So last night I sent out an early Santa Claus picture of himself. I estimate that I was 2 years old, maybe heading to 3. My sister was likely in my mother’s belly, or just freshly out. So that might be why she isn’t in the picture.
I’m glad that I have possession of this picture, and that I’m able to share it. If the picture could speak it might tell you the story of two Charlestown nine-year Nanas. I only had ’em for nine years of my life. Matriarchal, cute, embodiments of love: Nana Alice (74-79) and Nana Mae (74-83).
Nana Alice-Alice Hickey (Power) was my paternal grandmother. I had her for five years before my Mother told me she went to heaven in 1979. She was a right spiritedly elf. I joke because she was so short, but despite her vertical challenge, she loomed large in personality. I remember many things about her, such as metallic cigarette kisses, corned beef Sunday dinners, and a pastel house coat. But for me, her most memorable characteristic was her head of hair. Memory often betrays, but I feel like it was salt and pepper, with a lean toward salt. She loved her St. Francis Beano (Bingo), and doted on us kids for as long as she could before she moved onto the next plane. She and my Grandfather, Harry Hickey, shared a cold water flat on the first floor of a three family walk-up. It was the last house on the left, on a dead-end Street in Charlestown, St. Martin Street. By the time I came around, Harry and Alice were on “the back nine”, so to speak. They were aged, and had my father late in life.
Whenever I arrived at 28 St. Martin for a visit, we’d enter the door to the sparse green floors. It was a home full of necessity and function and is what I would expect from people who learned to live hard during The Great Depression. No excess, just all that was needed. And, it felt and smelled like home should smell. Something always cooking. Greeted by Nana Alice, she would smother me with kisses and muss my hair. It held a natural curl back in those days. Then she would grab my arms and hold them out by my sides so I looked like a little T, and would remark about how I was growing (I wasn’t aware that I was being measured, of course). Then she’d shuffle me off down a hallway, which seemed like an awfully long hallway to a kid. In fact, that hallway seemed so long to me that when I eventually saw The Wizard of Oz, I was able to share the anxiety that Dorothy and Co. experienced as they walked to meet the Wizard. Nana Alice was whisking me down the hall to see Harry, or Papa, as I was directed to call him.
There was no curtain obscuring him from view, but he sat in a chair that eclipsed his frame. Silver haired, and unshaven with black thick framed glasses, he’d look up from his cards and cribbage board and would call me over. He ran simulation cribbage games while sipping Miller beers, a television on in the background. He would pull me up to his lap, never letting go of the deck of cards, and give me a beer kiss on the forehead. The white whiskers scratching my skin. I would spy the blue canvas sneakers with white laces adorning his feet. Harry-Papa was a Wizard at cards, long before J.K. Rowling imagined Harry Potter onto the page. Papa had another parlor trick, every time we visited he would reach into his back pocket for a worn leather wallet, and he would pull out a Finner and hand it to me. There was always a mention of putting it in a bank. Although, I think this should be filed under do what I say, and not what I do. Interactions with Harry were always short, and after we were finished we were brought back to the front of the house, which was the back of the house. Believe me, if I enter your home through a back door into a kitchen, then I’m tight as rain. If I come through the front door I’m lost.
The centerpiece of the poor Irish-American experience is the kitchen. All matters of import either start or finish here. Cups of tea, gossip, slight reprimands for childhood missteps all occur somewhere between the kitchen threshold and an open refrigerator door.
Harry sat in the back/front of the house, while Alice reigned in the front/back of the house. The distance between them assisted in making the “back nine” livable. They were never so far from each other that a quick shout couldn’t gap the distance.
When I’d appear back in the kitchen there would be a linen bags full of patience and love. Nana Alice, worked her magic not only in cooking, but in weaving wool into forms that could turn cold children warm. Nana Alice’s knitting prowess was on full display, as a lot of the outerwear I wore as a child began with a stitch or two in the kitchen at 28 St. Martin Street. Hats, gloves, coats, scarves, were armor against the Boston winters of the mid 1970’s. It was a wonderful gesture, created in a humble kitchen, that warms me even now despite not wearing the clothes themselves for some 40 odd years. By some freak and lucky accident, through all the moves and missteps of our lives, some of those small bundles found their way down to the next generation of children. Through basement boxes flooded by broken pipes, multiple moves within state and out-of-state, Nana Alice’s Consignments found their way to the hallowed heads of Jayden, Atticus, Lenore, and most heartwarming of all, Paul.
2’s and 8’s were auspicious numbers for our Grands. Just over Bunker Hill, on the other side, less than a quarter of a mile away, resided Nana Mae, at 288 Bunker Hill Street.
Nana Mae-Mary Connolly (White) was my maternal grandmother. She made the house at 288 come alive. Another three-family walk up, this home was nestled neatly into the side of Bunker Hill Street, in the shadow of the steeple of our parish church, St. Francis de Sales. The views from the porch in the rear of the house are worth a cool million dollars now, but then we were satisfied to see the fireworks on the Fourth of July, accompanied by Arthur Fiedler’s Pops on the transistor radio. Nana Mae spent most of her time with her partner in crime, Al (Bubba) Connolly on the first floor. Even as age took their knees away from them and they couldn’t negotiate the stairs to the third floor as easily, they were content to breathe the same sleeping air in twin beds across from each other on the first floor, that in the day-time would turn into couches. The were usually the second stop of the grandparents tour. Since we all lived within a quarter of a mile from each other, with our apartment equidistant to both grandparent’s homes, it was never a challenge to come and go quickly. Although, I do admit, in retrospect it seemed that we were at my maternal grandparent’s more often, and for much longer, which I suspect is a common practice favored by the mother’s of children being brought to visit grandparents. Mothers prefer the company of their own mother, naturally.
Nan Mae was a bright star in our universe, she had rosy full cheeks, that supported large glasses, and she was fashionable. Her hair was reddish, or henna, which seemed to remain that color until she lost it in her battle with breast cancer in 1983. Her sickness did not define her, but taught a house full of men a subtle grace as she did the best she could with something that was beyond her control. But in the years before that time, when I was toddling around, and my sister appeared on the scene, we spent many Saturday afternoons traveling to pick her up from her office in the Framingham Jordan Marsh Branch. I’m sure I can gain clarification on this point, but at present I do not exactly know what Nana Mae did for Jordan’s. However, to a child, or children, she represented car trip Saturdays, punctuated with trips for lunch to the Ground Round or as we called it, “The Clownie House”. A bonanza of family dining in a saloon style setting, with old movies being projected onto screens, and crunchy peanut shell floors. Apparently, no one had peanut allergies in the 70’s. Odd? The hot dog was the favorite menu item for us. Equally of import and as symbolic of Nana Mae, was the odd trip here or there into Downtown Boston, to the actual Jordan Marsh Department Store. It was dazzling, and full of energy that couldn’t be matched. We always traveled to and from, via Orange Line MBTA Trains. We’d meet Nana Mae on the Downtown Crossing Platform and enter Jordan Marsh through the doors that were there. Those who are lucky enough to remember, will recall the Jordan Marsh bakery bringing weary travelers in from their weary commute like a veritable pied piper’s parade, each purchasing a cardboard box tied up with blue and white string. Treasures transported from Downtown to Charlestown, and not just any treasure, but blueberry muffins and lemon- filling topped muffins. The occasional side trip to Bailey’s for caramel chews was a treat. There might also be a meeting with Bubba as he made his way home from the Boston Water and Sewer Commission after a long day supplying the workers with the parts they needed to keep the city flowing. A lot of times we’d meet just outside of the Community College Train stop and adjourn to the Bunker Hill Mall’s Papa Gino’s family restaurant. Friday family pizza night, with meatballs and ziti for good measure. Many a quarter was pushed into the cut holes of the shiny jukeboxes that resided at the end of each checkered table. I remember the Grease Soundtrack was a popular play at the time because the hook on “You’re The One That I Want” had a “hoo-hoo-hoo!” we could all sing along too. A source of great pride for Nana Mae was her collection of victories for winning the Bunker Hill Christmas Door Decorating Contest on multiple occasions. If you look backward in time you can trace the Christmas Spirit from my Sister, to my Mother, to my Grandmother, it is quite strong in the matrilineal line.
So many great times, echoes from the past. I sometimes question if they really happened. They seemed so real, and now so long ago. Sometimes a head can burst from containing so many thoughts, and is relieved at the amount of detail that can still unfold after each remembrance. The purpose of youth in many ways is to absorb the experience, and if you are blessed enough to exceed the daring of later youth, to be able to process the experience in relation to new experiences of raising your own family. Ironically, you usually process those experiences while losing the family you so easily took for granted all those years ago. Good people, great people, great times, paying life forward so that we can all enjoy a moment’s time.
Nana Alice and Nana Mae were so much more than they are remembered for. Their lives were full of complexities, great days, defeats, victories, rainstorms, sunshine, small moments, and wasted breaths, just because. These are the things that we are here for. Experiencing life in the way that best suits us, hopefully deriving comfort and suffering so that we can contrast the good from the bad times and value the end result from squeezing memory from living.
This picture, that I hold in my pudgy, freckled palm, ties together a piece of the legacy of two miraculous woman, captured in a moment in time.
I, having my picture taken with Santa at the Jordan Marsh Department Store (Nana Mae) wearing a beautifully knit outfit to keep me warm (Nana Alice).
Merry Christmas, Nanas!
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