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112 mother was raised along with five brothers and sisters by their older sister, Irene, when their parents died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Oak Street seemed to be a good place for us to be. Her other sisters had managed to move to the suburbs where successful people wanted to live. My cousins who went to a private school called my sister Raggedy Ann behind her back. We were welcome to visit but not invited, but Aunt Irene’s small bungalow across from the river was a short taxi ride away or a long walk depending on how much was in my mother’s purse. I watched the meter all the way while fingering a penny in my pocket in case she didn’t have enough for a tip. My father worked thirty miles away so he needed the old car to get there and back, and my mother didn’t know how to drive. I don’t remember any of the women in the neighborhood driving. The walk was difficult for her when her rheumatoid arthritis was acting up. When it was, she limped both ways on a swollen leg, and she was still a young woman. We must have been quite the sight: A small woman with dark auburn hair holding the hand of my sister who was tall and very blond while I, my hair almost as black as my father’s, trailed a few steps behind pretending I had a limp just like my mother. When I was a little older, we took the bus ten miles to New Hampshire a few times so my mother could get gold injections from a chiropractor. They were still banned in Massachusetts. Witches had a better reputation. Sadly, nothing seemed to work. I realize now that she lived the rest of her short life with pain. Was this the source of her unhappiness? Oak Street was also within walking distance of the Immaculate Conception School and church, our church. In the 1940’s and 50’s, the church still stood at the center of Catholic life. A priest could put in a good word for a job or not. “Were you an altar boy or not?” I was not. The nuns taught us how to study and how to act in a world where everyone was not Irish or Catholic. Looking back, I believe we were more tribal than religious. My father belonged to the Order of Ancient of Hibernians, a fraternal order formed in the 1830’s to protect Irish miners in Pennsylvania. When he married my mother, he moved across town away from his family and friends, away from his parish. Mr. O’Leary who lived down the hill was born in Ireland and was known to cry, “An Gorta Mor” over and over in a mournful voice as he made his way home from Duggan’s after a few drinks too many. Along with my best friend, Joey Duffy, I would weave down the alley behind his

CIRQUE house swigging from a bottle of Pepsi and keening, “We Gotta More.” He would swear in Irish and chase us if he caught us mocking him. It was years later that I learned that “An Gorta Mor” means the Great Famine, the Irish Holocaust. At school one day, someone decided to write God Bless England on the blackboard because Sister Rose, the oldest nun at the Immaculate Conception, would run crying from the room if someone did. This came from an older boy who had seen her run from the room when he was in her class. All that was needed was a distraction. I was chosen to ask her for help solving an arithmetic problem while someone else would approach the board. I can still hear her cry when she turned around, and I still feel a deep seated guilt. About twenty years ago when a strange longing first drew me back to Lowell after years without visiting, I was walking past the new building that had replaced the old brick school that I attended. I stopped and crossed the street for no apparent reason. Several hours went by before I realized I had crossed because we never walked past the Protestant church on the opposite corner. The nuns made sure of that even if we had to cross the busy intersection three times to get to our church. I will never forget the rainy day when I made my First Communion. When it was assumed that I had reached the age of reason, which according to the Catholic Church takes place when you’re six or seven, it was time for me to make my First Communion. That was a leap of faith on the Church’s part. I was still struggling with the mystery of tying my shoes when I was six. Before I could make my First Communion, I had to make my first confession. Since I seldom said a word in class unless called upon even if I needed to go to the bathroom, I wanted my classmates to watch me as I walked from the confessional to kneel with my head down at the altar rail. The longer you knelt at the rail, the more serious your sins. Saying three Hail Marys and one Our Father just wouldn’t do, but what did I have to confess? I consulted all the “Shall Nots” I could think of and came up empty until I remembered the day Mr. Danas told me to take a piece of candy from the case while he was getting something for my mother. I took two by mistake, but I didn’t put one back; in fact, I ate both of them before I got out the door, so I was a thief and a glutton worthy of

Cirque, Vol. 7 No. 1  

A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim

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