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.
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 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.
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.