BITS and PIECES # 58

3

May 11, 2015 by palamow

BITS and PIECES # 58

Hello from Luquillo,
Sorry I’ve been so tardy with new stories – my aging life’s compendium of physical and mental restraints along with a busy writing schedule have hobbled me somewhat – along with a welcome visit from my son Mike and daughter-in-law Lori – a welcome intrusion at any time…
Here, for your perusal, is a character study of a wonderful ladyfriend from my past (that should get you reading avidly, if nothing else will!)…

Anyway, despite its length (almost 2,000 words!) I think you might find it worth following to the end…

Hope to bring you another story soon…

SOUTH RUSSELL STREET SKETCHES – MISS MARY

In 1976 I was renting a tiny, basement apartment, one of several on South Russell Street in buildings that had long ago been converted from barns that had served the horses and carriages of the affluent in the late 19th century. Our street began at the crest of Boston’s storied Beacon Hill, running straight down its west slope all the way to where it bottomed out on Beacon Street…
Our street was home to an eclectic mix of citizens, running the social gamut from young, upwardly-mobile professionals (often referred to as ‘Yuppies’) busy converting old buildings into fashionable town houses, to residents in reduced financial circumstances (mostly elderly) who lived hand-to- mouth lives in shabby flats in buildings scheduled for eventual auction to members of the first group. Sadly, there were also the inevitable homeless unfortunates (only a handful back then) who wandered the street by day, and at night, found whatever alcohol induced sleep they could in doorways and alongside heating vents…
Sandwiched between these cultural poles lived a coterie of mid-level professionals – some single, some coupled, stuffed into miniscule rental flats in the basements and attics of the aforementioned ‘Yuppie’ townhouses…
By far my favorite individual in the ‘reduced circumstances’ category was a still sprightly and beautiful Irish lady (I’ll call her ‘Mary’) who had just turned ninety. As the calendar had turned from 1899 to 1900, Mary had escaped the poverty that was Ireland by spending her last few pounds on a steerage class ticket on a rust encrusted steamer, crowded with like minded émigrés bound for Boston. After laboring for over half a century as scrubwoman and scullery maid in an endless succession of posh mansions on the fashionable side of the hill, Mary was pensioned-off when she could no longer endure the pain in her weary hands, back and knees…
She lived alone in a dilapidated, but still respectable boardinghouse near the top of the street, barely getting-by on an insignificant fixed income,..
On weekends (especially in winter, when South Russell’s sidewalks were frequently Ice-covered and treacherous), I would drop whatever I was doing, grab warm coat and gloves, and rush out the front door to offer her my arm, whenever I spied Mary painfully picking her way down the hill past my front window, She would accept shyly, and gossip shamelessly about our neighbors, as I carefully guided her down the sidewalk to Benny’s, an iconic neighborhood eatery located at the bottom of the street…
As we entered this vital neighborhood sanctorum, I would conduct Mary to her favorite stool – a wobbly fixture at the far end of Benny’s crowded counter, which gave her visual access through Benny’s single grease streaked window to the comings and goings of her fellow citizens, and then sit beside her as we ordered her lunch……
Mary’s choices selected from Benny’s sparse ‘Carte du Jour’ seldom varied – an egg salad sandwich on toasted white bread (“Wit’ the crusts cut away please dearie’ – m’ old teeth are quite rickety, these days”), a mound of potato crisps, a dill pickle, a steaming mug of tea, and a slice of cherry pie topped with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream for dessert…
Benny was the penultimate host – a squat, swarthy gnome of Italian ancestry and indeterminate age, constantly wiping his hands on his stained apron, his smile unfailing as he passed among his lunchtime customers, pausing to greet each newcomer individually with a handshake (men) or a kiss on the cheek (ladies), accompanied by his trademark “Hi ha wah yuh” bellowed over the tiny establishment’s conversational din…
Shortly after we had endured this ritual gantlet, Mary’s lunch would clatter to the counter in front of her, and I would reluctantly accept a chipped porcelain mug of Benny’s appalling coffee, listening attentively as Mary paused between bites to report on the weekly undertakings of South Russell’s denizens. When she had polished the last morsel of pie from her plate, I would settle our minuscule account, Benny would bid us goodbye (“Take cayuh now” repeated twice), coupled with a chaste buss to Mary’s lined cheek. We would amble arm-in-arm across Beacon Street to the adjacent Star supermarket. I would stroll with her as she shopped prudently for the few “necessaries” that she could afford – I was forbidden to offer further financial assistance – “Y’ve done more than enough as it is, dearie”), and then I would see her safely home…
During the week, when I was at my office in Cambridge, firemen from a nearby station would take turns, eagerly sharing the pleasure of Mary’s company, squiring her to Benny’s for lunch. As a result, what was most likely this dear lady’s most substantial daily meal was cheerfully subsidized by one or another of her armada of admirers…
Like many elderly pensioners, Mary’s daily wardrobe possibilities were Spartan at best – she was invariably clad in a threadbare, (but carefully starched and ironed) white cotton blouse, tucked firmly into a belted, ankle-length wool skirt. Dense wool stockings (usually white) peeked from the hem of her skirt, descending over her still shapely ankles into the tops of what she called her ‘sensibles’ – a pair of cracked and down-at-the-heel (but always carefully cleaned and polished) brown leather walking shoes. Depending upon the weather, this ensemble was topped off with either a heavy knit-wool, cardigan sweater, a belted raincoat, or a combination of the two, both of which had seen better days. These essentials were invariably accompanied by wool gloves and a stout, Mary Poppins-ish umbrella (“Me umbershoot”) that doubled as a cane to prevent falls…
Mary donned these wooly layers whenever she ventured outside – like most elderly pensioners on our street, she seemed to require this insulation, regardless of weather conditions…
One warm summer’s afternoon as I walked up the street after parking my car, Mary scurried over to me, her umbrella cane tapping a staccato beat on the fissured sidewalk. She had picked-up a handbill from a stack on Benny’s counter advertising a senior citizen’s ball that would begin at 7 pm that very evening at a local community center a few short blocks down Beacon Street. Removing the folded paper from her sweater pocket, Mary unfolded it carefully, smoothed it flat on her skirt, tentatively offering it to me. When I had read it, she shyly enquired in her delightful Gaelic brogue “Mr. Alan, I’d be ever so proud if you would consider squirin’ me t’ this dance this evenin’ ”, hurriedly adding: “I’d be done-up nice and wearin’ m’ prettiest frock and all, so’s not to discomfit you.”…
I surrendered humbly to Mary’s eloquent request. How could I refuse such an honor? We parted – she to prepare her “Dancin’ kit”, me to ensure that my charcoal-gray ‘formal’ suit was presentable, dig-out a clean white shirt, pick-out a nice tie and shine my black wing-tips…
I arrived at her boardinghouse at around 6 pm, to find her waiting expectantly in the lobby. As promised, she was arrayed in elegant if somewhat faded finery – a lovely polka-dot dress — her white stockinged feet were fitted securely into her battered patent leather “dancin’ slippers”. One of her elderly boardinghouse friends had plaited her beautiful white hair into two shoulder-length braids and helped her to apply just the right amount of powder and rouge to her careworn but still lovely cheeks…
I proudly escorted Mary to her dance at the senior citizen’s dance that night, managing to dance without embarrassing her, only occasionally treading on her twinkling toes – a landmark event in itself – in my indifferent terpsichorean past, I had avoided participating in this impractical endeavor since proving my hopeless inadequacy at it when, in the fourth grade, my mother forcibly coerced me to attend Wednesday evening dancing classes at the Beverly Hills Women’s Club, to ‘polish my social skills’ so to speak…
Despite my inherent clumsiness (or perhaps because of it), Mary began to fade around 9 pm. After we had downed a final cup of Kool Aid punch and consumed yet another soggy square of sugary cake, I carefully escorted my aged Cinderella back to her boardinghouse digs. She thanked me profusely and gave me a chaste kiss on the cheek before disappearing into the establishment’s creaky elevator. At the dance, Mary had told everyone she encountered that I was her ‘special beau’, which, in retrospect, I suppose I was…
The city of Boston had almost completed construction of a senior citizen’s retirement complex across Beacon street – it featured a 10 story apartment building, a small, enclosed mall with shops and schoolrooms teaching handicraft skills, spaced conveniently along pleasant walking paths which wound through shaded tree-lined arbors designed for elderly folks with limited mobility – and, best of all, the rent was controlled so that those elderly who qualified financially could live-out the remainder of their lives in pleasant and rewarding circumstances…
Mary had applied early, and was waiting patiently for notification – when it came and she was accepted, she ran joyfully into the street, stopping anyone who would listen to the good news…
When the big day came, the entire street turned out to move Mary’s few belongings to her fresh new quarters – a small bedroom, a kitchen (“Imagine, m’ own stove and fridge”), a bathroom (“Lord love us, m’ own personal biffy”), and a tiny sitting room (I’ll have ya over for tea, soon as I get settled down certain”), all with new furniture, carpeting and appliances…
Unsurprisingly, Mary’s first ‘afternoon tea’ invitees were her collection of old ‘beaux’ – Benny, the firemen and me. We ‘ooh-ed and ah-ed’ appropriately, as she proudly showed us around her new ‘mansion’, as we drank tea and consumed crackers spread with jelly. When we were done, Mary hugged us all and kissed each of us on the cheek. With tears brimming from the lined corners of her still bright blue eyes she bid us farewell and turned to begin arranging her new life…
I spied her occasionally, briskly walking the shaded pathways of the center’s mall, but never intruded on her – she was rapidly adapting to her newly expanded opportunities, and had been engulfed by a new set of elderly compatriots – she had graduated into a fresh and rewarding life…
Soon, I had moved on as well, and hadn’t thought much of Mary, until a few years later, I received a letter, forwarded from my old South Russell street address. It was from one of Mary’s close senior citizen friends, informing me of Mary’s funeral – she had died in her sleep with a smile on her face at age 96 – she went on to relate that Mary always spoken fondly of her “Special beau from m’ South Russell days, Mr. Alan”…
Alas, the funeral had occurred some months earlier, so I was very regrettably denied the opportunity of attending Mary’s final ‘send off’– I heard later that more than a hundred of her admirers (including her fireman ‘beaus’) had assembled to mourn her passing…
These days, I smile broadly whenever I think of ‘Miss Mary’. I remain in awe of her ageless beauty and especially her indomitable Irish spirit…
© Copyright 2015 – Alan Mowbray Jr.

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3 thoughts on “BITS and PIECES # 58

  1. Rose says:

    Well worth the wait Alan!

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