By Rosalie Tirella
I’ve celebrated the Fourth on a blanket in Boston listening to the Pops and guest vocalist Johnny Cash. I’ve celebrated the Fourth at East Park here in Woo. Always a lovely time.
Last night I was thinking about my Green Island Fourth of July’s – the years when I was a kid and lived with my mother, father, sisters and grandmother in “the Island”:
I am a little kid – about 9 – and I am standing on our three decker’s back porch. Third floor. It is the afternoon and the sun is shining sweetly. I am looking at “Val,” the buxom middle-aged lady who lives across the way from our rickety three decker in her rickety six-unit building, on her third-floor porch. A big, weed-choked, empty lot lies between our buildings but that is all. The vegetation hasn’t kept Val from inserting herself into ours – everyone’s – lives.
She is wearing a negligee today – for the Fourth of July. I can see it from my back porch. She is on her back porch talking loudly. I swear I can see her bright red lips from my third floor porch! In 10 years I will have learned the word “slatternly,” and it will remind me of Val … but today I am a little kid so Val is just … Val.
Val is very drunk on this special national holiday – in a very happy, friendly way. She is talking with anyone who passes by her building, her ta ta’s damn near falling out of her negligee as she leans over her porch railing to chat up passersby who always chat back. I am standing on my porch, quiet as a mouse, not even smiling because I know Val can be scary sometimes. On a few occasions she has battled with my granny, called my granny, also feisty, a DP – Dumb Polack – during one of their shouting matches held across their back porches. DP, my mom tells me, really stands for Displaced Persons, what they sometimes called immigrants. Val is being mean when she yells DP at my granny, who doesn’t miss a beat and yells back: KISS MY ASSY! and turns her plump little dumpling shaped butt to Val – while standing on our back porch – and tap, taps her butt which is covered in those sweet all flannel nighties with little pink rose buds on them. Bapy – Polish for Granny – wore those flannel nighties year ’round – even in the summer.
Granny is not battling Val today. Granny is inside, sitting in her easy chair we have set up for her in the kitchen, at the head of the kitchen table, a place from which she candrink her cup of coffee, eat her egg sandwich and see and comment on all the household happenings. She has been sitting there my whole life! I love her with all my heart!
But I digress. Val is out on her porch today in her negligee because it is the Fourth of July, a special day – for her and America. Val has turned and gone inside her apartment, a flat that is also home to her wimpy boyfriend, gorgeous blond 18 year old daughter from another guy, and two huge attack dogs: a German Shepherd and Doberman. Both fierce. Both having chased me up a fence more than a few times. Val doesn’t believe in walking her dogs to do poop. She just lets them out, they rush down the three flights of stairs like noisy moose and shit and pee in the little front yard and rush back upstairs. Val has them trained to a tee.
Val has come out of her flat – this time she is carrying her portable record player. I am watching all this from my back porch – not saying a word, not even smiling. Just waiting … . Val puts her record player down, hooks it up to a bunch of extension cords and I see her going back in, cord in hand. Then she comes out with a record album – a big one. I am guessing it is the same one she played last year, has the songs which we – the entire Bigelow Street neighborhood – heard last Fourth of July: patriotic tunes. The kind you can – like Val – march around on your Green Island porch to. Later I would learn these songs were written by John Philip Sousa.
Val puts on her lp. Cranks it up! Da da da da da da de da da! La da da da de da da! Boy, this music is good! Very up beat! I am tapping my feet! I look across the way and see Val crack open another beer and take a sloppy swig and lie on her reclining beach chair on her porch. I can see her relaxing through the slats on her porch through the slats on my porch!
The music is great! Val is getting drunker. …
It is a few hours later and Val is singing – to the entire neighborhood! The folks in our hood are getting ramped up! People are coming out and throwing chairs and sofas and old tires into a big pile in the empty lot a few lots down from Val’s place, diagonally across the way from our three decker flat. I go in doors and crow to my mom: THEY ARE GETTING READY FOR THE BIG BONFIRE, MA! To myself: HOORAY!
My mom, careworn, grimaces. She doesn’t say a word, never voices her disapproval of Val. But I know she is not thrilled with the situation. Sometimes she is the one who will call the Worcester Fire department when the flames of the big bonfire grow too huge and lap up the July night air and orange sparks fill our Green Island night. The fire has never spread cuz the neighborhood kids and adults have kept it in check with big poles that they use to poke at it. But the flames still worried my mom …
But the eve has just begun! I so want to be a part of the celebration and throw some of Bapy’s rags onto the bonfire! She has so many that she wraps her arms in for her arthritis. Old country ways/cures die hard in Green Island. … Bapy never really changes her clothes. Just gives herself sporadic sponge baths and peels off old rags and puts on new ones. She always smells fecund. I love her odor! I still miss her Bapy smell!! If only we could re-smell all the people we have loved through the years. The men I have been with, my late mom who held me to her heavy Heaven Scented perfumed breasts as a child and a teen, my Bapy’s immigrant odor, my long-gone dog Bailey’s gamey scent … .
Anyways, the bonfire was being readied for the big night, but my mom would never let me join in the mayhem. It was all a little too wild for us. We were the good kids. My mom the perfect mom who worked so hard at the dry cleaners and went to church with her three girls every Sunday. My mom knew everyone in the hood and was always polite and talked with folks, etc – she was not a snob. But, she liked to tell her girls, she would never sit and have a cigarette with the ladies, like half the women in our hood did – visiting each other in each other’s tenements, gossiping about folks, bitching about cheating husbands and boyfriends. My mother was busy raising her girls as perfectly as she could, making sure they went to school every day and did all their homework and got all As and went to bed early and ate well. She had no time to wallow in her poverty – or her husband’s wild ways. She – we – transcended the shit.
So, there I was, stuck on our third-floor porch. An observer. My sisters would be home from Crompton Park soon. They would love this spectacle, too! Not as much as I did. But they would hang out on the porch, eating Freeze Pops, their lips ice blue from the sugared ice treat – and watch.
My father would disappear for the day. Celebrate in his own fashion, I guess. He was as crooked as some of the guys in the hood, but he played out his crookedness in other parts of Worcester. I suspect the East Side of town. What my mom and us kids didn’t know wouldn’t hurt us.
… It was dark out now and Val was singing up a storm and marching around her porch. La di da di da!!! Bang bang! Someone had lit the bonfire and everyone was gathered around it! Except for me and my kid sisters. We were on our back porch eating Freeze Pops, mesmerized by the flames – they must have been two stories high! The folks in the hood out did themselves this year! It was like something you would see in an old Western movie – the Indians roasting an elk on a spit they had set up over the flames. People’s faces orange from the glow of the flames. Very primitive and real.
“Come out here, Ma!” I yelled to my mother. “Ya should see how big the bonfire is this year!!”
My mother was indoors getting our clothes ready for the Fourth of July cook out we would be having at our Uncle Mark and Aunt Mary’s the next day. They lived in a a cute pink ranch house in the Burncoat area – a nicer part of town. My mom liked this part of the Fourth best of all. A day off she could celebrate with her favorite sister in her sister’s big back yard, my Uncle Mark grilling hamburgers and hot dogs on the big three legged grill he had stoked with those black brickettes he always doused with lighter fluid. Yum, yum, yum ! We were all pre-vegetarian in those days – ate meat, Nissaan white rolls and buns, potato chips, soda, Cheez-Its … the typical American BBQ 1960s fare. Heaven!
Ma would have none of it. She was busy making sandwiches for the cook out at Uncle Mark’s. She wanted us in bed early for tomorrow. We kids would have none of it. The flames were roaring! So was Val! Some jerk threw too many old tires on the bon fire, so now the air smelled awful! It was thick with gray smoke. We kids started coughing. Ma came out and took a look. Her mouth fell open. She looked at her three silly girls and frowned. I knew … She was calling 911.
In a matter of minutes the Worcester Fire Department had come and the fireman were hosing down the bon fire with their big hoses. The flames were doused out! Smoke was everywhere.
BOO! BOO! BOO! shouted all the kids and adults at the firemen. You could hear their laughs, too.
“Boo, Boo! Boo!!!” my sisters and I yelled from our back porch, laughing. “BOO! BOO!”
It had been, as usual, a fab Fourth of July!