By Rosalie Tirella
My sister, who lives outside Boston, has Parkinson’s Disease. I got the news about three weeks ago. Still “processing” it but have given up trying to figure out how I can SAVE her, how, as my wont, I can jump in and RESCUE “Mary,” make this awful sickness go away, like I tried to do for my late mom when she got sick. My kid sister, like all of us in the family, came up tough, so she is pretty stoic – her stoicism wrapped in HOPE and her love of God. So, like our late mother would do, probably like I would do, too, she is keepin’ keepin’ on: going to work, 9 – 5, Monday – Friday, except that now a special needs van picks her up and takes her to her job in the human services, which she LOVES, and brings her home at the end of her work day … going to church on Sunday, cleaning her apartment, being a part of her parish’s prayer group …
My sister, like our late mom, always loved to work. She got her first job at 14 1/2 (her new social security card and work card in her new Whites Five and Ten vinyl wallet) on Millbury Street working as a clerk at Commercial Fruit Store, working for one of her favorite bosses – “Macho,” a Greek(?) immigrant who was funny, loving/gruff and opinionated, spouting critiques of his customers and family who worked by his side and falling over little patches of ice in the big Commercial walk-in freezer. His goofy insults were delivered in jumbled, half-English “Machoisms” that my sister loved to share with us all, after she walked home from work, still wearing her mint green sales girl smock (proudly, I think). “Phillip, where you know … ” my sister would yell in a thick trippy accent or, because Macho was short, squat and had the butt of a picnic table, big and squarish, my kid sister would have fun backing into our kitchen the way Macho would back out of his Commericial Fruit freezer, butt first and swishing back and forth, his own bustling bustle, if you can imagine it. We all laughed at her Macho impressions! She was skinny but everyone could see Macho in her!!
Macho treated my sister like family and, even during her college years, Mary worked for him and his family with LOVE, reveling in the Christmas holiday spirit at the shop where, under soft yellow flourescent lights and surrounded by all matter of fruit beautifully displayed on sky-blue-painted staircase shelves that circled the entire little store she made holiday fruit gift basketd. Amid all the laughs, orders and the silly Machoisms flying in the middle of that Millbury Street staple (located next door to Lisbon’s Shoe Store), Mary made gigantic fruit baskets. Easy! She would take a ton of delicious Commercial fruit, a can of mixed nuts, a package of sweet, sticky, pitted dates and artfully place then arrange them in a big basket with big arched handle. Then she’d wrap it all in clear or colored cellophane wrap and shiny Christmas ribbon – then top it off with a big red or green bow secured to the top of the handle. Saw her work her magic a few times. Sometimes after school at Burncoat High, I’d visit. Mary was always industrious and smiling. She was the pretty one, with high forehead and straight teeth and pretty smile. She loved to walk downtown on a Saturday snd buy herself a pretty dress at Filenes Basement – and often a little gift for Ma and me.
Of course, my sister gave all her pay check to our mother, a single working mom struggling to keep our poor little gang together with her own minimum wage job at the drycleaners down the street. Our peripatetic Daddy was “with” us during our junior and high school years, but he left our Lafayette Street flat each morning, after Ma made and served him his breakfast, with his own agenda and itinerary. A job to help support wife, three kids and old granny definitely not on his list. So Mary, at 14 1/2 years old, was the Daddy.
Mary was so generous. She would, as they used to say, “give you the shirt off her back.” Ma raised her to be selfless, but it also came naturally to Mary, I think. She just loved to give. She was the kind daughter. Our downstairs neighbor was told our mother, with emotion in her voice: “She’s gold.”
Mary learned, through her early experience on Lafayette Street, that giving is its own reward, kinda like the way I felt when I gave out around 100 new donated hats and scarves to Worcester’s homeless folks this past winter. When I first got my first batch of donations from gal pal Dorrie, I winced and felt: This is going to be uncomfortable. BUT IT WASN’T! IT FELT GREAT!! TO GIVE SOMETHING TO SOMEONE WHO REALLY NEEDED IT, TO FEEL THEIR THANKFULNESS, to have them come up to you and say, BLESS YOU! THANK YOU, ‘MAM! THANK YOU FOR BEING SO NICE!
It was only a hat!
I got hooked on the love! I asked my friends for more donations, even got a beautiful long fake sheepskin winter coat, like new, AND GAVE IT TO A SLIP OF A WOMAN SITTING UNDER the Green Street Bridge. I would drive by in the dead of winter and see her in jacket coughing her head off … FOR HER, A WARM COAT …
Mary would do this years before it all became trendy. When I was in college, she would go to Charlies Surplus sports store on Water Street and buy and send me a half dozen pair of white basketball tube socks. I didn’t play basketball and they went up to my knees, but I loved them. Charlie’s!! When I successfully completed my first year at college, she sent me a dozen roses from her and Ma. She would give our loser father money, if her asked for it! Right after college, holding her first professional job, Daddy put the pinch to her – and Mary gave our loser father $800! A lot of dough back then! I went nuts! He is so awful! I said to her. GET IT BACK! She just looked at me and shrugged her shoulders …
So my other sister calls me last week with a similar gripe: “Mary is giving money to people she meets on the T! And on the streets! I told her: ‘You need the money!’ ”
I could hear the panic in my sister’s voice, but I was PROUD of Mary. And moved. Our Mary – as radical as ever! I could never be that GREAT. It was like standing next to my kid sis on Lafayette Street, by the old Philco, laughing about Macho, marveling at her sweet pretty smile. I said to my other sis: “It’s her money. Let her spend it the way she likes. This makes her happy. The people are grateful, they love her.”
Then I hung up my phone and said out loud to no one in particular: “Gold.”