A few weeks ago figbash gave a shout-out to ancestry stories with urban settings. I agreed with that idea, because all of the ancestors I've ever known were city people. My direct ancestry is exclusively urban, at least in the last 100 to 150 years. So today’s story is set right in the city. It’s the story of the tight bond between the women in my paternal grandmother’s family. It’s fitting today because this would be the 116th birthday of my grandmother’s Aunt Emilie.
Aunt Emilie was the only one of her generation I really knew on that side of the family; her sister, my great-grandmother, died when I was 15 months old. Aunt Emilie outlived all her siblings, her husband, her parents by many years, and died at 92 in 1989, when I was 14. When I knew her she was in her 80s (she turned 78 a few weeks after I was born) and she was one of the nicest, most pleasant people I’ve ever known, a real Victorian lady. Sadly, she suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease and every time she came to our house (and she came several times a year), she told us how lovely it was and how strange it was that she hadn’t been there before. It was my first experience with that kind of memory loss.
As a kid it never really occurred to me to think of Aunt Emilie as anything other than a kindly old lady who had trouble remembering things. Maturity, and the appearance of a few gray hairs on my own head, cause me to remember Wordworth’s line: “The Child is the Father of the Man.” (Or, indeed, the Mother of the Woman.) We all start out young. Aunt Emilie was not born 80 years old. She wasn’t always the way I knew her. Once upon a time, she wasn’t even Aunt Emilie, she was just Emilie. To visit that time, we have to go back a century.
June 14, 1913, 100 years ago today, was not Emilie’s 116th birthday. It was her 16th birthday. She was not an old lady, she was just the fourth of five children, and youngest daughter, of Catherine and Fred in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood.
It was a busy time in Boston and the world. The Red Sox were defending world champions, playing their second season at Fenway Park and led by stars like Tris Speaker and Smoky Joe Wood. The following season they would call up a young left-handed pitcher from Baltimore named Babe Ruth. The team would win the World Series three more times between 1915 and 1918, then not win it again for 86 years. My grandfather, who died before the miraculous win of 2004, often expressed regret that he couldn’t remember the 1918 championship; he was 5 at the time. He had little patience for Emilie’s breezy statements that she had seen the Red Sox win the World Series all the time. They won six of the first fifteen World Series, from when Emilie was six to when she was twenty-one.
The United States Constitution was amended twice that year, the first Amendments since the Civil War Amendments of nearly 50 years earlier. The Sixteenth Amendment provided for a federal income tax; the Seventeenth Amendment provided for direct election of U.S. Senators (I’m so busy with Ed Markey’s campaign right now I’m ambivalent on that one!) The new President, Woodrow Wilson, was pressing for a slew of progressive legislation the likes of which I can only dream of today.
The mayor of Boston, for the second time, was John F. Fitzgerald, President Kennedy’s grandfather. The men in the family, good Democrats all, had voted for him. The women had not been allowed to. But on Emilie’s birthday, a century ago today, they could read in the morning paper that the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Woman Suffrage had reported favorably on amending the Constitution yet again to guarantee women the right to vote. To the chagrin of my urban Irish ancestors, they’d amend it to ban alcohol first.
In June 1913 all that lay in the future, as did the police strike, anarchist bombings, molasses flood, flu epidemic and other things that would traumatize Boston over the next few years. June 1913 was a happy, busy time in the family’s life. In April of that year they had left their cramped apartment in a row house in Boston’s South End for a spacious new home in the “streetcar suburb” (though still part of the city) of Jamaica Plain. Between 1913 and 1924, when Fred died and Catherine sold the house, the family would have many, many happy memories in that house, and they would remain in Jamaica Plain for decades to come.
I’ll bet Lee didn’t know what he was getting into. The women in Lil and Emilie’s family were very tight-knit. They had a third sister, Kittie, and the three of them and their mother Catherine were inseparable. On top of that, Catherine’s two sisters, Maggie and Emma, already lived in the neighborhood and they had plenty of daughters. The women got together all the time and were known to one and all as “the girls.” They chatted, played cards, played piano, went to the theatre and their beloved beach as often as possible, and every Sunday put on fancy dresses and bonnets for Mass at the enormous Blessed Sacrament Church, which now is vacant and may be turned into condos. The mayor who followed Fitzgerald, the infamous “Rascal King” James Michael Curley, was a fellow parishioner who always made a grand entrance.
Lil, my great-grandmother, was more thoughtful and sober. The oldest of the three daughters, and the only one of her parents’ five children to have children, she had a lot of responsibility. Lee’s unreliability didn’t help. She was very kind and generous, and had a particularly close relationship with my father. She could tell a good joke (never too dirty) and had a lot of fun with “the girls,” but was always more serious than her sisters.
Kittie was the semi-flapper in the bunch, the first to introduce the family to jazz, the only sixty-something in Boston who liked Elvis Presley when he appeared on the scene. Always up for new adventures, Kittie often had to call her family for help with some problem. A kayak had smashed on rocks in New Hampshire. She and a girlfriend had gone to New York for a weekend of shopping and the brothers were not answering the phone. After her mother died, Kittie’s travels expanded. She went a number of times to Europe by boat and spent half the winter in Florida with her cousins. Everyone I’ve ever asked says, “Oh wow, just a lot of fun.”
Lil, Kittie, and Emilie had two brothers, one older (Fred Jr.) and one younger (Paul). Fred Jr. graduated from Boston College, then just blocks from the family’s South End home, in 1912. (Within a few months, the family would move to leafier Jamaica Plain and the college similarly would move to the tony suburb of Chestnut Hill.) Fred Jr. went into banking and soon moved to New York. His brother Paul graduated from BC in 1925, with Catherine selling the house and taking a job after Fred Sr.’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1924 to make sure Paul could finish school. Soon Paul moved to New York to join Fred. The Depression was tough on Fred Jr. and Paul, but they stuck it out in New York and got back on their feet. For many years they lived in adjacent buildings on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The brothers were very close for all their lives, although they were twelve years apart and very different in temperament. Fred Jr., the oldest, had no interest growing up in playing with his three little sisters. He made his own way and was a bit of a loner. He never married, but doted on his dogs. My father’s first time in Central Park came walking those dogs on a rare visit to Fred Jr. and Paul. Paul, on the other hand, spent his childhood around the women in the family and their friends. He was very handsome and social and used to being the center of attention. He quickly became a ladies’ man and divorced more than once.
A major exception to Fred Sr.’s stress was when the family went to the beach, which they did often. If they had to, they went to local South Boston beaches, but most of the time they headed for the wide open beach at Nantasket, where in time they rented a cabana for the season. They also like to row boats around any lake they could find; Jamaica Pond, with its boathouse a few blocks from their home, was a regular destination. Near the water, they remembered, Fred Sr. was able to leave his cares behind. He seemed to relax visibly and became a lot more fun to talk to. So much did he cherish the time at the beach that, despite his worries about money, Fred Sr. splurged on a car to get them there more easily.
Everyone adored Uncle Dick (who died before I was born), and it’s been speculated that my father was named Richard after him. My dad’s sister remembers fondly working downtown in the 1960s and stopping in at the Jordan Marsh department store, where Uncle Dick worked for 40 years, to say hello or have lunch. Sometimes to borrow a few bucks: he never said no to anyone!
Dick, too, must have realized pretty quickly that his wife would spend more time with her mother and sisters than with him. A generous, easygoing sort, he never complained.
Every morning he walked over the Washington Street El (which came down about 10 years ago) for his ride to work downtown. In the evening he took the Arborway streetcar (which I also saw in action in its last years; it was discontinued in 1985) home for a change of scenery. He spent many a year reading the paper in the corner while “the girls” played cards, getting up on occasion to refresh a drink.
In 1942 all three of Lil’s children, Catherine’s only grandchildren, married. My grandparents’ wedding, in November, was the last of the weddings. “The girls” were dressed to the nines and Catherine held court at the corner table like a proud queen. It was to be their last big party as a group. Catherine lived long enough to see her first great-grandchild (my father’s cousin) the following June, but died in the fall of 1943.