There was screaming all around me, and my vision was filled with the sight of my oversized snow boots being chewed and swallowed by the old wooden escalator. The toes were already consumed by the wide space at the end of the stair treads, and my feet were about to be crushed. Suddenly, I was whisked upward, right out of the boots, and I watched in horror as they disappeared under the machine, devoured by the wide, wooden slats.
This is my earliest memory. We were in Rhode Island for my grandfather’s funeral, and since I was a Georgia peach, I had never even seen snow. Fortunately—in many ways—my older cousin lent me a pair of her boots, and my toes remain intact.
My mother’s beloved father had shoveled out his driveway before going to work one January morning, and then he had a heart attack and drove into a snowbank. His body was robbed before the police arrived.
Some may say that his smoking contributed to his early death at only 54, but my mother believed that it was his stress over her brother, Ralph, whom they always called Sonny. My uncle is the shadowy, ne’er-do-well character on the periphery of my childhood and the father of my generous, boot-lending cousin.
Mom and I stayed in Rhode Island with my grandmother for a month or so, while my father and brother went home. After we returned to Georgia, my mother plunged into a year of mourning: no entertaining, no music, no laughter. The lynchpin had been pulled out of her life. She rebuilt, but the space was never filled. She told me later that Granddad had doted on me, and she regretted so much that he never saw me without the tumor that disfigured my toddler face. I wish I could remember him.
To this day, I give a surreptitious little hop at the end of every escalator.
No grocery stores for miles, flat tires, little boys running around with guns, and gale-force winds. It was a perfect vacation.
Our extended family, or at least five old people and a teenaged boy, spent a week in April in Surry, Virginia, touring the historic towns of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown, besides hanging out on the front porch watching the James River flow by while a pair of bald eagles feathered their nest in our yard. Unfortunately for our teenager, no one would agree to ride the roller coasters at Busch Gardens with him, so his week may have been quieter than he had hoped.
It is true that there was no internet connection, but it only took a few days for my hands to stop trembling. The ferry, however, was only a mile away, and it was our connection to civilization. It was free, ran on the half-hour, and landed right in Jamestown. We began to arrange our lives by the ferry schedule. Mornings were easy, as we always slept in, and evenings were spent bundled in afghans on the porch in this ridiculously interminable winter. In between, we soaked up history.
Jamestown is the oldest successful English settlement in North America. “Successful,” because Roanoke, North Carolina is older, but it disappeared. “Oldest,” because the tour guides want you to know that it was around for thirteen years before the Pilgrims of Plymouth, and if you forget, they will continue to remind you. Although the original museum is interesting, and the replicas of their ships are fun to climb on, if you drive one more mile to the original settlement site, you can see the monument of their landing and the archaeological digs that are underway. Here there is a second museum with skeletons and other morbidly fascinating artifacts.
If possible, join a guided tour by a ranger or a reenactor. We were fortunate to have the same tour guide, Dick Cheatham, at Yorktown and at Jamestown, where he dressed as John Rolfe, the man who married Pocahontas and introduced tobacco to Europe, which finally made the settlement self-supporting. The tour guides can help you to understand the movement of thought behind the physical structures, the reasons for the rejection of European models and the growth of the American worldview that resulted in the Revolutionary War. In Jamestown, the settlers suffered through and abolished the rigid English class system, tried socialism and died by the hundreds, and then settled on hard work and egalitarianism. The words of the Declaration of Independence didn’t descend from an ivory tower.
The capital of Virginia moved to Williamsburg in the 1690s because, as Powhatan had told them decades earlier, the water in Jamestown was unhealthy. The village in Historic Williamsburg now shows colonial life at its height. In the governor’s palace, we learned that the colonial leaders were strong monarchists and had no use for Parliament, which did nothing but levy taxes on them. Therefore, there are huge portraits of English kings hanging all over the palace. The maps on the walls show North America divided into horizontal stripes, with the holdings of the English, French, and Spanish in pastel colors. The existing residents were ignored, of course. The pink area of Virginia was carefully detailed on the east coast, with a straight-edged stripe leading off to the west coast, which is not shown. The crown of England was not sure exactly what the western edge of North America looked like, but they claimed it anyway. Although the governor kept a standing army, every male person above the age of sixteen had to have a weapon with ammunition and know how to use it. The army and the militia were separate, and the governor did not support the militia in any way. Interesting tidbits for our contemporary discussions of the second amendment. Wooden muskets and tri-cornered hats are sold in the market, and every little boy in town was running around in a red-state euphoria. I can still remember touring Williamsburg when I was a teenager, going from building to building, watching colonial craftsmen and -women plying their trades: candle making, book binding, and tailoring, to name a few. They are all still there! The very beautiful Episcopal church is still an active congregation and seems to have a rather prickly relationship with Historic Williamsburg.
After a quiet day of reading, we went to Yorktown on Thursday. For some reason, I was less enthusiastic about this one at first, probably because it was military history.
But ah, here was Dick Cheatham, this time dressed as Thomas Nelson, one of the many Thomas Nelsons in his illustrious family. He led us around the village, telling stories as he went, and what became clear to me was how providential our history is. There were so many times, from Jamestown to Yorktown and beyond, when we very nearly didn’t make it. It is as much a wonder that we are not British subjects today as that the whole world is not speaking German since World War II. While ordinary people are working hard to put food on the table, their leaders are busily arranging history. If it had not been for the French, we could not possibly have won our war for independence. If it had not been for the resistance at Yorktown, we would be watching The Crown as our own story. The Moore House, where the Articles of Capitulation were written, is nearby. After walking through the village and admiring the York River, you can jump in your car and ride around on the driving tour, where you will see berms built for cannons, battlefields, and the Surrender Field, which is— May I just say it since I refused to leave the car?— a field.
We returned to Jamestown a second time on Friday in order to learn more about the extensive diggings going on in the church and all over the grounds. Since the vast majority of the settlers died in the first ten years, the place is one big unmarked grave. It also took that long before the first group of women arrived, apparently after the investors figured out the answer to the problem, “I wonder why the population in our Virginia settlement never seems to increase. Hmm….” Had it not been for the friendship between ten-year-old Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, no one would have survived the harshest winter. Pocahontas risked her life to smuggle food into the fenced-off compound. In addition, John Smith was the first commoner to lead the settlement, and he had very different ideas about manual labor than the gentlemen who preceeded him.
Although John Smith and Pocahontas both have statues at Jamestown, they were never married or romantically involved at all. Sorry, Disney.
Our house in Surry was perfect for our group. Lots of common space, but generously sized bedrooms, as well. Deer in the backyard, eagles in the front. There is also a front living room, so there are two separate conversation areas. In this picture of the family room, dining area, and kitchen, we had taken a leaf out of the table to fit a birthday party tablecloth for my brother-in-law. My sister found the house on Home Away: https://www.vrbo.com/993515.
In the midst of the current madness, historic Virginia is a bracing reminder of the unique character of our nation. From struggling settlement to proud British colonists to rebellious subjects, these three towns will teach you and your children about the cost of freedom, the need for a thoughtful and informed citizenry, and the perilously fragile nature of liberty.
Mom was living alone with two kids when she found the lump. Dad had left us in a rented house in North Haledon, New Jersey, while he fled the unions up north for the booming textile plants in the south. Mom was pregnant when she arrived in snowy February, and Allan was placed in a Catholic school with more than usually ornery nuns. After I was born in August, my dad moved to Milledgeville, Georgia. It was a lonely time.
After just a few weeks, my mother started to notice that I had difficulty feeding. She slid her finger under my upper lip and found a pea-sized thickening. By the time she got to the doctor, the lump had grown. The doctor in Prospect Park gave her the news: her baby had a tumor in her lip that appeared to be benign, but would continue to grow and needed treatment. Soon it was a struggle to get nourishment into me, and my mother’s life became a battle to keep an infant healthy while giving her ten-year-old son a normal and happy childhood in their isolated home among strangers.
Finally, the day came that the family could live together again, but only by moving further than ever from everyone they knew and loved. Before my mother moved to Georgia, her doctor had cautioned her not to allow anyone to treat my tumor with radiation, since that would cause a hare lip. In those days, radiation was the most exciting new development available, and even shoe stores advertised that they could give you a perfect fit by making x-rays of your feet. The vast majority of people were completely ignorant of the dangers of radiation, and no precautions were taken to shield anyone from excess exposure. When my mother brought me to the doctor in the little town of Milledgeville, the very first suggestion was radiation. When she refused, they referred her to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where we endured years of torture, but with the best possible outcome at the end.
Every other week, my parents drove two hours to Atlanta, where I would start crying before they reached the parking lot of the hospital. They would carry their traumatized one- and then two-year-old daughter into the hospital, pull her clinging arms from around their necks, and hand me over to the hospital staff, who would wrap me tightly in sheets so that I could not move. I honestly have no memory of the treatments that continued until I was two and a half years old, but apparently, they were ineffective. I can only imagine the suffering my parents endured, knowing that we would all go through this again in two weeks, wishing that they could explain to me why they were delivering me over to be tortured, hoping that they were doing the right thing. My mother told me later that it affected my father so deeply that he spoke of it even decades later. In the end, the doctors decided that they would have to perform surgery.
Many people have negative opinions about plastic surgeons, thinking only of the high prices they charge to craft prettier noses or to make vain, rich women look younger than they are. I, however, thank the Lord for them, since the plastic surgeon at Emory University Hospital made it possible for me to live a normal life. By the time they operated, the tumor had disfigured the entire right side of my upper lip and extended into my nostrils. He decided to take as much as he could from underneath my lip, in order to cause as little scarring as possible. The oncologist warned my parents that I would probably need three more surgeries by the time I finished my teen years, two because of growth and one because of hormone changes in adolescence. I never needed another one.
When my son was a baby, he once threw his head back into my face while he was sitting on my lap, hitting hard enough to bring tears to my eyes. A few days later, my tongue found blisters right where my tumor scars were. I thought that perhaps pregnancy hormones had caused the tumor to grow back the way they had expected in my teen years. The oncologist read my medical record, examined me, and said no, there was nothing there but scar tissue. Then he said, “Hats off to your plastic surgeon. He did a spectacular job.”
So thank you, dear Dr. Kanthak and Dr. Wilkins, for giving me the ability to live a normal, happy life. As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that my upper lip has started to fold when I smile, creating a dark area where there is nothing underneath the skin. A small price to pay for avoiding a hare lip, and probably no one notices except me. It’s just a little reminder of the suffering we endured, my parents and me, when I was too young to remember.
The parents of the post-war generation had seen suffering firsthand. They had spent their earliest years in the Depression and had gone through further privation during World War II, whether they fought on the front lines, lost loved ones who served, or simply went without meat and sugar for years. Once those days were over, they were determined to give their own children the idyllic childhood they had never had.
Allan grew up in the house his father built until he was eight years old. His grandparents were next door, and he was surrounded by love on all sides. He was a quiet and dutiful child who attended Catholic school and loved to watch Howdy Doody Time and The Mickey Mouse Club every day. For so many working class and middle class kids in the 1950s and early 1960s, the old sit-coms like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver were real-life portrayals of their everyday lives. The entire nation cooperated in safeguarding their innocence, and although there were serious issues—the nuclear threat and the beginnings of the struggles for civil rights—children were largely unaware of them. In those days, there were no cable news channels, so if adults wanted to know the news they either had to tune in for half an hour at six o’clock or read a newspaper. Not everyone even owned a television, anyway. People read books and listened to the ball game on the radio. In many ways, it was a simple, wholesome time.
The textile mills in New England were struggling with union activity, and more and more of them were closing. Walter moved his family to North Andover, Massachusetts, when Allan was eight, leaving both his and Margaret’s parents behind. On their own for the first time, Walter and Margaret became Joe and Marge, and a new phase of life began. Marge worked as a secretary, and Allan played baseball and hung out with his pal, Joey. Every Saturday, the boys went to the movies, and then went across the street to the store where they sold EC Comics. Apparently, they were terrifying, so much so that Stephen King says that his career was launched from his childhood love of these illustrated horror stories. The federal government was so appalled that American children could access such frightening material that they forbade the publication of all EC Comics. Today, adults who grew up on them collect them from E-Bay listings. And that, dear reader, is why we celebrate Banned Books Week today.
The Kelly family had only lived in North Andover for a couple of years when Joe began looking for a better position elsewhere. About that same time, Marge was struck with rheumatic fever, and in those days, bed rest was required for more than a month. When Marge was finally able to get out of bed and try to resume normal life, she discovered that she was pregnant again. Her doctor was very unhappy about this development, and advised her to have an abortion. He told her that rheumatic fever had damaged her heart, and that she would not survive childbirth. Marge and Joe were devout Catholics, however, and they were in anguish. Abortion was unthinkable, but so was leaving Allan motherless. They decided to go to a cardiologist for a second opinion, and he thought she could take the risk.
And so, a few months later, after the family had moved to North Haledon, New Jersey, I was born in the summer of 1958. Allan tells me that our mother loved a name that she heard every afternoon on his favorite show, that of Cheryl Holdridge, and so she passed it on.
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.
As 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.
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.