
An American married Jean, brought her
to Massachusetts; when he beat her, she had
to leave him. A nanny in Boston, raising
other women’s children—when the husband died,
her sons began to visit her.

Tears in her eyes as we speak—

the new director of the residents’ choir
won’t let Jean sing solos, so she’s quit the choir.
“My heart isn’t in it anymore. They all like
my songs—I know the words of all the old songs—
but she doesn’t want me to sing them.”

Sing for us, I ask, sing White Cliffs of Dover.
“Here?” she asks. “Here and now?” Please, I say,
and she sings—her light, clear soprano reminding us
of bright nights when life was waiting
for everyone young to bite huge chunks
and down them with beer
before the sirens wailed.



Vera Lynn singing “White Cliffs of Dover”:

Background: This is all true, including the mellow afternoon when we sat outside the apartment building and she sang for us. Later, when I saw the movie Hope and Glory, I was struck by how much Jean’s story resembled the teenager’s in the film. The characters even sing “White Cliffs of Dover.” I gave Jean a videotape copy of the film, but she never mentioned watching it. A few years later, she died after a slow physical decline.

We had scheduled a performance of Middlesex Canal for a week after the events of September 11, 2001. I asked the actors if they wanted to keep the engagement, and they all said they did. Jean’s story, with Adele Calcavecchio’s singing of “White Cliffs of Dover,” was the emotional high point of a moving experience.


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