By Rosalie Tirella
When I was a little girl growing up in Green Island fall/winter was the time for celebrating Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Clack, clack, clack, one right after the other, my favorite holidays fell like little pink dominoes – always celebrated out of the neighborhood, at our Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark’s house on the nice, suburban side of the city. The Burncoat neighborhood. This is where my two kid sisters and I rang in the holidays, every year, pre-K to grade 12, along with our single mom who coordinated everything with Aunt Mary, her sister, over the phone, after we kids had gone to bed.
Burncoat: the Worcester neighborhood where the city’s middle-class Irish-Americans lived out the 1950s American dream in pretty ranches and capes on little tree-lined streets. The moms were stay-at-home and the dads were often teachers or principals and assistant principals in the Worcester Public Schools, a nepotism-ridden school system, where, as one exiting teacher once told me, you had to be “mega-connected” to get a job and, of course, Irish-American.
My Uncle Mark was a school principal in a little town outside of Worcester (he was Polish and un-connected) and seemed to know a lot of the other teachers in the neighborhood. All the men wore the same grey suits, crisply pressed white dress shirts and nondescript ties to work. Their physiques were nondescript – very Spencer Tracy-like, when Tracy was in love with Katherine Hepburn and they made all those great movies together in the 1940s. Still, the guys, like Tracy, were respected: they were the heads of their families, the bread winners, the ones who made the suburbs turn.
Visiting my relatives in Burncoat in autumn was a fun, peaceful, orange-maple-leaves-on-still-green-grass kinda day for us kids and our sweet mother – a vacation from our Lafayette Street tenement and our inner-city street filled with kids, winos, stray dogs, barrooms, stores, junk cars, obstreperous neighbors, sand lot baseball …
Uncle Mark had pulled Aunt Mary out of Green Island, the old neighborhood, when he married her … swept her off her pretty litte feet and set her over the threshold of an adorable little pink house in Burncoat, with the added attractions of a big Buick, a big Zenith color TV, a big automatic washer, dryer and dishwasher. And for their kids: new bikes, a huge backyard and basketball hoop nailed above their garage door. Of course, the kids would all be honors students, go to college and become doctors and teachers. Which my cousins did.
It was crazyland in Green Island. Sure, my cousins didn’t have a penny candy store and cute corner grocery nook like my sisters and I had on Lafayette Street, but our old three decker was planted right across the street from two raucous barrooms where fights broke out regularly – fights that were always taken “outside,” the throw-downs usually between man and wife. My kid sisters and I heard and saw everything! We were 6, 8 and 10, and I remember always running as fast as I could past the sour-smelling barroons after a day at my beloved Lamartine Street Elementary School – to skip all the madness (there was one bar on either side of our street) – and not be grabbed by a drunk. Men, beer-bellied, soiled white tee shirts tight around their protruding stomachs, slapped their women around – and were oblivious to the pain they caused. The women were embarassed, distressed… I remember one woman, dumped by her bar man, who walked Lafayette and Millbury streets in just a shirt/jacket – and her panties. No shorts, slacks, skirts… She did this in fall and the colder weather. Her thick, black long hair was dull and matted; she talked to herself all the time. But you could still see her beauty. She had a beautiful face! And when my mom and we kids passed her on the street, while walking home from the dry cleaners where Ma worked, or after shopping on Millbury Street, Ma pulling our shopping wagon filled with food behind her, Ma always said a warm hello to the woman! The wonderful lessons Ma taught us on Lafayette Street!
But I digress … my cousins and our neighborhoods, just 15 miles apart in Worcester, a 15-minute car drive on I 290, were on separate galaxies. At Uncle Mark’s we were in a happy, safe, kid-focused environment. At home we were in choas-ville. Sometimes I didn’t want to go home after a Sunday afternoon playing Pickle with my cousins in their Burncoat front yard. I’d get visibly upset as my uncle got ready to drive us home (we never had a car). So my Aunt Mary let me sleep over – in the twin bed with my silly, smart, older and very beautiful cousin, Sue. I have told you all about her… Sue, 15, was my intellectual, physical and spiritual superior. She highlighted her long hair with a special lightening spray she bought at the drug store … she took piano lessons, sewed herself pant suits with linings! and wrote her own music on the trim, upright piano in Aunt Mary’s blue-wall-papered living room. She knew everything about boys and had a stack of Beach Boys 45s a foot tall. Sometimes, just after we went to bed, Sue would put on a Beach Boy record in her Close and Play record player and we’d get up out from under the covers and dance on her bed – pretend we were surfing on her Sealy and make waves with our arms … like we were swimming at Hampton Beach…
Aunt Mary and Uncle Mark never shut down our beach party. I think Aunt Mary liked the music and the fact that, for one night, her only girl had a little sister!
Autumn time, my sisters and I did Halloween with our cousin Sue in Burncoat. More sophisticated than I and my two sisters could ever hope to be, Sue would dress up all pretty/sexy in a gypsy’s costume she had sewn for herself, and she’d wear sparkly blue eye shadow and mascara. Her gypsy’s costume came with a sparkly silver bra she had designed and made herself. She
cut the butterfly patterns, sewed them onto her silver bra…all on her Singer sewing machine in her little bedroom in Burncoat. Before trick or treating, she modeled it for us. My aunt and uncle oohed and ahhhed and called her their “Polish Princess” and told Ma and us kids: Yes! Sue is practically a model! She is that beautiful – and the right height! Models had to be a certain height back then – 5’7″ tall, at least! My sisters and I were poor and had no flair for home economics or modeling. So a few days before October 31, after all the good costumes were grabbed up, Ma would take us to Woolworth’s on Front Street and buy me an ugly witch mask and costume and my kid sisters would be saddled with two Snow White’s Dwarves costumes, one always Dopey. Depressing.
The good part: We trick or treated in Burncoat! A special place where there were no barrooms and everyone had pretty homes and their front porch lights stayed on all night so they could hand out the good stuff to us kids: chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate!
One Burncoat Halloween night I especially remember: My mom had bought me a new white, hooded fluffy winter coat with beige trim and “antler” buttons at Lerners. I put that coat on and it was like magic! I was warm – and looked so cute! It was – and still is – one of my favorite winter coats. I put that coat over my ugly Woolworth’s witch costume and still felt cute – and happy. My sisters were in their Dwarf costumes but their new cute brown Lerner coats, bought by Ma on layaway, made them proud and happy, too.
There we were on Hallows Eve, on a perfectly beautiful twinkly Burncoat side street with my cousin Sue, kicking up the crispy, fall leaves in the gutter following our beautiful cousin Gypsy Sue to pretty house after pretty house to have person after person at each door of each pretty house throw chocolate bars into our gaping pillowcases. And Tootsie Roll pops and boxes of Good ‘n’ Plenty and boxes of Dots … and rolls of chewy black licorice and packs of Bazooka Bubble Gum. And handfulls of wrapped gum balls.
We made a killing! We could not have gotten any luckier! Then it was back to Uncle Mark and Aunt Mary’s to sort all the candy – and trade. Maybe they’d be a game of Monopoly with our cousins and my game piece would be the little silver terrier! My favorite Monopoly game piece!
Hours later, after eating a good bit of our Halloween stash, playing Monopoly with our cousins in Sue’s bedroom, it was time to return home to Green Island. I felt sad and anxious, but I dutifully followed the mother I loved and my cute kid sisters into Uncle Mark’s car. For the ride across town, back to Green Island, away from Burncoat. My candy-coated coach had turned into a crushed beer can.