Sunday, April 26, 2009


In Which the Past Is Prologue...

Well, if you've been here even once or twice, you know what today is (and if you don't, jumping back two years in the archives will solve the mystery for you). But instead of dwelling on the last chapter of my parents' lives--I won't even bother with a link--I find myself looking in other directions, including back beyond my parents' beginnings to, well, their prologues.

Alas, I don't know how my Dad's parents met (it's a gap in my story catalog that I really need to fill, and hope to this summer, when I go on an extended research trip to New Hampshire), so that's a tale I can't share yet. How my maternals met--my mother's prologue--that's fairly well documented.

Mom was from Massachusetts, although that was something her New Hampshire relations tried very hard not to hold against her. There was no saving her father, though, not the mighty Papa Jim. He was a Massachusetts flatlander bastard to his core.

(I know it rankles some Mass. folks to hear that label, and there are a stunning lot of you who read me, so please accept this parenthetical as an apology. But I just have to say: To me, it sounds less like an insult and more like a gang of cool badasses, like a Civil War regiment. The 57th Massachusetts Flatlander Bastards)

Papa was proud of it, too. As I've mentioned before, he grew up in South Boston and took no shit from anyone, except his mother, who talked him out of accepting a baseball scholarship to Colgate (Papa Jim was, by all accounts, a stunning athlete in his day). So when he graduated from high school, he quit baseball and in 1938 got a job tending bar at the Statler-Hilton hotel in Boston. No more fastballs or curveballs for Papa Jim--only highballs.

If my grandfather ever regretted not going to college, he never admitted to it. In fact, I suspect he was just fine with the way his life was going at the hotel, because in short order, Jim took notice of one of the hotel's chambermaids, a statuesque woman with raven-black hair and a regal bearing. Grandma Catherine--known in her family as Kay--lived near Cambridge. Her mother's family worked in publishing at the Riverside Press--one grandmother was a copy editor; her husband a skilled marbler--creator of those beautiful colorful wavy designs such as you never see now on the endpages and edges of books. Her father's people were horsebreeders and trainers and young Kay was brought up as something of a thoroughbred herself. As well-heeled as she was, her parents were by no means wealthy, so they had taken care to impress upon her the importance of making your own way. When she enrolled in college for her nurses' degree in the fall of 1938, she took a part-time job making beds and cleaning bathrooms at the Statler. It was good work--in those days, hotel guests almost universally left tips for chambermaids in the room. The only imposition Kay had to suffer was the attention of the cocky young bartender with the Southie accent. She found Jim to be déclassé, and did everything she could to ignore him. "Back then, I wouldn't give him the steam off my oatmeal!" she famously remarked one Thanksgiving, which made me laugh so hard that gravy came out of my nose. It still makes me laugh.

Both of them were devout Catholics. Both went to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day, and both of them prayed to God every night. I imagine my future grandmother appealing to the Lord for the strength to resist the mashing advances of the drinkslinger from Southie, while across town, Jim was asking God for a little help, a small miracle to win the woman of his dreams.

I've always understood that Papa Jim was good pals with God, and if proof was required, this is the story that does it for most folks. You see, God answered Jim's prayer, and not with a still, small voice, either. God pulled out all the stops. God went Old Testament on my future grandfather.

He sent The Great Hurricane of 1938.

As I bet my Massachusetts readers (you are still there, right?) could confirm, that storm still stands as one of the worst in New England's recorded history. It was no answer to a prayer for some people--casualties of the storm range from 600 to nearly 1,000, depending on your source--but it did Papa Jim a big favor.

Jim was walking to work the morning that the storm hit Boston. The streets were practically deserted--Papa later said the only other person he'd seen on the way in was a man who'd been blown literally off his feet and into a doorway, which quickly opened and allowed him shelter. But Jim wasn't stopping--he had to get to work. In minutes, the wind was so ferocious, he was rappelling from lightpole to mailbox to get to the door. In the front windows of the hotel, the rest of the staff already there--Kay included--watched Jim's slow, almost heroic progress. They really shouldn't have been standing anywhere near the windows, but Jim was very popular on the staff (with the one notable exception) and they couldn't look away. Which was just as well, because really, they hadn't seen anything yet.

Then it happened: Just up at the corner, a metal sign tore from its post and came flying down the street, heading straight for Jim like a killer Frisbee.

The staff watching from the window let out a terrible moan, except for Kay, who screamed as the sign whistled past. Jim's head was bent slightly, so he didn't see the sign until about one half-second shy of Too Late. And in that split instant, whether it was his baseball instincts kicking in or a nudge from his old pal God, Jim ducked. The sign came so close, he said later, that he felt it cut his hair. But that was all it cut. Jim scrambled on all fours through the hotel door to safety, and I like to think, a round of cheers and applause.

Like many people caught in the Hurricane of 1938, the staff and guests of the Statler-Hilton were stuck there for a couple of days--even after the storm abated, there were downed power lines and broken gas mains everywhere. I guess for want of anything better to do, Catherine finally spent a little quality time with Jim and came to realize that, coarse Irish bastard that he was, he was evidently her kind of coarse Irish bastard.

They dated for a couple of years, then married during World War II. By that time, my grandfather was in the Army and due to ship out to Alaska and then Colorado to train with the 57th Massachusetts Flat--er, I mean the 10th Mountain Division. He and Kay didn't have a lot of time or money, so they went for a cheap honeymoon, up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. There they spent a happy week in one of the many tiny but snug tourist cabins up there, before Jim had to get back to Boston and ship out.

Nine months later, my mother was born.

To the extent that I've thought about it all, (and really, I haven't. The only thing worse than contemplating the death of your elders is contemplating their sex lives. Parents, grandparents, it doesn't matter--it really is the very definition of Too Much Information.) I guess the fact that my mother was likely conceived in New Hampshire gave her a certain immunity to flatlander bastard-ness. From a young age, she loved New Hampshire and often begged her father to take the family--which would grow to include her sister, my aunt Cathy--on vacation up there. Something about the place must have appealed to Papa--with a take-zero-shit attitude like his, I'm sure the "Live Free Or Die" motto of my home state struck a chord in his heart--because almost every summer, he brought the family up to a little inn in the Lake Sunapee region of New Hampshire. My mom loved that inn so much, that when she turned 18, she started working for the proprietors, paying her way through college exactly as her mother had.

The chambermaids at the inn were composed of local girls and several from away, including my mom. She and several other girls stayed in a kind of loft in a long shed at the back of the property. When they were off-shift, the girls hung out in their loft, smoking cigarettes and playing records, and were often joined by the local girls, who often as not were being followed by a bunch of local boys.

One night, the guys were in a triumphant spirit, and brought another boy who was the center of their attention. Partly this was because the fellow had brought two six-packs of beer with him, but mostly because he was the main character of a really good story that happened that day, and he was warming up to tell it.

An awful thing about being the storyteller of your particular branch on the family tree is that your predecessors are always better than you. They knew more, remembered more, and told it all so much better than you. And then they go away without completely filling in all the details, forcing you to leave big gaps in a story or else make up the truth, which is of course the storyteller's greatest skill, and one I have yet to master.

Which is my long-winded way of saying I don't know what story my Dad told that day. It's possible he related the tale of how he shot a hawk through the eye--while it was in flight--with a .22. He might have told the story of the drag race on the New London road, or of the mountain lion he'd glimpsed in the woods, despite there being no confirmed sightings of the beasts in a century or so.

Whatever story he told, he must have told it with hurricane force. My mother was certainly blown away by it. It led to her going with him on a date to the movies (Mom fell asleep in the middle of the film and drooled extravagantly on Dad's sweater. It was a Friday the 13th, forever after a lucky day in our family) and things just went on from there.

So it's probably better that I don't know the story that won Mom over. For one thing, young love deserves its mysteries (especially when your parents are the young lovers. Like I said, TMI). What's more, the stories you don't know have a way of making you appreciate the ones you do, so you might as well be grateful.

And anyway, it hardly matters, because we're well past my parents' prologue. What happened next is really prologue for someone else. And after today, he's not looking back at his story.

After today, his eyes are fixed forward.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

You sir are a master story teller. Really, really, really good. You make your parents and grandparents strengths and flaws shine equally like badges of honor. The reader feels deminished for not having known them personally. Thanks for letting us in as spectators.
Your parents (and theirs) left a wonderful legacy. You're generous to share it with us. Keep looking forward, that's where we're all headed.
I've just woken up and I'm sitting here with my first cup of coffee. The house is quiet and Monday is only just beginning. Yours was the first post in my feed reader. This was an excellent way to start the day. Thanks.
i know what day it is. your stength is a testament to what amazing people they were, and what an amazing person they raised you to be.
My grandmother was always the storyteller in my family.

Nice to see that the storytellers still abound.
I'm still here, and you haven't offended me yet. MY mother(then 10) and her parents, all Mass flatlander bastards, went for a walk in Watertown, Ma, the day of the storm. My mother got swept off her feet and might have been carried off if her parents weren't holding her hands.

I've got a lot of NH in my family, but that's way further back with some generations in California in between. It's very odd living in New England and thinking of California as the mythical land of my ancestors. Ditto for convict-era Australia.

Arkansas Patti said:

The reader feels deminished for not having known them personally. Thanks for letting us in as spectators.
oops. I mean thanks Patti, me too.

at least you don't call us Massholes.
what a great story! again. so happy to find you writing more often--such a gift you have. when one of your fab efforts makes it to print, do please tell us the title or your pseudonym or something, as your identity is still a complete mystery to me.

and wow--I hope that someday, someone--anyone--describes me as a thoroughbred. I've been called mutt and variations thereon--but never that much more flattering name.
I have heard a few of your Grampa George's tales and if your Dad told them anything like that than they were stories worth the telling. Also I have been told that your Great Uncle Evan was a great story teller too..see it runs in the genes for your stories are well worth the time to read! Thanks for sharing...
I remember exactly what I was doing and where I was two years ago. I also remember how I felt.

Thank you for letting your Mom and Dad be a part of our families as well.

Love to you and yours and keep moving forward. We will be right along with you.
I remember this day vividly, too. And I thank you for this wonderful story of your parents, and for sharing them with all of us.
My dad met my mother right before he was shipped off to California in the Navy. He courted and proposed to her through letters.

What I learned later is that he had just had his heart broken by another girl. He was looking for loyalty and honesty instead of glitter and flash. He didn't love my mother when he married her. He certainly loved her by the time she died in 2005.

He had taken her to his Mother in Lubbock and as the story goes, told her she couldn't come back home until she learned how to make cream gravy. The same cream gravy I cooked for my family on Sunday.
This is one Flatlander Bastard who isn't in the least offended. The fact that my own Dad, Massachusetts born and bred, chose to live out his final days in Thornton, NH, proves that I come from malleable stock.

I remember the hideous flash of acid I got in my gut when reading your entry from two years back. Through your very excellent storytelling prior to that date, I felt as though I "knew" your folks. The news hit me, and others among your long-time readers, as hard as it was possible to hit, when the fact that we had never actually gotten to meet these people was taken into account.

God bless you in your journey forward, MM.
You can take a topic that could be so sad, morose even to some I suppose, but somehow, inject a couple little elements of light humor into it and voila, it comes out as a really beautiful tribute to your ancestors. Peace -and keep looking forward too.
...flatlander bastard is ok, but I prefer Masshole. Short, sweet, to the point.
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