Family 8: The Early Years

The war ended, as all wars eventually do, and society had to rearrange itself into having young men and young families in its midst again. Margaret and Walter rented her Auntie Taggart’s second floor for five dollars a week, and Walter went to work at the mill. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, he also began attending evening classes at the Rhode Island School of Design for textile design.

Walter had been home for some time, and Margaret began to be worried. She still had not conceived, and they both wanted children. She had taken some secretarial courses and was working hard, and she had been banking Walter’s paychecks from the Army. Between their little nest egg and the G.I. Bill, they had enough money for Walter to start building a house in his unimaginable spare time between working and going to school. Margaret so wished for one of the bedrooms to be a nursery.

About the time that her parents began to despair of inventing new comforting words for her as she said each month, “I think I might be pregnant!”, only to be disappointed days later, Margaret finally gave birth to Allan William in July of 1948. One of the first Baby Boomers, Allan joined a nation awash in happy parenthood. As his first harsh New England winter settled in, Margaret wrapped baby Allan up, put runners on his stroller, and pushed him several miles through the snow to their homesite, bringing dinner to Walter, who was still toiling away on a pretty, little ranch house down the road from his parents. They had given the newlyweds a building site on the family land on Ernest Street.

It wasn’t long before they moved in, and Margaret blossomed into her longed-for role of wife and mother. Like most women of her time, she was devoted to Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose Baby and Child Care was the Bible on all things childrearing. Little Allan was on a schedule: wake, breakfast, bath, nap, walk, lunch, nap, and so on. Her father, Archie, loved his grandson, but he knew that if showed up during nap time, he would not be allowed to see him, so he would walk around outside to Allan’s bedroom window and sing “On Top of Old Smokey.” Allan would wake up, delighted to see his Grandad, but Archie would have to endure a scolding from his brisk, orderly daughter. It was worth it.

Allan was still a baby when Margaret conceived again, and in due time she had another son, Robert Walter. He only lived two days. Margaret had to share a hospital room with another woman whose newborn was presented to her several times a day for feeding, and Margaret would ask the nurse, “Where is my baby?” only to be told that the doctor would come talk to her later. Since she was only twenty-two and quite shy, she did not know what to do. Later, she found out that Robert was a “blue baby,” that is, a baby whose mother’s blood was RH negative, while the father was RH positive. Walter, his mother, and any other devout Catholic who saw him baptized him themselves right in the hospital, since they believed that unbaptized babies went to Limbo, a place of nothingness between heaven and hell. When Robert’s time on earth was over, Walter’s parents gave them a burial plot, and Margaret was forced to stay in the hospital during her baby’s funeral, weeping while her roommate cooed and played with her new baby.

These days haunted Margaret for the rest of her life. Because they lived in a small town, the doctors did not know that they could have saved Robert’s life with a blood transfusion. In addition, they had not yet invented the injection that is now routinely given to RH negative women after their first birth—which is always successful—that would have allowed her to have normal pregnancies and healthy babies in the future. Instead, she went on to have six fairly late-term miscarriages in the next decade, during which she was almost always pregnant, but still had only one living child. The doctors dismissed the pregnancies as just tissue that her body was rejecting, but Margaret mourned inwardly, although no one joined her in her grief. She was expected to pick back up and move on. It was not until she saw the ultrasound images when my sister and I were pregnant decades later that she realized that she had been right to grieve for what were obviously fully-formed babies, and she was newly angry over the cruelty of the doctors—and the world in general—toward all those loving young women with broken hearts.

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Family 7: Margaret and Walter

IMAG0030As individuals, we live our lives day after ordinary day, but sometimes world events come crashing in to change the course of history—and the course of families—in ways that we could not anticipate and certainly would not choose.

Walter was still drumming with George Masso and blocking hockey pucks when he realized, along with all of his classmates, that they would graduate from high school and go straight into the military to fight in World War II. He and Margaret knew that their courtship could come to a final end when Walter joined the Army Air Corps in 1943. Not only had Margaret’s grandfather in Scotland died in World War I, but they both had friends and family who had already lost their lives in the current war.

Walter’s dad had left the mill some years ago and gone to work for New England Transportation as a mechanic, and the skills that he passed on enabled Walter to serve as an airplane mechanic. Furthermore, his mother, Mathilda, had become quite valuable to the Red Cross, so when she had a medical emergency and asked if her son could come to her side while the rest of his unit shipped out to Europe, someone somewhere granted her request—which may be the reason I am here to write this today. Walter stayed stateside for the remainder of the war.

Margaret was 17 and still a senior in high school when she received a telegram saying, “I have a furlough in December. Will you marry me then?” Her mother panicked and immediately refused, but once again, her cousin Dot came to her rescue. “Don’t worry, Auntie Peggy! I’ll help you to get this wedding together in less than two weeks, you’ll see!”

And so, in military uniform and trailing white gown, Walter and Margaret tied the knot on December 14, 1944. They went to Boston for their honeymoon, which may not seem romantic, but it was close by. Everything was rationed, but they were miraculously able to find a restaurant serving shrimp, although it may have turned out to be more of a curse than a miracle, as Margaret later spent her wedding night with her arms wrapped around a cold toilet rather than her warm groom. The next day, they explored the joys of Boston and found a booth where they could sing into a machine and create their own phonograph record. If he hadn’t known it before, this is where Walter discovered one of his beautiful wife’s tragic flaws: she could not carry a tune. Indeed, although she would sing quite cheerfully and with great gusto, she had a terrible voice. When they turned the record over to make the second side, he said, “Here, let me sing by myself on this side,” and she said, “OK,” and smiled at him adoringly, because she was, after all, seventeen.

In just a few short days, Walter had to return to his military service, and Margaret, now Mrs. Joseph Walter Kelly, went back to high school.

Family 6: Joseph Walter

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.

Family 5: Joseph Patrick

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.

Family 4: Mathilda

Since she was the twelfth of the fourteen children in her family, Mathilda 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. Mathilda was the first child born in the United States, in the mill town of Smithfield, Rhode Island. Her mother was a school teacher, so Mathilda 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. Mathilda’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, Mathilda’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. Mathilda’s cousin, Sir Wilfred Laurier, was the first Prémier of Canada. Despite these exalted forebears, when Mathilda 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. Mathilda 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.

Family 3: Margaret

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.

Family 2: Archie

Archie Boucher worked in the local textile mill, like almost all of the young people in their Rhode Island village. He couldn’t help noticing lively young Peggy Lorimer, who had lately come from Scotland to live with her aunt and uncle. She was always laughing and having fun with her friends, but she seemed so shy when she saw him. She wouldn’t meet his gaze. Those eyes, though. He had never seen that shade of blue before. When he saw her coming out of the grocery one afternoon, looking up in dismay at the sudden rain, he took his chance.

“May I offer you a walk home under my umbrella?”

After Archie and Peggy married, he went to work for the A&P, and eventually became their produce manager. They soon had a daughter, whom they named Margaret, after her mother, and Peggy spent all of the baby’s nursing time stroking the sides of her nose so that it would be narrow, unlike her own. It worked—or perhaps Margaret just inherited her father’s nose. She certainly inherited her mother’s deep blue eyes, although they were never the clear, cornflower blue of Peggy’s own. They doted on little Margaret, who turned out to be a beauty. As much as their tiny budget would allow, they dressed her in the finest clothes and saw that she was always the prettiest girl in town.

Peggy never learned to cook well, but she could manage bacon and eggs, when they had them. Archie, on the other hand, was an artist in the kitchen. On Saturdays, he spent hours making the meals for the coming week. Pies were his specialty, and flaky crusts flew from his fingertips. Tortière, a Québécois delicacy, was always on the list. His father, Octave, may have had some influence on Archie’s tastes, although the surrounding area was soaked in French culture, as well, from the restaurants to the street names.

Jessie Comerford, Archie’s mother, was having none of it. The Comerfords were a fine New England family, stretching back almost to the Mayflower, and there was no way that Jessie was going to allow any children of hers to spoil that Yankee heritage by becoming Roman Catholics like all of these immigrants pouring into the country. It was a wonder to everyone that she had married Octave Boucher, that French Canadian Catholic. Perhaps it was because her Mr. Davis had died, leaving her with four little ones to feed. Perhaps it was one look at Octave’s comely face. In any case, he had given her two more boys, Archie and Raymond.

At the end of Jessie’s days, it fell to Archie and Peggy to care for her until she died. At an opportune moment, when her husband wasn’t around, Jessie begged Archie to promise her that he would always remain a Protestant, and that he would persuade his younger brother, Raymond, to do the same. He promised, not being a very religious man at all, anyway, and when little Margaret rejoiced to join Octave at Mass, he turned away and pretended not to notice.

Nine years after Margaret’s arrival, a son was born, and they named him Ralph after Archie’s older half-brother. It was the mid 1930s, and the family was enduring difficult times, as was everyone during the Depression. Archie was too proud to sign up for handouts at town hall, and the day came when the little family of four had nothing. The weather was turning cool when Archie put on his winter coat for the first time that year and went out to walk and pray. As he paced up and down the streets, he put his hands in his pockets to warm them, and one hand touched a silver dollar. He never knew how it came to be there, but he ran to the store and bought rice, bread, and other food to feed his children for a week. Time rolled on, jobs came back, but he made sure that his family remembered that God had answered his prayer when he needed Him most.

We remember, Grandad.