The marriage of Joe and Mathilda soon yielded a son. In a compromise to continuing the family tradition without the confusion of having three Joseph Patrick Kellys in the same town, they named him Joseph Walter. Most people called him Walter or Walt, but his father usually called him, “Hey, Kel.”
A year or so later, Mathilda conceived again, but had a tubal pregnancy, which, in the 1920s, led to a complete hysterectomy. From that moment, Mathilda considered that her days were numbered, and she treated herself as if she were a delicate piece of porcelain. Whenever she had any small ailment, she would whimper, “Well, I’ve had surgery, so it’s always dangerous,” pressing her hand to her abdomen. At four foot eleven, she worked as a model for Mature Women’s Fashions for Shepard department store in Providence, and carried on living a confident and determined life well into her eighties.
Walter became an athletic young man after he outgrew a touch of asthma that perhaps had something to do with living with two smokers. Riding in the back seat of a foggy car, he was not allowed to roll down the windows for fear of a draft. Miraculously, in his teens, he lifted weights and became an enthusiastic hockey player in the days before sports teams got all concerned about protective gear. He was the goalie for La Salle Academy, a Catholic boys’ high school in Providence, and he had the scars to prove it. His Francophone nose, already a prominent feature, caught a puck at least once, and the filling in his chipped front tooth fell out periodically for the rest of his life.
An even greater passion than hockey was drumming in La Salle’s “big band” with George Masso, who later played with the famous Jimmy Dorsey Band. They also played at all of the dance halls in the area, and Walter was headed toward a big career in music.
Near the end of high school, Walter was hanging out with all of the cool kids at the soda shop in Esmond. He was quite a sharp dresser, and Margaret swooned when she saw that he smoked a pipe. “He was so mature!” He was seventeen and she was fifteen when he asked her out for their first date. Her parents were dubious.
Margaret’s cousin, Dot Plant, came to her rescue. “Oh, Aunt Peggy,” she exclaimed, “Let her go out with him. He’s such a great dancer.” As a mother myself now, I cannot imagine why that would be a quality that a mother would appreciate in her daughter’s beau, but I’m so glad that my grandmother did.
Glowing softly from the recesses of my memory is a tableau of my great-grandfather and his son, my great-Uncle Francis, standing in their home. They were Irish immigrants straight out of Central Casting: rugged, worn men in belted trousers and tank undershirts. Joseph Patrick Kelly is the man who gave my family its name, and whenever I see a movie with early twentieth-century Irish toughs, I think, “These are my people.”
Joseph was a quiet man who never cursed or even raised his voice, but when the Red Sox lost a game, he’d throw the radio out the window. His wife had given birth to a daughter and four sons, then died young, but Joseph lived to be 92 and never remarried, choosing to raise the children by himself. Like everyone else, he worked at Esmond Mill, but he had a bit of land and did some farming on the side. He told the story of how he once caught a fly ball off of Tris Speaker at Fenway Park, but you know how the Irish love to spin a tale.
Great-Uncle Francis was the fourth child, and he always liked to stay at home until the day he fell in love and decided to marry. The morning after the wedding, he realized that he didn’t want to live anywhere else, so he moved back in with his father. Perhaps his agoraphobia allowed him to work and farm a bit, but otherwise, he stayed in the house. Fortunately, that seemed to have no impact on his marital bliss, since he and his wife maintained separate households but managed to have three children. My mother told me this story when I was a young teen, and I clearly remember the outrage in her voice. It was deliciously scandalous, to be sure, but I felt proud of them even back then. These two fragile, shattered people pushed through the shame and built a love that was more Antoni Gaudí than Abraham Levitt, while the village looked on and clutched their collective pearls.
Joseph Patrick, Jr., was the second child and the first son. Before he went to school each morning, he cared for the cows and drove the farm truck around delivering the milk. There were no age limits on driving in those days, at least for farm vehicles. He played the tuba and inherited his father’s passion for the Red Sox. By the time he was an older teenager, though, Joe had become an excellent dancer and had a reputation for being what we might call a bit of a player. On Saturday nights, you could always find him at the Esmond Dance Hall. Why would a ladies’ man like Joe take notice of a prim and proper young lady like Mathilda? I’ll bet she could dance.
Since she was the twelfth of the fourteen children in her family, Matilda often found herself playing piano so that her older brothers and sisters could dance with their sweethearts and spouses. Her father, Barthélémi-Joseph Martineau, had been married twice, first to the scandalously named Salomée, who was her oldest six siblings’ mother, and then to her mother, Laura, who already had three children by her first marriage when she met Barthélémi. Matilda was the first child born in the United States, in the mill town of Smithfield, Rhode Island. Her mother was a school teacher, so Matilda was very well educated, having completed school all the way to the sixth grade, and she continued to be a great reader and a very refined woman all of her life.
The Martineaus had an illustrious family tree. Matilda’s grandmother was Léocadie Martel, who was a descendant of Charles Martel, grandfather of the emperor Charlemagne and victor of the Battle of Tours in A.D. 732, which kept all of Europe from speaking Arabic, at least for a while. Centuries later, Matilda’s Martineau ancestor, Martin Prévost, married Marie-Olivier-Silvestre Manitouabewich on November 3, 1644, in Québec, in the first French and Native American marriage in North America. Matilda’s cousin, Sir Wilfred Laurier, was the first Prémier of Canada. Despite these exalted forebears, when Matilda was eight years old, her father moved the family to Esmond to work in the textile mills there, along with many other French-Canadian immigrants.
One of the young people’s favorite places was the Esmond Dance Hall, provided by the owner of the village mill. Matilda and her family loved to dance, so they often made their way to the hall on the weekends. Naturally, it was a wonderful way to meet new people, and it seems that even back then, the nice girls always fell for the bad boys.
In the 1930s, the whole world seemed to be suffering. People everywhere were poor, and in Europe, the leaders were beginning to fear that the War to End All Wars would not, in fact, live up to its name. But life in the tiny New England mill village called Esmond was small and safe. Margaret grew up walking all over town and riding her bicycle with her friends. She was not the only daughter of immigrants. Her friend Josephine Infantino tried hard to avoid walking near her house, since every time her Sicilian mother spotted them, she would rush out with a glass of milk and a handful of olives. Evidently, she worried that Josie was burning too many calories and would starve before she came in for the evening. Josie would obediently drink the milk, hand the glass back to her mother, and then take the olives, promising to eat them as she walked. As soon as they were out of sight, Margaret would take the olives from her and gobble them down. Josephine hated olives, and her mother always made her eat them. Margaret loved olives, and her family never served them.
Young people in those days often went out after breakfast and came home just in time for dinner. Parents didn’t start worrying until then. In Esmond, the place to swim was in the mill pond, that is, the water in the reservoir for use by the textile mill. They laughed and jumped into the water for hours, casually avoiding the turbines beneath the surface. When they tired of swimming, they would play hide and seek in the warehouse, where the huge bales of wool were kept before they were made into fabric. Margaret and her friends would burrow as far as they could into the wool so that they would not be found. After they were married, her husband told her that the mill employed men whose only job was to kill the gigantic rats that infested the mill warehouse. This is why we say that the Lord looks after fools and children.
During this time, Peggy was often sick, and had taken to wearing her bathrobe all day and complaining constantly. This grieved Margaret greatly, since her mother already spoke with an embarrassing Scottish brogue, and now she was not acting respectable, like her Aunt Vera and the other ladies she knew who kept their houses spic and span and washed their floors in sturdy high heels. After one such spell of ill health, her mother was finally well enough to go out with her father, and when her parents arrived back home, they found Margaret stuck on the stairway where she had been trying to move a bed back upstairs, where she felt it belonged. She had maneuvered it into such a spot that she could neither move backward nor forward, and had been waiting to be rescued for quite some time.
After many years, Peggy was diagnosed with gallstones, and after having her gallbladder removed, she spent most of her life in cheerful good health. When Margaret later experienced gallstones in her sixties, she never complained until the moment she said, “Call 911. I’m having a heart attack.” And that was pretty much the pattern for her whole life, all stemming from a repugnance that she developed as a child toward people who complain about ailments.
On the other hand, Peggy was deeply devoted to her daughter in her own way. One day during Margaret’s teen years, her mother came home from Centredale, the nearest town with decent shopping, and presented Margaret with a new pair of shoes. Since money was scarce, gratitude was the expected response for any new item of clothing—or even decent meals, for that matter. Add to that Peggy’s Scottish frugality, and new purchases were An Event. However, she could see from the expression on Margaret’s face that she was not pleased. She knew that her daughter and her friends went to the movies and exclaimed over all those glamorous movie stars that they saw on the screen. When her mother demanded an explanation, Margaret meekly admitted, “Well, Ma, they’re just so old-fashioned.” Peggy exploded into a fury, chasing a screeching Margaret around the kitchen table with shoe in hand, excoriating her for being so ungrateful, and finally cracking her over the head with the well-made heel. She then packed up the inadequate shoes and boarded the bus back to Centredale to buy her something more fashionable. What did she know about fashion? She was a Glaswegian factory girl, and her daughter was a beautiful American teenager.
For his part, Archie always loved a crowd. He kept a drawer full of candy by his bedside, supposedly for the kids, but also for his own sweet tooth. Sometimes, when the other adults went out for the evening, he preferred to stay with the little ones. When Margaret came home exclaiming that one of her friends had a television set, he could not bear the thought that his beloved daughter and all of her friends would be spending their time somewhere else. Without telling anyone, he marched down to the store and brought home the huge piece of furniture containing a phonograph and the little screen that flickered black-and-white images from New York City right into their living room! Now he could rejoice in the sounds of giggly teenagers, playing records and dancing to the sound of the Big Bands.
At about this time, all over America, many immigrants began changing their family names in order to sound less foreign. Although most of those families were of German descent, Archie decided that he needed to change their name, also. He took his father’s French surname, Boucher, pronounced “boo-shay,” and changed it to Boushee, pronounced “bushy.” War was marching toward America.