My father loved designing and sailing boats that moved quickly over the water. Our home was next to the ocean and that was as close as my mother wanted to get to being on the water. So it was a memorable occasion the day my dad coaxed her out for a picnic lunch on our sailboat that he had designed and built. A brisk wind took us to the Boston Lightship five miles out from shore. It was a hot summer day and the sea was as still as a mill pond and by noon every breath of wind had vanished.
“Well, Frannie, now what?” Mom asked. “No problem,” replied my dad. “By the time we finish our picnic the afternoon wind will come to take us home”. I looked overboard and imagined myself with my mask and flippers on, floating on the surface and looking down toward darkness and the bottom 200 feet below. No matter how deep I would dive I would never see the ocean floor, only sunlight disappearing into a void where I knew all the monsters of the deep lived.
Most summer mornings I would get up, throw on an old swim suit and head out to the rocks in front of my house where I would either dive for lobsters which we would eat for lunch or spear flounder which mom would clean for supper. The water was mostly shallow, barely over my head and mom could keep an eye on me from the house as she did her chores. I devoured books by the French diver Jacques Cousteau and my dad and I made a rubber diving suit one summer to keep me warm against the cold currents. Off my house I was always able to see the bottom and felt safe from the larger fish that I imagined swam out in the deeper water.
The lightship was very close now and I waved at a Coast Guard sailor walking on deck. As mom was taking the lunch out of the picnic basket my brother John tapped me on the shoulder. Off the port bow of our sailboat appeared the fin of a fish that we both immediately recognized as belonging to a shark. We both looked at each other with concern. This was the last thing mom needed before lunch. She was dressed in her funny bathing suit and huge sun hat happily eating a tomato sandwich and looking in the opposite direction.
Just as I was about to covertly signal my dad, another fin appeared off the port stern and all at once I realized that it belonged to the same fish, that it was in fact not a fin but part of a tail. This meant that the shark was as long as the boat, 18 feet overall. We were having lunch with a monster from the deep, a hammerhead shark. I tried to think of some clever way to introduce our predicament to my mom who was well known for her ability to overreact.
“Hey guys, look who has dropped by to say hello.” Mom nonchalantly looked over her left shoulder at the front fin, then over her right shoulder at the tail fin and then said with uncharacteristic bravado, “Oh darn, just when I was thinking of taking a dip.”
But today my mother was no longer alive and this morning I would help bury her. I sat in the upper most room of my childhood friend Michael’s home. No one lived up here now. Once it had been the secret domain of one of his children. Built like the upper room of a lighthouse with windows facing the sea, one could see the distant beach and the breaking waves. This morning I was not looking out the windows. My eyes were shut and I was as still as a post as my mind was busy at work feeding me the raw footage of a small child playing by the ocean, a doting mother by his side.
I had awakened early to prepare for the eulogy the oldest son must give. I went over my notes but my words fought with my conscience. Since she arrived in Cohasset as the young bride of my father almost 70 years ago, my mother had been the pinnacle of our community. For days now, many people whom I had not seen in over 50 years had been writing, calling, or stopping me in the street. Their eyes and their voices filled with tears as they shared with me stories of my mother’s kindness, courage and strength.
And I would leave these exchanges asking myself if they were talking about my mother or someone else. As I now sat rigidly in the tower room, the movie house of my mind played and replayed in vivid color the stories I held to be true.
The series of telephone calls to my college dorm room would usually start on Wednesday evenings. My father would be first, asking how things were going this week and did I have any plans for the weekend. I would reply that school was fine, that I might make the second string soccer squad and that I had plans to visit friends on the Cape after Saturday’s game. Mom’s call would follow Thursday night, saying that she had just bought a roast at the Central Market and why don’t I bring my friends home for the weekend. I would tell her patiently that I had plans and wish her well. Dad would end the week with a pleading tone in his voice, saying without a word that I was needed at home.
And I always went home. And my mother and I would always end the weekend with a fight. And I would pull my car over every Sunday evening at the same stretch of deserted road two miles from home and wretch my guts out in the ditch. Only then would tears appear in my eyes.
My mom grew up in the Boston suburb of Newton in the roaring 20’s. She was the oldest of five and the apple of her fathers’ eye. She never recovered completely from his sudden death, leaving her when she was only 17 years old. She became a kindergarten teacher and fell in love with my father the day he arrived at her classroom with two newborn baby spring lambs. My dad’s mom Josephine invited them shortly after their marriage to join her on the rocky shores of Cohasset south of Boston and purchased for them a huge Spanish stucco home overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Complete with red tile roof and porches reaching out over the sea, parakeets escaping from a nearby amusement park would routinely mistake our house for the coast of Mexico and make their home for the summer.
My dad was born in the Dorchester section of Boston where thousands of Irish families had settled since the mass immigration of the mid 1800’s, victims of genocide at the hands of the British and the potato famine. His father John was a liquor salesman, a sports guide in the North Woods and could barely write his name. Frannie never talked much about his youth. His father died when my dad was 7, leaving Josephine to raise he and his two brothers, John Jr. and Robert. In spite of his refusal to talk of the past I did learn a few things.
One day Marty and I attended a wedding in Vermont on a beautiful hillside under a green tent. Back in the corner sitting all by himself was a rugged gentleman who looked like someone’s grandpa. I didn’t know anyone at the wedding so I sat down beside him and introduced myself.
“I once knew a John Hagerty,” Norm said. “He was from Boston.”
“Oh, that must be my brother,” I replied.
“This John Hagerty has been dead for a long time,” he said.
I quickly realized that he might be talking about my grandfather.
“He was quite a character. He used to take “sports” hunting in the North Woods and one fall he took my dad and me to Quebec to hunt moose. Two things I remember were that he always wore just a flannel shirt, rarely a jacket, no matter how cold it got. And he could throw a knife.”
“One day we were camped about 200 miles north of Montreal. We were dropped off by the train and had enough grub for one week. He had an Indian for a guide and we made camp on a lake. Well sure enough there we meet another bunch of sports who were fishing and they also had an Indian guide from the same tribe.”
“Well we sort of camped together, had two separate fires. And pretty soon this guy from Colorado comes over and says to John ‘I hear you’re pretty good with a knife.’ John doesn’t say much. ‘My guide says that you can throw a knife through a pack of Lucky Strikes at 50 paces.’ John grunts something and the guy throws down $20 that says he can’t.”
John’s Indian takes out a pack of Lucky Strikes, walks out 50 paces and lays the cigarettes on a tree branch. John then gets up slowly, reaches in his pocket and covers the Colorado guys bet, and without so much as an aim, whips his long knife out of his leather sheath and through the air and splits the pack in two. Later he gave both Indians a $10 bill on the sly.”
This story reminded me of a day in Dorchester looking for an old car with my dad. We were driving down a street when he casually pointed out the house where he was born. I forced him to stop the car and I jumped out and ran up the driveway and knocked on the front door. He was so embarrassed when the owner and his wife invited us in. But they took us down cellar and showed me the beam filled with knife marks. My grandpa had died here from a massive coronary at the young age of 37.
Thought Josephine would mourn his death for the remainder of her life, a bright light of intellectuality and financial acumen accompanied her wherever she went. From her business dealings she amassed enough money to send both Robert and John to Harvard and my dad to MIT. Through her son John she made the acquaintance of the German architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer and the Dutch designer Meis Van Der Rough. These three architects had fled the Bauhaus School of Design as the Nazis took over Germany. Together they agreed to design for Josephine their first residential home in America, complete with Bauhaus furniture. We called the place “the modern house”. Every summer of my childhood I would run down the back stairs of my Spanish “hacienda” and join Josephine in her Bauhaus garden of sunflowers to eat honey she would import from Cuba with large wooden spoons.
My grandmother outweighed my mother by 100 lbs but they quickly became fast friends. They cut quite a path as they made their way down Cohasset’s Main Street towards the Central Market to go shopping. Mary in her summer dress with me riding inside her belly waiting to pop out and huge Josephine dressed in a widow’s black, defying the July heat wave that summer. Men would tip their hats and women would smile as they passed, perhaps slightly intimidated by the confidence Josephine exuded as she made her way through town.
Our neighbors were almost all of old Yankee stock and when my father applied to join the Cohasset Yacht Club he wondered out loud if he had a chance. But by then he was already a talented boat builder and some of the yacht club members had rowed in his sleek racing shells at Harvard so he and my mom were admitted.
“You know Mary,” she said one day “when I graduated from Radcliffe in 1907, I was the first Irish girl ever to do so. But I could not find a job. My name was Curry and everyone knew I was Irish. The newspapers routinely ran ads for help adding ‘Irish need not apply’. But we survived and so will you. These people will learn to love you, you mark my words.”
The first and only time I saw my mother and father cry together was the morning we found Josephine dead in the modern house. Only a few days before I had been visiting after school and found her working with Gropius and Van Der Rough, discussing a rusted window frame. There was an artist there that day painting with pastels on the stairwell walls named Alfonso Ossorio. He believed he was the reincarnation of St. Francis of Assisi. Dressed in monk’s habit, he chewed peyote nuts he carried in the deep pockets of his robes and recited prayers in Mexican Spanish.
It was 4:30 in the afternoon when Cardinal Cushing came on the radio to say the rosary. Everyone knew the drill. Jew, Lutheran, stoned out monk or child, we all stopped our work and either knelt or sat. And under the watchful gaze of our hostess we respectfully submitted to the drone of the Cardinal’s nasal voice. “Glory be to the faatha, son and holy ghost…..” When Josephine died the following day my mother lost a strong ally and friend and she wondered aloud if she could survive without her by her side. Now my mother was gone and it was my task to write her epitaph.
As I sat in the attic room of Michael's room I recalled one story I had recently heard just the day before. It came from a man named Paul, a rough and tumble kind of guy whom I would not normally associate with my mom. Paul and a group of his friends wanted to have a party and campfire on Sandy Beach but the police would not allow it. There was a summer curfew in place. No one was allowed on the beach after 10. Paul told me he had somehow run into my mom downtown and when she learned of his problem, offered our small, private section of Sandy Beach for his friends.
“I was amazed in a way that I felt comfortable even asking her,” Paul told me. “I really didn’t know her all that well. I think I did some landscaping work for your family. In any case she came down to the beach after the party started to ask if we needed anything. She offered the girls to use the bathroom in your house. Everyone was very touched by her kindness. That night we had a pretty rowdy crowd. We drank some but no fights. Somehow everyone stayed very mellow, in respect for your mom and her kindness.”
The day Marty and I were married was a hard one for my mom. Instead of a church, she was sitting on a hay bale in a two hundred year old barn. Instead of "Ave Maria" we were singing folk songs. On the way back to Boston that night she told my brother John that "it would have been better if he had died in Vietnam." But of course she loved Marty, softened over time and would die again if she knew I was aware of what she said. But a son tends to carry something like that around for a while. Paul's comment reminded me that she could on occasion be comfortable and engaging with my friends. For one moment I really could see her on our beach with these young folks, shaking hands with the boys and their dates, some of whose parents worked in Dad’s factory. I saw her for a moment as vulnerable, reaching out not as the queen on the ocean but as the mother of two boys who themselves might someday be looking for a safe place to have a campfire and a beer with some friends. Lifelong judgments suddenly took a back seat and tears fell for the first time since her death.