Before I begin, a caveat.
I’m not a historian and the accuracy of my recollection of each bit and piece of family lore probably reflects that. Even now, my sisters and I still dispute the detail of some of the old stories among ourselves, but the broad outline is as close as 70 years of memories can make it.
Remember, I first heard much of this stuff as an eye-rolling, totally disinterested teenager. Only much later, when I tried my hand at putting a family tree together, did I really become interested in the comings and goings of my ancestors.
But by then, most all of them were already gone.
So, the question is: “What do you remember of your grandparents?”
Not much, unfortunately. Three quarters of my grandparents died before I was born. Only Catherine Rogers, “Ma Rogers” to us, was around during my lifetime.
My mother’s parents were Ed and Mary Call, both born in 1881. From 1904 to 1920, they had eight children, five boys and three girls.
My uncles Fredrick and Arthur both died in their first year. And then my grandmother Mary died giving birth to my uncle Walter Call in 1920. From that point on, my three-year-old Mom’s family was more or less raised by her 16-year-old sister, my Auntie Dot, in their little house at 1482 Columbia Road.
Then, in the spring of 1938, my uncle Walter returned from playing football in the park with a nasty cough. It developed into pneumonia, I believe, and Mom’s beloved baby brother died at 18. I think that really took something out of her.
My maternal grandfather, Edward Call, died in 1940 at 58 years of age. I don’t know much about his life other than that he was a hard-working provider for his six kids.
On my father’s side, his parents were Patrick and Catherine Rogers. Patrick was born in Mayo in 1881 and Catherine Ring in Kilkenny in 1883. They travelled separately to the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century, married about 1903, and went on to produce ten kids, five boys and five girls, while living in various locations in the lower end of South Boston. My Dad, born in 1907, was third oldest.
My grandfather Pat, I’m told, had a fine job with the railroad as a baggage handler. He worked as a senior guy at the Back Bay Station and was said to make large tips and Christmas bonuses from the swells who passed through. But at some point, in the late 1920s or early 30s, he was involved in an on-the-job accident and lost an arm. The times being what they were, this also cost him his job.
I understand that things were never the same after that at the Rogers’ house. Alcohol was blamed for the injury, and Ma never really forgave Pa for the financial hole he dropped them all into. Pressure was on all the older kids, like my Dad, to pitch in money to run the household. They had four siblings under ten years old.
After that, they moved around a lot; always interested in a cheaper apartment. Dad quit college (Lowell Institute at MIT) before he could get his Civil Engineering degree. Then came The Great Depression, and things got worse instead of better.
Pa died in 1940.
Then the war came at the end of 41, and the jobs started to come back. My uncles Billy and Jimmy went into the service and Jimmy was killed in an airplane.
My parents had gotten married around 1938. Then my Dad got drafted into the Navy at 36 and was sent to Corpus Christi NAS in Texas, where my sister Nancy was born.
After the war, my parents returned to Boston and were put up at Camp McKay on Columbia Point. The camp had been erected to house low-risk Italian prisoners of war and was made available to returning servicemen. We still lived there when I was born in 1948. We then moved to 23 Gates Street, an apartment in uncle George Call’s house.
Then we moved to the projects. At that time, around 1954, the project was filled with city workers. There were cops and firemen and bus drivers in every building. My Dad, by now a Senior Drawbridge Tender, lived with us at 98 Mercer, apt. 870.
My uncle Bobby lived just across the street from our apartment. Down the end of the block, Ma Rogers lived at 127 with her youngest daughters, May and Jean, and my “Uncle” Mike.
May, who was an unmarried cleaner at the State House, was really Mike’s mother. Ma Rogers had raised him as her own after May “got in trouble” because that’s how things were done then.
Jean never married, either, although she did go for a long time with a rich dentist, a Dr. Winchester, who had a large boat named “Alacrity”. When I met him, he was wearing an ascot. I thought that was really classy. I never saw the boat.
Our family used to head down the street to Ma’s apartment just about every Sunday, when the clan would gather for dinner.
Now, Mom was always a reluctant participant at the Sunday dinners. She always thought that Ma looked down her nose at her, as somehow unworthy of my Dad. Mom thought that was an unreasonable position for shanty Irish to take. My Mom’s people had owned their house on Columbia Road since the late 1800s, and here were the Rogers, all living in public housing.
But we put Ellen in the stroller and walked down to Ma’s.
Dinner was a trip. First all the men (including me) would gather in the kitchen to eat donuts while the womenfolk sat talking in the parlor, about seven feet away.
Then, as the meal was served, the men were seated and fed first, while the leftover donuts went to the women and girls in the parlor. When the men finished, the women sat down to eat, and we went into the parlor to smoke and talk sports and politics.
I, along with some even younger male cousins, was fed before my father’s oldest sister, or my mother could eat. A different world.
The place was jam packed; this was a project apartment, and everyone had at least three kids. And the food was terrible. I remember being forced to eat Ma’s horrible pea soup and silently swearing that I would never eat pea soup again. Only love for my wife made me eventually try Nana Jessie’s and I have been hooked since.
My Aunt Margie (hard “g”) taught me the Latin I needed to become an altar boy after school at Ma’s kitchen table. She taught all us little male proto-Catholics our altar responses, and I still remember many of the prayers today. Margie was sweet and gentle and always nice to me.
My Dad also pitched in to tutor his nieces and nephews in math when needed. I remember cousins sitting in our kitchen as Dad patiently explained some obscure point of trigonometry or algebra that seemed to come easily only to him.
Many times, Ma Rogers would call my Dad at home and ask him to counsel one of his younger brothers. Billy and Bobby were both heavy drinkers. I found out eventually that Billy beat his wife and children and lost his position on the police force for drunken misbehavior. I never really liked Billy.
Bobby was just weird. My Dad said that his entire youth was spent being rescued by his older brothers from well deserved beatings. He married this nice, mousey little girl Helen, and they moved into an apartment across the street from us. Bobby, who worked as a project maintenance man, covered over all their third floor windows “so that perverts won’t be looking in at my Helen!”
Bobbie once gave my 11 year old sister Ellen a Bowie knife for a present, because a girl has to protect herself. Mom said to avoid Uncle Bobby when possible.
My Mom also had to contend with Ma (and May and Jean) reporting back on every move my sisters and I made that could be seen from their window. Since their window faced across the little park to the big park and the beach beyond, we were pretty much watched all day.
It was annoying, especially when one of my sisters was reported to be “in the park with BOYS!” while she was quietly doing her homework on the kitchen table.
“No, Ma. She’s sitting right here. No, I have no idea who they are, but she’s right here. Mind your business, Ma”
Mom and Dad would then just look at each other and shake their heads.
Some of my favorite memories of the project were the hot summer nights, when the grownups would all sit outside in lawn chairs and chat, and maybe have a beer. Meanwhile, we kids all ran amok playing relieve-o, freeze tag and buck-buck until 11PM. Good times.
Ma Rogers, my last grandparent, died in 1960 at the age of 79. Around that same time, we moved out of the project to an apartment a family friend owned on East 8th Street, and then eventually farther up the Point to I Street.
But then, on September 5, 1965, my Dad died, and nothing was ever really the same for us again.
I’ll write about him next time.