A month ago I wrote our 20th anniversary column; so let’s not waste time … let’s dive into a new column!
By Rosalie Tirella
When I was a little girl growing up in Green Island we were very poor, and my father, “Daddy,” was tough and abusive. So going to the other side of town to visit my Uncle Mark, the elementary school principal, and his wife, my mom’s sister, Mary – Aunt Mary to me – in their adorable cottage with huge backyard and our three fun kid cousins was like applying a cool, soothing balm to our raw and crushed spirits: my mom’s, my two younger sisters’ and mine. Daddy never went on any of these family jaunts – in fact, that’s when he stuck around around the flat. He’d have our apartment all to himself to make his cryptic phone calls in Italian … and then leave promptly on our return!
Meanwhile, Uncle Mark would pick us up in his long gold Elektra, always happy and full of corny jokes for us kids and, decades later, when I look back, a real sensitivity to my mom and her plight. My Aunt Mary was a classic 1950s Eisenhower stay-at-home wife and had “the life” (I thought): she never worked at a job outside the house, stayed put in their adorable little home and cleaned, cooked and baked and planted flowers in the garden for her family. For their delight. To their delight. She was chubby and had rosy cheeks and gave the best hugs. She always smelled like Widoff’s unseeded rye bread – lightly toasted and buttered! In the afternoons she’d watch LET’S MAKE A DEAL on TV and pine for the newest models of all the refrigerators and stoves and living room sets behind all those big wrapped boxes/stage sets that game show host Monty Hall showcased with such flair. You had to have a really funny costume for Monty to pick you – but you could furnish your own Eisenhower little house if you won big.
Travel 20 or so miles down Worcester’s battered streets and there was Ma toiling away at the dry cleaners on Millbury Street for minimum wage, then walking home to Lafayette Street in rain sleet or snow to do the mommy things for her three girls like cook supper, set out new clean clothes for the next school day, throw our dirty clothes into the old pink wicker laundry basket and care for her aging and high maintenance Polish immigrant mother Bapy who lived with us and was feisty, opinionated, loathed my father, fed my pet hamster Joy birthday cake and liked to think she ran the show. Which she did. In Polish.
Uncle Mark was an ex-college football player from Fordham and almost went pro – he was talking and thick – built like a brick outhouse with his square shoulders that were so wide they filled our Green Island doorway. He was there for my mom to drive us all for our pediatrician appointments…if they bought a new coffee table, we got their old one …During their cookouts Mom always got the second hamburger off the round domed BBQ – after Aunt Mary’s got her burger first.
But once in awhile we were reminded of our secondhandedness at Aunt Mary’s. By our beloved Uncle Mark. After a successful cookout or after a scrumptious Thanksgiving dinner with all of us around him, he’d stride over to Aunt Mary throw his thick beefy arms around her fleshy put pretty shoulder and shout: TOGETHERNESS! For the whole world to hear, it seemed to me. This made Ma and me …uncomfortable. My father NEVER did that – would do that – to Ma. Drape his arms around and shout to the heavens: TOGETHERNESS! It was the opposite! AWAY-NESS! … I could see my pretty mother, in her late 30s, and still pretty look away, grow serious. It was as if Uncle Mark was bragging … and had forgotten that my mom was …alone.
Fast forward four or five decades: I am in trouble. My late mom, Cecelia, her ashes in her urn – a blue biscotti jar I bought at the old Building 19 – has been rolling around in the trunk of my car for two months. I do not have the heart to stick her in storage – nor do (did) I think to reach out to anyone for advice about the matter.
Until one day. I had been on the road, delivering the new issue of CECELIA, when, with all the new newspapers in the trunk, all the riding on all our bumpy Worcester roads …the lid came off mom’s urn and her ashes – dark, granular, heavy – spilled out onto CECELIA the newspaper! And in my car trunk! THIS FREAKED ME OUT. I was repelled by the sight, devastated by the situation my late mom was in …I was showing no respect for the dead who must lie in peace – not all over Worcester County.
I did what any Catholic who had not been to church in 40 years did: drove to the Chancery, the primo headquarters of the Catholic Diocese in Worcester, circled the big Elm Street parking lot and when a fat little priest came out the door, cheerful, ruddy-complexioned ran to him with my mother in her urn and said: “FATHER! PLEASE HELP ME! THIS IS MY MOM. I CAN’T HAVE HER IN MY TRUNK! PLEASE GIVE THIS TO FATHER REIDY. HE AND SHE WERE FRIENDS. Maybe he can hold her until I get settled …on a book shelf …
The fat little priest looked down at the blue biscotti jar I had shoved into his arms and reading my business card I had tucked into its lid, said: “Cecelia.” Then he smiled at me. Yes, he said, he’d deliver Ma to Father Reidy, an important vicar …
“Thank you, Father!” I said and drove away, flustered but grateful.
The next day I got a phone call from Father Reidy. He left me two voice-mails. He sounded stern and …adamant even though he’s slightly built and has a quiet, gentle voice. … “Rosalie, it’s Father Reidy. Please call me.”
I did not. I was afraid to. I knew I had done something…unconventional and desperate. Father Reidy called the next day:”Rosalie, it’s Father Reidy. PLEASE CALL ME.”
As Catholic…I knew the Catholic church …how stern and unforgiving priests could be. How annoyed the nuns could get if you answered the question wrong during CCD class on Monday nights. That’s why I left the church. Yiu were never good enough. I knew I had to call the Padre. I knew he’d make me feel bad. Guilt-ridden!!! But I steeled myself against all the mean things I thought Father Reidy would say to me and called him about a week later:
Hi, Father, it’s Rose. …
To make a long story short: Father Reidy was so nice! Didn’t scold. Understood. And honored my late mother: Ma is being interred with DADDY!!! at St. John’s Cemetery on Cambridge Street. She’ll be given, with me there, a proper Catholic burial. She will rest peacefully – for the first time ever – next to Daddy in a beautiful, tree-filled space, green and lush…a little urban forest dotted with gravestones. Nature. Flowers. A place where my sisters can visit her. A place where I can plant pretty pink flowers.
I don’t know exactly where in St . John’s Daddy is buried. I brought a huge Jesus statue for his grave two years ago – but couldn’t find him. So I dumped the statue at some old Irish guy’s tomb…and wrote about my illusive father. Again.
But Father Reidy said he’d help me find the grave site…and I could plant flowers and have a place to visit both my parents.
Ma and Daddy, together! TOGETHERNESS.
How strange …