I’ve never been able to say anything good about the city where I grew up.
If you look up Wikipedia’s list of Notable People from there, you won’t find anyone you ever heard of.
Next to the oil refinery and the chemical plant, there were huge bright yellow piles of sulfur in the open air.
That’s where the new casino development will be built.
One kind of pollution to another.
SUMMER, 1943 – My Legend Begins
Boston is surrounded by drumlins,
hills the Great Glacier forced from the Earth.
The grandfather I was named for
bought a house on one of these hills,
large enough for all to live and squabble in,
even beyond his death –
his widow, one daughter, three sons, their wives,
and their children, including me.
The War was meanwhile raging,
but the sons weren’t in it – one was insane,
and my father’s heart was bad
(he died of it years later).
As I was born that winter, during a blizzard,
my cousins in Europe were being killed.
The citizens around Boston,
responsive to European notions,
listened to Fathers Feeney and Coughlin
and one of them, one sunny naptime,
threw a rock through a window
of that big house on the hill.
It landed in my crib, but next to me.
And so I survived.
Someone guessing my occupation said: accountant.
Camouflage, and a low profile, are the rule for safety,
which is something I learned early in life.
In fact, as a young child,
I didn’t speak so I could be understood.
There was too much misunderstanding
and threat of violence if you spoke up.
One night I heard a radio crime play
in which people were planning to murder someone.
I decided my father was about to carry out
his constant threats to kill me.
(His accomplice would be my mother.)
I took a very large knife from the kitchen
and slept with it under my pillow.
I was 3 ½ years old.
NICHOLS STREET REPAVED
One day after the war, drivers
were warned to park somewhere else.
Trucks came with hot asphalt,
the most acrid smell I’d experienced
in my four summers. They pickaxed
and dug, filling the holes and cracks,
then spread a perfect black surface
sidewalk to sidewalk.
I thought the way of the world
was that everything got renovated:
grass was cut in the summer,
leaves were raked and burned each fall,
and all the rough places everywhere
would one day be made smooth.
ELOCUTION & REVENGE
As a young boy, I didn’t speak properly—I only said vowels. Without consonants, of course, it was hard for anyone except my family and regular playmates to figure out what I was saying. My parents were assured by doctors and a psychologist that I wasn’t deaf or retarded: I would grow out of it. When I started first grade, in fact, I began to speak intelligibly.
But something happened when I was four. My Uncle Martin, Aunt Beatrice, and their daughter, Judy, lived in the apartment downstairs from us. Uncle Martin was my father’s younger brother and business partner. He may have married humorless Beatrice—the only woman in the family who’d gone to college—because she came from a wealthy family in the next town. I remember her always cleaning her apartment and criticizing everyone.
Cousin Judy was just six months older than me, so we always played together—until one day I came upstairs crying and told my mother that Judy couldn’t play with me anymore. Mother investigated and Aunt Beatrice told her something astounding: Judy’s elocution teacher insisted she shouldn’t spend time with me because of my speech problem.
Elocution was one of those refinements, like tap-dancing and piano lessons, that parents forced on their little girls in those days. As I grew older and went around the neighborhood, I saw a sign in an apartment window that said: “Olivia Merlof, Elocution Lessons.” I never met Mrs. Merlof, but I was in school with her nephew Melvin Merlofsky. Melvin’s father hadn’t followed his brother’s lead in shortening the family name.
I knew Elocution meant some kind of fancy recitations and that it had spoiled a portion of my early years. Since Cousin Judy by then was a bossy, censorious child when I was required to spend time with her—which was permitted now that my speech was okay—I couldn’t understand why the loss of her companionship had ever bothered me.
Fast-forward 60 years. Aunt Beatrice and Uncle Martin had died years before. I’d seen Judy a few times. She was a pleasant woman with a successful career in a government bureaucracy, managing many people.
My mother had just died, and people were coming by to pay their respects. Two women came in whom I didn’t recognize. They said they were Mrs. Merlof and Mrs. Merlofsky, sisters-in-law from the old neighborhood.
“I was a dear friend of your Aunt Beatrice,” the one who was Mrs. Merlof said with careful, refined articulation.
“Oh, my God,” I said. “Did you used to teach elocution?”
“Yes, I did,” she said. “Ages ago.”
“And you told my Aunt Beatrice that my Cousin Judy shouldn’t play with me because of the way I talked?”
The 90-year-old ex-elocution teacher claimed not to remember the incident. I could see I’d made her very uncomfortable.
It’s possible that Aunt Beatrice made it all up, falsely ascribing the prohibition to Mrs. Merlof. Her motivation would have been antipathy to my family—or her fear of downward mobility if her daughter were infected by associating with a child who spoke like an imbecile.
Someone said the desire to avenge past wrongs can spoil one’s present life. Since I hadn’t thought much about the Elocution incident over the years, this simply felt good, especially on that somber occasion. Besides, Mrs. Merlof had to have noticed how nicely I spoke.
ME & THE MEDIA
An acquaintance was worried about being misrepresented in a local newspaper. I pointed out that sometimes we think our exposure in the media is greater than we either fear or, conversely, hope. Of course, the media can create great waves of knowledge and notoriety. But not always.
To illustrate, I mentioned something that happened when I was five years old. There was a local children’s program on a Boston radio station. If your parents applied for a ticket, you could sit in the audience during a broadcast. All I remember of the content of the program was that at one point we were forced to sing “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.”
My mother got me a ticket and we prepared to go downtown to the radio station. Since it was winter, I had to wear a sweater she had just made for me. She was an expert knitter, but she realized when she buttoned it up that she had put the buttons on the wrong side. That is, as my older brother was quick to point out, it was a girl’s sweater.
I didn’t refuse to wear it—refusals like that weren’t allowed in our family—so I had to wear the awful sweater under my coat.
At the radio station, my mother found the right studio and brought me inside. She took my coat and went outside to sit with the other mothers to watch the broadcast through a large window. I took a seat in the last row of the audience, to be sure few of the other children would see me.
I sat throughout the broadcast in misery. Even while singing “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.”
I was sure that all of Greater Boston—every person who knew me, of all ages—could tell I went to the radio show wearing a girl’s sweater.
MY GREAT-UNCLE’S HORSE
The best time of a deadly relatives’ Sunday
was to walk with him to the stable and watch him feed
the quiet animal, to give it sugar
from my own hand and jump back away
from the big, warm tongue,
to smell the hay and manure,
to see the white horse in the next stall
with tail and mane like yellow silk.
If my mother and I ran into him as he and the horse
were making their rounds, buying up the wonderful junk
they hauled in the wagon, he’d lift me to the seat
and let me hold the reins and yell “Giddy-up!”
In the spring of fourth grade, one afternoon of silent
division, we heard a clanking and looked outside.
My great-uncle! I could tell them all how I
had held those reins! But everyone laughed
at the hunched old man, the obsolete wagon and horse,
the silly, clattering junk. I did not tell them.
It wasn’t a drink for kids, no, I would drink root beer
or orange Nehi—orange tonic in the local dialect.
With you in the variety store, which was dark and cool when the summer
air was hot, and yellow from the factories, while you joked
with the owners and passersby, charming them with stories,
the cool drinks with sugar pacified my precocious
nervousness. Sometimes you gave me a sip of Moxie—
a relic, a tonic of strange herbs like tobacco or weeds,
making me burp and think I might throw up—proving
I couldn’t like the grown-up drink I begged to taste.
No one answers my questions, why you courted a child
and married her finally; why she married someone she never
respected, and kept you a child; why your talents, as you worked
for the father you hated, turned to schemes that no one trusted;
why you swallowed the hatred spat at you?
Who would confess changing you, handsome young man
at the drugstore corner, turning ugly and sick and friendless?
When I finally hit you, at 17, I saw how easily
I could kill you. I thought that life is shame and defeat,
bitter as taunting by bullies in the street, bitter as Moxie.
Now my own son cries because I am not there.
“Daddy, hold me. Daddy, I don’t want to die
because no one will play with me then.” Hold me, the night
is filled with your brutality. Hold me, my legs are not
enough to stand. Hold me, it is cold these nights. Hold me.
They tried to keep it alive with a new formula, sweet
and lighter, like other soft drinks. Mad Magazine took up
the word. I’ve found it only once in my travels; it’s gone
like the Shmoo, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, and all
the undervalued wreckage of the past.
From the gray three-decker,
Terry yells all day to her kids,
Georgie and Vincent, on the street below.
She’s young, slick, hair cut
in the poodle style. This is the 50s;
her sweaters support conical breasts.
Something wrong with her marriage
sends Terry out to work; her mother,
in a downstairs flat, watches the boys.
Working for Mr. Siegel, a Boston lawyer,
each morning Terry ambles to the bus.
Her husband’s moved out by now.
Soon the lawyer is driving up
in his huge Lincoln to take her out
for the evening. The whole neighborhood
watches as he waits and she yells,
“Georgie, Vincent, mind Grandma!”
She saunters to the car in crisp dresses,
high heels, newly poodled hair.
So that’s where I grew up, the kind
of neighborhood where married lawyers’
married girlfriends lived.
THE GARDNERS GET CULTURE
Since our grimy industrial suburb was just outside Boston, we sometimes ventured into the city for cultural uplift. A couple of times we went to the Gardner Museum, founded by the rich eccentric Isabella Stewart Gardner—no relation of ours, unless the family of her husband, John Lowell Gardner, had a German name (like ours, Gärtner) and lived in Romania. Which wasn’t likely.
On one occasion the free Sunday concert was given by a soprano with piano accompaniment. For some reason, my mother assumed that such a recital would include Broadway show tunes and imitations of bird songs.
As my mother and I settled into prim little seats that were lined up in austere rows in a large, dark salon—my father had the good sense to stay downstairs, maybe in the garden where he could smoke his cigar—it became clear that the soprano would imitate neither Mary Martin nor ornithological species. Whoever she was—for all we knew, she may have been a world-class representative of her specialty—I found her program of Schubert and the like excruciating.
She seemed like the singer in a cartoon or low-comedy movie—a woman with an impressive upholstered bosom, shrieking away in a number of foreign languages. The texts we were handed didn’t help, not even to explain the little joke that the audience chuckled at as one song came to an end. Somehow most of the well-dressed audience seemed to be enjoying the experience, since they were totally silent as she sang and applauded each time she stopped.
The worst aspect for me—and I’m sure for my mother—was that there was no way to sneak out of our chairs and leave the salon without being totally obvious and rude. So we stayed to the bitter end.
In subsequent years I came to know and like much of the lieder repertoire. I’ve attended a number of recitals, often with pleasure at what I’ve heard. Although I sometimes wish they would throw in a few Broadway numbers or bird imitations.
When we moved up to the junior high for seventh grade, I was assigned to a homeroom that was some kind of catch-all. While all my friends and the high achievers were in other homerooms, mine consisted of everyone repeating seventh grade, all the hard-core discipline cases, several precociously mature girls, and boys who appeared to have some kind of mental illness.
Our teacher, Miss Baxter, seemed ancient. She was very stout and walked with a limp. The rumor was that one winter she’d broken her ankle on school property and couldn’t be forced to retire.
She divided the boys from the girls. No other teacher did this in 1955. Maybe it was prudent, since the boys on our side of the room kept saying what they wanted to do to the girls on the other side. Miss Baxter’s moral vigilance extended to sending any girl to the restroom to wash off her lipstick if she came to school wanting, in Miss Baxter’s words, “to look like a clown.”
Because of my place in the alphabet, my seat was at the back of the room, next to Buddy, a big kid who had stayed back at least once. He had a slicked-back d.a. haircut and the moves of a movie juvenile delinquent. He intimidated me, a studious non-fighter, so I acted as though I appreciated everything he told me. I was, in fact, in awe of his indifference to all that anyone tried to impose on him, especially Miss Baxter.
She wasn’t just our homeroom teacher. We had her for English five times a week—diagramming sentences and other useless exercises—plus four times a week of Literature, which was antiseptic 19th century writers. Knowing that Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Whittier had lived, like us, in towns near Boston didn’t make them interesting.
Also Spelling twice a week—and something called Vocational Guidance, which gave Miss Baxter additional opportunities to lecture us on how hopeless young people were, especially the sorry lot imposed on her. She didn’t say it openly, but we were the children and grandchildren of immigrants and therefore should have been trying extra hard to behave like civilized creatures, instead of the degenerates and criminals we were in the process of becoming.
After hearing this message—explicit or implied, day after day, class after class—and wanting to fit in, even with the crowd I’d been tossed into, I struggled to be a bad character. I let my hair grow long enough to Vaseline into a d.a. and had my parents buy me a leather jacket. I wrote obscene rhymes for Buddy, including his name as protagonist opposite one of our classmates on the other side of the room.
Each minute with Miss Baxter was boring to the point of insanity—45-minute periods of sensory deprivation, waiting for the advance of the old clock on the wall, with its minute hand that clicked as a minute passed. Memorization, repetition, copying notes from the blackboard, and sometimes the reading aloud of works we were told were good literature, droned aloud by my struggling classmates.
My family didn’t make waves, so no one complained to the principal’s office that I was in the wrong class. Every lunchtime, meeting my old friends from the other homerooms reminded me that the hell I was burning in was just for me.
Speaking of burning . . . . As winter settled in, the angle of the sun was low enough to shine through the big windows directly behind Buddy and me. Although it was 15 degrees outside, Buddy and I were hit by a force like a blast furnace aimed at our backs.
As the minutes of excruciating recitals from Tressler‘s English Grammar ground on, we felt as though we were—literally—baking. Finally I raised my hand and asked if I could lower the window shades. Miss Baxter gave a demented grin. “People pay good money to go to Florida to get warm,” she said. “Stop complaining.”
We continued to bake till the bell rang and we could escape to Mr. Whitman’s math class. But we’d be back to the same seats for Spelling in less than an hour.
Mikey, who had barely passed sixth grade, was my only friend in the class. After school one day, complaining to each other about the torments of Miss Baxter, we decided our only recourse was to hold a voodoo ceremony.
At Mikey’s house we sculpted a figure out of clay. We used cotton from the bathroom for her white hair, and Mikey found a flowered rag to wrap around her, like the flowered old-lady dress she wore every day.
We knew very little about voodoo. We dimmed the lights and drowned her in a pan of water. Then we stuck his mother’s pins all over her body. At the end, we pulled off her head.
This was exciting because we were susceptible to thoughts of magic and divine intervention. Everyone around us invoked God for everything that happened. Maybe we could cause magic to enter our lives—evil magic, of course, but Miss Baxter’s presence in our lives was evil that we didn’t deserve.
After a few days, since Miss Baxter wasn’t, as far as we could tell, suffering or dead, we knew our voodoo wasn’t working.
Later that winter, one day when Buddy couldn’t stand being in school a minute longer, he went to the nurse’s office and said he didn’t feel well. She did what she always did, whatever the complaint, and stuck a thermometer under his tongue. Remember? You could taste the rubbing alcohol it soaked in.
While the nurse went back to her paperwork, Buddy was inspired to put the end of the thermometer on a hot radiator. She was suspicious when she pulled the thermometer from his mouth and it read a hundred and six.
So she sent him to the principal. Buddy decided he had some ammunition, something about Miss Baxter that would get her in trouble instead of him. As his witness, I was called to the office.
This had happened a few days before. Buddy came to school with two fingers in a splint and tape covering half his hand. Miss Baxter was clumping her way up the aisle. We had to sit silently while she checked to see if we had our homework on our desks. She enjoyed giving zeros to those who didn’t, which was almost everyone.
When she saw Buddy’s bandaged hand, she quipped, “So the law caught up with you.” Then she recorded his zero and clumped her way down his row.
Buddy told the principal that Miss Baxter’s remark was: “So the Lawd caught up with you.” In the Boston area the vowel sound in “law” is the same as the vowel in “Lawd.”
It seemed to me that this would constitute a major crime. In a community where most people went to church every Sunday, even a public-school teacher with a legal dispensation from retirement wouldn’t be allowed to talk that way. Almost everyone was Catholic now instead of Puritan, but 300 years before, 15 miles away, didn’t they hang witches for this kind of thing?
The principal asked me if Miss Baxter had said: “So the Lawd caught up with you.”
I was faced with the biggest decision of my 12 years. Buddy was at risk, and he was pretty scary. Furthermore, getting Miss Baxter in trouble might free us of her for the rest of the school year. On the other hand, I’d heard Old Witch Baxter clearly, and I knew she hadn’t taken the Lawd’s name in vain.
Bearing false witness was one of those moral wrongs that could lead to some kind of damnation.
Calling on supernatural intervention in a voodoo ceremony didn’t seem to work, but we heard a lot about God keeping an eye on our misdeeds. Would I confirm Buddy’s version and get Miss Baxter in well-deserved trouble? Or would I do what was supposed to be the morally correct thing and tell the truth, which would get me on Buddy’s wrong side?
Every time I’ve thought about that day, I’ve regretted my decision.
There was something else about that junior high school, a direct link to the Victorian past.
The school had an endowment, the gift of a nineteenth century rich man who grew up in the town and left money to the school – it was named for him – and for the establishment of a public library. The library was a major refuge for me in that town; its magazine was the first place I was published—a terrible poem I wrote in the second grade called “The Circus Is Coming to Town” (I had never seen a circus, except on television).
Anyone who went through the public schools encountered the man’s legacy in the form of an essay he wrote. We were forced to stand at the beginning of assemblies to recite it. The teachers were supposed to force us to memorize it, but they didn’t try very hard. We would mumble as someone—an unpopular striver of a student or the principal himself—spoke the words into a microphone.
“‘Character,’ by Albert N. Parlin,” we would say, and then some of the immortal words:
I would have all young persons taught to respect themselves, their citizenship, the rights of others and all sacred things; to be healthy, industrious, persevering, provident, courteous, just and honest; neat in person and in habit, clean in thought and in speech; modest in manner, cheerful in spirit and masters of themselves, faithful to every trust, loyal to every duty; magnanimous in judgment, generous in service and sympathetic toward the needy and unfortunate; for these are the most important things in life and this is not only the way of wisdom, happiness and true success, but the way to make the most of themselves and to be of the greatest service to the world.
The formula made even the Boy Scouts’ laws, codes, and oaths seem wimpy.
Besides rebelling by not memorizing the essay, we found other ways. One popular version of the essay was “I would have all young persons put to death.” A year after my contemporaries and I left the school, someone threw bottles of ink at the version carved in stone on the school’s facade. The staining was so bad that portions of the stone had to be replaced.
What bothered us was something we may not have been able to articulate: the hypocrisy of this forced recitation. The essay spoke of what young people should be taught to respect—but the school had no respect for us.
Classes were boring; most of the teachers were incompetent – rumor had it that they bought their jobs from the elected school board. Our world wasn’t the sanitized Victorian community of Mr. Parlin’s imagination. It was a tough, corrupt, dishonest place. And we knew it.
GIRDLES FOR THE MEN OF BOSTON
One of the Boston newspapers had a section in the women’s pages called “Confidential Chat.” Women readers were supposed to ask questions and provide advice, all of which was published anonymously. I knew it was influential because my third-grade teacher followed directions she found there for turning a lump of coal into something that was supposed to look festive, using household ingredients like food coloring and ammonia. The result looked like a malignant heap of pink and blue fungus.
Also, when our dog had some kind of mange, my mother read in Confidential Chat that it could be treated with an ointment made from sulfur from the drugstore and lard. I would guess that Crisco or any creamy substance would have worked, but she was sure it had to be lard. She sent me to the supermarket to buy some. I was afraid the entire Jewish population of our neighborhood was observing me as I found and paid for the forbidden substance.
I used to read Confidential Chat—after I read the comics and the weather report—because the readers, with the promise of anonymity, frequently discussed topics like pregnancy and the possibility that their teenage daughters might be promiscuous. The campaign I remember best was the Chat women’s cure for their husbands’ aching backs. Several women recommended the cure, and many more endorsed it after they got their husbands to try it.
You’ll think I’m making this up—and if it had appeared only once or twice, I’d suspect it was a prank by the guys on the copy desk. But it went on for two or three years.
This was the cure—for all back pain, both upper and lower: you bought your husband a woman’s girdle to wear (I don’t know if they told the other Chat readers how to figure out the right size) and nylon stockings, which were necessary for proper alignment and support. The tops of the stockings were attached to the girdle by its garter clips. Then he put on his regular clothes. As with the lard-based ointment, no substitutions were suggested.
The results, according to dozens of readers over the years, were miraculous. One woman said that her husband, whose muscular back hurt because he drove a truck all day and moved heavy furniture, was pain free and happy now that he put on his girdle and stockings every morning. The Chat women assured one another that the men encountered no embarrassment in rest rooms. In those days, the 1950s, health clubs hadn’t proliferated and grown men didn’t go to gyms, so locker-room humiliation wasn’t an issue.
Think of it: a whole generation of young husbands and middle-aged men who went around wearing, under their three-piece suits or their dungarees and flannel shirts, intimate ladies’ paraphernalia—priests, policemen, storekeepers, teachers. Could it have been 20 percent or more of Boston’s male population?
I’ll assume that the practice ended when the placebo effect—this has to work because it’s so extreme!—wore off, and even men who faithfully put on their gear each morning found their backs still aching. Or the men may have rebelled against their spouses. Or maybe it was like your mother’s warnings about why you should always wear good, clean underwear—one too many heart-attack victims brought to the E.R., where their bizarre practice was exposed.
While it lasted, though, it must have been good for the newspaper’s circulation. Not to mention the girdle business.
DEVELOPMENTAL STAGES OF ADOLESCENCE, 1950s
Let your comic book subscriptions lapse;
find Psychology in the library
and look up Sex in each index;
spend two hours daily improving
hair, complexion, muscles;
get the family car stuck in mud
and never report what happened;
speak rudely to your parents
like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause;
leave the corner where everyone hangs out
because it’s boring and it’s getting cold;
work where you’re the youngest
and the men call you “the kid”;
have two religious experiences: in a house of worship
and the bosom of nature;
fall in love with someone who thinks
exactly as you do about everything;
find a cause or a craft that you’ll single-mindedly
devote your whole life to;
scorn the mendacity of all those around you
and swear unswerving devotion to truth.
SMOKING A PIPE
When I was 16, I told my father I wanted to try smoking a pipe. So he brought me to the drug store, where he bought one of their inexpensive pipes, a pouch of tobacco, and a package of pipe cleaners. On the sidewalk outside the store, he showed me how to pack in the tobacco, tamp it down with my thumb, and get it lit, which sometimes took quite a few matches.
I didn’t get sick and I sort of enjoyed it. You don’t inhale the smoke, so maybe it wouldn’t cause lung cancer. Back then, in the late 50s, anything known by the tobacco companies and the government about the consequences of smoking was suppressed. It was later we learned about the possibility for pipe smokers of lip or tongue cancer.
I never got along with my father, but this was one simple, successful rite of passage. It does seem crazy, doesn’t it, a parent introducing a child to smoking? But it wasn’t uncommon then in that era, and I felt very grown up as I puffed away, in between re-lighting the pipe.
I told my best friend about it, and he started too. We took the MTA into Boston, where we found a wood-paneled tobacco store that dated back to the 1800s. They sold dozens of varieties of tobacco and would register your name and your own special blend. It was expensive, but we thought sophistication had to be be expensive. And it didn’t cost anything to walk inside and inhale the wonderful aroma of the store.
At college it wasn’t a rare thing to smoke a pipe, even in classes or the dining hall, but it was still a mark of distinction. One girlfriend tried to impress her family by describing me as “a boy who wears a corduroy sport coat and smokes a pipe.” Another one bought me a pipe lighter so I wouldn’t have to keep lighting my pipe with matches. The lighter fluid vaporized and would blast a flame toward the tobacco in the bowl of the pipe.
It was just a few years later that smoking a pipe started to make me physically ill—sick to my stomach, maybe from those juices you used pipe cleaners to ream out. So I gave up looking sophisticated and having something to do while waiting for a bus or holding a conversation—all the filling, cleaning, lighting, and puffing.
Last summer I needed to clean out the gas jets on our stove. So at our local supermarket, I asked for pipe cleaners at the courtesy counter where cigarettes are kept. The kids who worked there didn’t know what they were. Their middle-aged supervisor had to find the one package where it was hidden away.
No, it didn’t make me feel old. And at least I was alive.
The summer of 1959,
before senior year of high school,
we ventured to a beatnik coffee house.
This was new and dangerous:
the dark walls, jazz on a hi-fi,
black-clothed, barefoot customers.
The waitress had long, straggly hair
and wore no lipstick. One of us
ordered espresso, cutting the bitterness
with three cubes of sugar. The rest of us
drank Constant Comment tea,
which sounded safer but still exotic.
I’ve had it since, of course, its British
politeness neatly packaged in paper.
But I can still see its weird name
on the mimeoed menu, its orangey smell
still evoking dark places, forbidden
outposts, new worlds to explore.
The hills around Boston are drumlins the glaciers scraped
from the Earth’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.
Now the houses look charming,
the narrow streets are quaint.
In those years I never noticed the views:
miles of rooftops. Boston’s buildings, the ocean.
In nightmares I’m sometimes on the hill—
brakes not holding, car skidding down—
in the driver’s seat as the car slides backwards.
II. Hospital Room
Two hours after surgery, my mother moans;
the prognosis is good, her discomfort,
I’m told, 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.
Has the woman spent her life
with no name of her own?
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 remember, dimly, an iceman climbing
the stairs, ice block 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 is my Old Country.
But its culture is gone, lost in suburban diaspora,
the languages now from Asia and the Islands.
Yuppies move 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 where I lived.
To my relief I see no one I remember
and no one recognizes me.
Worse than unacknowledged
is Murray the Iceman’s daughter. All have failed her:
the neighborhood; the house she bought
with her husband, who is dead now;
the child she took on when she married,
who herself needs 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 waited to assault me.
My sister showed me the 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?
Our journeys end in lodgings bulldozed from 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 home 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.