But other than that house in Dedham we were transient residents of some traditional Boston neighborhood like “Rozzie” or Jamaica Plain with us kids finding creative ways to make palatable what was our more typical dinner of heavily salted and buttered white rice, a slab of government cheese and a fried chunk of their version of Spam, labeled “chopped meat,” on the can. It wasn’t as disgusting as the mystery meat labeled “chipped beef” that also came in tins that were as big as paint cans. It was supposed to be beef, but its burgundy color made it the most suspicious of the larder we knew as “surplus food.” Plus it smelled like dog food. Sometimes Ma would mix it in with watered down tomato sauce to put over spaghetti for supper on Sundays. Perhaps only the peanut butter was more disgusting. It too, opened like a paint can, and like paint, we’d have to stir in the inch or so of greasy peanut oil floating on the top into the dark brown muck that lied beneath until it was smooth enough to spread.
It’s funny how all of the childhood memories from all of those individual moves with their apartments and neighborhoods and schools each somehow have their own unique, indelible and vivid images, yet when stitched together across those years of constant roaming they’d become more of a fuzzy chronological scramble, like a slide show that is out of order. Memories of home sweet home for us are more of an enormous collage of packing, unpacking, moving trucks, first floors flats, third floor apartments, back alley fire escapes, angry landlords, corner store credit never to be paid back, pallets of government surplus food, Dad’s mastery at staying one step ahead of the bill collectors and his unpredictable wrath and its consequences, Ma’s chronic neurosis and associated “nervous breakdowns,” and somehow, all the while, us kids pulling each other along despite a life under the rule of ill-equipped parents and an endless stream of unpredictable and undeserved beatings and of course those dreaded but eventual evictions..
“Remember that time Dad had the electric bill put in your name back on Lamartine Street?” my oldest sister, Diane, once chuckled.
“Yeah,” I said, “not bad for a six-year-old huh? Except that it was on Green Street not Lamartine.”
One New Year’s Eve all but a couple of us were having a get together at my sister Karen’s house feasting on lobster ravioli and enjoying probably too many bottles of good red wine when we decided to play one of our favorite games; “Name That House!” The rules were pretty simple. First rule was you had to tell a unique first person recollection from our childhood, not repeat one heard and remembered from one already told by any of the others. Next, you had to name the street and the neighborhood where the memory or event occurred (knowing the house number was a bonus). And the last rule was the memory had to be corroborated by at least one other sibling (alive at the time of course). We’d go around the table laughing in hysterics at some long-forgotten (or “repressed” as we’d often say) memory that once resurrected would resonate with some or all of us. Then we’d do a shot of Jameson’s Irish Whisky or maybe Sambuca.
It wasn’t unusual whenever we played this game, laughing at the funny and the absurd about our growing up, to get the event right but the place wrong, or vice versa. And it was also true that it wasn’t uncommon for my father to employ the tactic of using our names to obtain credit or to re-establish an account of some sort. Each of the eight of us (five girls, three boys) had, at one time or another, been in arrears to the phone company, the electric company, or some other creditor—most long before the age of twelve. Thanks to Dad, we’d joke, most of our credit ratings were probably already shot before we even got to the sixth grade. With eight kids and each having a first, middle, and confirmation name, the combination from which to choose from when he needed to establish a new account was impressive.
“Georgie” as my Nana Boudreau used to call him, was the master at working out a way to beat the system (welfare system, tax system, health system, etc.). His skills as a parent however, weren’t so impressive. This of course made him the perfect match for Trudy.
Each of them was void of any real personal capacities to parent. They worked in in twisted tandem, but each in their own way, to portray the world to us as a constant reflection from one of the mirrors in the psychological fun house they had created for us. It was a place where the overriding and steady message was that life is strictly what happens to you and you certainly don’t happen to it. They certainly happened to us.
Their constant message, unspoken or otherwise, was that everything about your life was under their unchallenging control, and there was no interest whatsoever regarding how you might have felt about pretty much anything. You jumped at any orders given, you moved to wherever their eviction took you, you ate whatever they put in front of you, you endured the aching tooth until it rotted and crumbled, you went to bed at six o’clock in the summer time while your friends were still out playing because “I told you so,” and above all, your first duty was to make sure Ma was taken care of.
It was a place where they kept everything topsy-turvy and unpredictable, and different from everyone else we knew. Somehow I sensed from when I was very young, that if we were ever to come to live as full and “normal” a life as we could, in the end, each of us would have to find our own window looking out from that crazy house to see the real world, not the one they’d created, and we’d better heads toward it or be doomed to a future much like the one my parents had and were building for us within those walls. A window from which to try to see as best we could, our own path to whatever it was that had to be better out there and then make plans to run towards it. But as it would turn out, not everyone would end up with an equal view.
End of Chapter 2….