All in all you’re just another brick in the wall

Our unoffical school song. The chorus had been spray-painted on the side of the building for forever. They didn’t even bother to try and remove it. They knew it didn’t matter.

I grew up in Boston and went to school during forced busing. A brutal and ugly chapter in Boston’s history. Neighborhood schools were devastated and many of my friends either left the city or went to catholic school. I understand the rationale behind busing and I support it; I’m just sorry that I had to live through it.

I hated school. All school. Every school. But especially English. Don’t get me wrong, I loved being a teenager. I had fun – a little too much at times! I had my dark moments, but for the most part I dated, and danced, and had great friends. They just weren’t associated with school. They were from the neighborhood. Jamaica Plain.

I went to school, like I did everything else, with my sister Tracey. We went to English High. It’s wind-swept plaza and broken escalators, its ten stories of disgusting lockers and bathrooms that were never open. Hate. I would wake-up every morning and wish, as my first thought for the day, that during the night the school had burned to the ground. It never happened. Never.

But school wasn’t the first hurdle most mornings. No. That was reserved for actually getting to school. We would get up and get ready knowing that a ginormous exercise in suck, courtesy of the MBTA, awaited. The trolleys. The lame, crappy trolleys that would be so crowded by the time they arrived at our stop that they just drove on by, the sign changed to “Express”.  After the first 6 or 7 fully-loaded trolley cars had passed, someone at Forest Hills had a semi-coherent thought and sent an empty one to pick up all the people left on the side of the road. So squeezed into a rundown old trolley that squealed its way down Huntington Ave, getting felt-up by creeps and freaks, we would still then make the couple of block walk to school.  Thankfully, homeroom was after second period and we were seldom marked tardy.

Not that it mattered. Education was secondary. Herding kids up and down 10 stories between every class change – making sure that fighting and drug-selling were minimized  – that was the goal. A warehouse. For kids. I’m sure some walked out with a decent education but I don’t know any. It certainly wasn’t me. I educated myself, later, after I graduated.

I give you that lovely backstory to contrast it to my experience as a parent.

I love school! Plymouth Schools are great. From Oak Street, a charming, turn-of-the-century 2 room school house that both kids were lucky to attend for kindergarten. To Cold Spring and everything they did for both kids but especially for all the special effort (a whole other story) that was showered on Emma. To PCIS and now to Plymouth North. The staff and the parents go above and beyond. Sure, I’ve run into a couple of people that don’t but they’re few and far between.

I love seeing the kids when they’re in school. Walking around, proud of their surroundings and their achievements. I’m thrilled with the people they are becoming. Most of that is from us of course but part is also from their community and their schools. We chose Plymouth rather randomly; it had homes we could afford, it was seaside, and it was on the South Shore. I’m glad we landed here. I (all of us really) have made some tremendous friends that continue to enrich our lives. Even if I don’t see them as often as I’d like!

Wrestling with my thoughts (and losing)

Brain is winning the battle this morning; it is being uncommunicative and petulant. Ideas are in there. I can see them, peeking out, but I can’t seem to grab hold of them in any coherent way.

Thinking of Christmas: past, present and future.

Thinking of old friends who are sick and those who are rallying around.

Thinking of Dylan and his upcoming knee surgery.

Thinking of Emma and wondering where the quiet went.

Thinking of youth and exhuberance vs. age and experience.

Thinking of everything I need to finish before the end of today…

I sometimes think, I think too much.

Decorating the tree – my favorite part of Christmas

Today is a “busy” day. I have lots of busy to do: house stuff; Christmas stuff; work stuff; volunteer stuff. Stuff. All of it necessary and all of it demanding my attention today. I like doing stuff. Keeps me busy and out of trouble (mostly).

Looking forward to the Christmas stuff the most. I love this time of year, moreso now that I have kids. It was Dad’s favorite holiday – favorite! I think that’s where it starts for me.

Decorating the tree is what I enjoy most. Every year the kids get ornaments. Some from their grandparents, some from aunts, but mostly from Pat and me. In the ornaments we give, we try to reflect an event or interest they had that year, a chronicle of their lives. They love this day as well. I have saved every box. Each is labelled with their name, who gave it to them, and the date. I love their questions and comments. I love seeing their faces as they uncover a memory, see it grow in them, and watch with joy as they re-live a happy time or a effort well done.

With Christmas music playing in the background, the sparkling cider or cocoa, the laughter and the reminiscing, it’s really my favorite day of the season. It reinforces the family and traditions we are trying to teach the kids. Family is the basis of everything; of brotherhood; of tradition; of good will; family is the basis of Christmas. At least in this family.

It’s why I don’t understand the “War on Christmas” drama. At all. Not one single bit of it.

Have you ever wished anyone a Merry Christmas and had them snap at you? I haven’t. But even if you have, it only means you have met one of the eleventy-billion assholes that inhabit Earth at any given second. I have slipped up and said Merry Christmas to my Jewish friends. Know what they said to me? Happy Holidays or Peace or they’ll give me a blessing in Hebrew. Know what, I’m not offended and neither are they. We’re grown-ups. With enough drama in our lives already that we don’t need manufactured, Bill O’Reilly, hyped-up nonsense. Not today, not next week, not ever.

Anything that makes people stop, appreciate the world around them, focus on others instead of themselves, is a good thing, right? An ability to share our traditions and share the traditions of our neighbors; expanding the joy of the season to others is a positive, affirming action. A blessing. I spend the season counting mine, loving my family, and being good to my neighbors; I try to surprise myself.

Live your life your way. Open your heart to new and different ideas. Expand your idea of brotherhood. Plenty of things want to do you harm, don’t mistake the real ones for the manufactured ones. That’s when we all lose.

Me, I’m going to spend this season like I spend most of them, working and shopping and singing. I’m going to wish everyone I see a Happy Holiday, Merry Christmas, Peace, Shalom, or Happy Festivus. I never know what’s coming out until it’s already out. If I offend you, that’s your problem, stop trying to make it mine.

The after

I love holidays. All of them. I have a few favorites like 4th of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The holidays with spectacle. I like the build-up (although Christmas seems to get more ridiculous each year). Seems to be the more work I have to do, the better I like the holiday. Hmmm, sounds like an issue.

The holidays of my youth are legendary. Thanksgiving and Christmas especially. They started early, we hosted legions of family, and they seemed to last for days. You never knew who was going to show, but whoever did was welcomed and fed.

As much as I like the planning and the executing. As much as I like the dining and the presents. My favorite part of holidays is The After. When everyone is fed, presents are opened, everything is cleaned, the last guest has gone. There is a peace and serenity that exists. Everyone is home and happy. There are no intrusions. There is only family. Content. The reason you make the extra effort.

I’m happiest then. I have a great sense of accomplishment. I have a great life. I have a husband who adores me (although he’ll probably deny that), amazing children, sisters, nieces, nephews, friends, a crazy old mother, in-laws that I don’t see enough, and cousins that are scattered to the wind.

Last night, for the first time, the kids noticed The After. As we settled into the living room for a movie, everyone was cozy and content. No one fought over seats, or bickered over the movie, it was just us – coming together as family.

After.

Thanksgiving kitty: Gizmo, the cat who hated everyone

Pat and I got Gizmo our first Thanksgiving together way back in 1992. Gizmo was never a happy cat, not even as a kitten. He lived his entire life as a grumpy-old-man-cat.

The only person he liked was me and he wanted to be with me constantly. Giz got less attention when I started having kids, Dylan first and then Emma. They took most of my time and poor old curmudgeony Giz got pushed aside. That’s ok I think he liked the abuse.

The kids wanted him to like them, especially Emma. She wanted the fluffy kitty to play with her and be her pal. Gizmo would look at her with a sneer, as if to say, nope. Never. Not gonna happen. To amuse ourselves we would make up songs about poor Gizmo. Our favorite was GIZMO (like BINGO) “There was a family had a kitten and Gizmo was his name-o, G-I-Z-M-O.” Not terribly original but we liked it. What, we’re easily amused.

Gizmo

Gizmo

Gizmo lasted a long-time. He outlasted Baby Kitten and Jake (our other cats). I knew his time was getting close. He was having trouble with the stairs and he was losing weight. One day he disappeared. It was the week before Thanksgiving, fitting really. I looked around for him but no luck. Life keeps its own schedule and we were getting ready for a trip to Baltimore for a family wedding (shout-out to Chris and Cora!) so I said very little about him to the kids and prepped for our trip.

My plan was to do laundry Wednesday, pack Thursday, and leave directly after school Friday for the 8 hour drive to Baltimore. I washed my first load and tossed it in the dryer. When I went to retrieve the laundry, it was still wet. I figured I forgot to press the start button – it had happened before.  Popped it on again and went to bed. Next morning, laundry is still wet. Great! Dryer’s broken. I’ll deal with it after work. I get home and run outside to check the vent for clogs. That’s when I find Gizmo.

Dead. In his favorite spot, the window well. Hard up against the dryer vent, blocking it.

So now I have: a dead cat, dirty and wet laundry, and children I have to tell that their cat is dead. Joy to my world. I cover the cat, package up the laundry to take to the Laundromat and sit down to tell the kids Giz is dead. They react how I expect them to react. By then it’s late, so Giz will have to wait until morning.

Friday dawns, cold and rainy – pouring to be precise – and me with a cat to bury. Out in the garden, I dig a hole and place Gizmo in as gently as possible. Now before I can close the hole, the children need a service – a freaking graveside service, in the pouring rain, for a cat who hated everyone. And who gets to officiate at this service. That’s right, me. As I stand in the garden, wet and cold and not a little irritated, I’m thinking to myself that my kids are never watching TV again. Ever. Stupid cartoons. With their stupid pet burials and elaborate services. Hate.

We eventually make it to Baltimore; Chris and Cora’s wedding was beautiful.

If you think that was the end of our Thanksgiving travails that year, well, you’d be wrong. But that’s a story for another blog.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Enjoy your families and count your blessings.

The apple never falls far from the tree, part two

This is Part 2. For Part 1, click here.

mikey

Mikey

We lost Dad almost 20 years ago. This story is not about that but it recalls something that happened that day. A moment between a mother and her son, a legendary family story, and Dad maybe getting a little even in the end.

Mikey was five and Tracey’s youngest son. He spent that February day running around and playing with his brother and cousins. Not paying attention to all the tears and drama that consumed the adults.

Eveyone was at the house. All the sisters. Their kids. Spouses and significant others. Aunts, uncles, cousins and neighbors streamed in and out all day. Phone calls made and answered. At one point, Tracey and Mom went up to Mom’s room for a little while. Eventually Mikey noticed his Mom was missing.

Where’s my Mom? She’s upstairs with Grammy, she’ll be done soon. Do you need anything?

I don’t feel good. My nose is stuffy; it hurts. He was looked over and told he was fine. The grown-ups around him figuring he was just trying to get his mom to come downstairs.

Off he goes to play. Not for long.

Again. My nose is stuffy. I don’t feel good. I want my Mom. He was looked over, again, and told he was fine. That his Mom was busy with Grammy and would be down soon. Well Tracey and Grammy eventually came down and at some point he mentions to his Mom that he doesn’t feel good.

And then, that’s when it really gets going. After quizzing him about what was wrong, Tracey did what any mother would do, she looked up his nose. She thought she could see something but, to be certain, asked other people to look up her child’s nose. All the other parents thought that this was a normal request; I however, not yet attuned to the idiotic things that parent do, passed. What, boogers are gross.

Everyone agreed – Mikey had something up his nose. The question was what and how to remove it. Speculation abounded and it was generally assumed to be a cocoa puff. Discussions are had regarding the best way to break up the cocoa puff. Ed, Laura’s boyfriend, is trying to see if he can get Mikey to blow as hard as he can to dislodge it.

Mikey, by now regretting ever mentioning that something was wrong, kept looking around as if he wished the floor would open up and swallow him. His mother, getting more annoyed as he refused to tell her what is lodged in his nose, is now threating him with a trip to the hospital where the doctors will give him all sorts of needles and worse.

Finally, Mikey gives a mighty blow. The object shoots from his nose. The offending projectile is found and an intense debate about what the hard oval mass is ensues.

That’s when we hear him. Mikey. Shaken and small. Five-year-old Mikey. Standing there, staring up at his mother. His mother, who is in no mood, and says:

“Maybe it’s a pussy willow”

A pussy willow. Mikey, at school several days prior, had gotten a pussy willow bud lodged in his nose and was too afraid to tell anyone.

In those four little words, I saw my Dad reflected in my sister’s face. I like to think that Dad, soaring high in the universe, paused briefly in the folly of his new adventure, and laughed. His deep, rumbling, belly laugh, the one without sound. The one that made his whole body shake. Yeah. His Irish eyes shining with sheer delight at his tiny little Tracey and her toilet-clogging-self.

The apple never falls far from the tree, part one

tracey

Tracey

This is a story about my sister Tracey. Tracey, for the unitiated, was my closest sister growing up and our exploits could fill a book. Maybe two. She is quick to anger and can hold a grudge like only an Irishman. She is also the one person you want having your back. Seriously, she will cut a bitch. For real.

This story, like so many, begins on Sheridan Street.

Tracey was probably about 5, making me 4. Our house had not yet devolved into a total circus. Mom was busy with 5 kids and a home to run. Dad worked 2 jobs, full-time as a mechanic for the city and part-time at the local gas station. He was, of course, responsible for any maintenace issues that would crop up in an older home.

On this particular day, Dad was trying to fix the toilet. The only toilet. In a house full of kids. Yeah, not fun. Dad had a great sense of humor, most of the time. When irritated and frustrated, not so much. So after many hours of trying to fix the problem, he was in no mood for children or their questions.

Picture a small bathroom. Just big enough to house a tub and toilet along one wall and a double vanity directly across. Now imagine, Jim. Big Jim. The giant of my youth. Cramming himself into the corner trying to figure out what was clogging up the works. Yeah, not a happy camper.

At one point, late in the day, Tracey and her constant companion (that’s me) sauntered, oops, walked into the bathroom to check on Dad and give encouragement. There she stood, tiny little Tracey with her auburn and brown hair, looking at her father – her sweaty and tired and frustrated father.

What does this, his middle child say to him, what words of love and encouragement does this child seek to impart to her father.

“Maybe it’s an apple.” An Apple. Tracey had flushed her apple down the toilet!

At four I don’t remember his immediate reaction but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the version he used later in his multiple retellings –  his Irish eyes shining with delight, as he polished and embellished this story into family lore.

Stay tuned for Part 2, wherein Jim exacts his revenge.

A Sassy, Foul-Mouthed Brunette: The Girl That Slayed The Giant

WARNING: STRONG LANGUAGE AHEAD

andrea(If you’re new to the blog, I suggest you first read How 5 Little Girls Briefly Slayed the Giant.)

Andrea. I think about her often. I hope she’s happy; she deserves it more than any person I have known.

Andrea lived at the New England Home for Little Wanderers. Aunt Maryanne (one of the 13 permanent residents of Sheridan Street) worked there, cleaning up after the residents and staff. I always assumed it was an orphanage but all of the Little Wanderer residents went home on the weekends.

All except Andrea.

Andrea was a ward of the state. She had been in and out of foster care and, finally, had been permanently removed from her parent’s care after their umpteenth time of causing her actual, physical harm. I think the last straw was when her mother tried to drown her in the bathtub. Apparently beating and burning a child with cigarettes are not sufficiently cruel enough acts to warrant being removed from parental care.

Andrea, having no where to go on weekends bounced between the professional staff until she found a home on Sheridan Street. She spent every weekend and holiday with us, a fragile patch in our quilt of crazy. When she was introduced into our lives she was broken, in body and spirit. She was practically feral. She didn’t know how to use utensils, or clean herself, or anything really.

She was 6 years old, looked 10, and swore like a sailor.

It seemed to take no time for her to acclimate to the rhythm of life on Sheridan Street. She was wanted and she was loved and after a time she seemed to realize that and she relaxed. A little. With Andrea you had one simple thing to remember or you would set off a firestorm of cussing that would curl your ears.

Never, ever, try to take her food. Ever. Seriously. NEV-ER. Especially if that food was pizza.

Andrea loved Maryanne (her primary caretaker at home), Aunt Barbara (my mom), all the various kids and guests. But her special, all consuming love was reserved for one person: Uncle Jimmy. Or Papa Smurf as she would call him, laughingly. A completely appropriate nickname coined for him by Deb’s friend Robin, for at that time in his life, he looked, well, like Papa Smurf.

Dad treated everyone equal. Prince or pauper, you were good people until your actions proved otherwise. He treated Andrea like all the other kids, to him she was a kid no matter what lie in her past, and he treated her like he treated the rest — and tough luck if she didn’t like it. When she didn’t, she let him know in the most vocal, invective-filled way imaginable.

An Andrea rant was a thing of stunning simplicity. It consisted mainly of saying “fuck you” as loudly and creatively as possible. For example: fuck you, Uncle Jimmy, fuck, fuck, fuck, you. Uncle Jimmy. You fuck, fuck, fuck you. From a six year old. They’re legendary in our family and all it takes is one FU Uncle Jimmy to make all the sisters dissolve into laughter.

She would stand there red and angry; immovable; sputtering and growling (really, she would growl, grrr; low in her throat). There she was, not crying, chin up, shaking with rage, staring the giant in the face and telling him to go fuck himself. And Uncle Jimmy, the original red-faced sputterer, what did he do? Well, he looked right at her and laughed. A deep, rumbling, silent laugh that would have his whole body shaking. And that, THAT, would infuriate her and spur her to ever greater heights of fuck youing.

I was 17 when Andrea left us. She was adopted by a family that had experience dealing with children like her. Experience, the state decided, our crazy home did not possess. The family that taught her about love and family and fun and Christmas. Yeah Us. We weren’t a suitable family for Andrea. Us, the ones who taught her to share, and be social, and laugh, and be patient. Why? We didn’t meet state guidelines. We were also told that for her transition to be successful all ties would have to be cut; we never saw her again.

I remember the day she left. She was wearing Dad’s ridiculously large cowboy hat and carrying her favorite stuffed animal. I remember her waving from the car and the car pulling away.

In the action of her leaving, it was in that moment, that I thought Dad had finally met his match. A sassy, foul-mouthed brunette with an appetite for pizza and Papa Smurf. The battered and broken little girl who looked him in his eye and gave him hell, Her. She left him standing in his front yard, smaller than I had ever seen him.

Trying hard to hide his tears.

Why don’t you go sit on the couch, next to Mom

bruinsMy mom has changed very little over the years. Sure she is losing the battle with age. Her hair now sits, white, upon her head. She has trouble walking so spends her time outside the house in a wheelchair. She has survived more than a few brushes with the Reaper. She is a testament to medical science.

Mom’s heyday was the 70s. She was raising five girls and running a home. She babysat for everyone and anyone, she fed and housed any stray that Dad dragged home, and she did it without complaint or reward.

She did it because she has the same big heart that Dad had. She just didn’t publicize it.

Mom had a few vices. She drank hot tea by the gallon and she chain smoked — at first Pall Mall Menthols and later Salem 100s. Back in the 70s, when kids were allowed to buy cigarettes, one of us would be dispatched to F&M to get her more if she were running low. Imagine that happening today!

She loves sports and she is the quintessential homer. Her Red Sox. Her Celtics. Her Bruins. Especially her Bruins.

Back in the day, we had one TV. It sat in the bay window in the living room, with rabbit ears and human remote controls. Arrayed around the room was typical furniture – sofa, loveseat, chair, assorted tables. In the evening, the living room would fill up as we spread out to watch TV. Arguments about seating were legendary and alliances were forged and broken to make sure prime seating was kept by those with the foresight to get to the living room early.

On certain nights, the TV watching dynamic shifted – hard. Everyone scrambled to the floor. Fighting and shoving to get as far away from the furniture as possible. You had to be strategic, to close to the TV and you would be up and down – the official channel changer for the evening, but you needed to be far enough away from the couch to be safe.

The Bruins were on and Mom was going to sit and watch them. Terror stuck the sisters! Mom was not a quiet fan she was not a passive fan. Our mother, the calm that ran our lives, became a raging, crazy lunatic whenever the Bruins played.

We always seemed to have company. Always. On this particular night the Powderly’s were visiting, at least Dan and his daughter, Mary Jo. They lived just over the other side of Sheridan Street. Dad and Danny were childhood friends and Mary Jo was a constant presence in our house since she was best friends with Debbie, my oldest sister.

Dad and Dan settled in, each with a beer. Mom sat at the end of the couch, alone. While all of the sisters, plus Mary Jo, squirmed around on the floor. Mary Jo, puzzled, asked why she couldn’t sit on the furniture.

One of the sisters, not sure which, said “Why don’t you go sit on the couch, next to Mom”.

So off she went. It was fine, at first.

Then the game started in earnest. Her focus firmly on the game, Mom would start by talking to the TV – get him, GET him, GET HIM! Son-of-a-bitch GET HIM!

As the game progressed, so did Mom. She quickly moved from talking to yelling to jumping to flailing. At one point the action was so savage and quick, that Mom literally lept from the couch – scaring poor Mary Jo; who looked at our mother as if she had lost her mind.

That’s when it happened. Mom – sweet, lovable Mom –  worked into a frenzy by her big, bad, Bruins clenched her hands, raised them above her head, and – WHAM – punched, yep PUNCHED, a child. In the leg. Hard.

A child, by the way, that did not belong to her! The woman who wouldn’t harm a fly, who never

laid a finger on any of her children – yeah, that woman – became a crazy lunatic. Because of the Bruins. The Big, Bad Bruins. Baby.

Mary Jo recovered from her leg injury without any lasting physical damage. Although she kept her distance from Mom for a while after that incident.

Mom, she still loves her some Bruins (and all the other home teams) and watches as often as she can. She watches them alone. In her room. Perched on the edge of her bed. No longer chain smoking but still guzzling her tea – now iced. Intent on the action. Having the time of her life.

You don’t have to watch the game to follow the action. You only need to listen to the sounds emanating from the bedroom. Her shouts of joy, frustration, irritation, and incredulity tell a story more compelling – to me, a non-sports fan – than any announcer ever could.

All I know is, if there’s a heaven, God better be a Bruins fan! Or he’s in for one hell of an eternity

Joan of Arc, a re-enactment of an historic event by children

Behind the house was our backyard. Our yard was bordered by another yard, one that belonged to the Butler’s on Forbes Street. I loved going to the Butler’s. Not just because we had fun but because the house held another fascination for me. It was the house my father grew up in. Cool, right. I would try to image him as a little boy, running through the house, playing and raising hell.

Jim was one of ten kids, and the youngest boy. From all accounts, he was a handfull! He loved telling stories and was a very charming and engaging storyteller (loads of blarney in him, that’s for sure). One of his favorite stories to tell was the story of Joan of Arc. Or, more precisely, how he and a few of his siblings decided to re-enact the story of Joan of Arc. Not the whole story, mind you. Only the part where Joan was burned at the stake.

He enlisted the youngest of the Mulvey clan – Chrissy (or Lovey as she was called) to play the part of Joan. With “Joan” secured to a post in the basement… Oh, did I not to tell you that they would be re-enacting the burning of Joan of Arc inside, my bad.

So we have “Joan”, secured to the post, patiently waiting while they build the base for the fire. Before lighting the fire they post a sentry outside the basement door, in the hallway off the kitchen. I think it may have been Clare.

Clare, when asked what she was doing, replied “nothing”. Paul, recently back from the Army, didn’t really believe Clare. He moves her aside, descends the basement stairs, and ascertains that he has a situation on his hands.

He finds: a small fire being fed by a crazy-eyed Joe, “Joan”, still tied to the post, yelling to make the fire bigger, and Jimmy running around the basement yelling “insults” at “Joan”.

Paul trying to douse the fire before it reaches “Joan”, is being thwarted by a crazy-eyed Joe who keeps tossing scraps of paper and debris on the fire. Nearby “Joan”, still tied to the post, continues to yell that the fire isn’t big enough and that Paul should mind his business and leave them alone. Jimmy continues to run, screaming, around the basement, adding to the chaos.

Paul finally succeeds in dousing the fire, unties “Joan”, and cleans up the mess. He calmly walks up two flights of stairs to his room, packs his recently unpacked bags, and leaves. According to Dad, the family didn’t hear from him for two years.

And that my friends, is the story of Joan of Arc, Mulvey Style. A story told expressively by Jim Mulvey, ringleader, and retold by me, his daughter. There was nothing historically accurate about the re-enactment, but you must admit, it’s a hellava good story. As I’m typing this, I can hear his booming voice, I can see the laughter in his eyes, I can see the boy he must have been — raising hell and having a great time.

It’s times like now that I miss him most. I miss his wit and his charm but I think I miss his laugh most of all.