The saints of Green Island

Text and photos by Rosalie Tirella

This Mother’s Day I got to thinking about my mother’s mother, “Mama,” –
“Bapy” to me and my two kid sisters … slangy Polish for “Granny.”

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Rose’s mother, left, and “Bapy,” circa WW II

If Trump were President back when the above photo was taken, he’d be scapegoating Bapy, her friends and family, trying to keep people like Bapy (and her husband, my Jaju) out of America. After all, they were dirt poor, looked dirt poor, were uneducated, were immigrants from Poland (a quasi-“shit-hole country”); they were unskilled, unable to write and read even in their native tongue. And, of course, they were unable to speak the most rudimentary English – and just like the Trump Adminstration fumes today – these poor immigrants were incapable (especially that first wave…) of adjusting to the American way of life. America was just too fast for them. They were Conservative Catholics, farm people, a little too superstitious in their devotion to their God … a little too voodoo … too foreign for go-go, money-money America.

My relatives knew that – got it – when people in America, in Worcester, in their neighborhood, Green Island, laughed at them and yelled: “YOU DP!!” As in “YOU DUMB POLACK!!” The acronym “D.P.” really stood for “Displaced Person,” Ma taught me, when I was a little girl and the kids used to name call me at elementary school. It was an immigration office label, Ma explained to me, that’s all. But I hated the term and made it a label unfit for me. I would be the smartest kid in class! Read the best books! Get the most A’s! And so this “DP” became an all A student and always first in her class at Lamartine Street School and Providence Street Junior High. The biggest bullies (usually the dumbest kids in class) changed their taunt from Dumb Polack! to BOOK WORM! as they beat the crap outa me!

My pretty sweet mother was a Conservative Catholic, hence a pacifist …

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She taught me to “turn the other cheek” like Jesus said in the Bible, which hurt like hell in Green Island … made absolutely no sense! I was dying in the Lamartine schoolyard at recess time! My classmate Frieda, twice as tall as me, red-faced, her two brown pigtails snapping in the wind as she lumbered towards me, enjoyed hitting me, hurting me. But before beating me up – she’d yank my pretty pink sweater off me – the one Ma bought special for me at Jack and Jill’s on Green Street – my favorite sweater with its beautiful pearlescent buttons – and step on it. Flower in the dirt! Once outside Helen’s Corner Store on Grosvenor Street, Frieda took a slug of her Orange Crush soda and spit her drink all over my precious pink sweater!! But I did as I was told. I stayed stoic. I walked home dripping orange soda. I was not a big kid, had a bunch of illnesses as a little girl…

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“little Rose”

… so I had to be stoic. Ma tried to talk with Frieda’s mother. Our teacher was notified. But it’s hard to make impressions on bullies, usually miserable kids behind all their fisticuffs and bravado. Take Frieda: she was held back twice, couldn’t read even though she was in third grade, and her clothes were two sizes too small for her. Her mother never came to our school’s parents night – my mother always attended, wearing her Elizabeth Arden red lipstick! Plus, Frieda’s big brother was in jail. The schoolyard drama was traumatic … but it all turned out ok. Frieda dropped out of school soon enough, I went on to become the first person in my family to go to college, and I matured to become a damaged but crusading adult – “She’s always for the underdog!” Ma used to say – who lives life as she sees fit and runs a few crusading rags … a broad who does not give a damn what anyone thinks. And I don’t!, so certain am I of my zippy moral compass, infused with my late mother and grandmother’s Old World Catholicism, my Green Island fables and miracles.

Bapy was a demanding Bapy, and we kids were supposed to mind her the way we minded Ma. “Rosie, Sanka!” Bapy would yell to me from her lumpy old easy chair that Ma had set up for her at the head of our kitchen table – Bapy’s throne, her perch, from which she could watch – and COMMENT ON – all the domestic action: what Ma was cooking for dinner that night, my sister’s new shoes, my Barbie Dream House, my white hamster Joy. All in gnarled up Polish: “Rosie, put my cold cup of Santa Coffee in the little pan of boiling water to heat up! … Cecelia, don’t overcook the cabbage! … Mary’s shoes’ shoelaces are too long! She’ll trip over them! … Who’s this ‘Ken’ in your big doll house, Rosa?”

And me, screaming melodramatically in broken Polish: BAPY, STOP FEEDING JOY BIRTHDAY CAKE! SHE EATS HARTZ HAMSTER FOOD! She has her own special diet! Ma!!!!!!

Bapy: Let me feed your fat mouse, Rosie! You Rosie and I Rosie! (true enough. I was named after Baby – Rosalie.)

Bapy was a nag – but a cute one. She was four feet, 10 inches high and always wore two or three, one on top of the other, (cuz she had bad arthritis) flannel night gowns, topped off with an apron, a reminder of the ol’ days when she ran her own household on Bigelow Street and cooked EVERYTHING from scratch: beet soup, noodles, potato pierogi, rabbit stew, gawumoki, latkes … As a little kid you could literally run up Baby – she was like a musty old mountain! – kiss her round face and throw your arms around her chubby neck and bury your head in her huge, now flat as pancakes, bosom. She’d kiss the top of your head and squeeze you very tight. And not let go! All that love! Whenever we wanted it!

Bapy sang Polish songs for us kids…one of my favorite songs was about an old Polish guy sitting at the shore of a lake wanting to hook up with all the pretty Polish gals. But they were too young for him, so he went to the barber and got his hair dyed shiny black. So all the girls at the lake would go out with him! I used to love to sing that song with Bapy! I still know the tune – it’s so happy and silly!

Every Sunday evening I used to love to watch Ma comb out Bapy’s long silver hair (very fine but with a slight wave) to braid it fresh for the coming week. She’d comb out Bapy’s hair, make the three thin strands of gray hair, braid them tight. Then with bobby pins held between her pretty lips, make a big circle, a bun, at the nape of Bapy’s neck, securing each ring of the bun with the bobby pins. I’d watch Ma closely, occasionally stroking Bapy’s crinkly forehead where her pale purple veins pulsed … You Ok, Bapy? I’d coo to her, the way I’d coo to my little pet hamster, Joy. We’d be listening to the portable radio on top of our old round edged refrigerator – practically an ice box. A Beatles song would come on the radio. No one would be talking. Ma would hum along to the Beatles – she had Beatles Keds she loved them so much! All eyes were trained on Bapy’s beautiful bun in the making.

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Rose, center, and her two kids sisters, seated in front of the “pulka” in their Lafayette Street tenement.

Bapy gave us chores – little jobs around our tenement that were perfect for little kids. They needed to get done – but were too tangential for busy adults but kinda fun for kids. My chore was “dusting the statues on the pulka” – pulka being the long shelf above the washing tubs in the kitchen. I got a quarter for doing it! Perfect for all the penny candy I was gonna buy at Eddy’s Penny Candy store, directly across the street from our house. Eddy had seizures. So sometimes you’d go into his store to by a few twizzlers and he’d be writhing on the dark wood floor in back. You didn’t have to see it … you could tell just by hearing the thumping and gagging. So you’d turn around, leave the store and go home with plans to return in about a half hour. Eddy would be fine by then, like nothing ever happened. You gave him your three pennies, said: Eddy, can you gimme three twizzlers? and he’d flick open one of the scores of tiny paper bags at his side, making a loud SNAP, and very businesslike put your three twizzlers in your paper bag. He’d bestow your candy upon you. You’d say: Thank you, Eddy! and run out of his store because he sort of frightened you. Ma was on great terms with Eddy – they were both Polish, lived with their controlling mothers, both from Poland, and Eddy’s sister was a nun and lived in a convent while Ma had worked as a housekeeper for the Bishop of Springfield and lived in his house, practically a convent.

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Ma in Springfield, with, of course, a pup in need of a home (hers!). She attracted strays of all sorts: Rose’s father, for instance.

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Ma posing outside the Bishop’s house, where she worked/lived with her two sisters, during the Great Depression and World War II

But I digress! Back to my weekly chore, which was a blast. It entailed removing all the small statues of the saints and all the plastic flowers from the shelf above the big sink in our kitchen and dusting them all and re-placing them in ANY WAY I LIKED. I was the interior designer – for the Lord! Sometimes I could even run down to White’s Five and Ten and buy some NEW self-sticking shelf trim! My choice of colored plastic! Pink with blue flowers? Mottled gold?! My choice!

I went to town, with Bapy, crippled with arthritis, sitting on her kitchen “throne” commenting on the mini event. Because it was an event! The statues of the saints – Joseph, Anne, Theresa, Jude, Mary – the Virgin Mother all were very alive to us – especially Bapy who was even more pious than Ma, walking to church every morning for morning mass, in Polish at St. Mary’s, when she was young and middle-aged. Like Ma, she prayed throughout her day, a rosary and some rusty saint medals always sitting next to her lukewarm cup of Sanka! Bapy, Ma, we three kids all prayed to all the saints on that shelf, as if they were real! “Put Joseph there,” said Bapy. I’d show her the little Infant of Prague statue and she’d bless herself as she kissed its feet… I’d run to the bathroom, grab some toilet paper, wet the paper with lukewarm water and Ivory Soap and gently wash the statues faces, arms (always folded or raised in prayer), legs, feet…Once I dropped St. Jude and his head rolled off, cracking in two. Baby’s visiting nurse got her husband to put the head back on like new! A hobbyist, he put clay where the paint, plaster had chipped off and painted new colors on the old statue! Perfectly matched! He was an artist!

Like I said, the statues were alive to us. Ma sometimes said her after-work prayers to them. They brought us peace in slummy, sometimes violent, Green Island. Alive and happy in Heaven with Jesus, they lived! But, unlike Jesus/God/the Holy Spirit, they had no real powers. So you prayed to them, asking them to ask God to answer your prayers. Make your prayers come true. The saints had extra pull precisely because they were saints – spectacular human beings while on earth. Much nicer than you or I… Usually, they died for God, their Christian beliefs. Martyrs who were ripped up by lions in coliseums in Roman times – just part of the entertainment. The opening act for the gladiators…It all made me cry. It made me wash their little plastic flowers all the more assiduously in our bathroom sink. Then I’d put them – in different arrangements – in vases next to the saints – or at their plaster of Paris feet, to show my great love and empathy for them. (or, I could have run out of vases.)

You washed their dusty faces and made them look pretty like your favorite Barbie dolls…you changed their shelf paper like you changed the bottom of your hamster Joy’s cage. This is what I did every Sunday afternoon in Green Island, for several years. Bapy watching and validating me. Years later, I’d be home visiting from college and “do” the “pulka”/shelf! Now dustier, the saints more faded and drab looking, I went to work! It hurt me to see Saint Joseph and Saint Theresa looking so old, so under the weather! … So forgotten!

Here is a saint from our Lafayette Street kitchen pulka, the young Jesus who, as a kid, knew more than the rabbis in Temple! So the story goes … This was my favorite statue. Still is:

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This Jesus fell off my shelf on Ward Street a year ago and broke in three. His head has come off numerous times – see the old model airplane glue I used as a kid to patch him up and set him back up on the long kitchen shelf?

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I used to pray to this statue most of all. He was a kid, like me. His face seemed more life like than the other saints on the shelf. And most
important, I didn’t dicker around with the saints – I did my imploring before the Big Guy himself. No middle men and women for me, no matter how good and kind they were.

I used to grab a kitchen chair, clamber up it and slip Jesus little notes under the base of his statue.
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From Rose to Jesus: “Jesus, please let me get an A on my math test Thursday.” “Jesus, please let me be #1 in my class.” “Jesus, please let there be no school tomorrow if it snows.” “Jesus, please let Ma let me have a dog.”

I was a selfish, ambitious kid, who loved dogs, I guess. Never did any praying for Ma, Bapy or my sisters, though I loved them more than anything!

I’d like to think the saints on the pulka/shelf – Joseph, Jude, Anne, Theresa, Anthony, Mother Mary – knew that …

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Bapy at the head of the Lafayette Street kitchen table, squeezing little Rose!

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