With Boston in the news these weeks, I’ve thought about my growing up in one of the small cities that surround it. This is about a trip some years ago. After a long time away, I was back in the neighborhood where those first 16 years were spent.
I. The Neighborhood
The hills around Boston are drumlins that the glaciers scraped
from the Earth surface’s dirt and rocks.
I wouldn’t drive so many hours to come here,
but the hospital, in the old neighborhood, on its hill,
is where they brought my mother when she fell.
As a child I saw the hospital positioned above
the petty hates and insults in these houses
and on the house-crammed streets.
Odd progress: the houses look charming now,
the narrow streets are quaint.
In nightmares I’m sometimes on the hill—
brakes not holding, car skidding down;
I’m in the driver’s seat as the car slides backwards.
In those years I never noticed the views:
Boston’s buildings, the ocean, miles of rooftops.
II. Hospital Room
Two hours after surgery, my mother moans;
the prognosis is good, her discomfort,
they say, a sign of improvement.
Her roommate: a 90-year-old
whose problems include dementia.
My mother tells my aunt:
“It’s Murray the Iceman’s daughter,”
and my aunt says, “Oh,” in recognition.
You’d think the woman has spent her life
with no other name.
Murray the Iceman’s daughter,
confused old woman now,
waits to be moved to a nursing home.
When she and her husband bought my parents’ house,
we were able to move away.
III. Old Country
I won’t trust memory, but dimly an iceman climbs
the stairs, block of ice dripping in his tongs,
his horse waiting at the wagon. In hot weather
we’d steal chips to suck on, till our mothers stopped us,
fearing polio could be caused by the ice.
Murray the Iceman and the others filled this neighborhood
in numbers enough to sustain the culture
they lugged from Europe. They spoke their language,
spoke of the Old Country they’d never go back to,
the Old Country of scant toleration.
This neighborhood has become my Old Country.
But its culture is gone, lost in suburban diaspora,
the languages now from Asia and the Islands.
Yuppies are moving in; the wooden three-deckers
are for sale as condos.
This isn’t coming home. It’s my obligation to visit
what used to be the place I lived.
To my relief I see no one I remember
and no one recognizes me.
Murray the Iceman’s daughter is worse
than unacknowledged. All have failed her:
the neighborhood; the house she bought with her husband,
a refugee from the horrors of Europe, dead now;
the child she took on for her husband’s sake,
who herself has aged to need care.
V. The House
Our family filled a collection of flats:
two small apartments, one for my youngest aunt
and my grandmother who died there;
oxygen tanks stood next to her bed.
A cousin my age lived on the other side.
We had the flat upstairs, shelter from the streets
where everything lay in wait to assault me.
My sister revealed to me the other Boston,
civilized districts of music, museums, and theaters,
far from here by bus and elevated train.
My sister did the responsible things for our mother,
but she died last winter. My brother, nearby, takes no interest.
It’s left to me, for all my reluctance.
The stepdaughter of Murray the Iceman’s daughter
is old herself, too unstable to care for herself.
My aunt heard that Lola, the woman in charge
of the old woman’s finances, is listed in her will.
The iceman’s daughter rants: “They talk about me,
they say I see things, they say Lola tells me what to do.
They say I signed over my house. What could I do?
“I have no choice. Who’ll sign for me?”
So many lives in all the little houses,
on all the crowded, narrow streets.
Irrelevant, unloved, who will we pay
to blot our tears and sweat?
Journeys end in lodgings bulldozed from cemetery dirt.
I’ve stopped hating these streets, stopped hating
the dwellers in the narrow houses.
With a home of my own and reasons to love, not curse,
I acknowledge what we have in common—
furies of passion, the sweetness of mothers and children
in quiet playgrounds, the pleasure of soft quilts
on a cold night in winter.
I’m free to descend this hill now
and drive to my mountain cottage,
far from my mother, able now
to leave her bed for a chair;
from Murray the Iceman’s daughter;
from the houses tumbling down
these hillside streets.