MEMOIRS OF SOUTHIE NON-NATIVE

January 10, 2010

     Recently, I was asked by a family friend how I ended up in South Boston.  The short answer is the Red Line.  The real answer (which is much longer), involves my grandfather, John F. Kearney, DDS. 

     We called him “Grampa Doc”, and at one time he had a dental practice on Pill Hill.  Grampa Doc , the oldest of ten children, was baptized at Gate of Heaven Church in 1896, and raised on Farragut Road in South Boston.  When he was a young man in his early twenties, his parents died, leaving him to raise his siblings.  The second oldest of the bunch was my Auntie May.  From what I’ve been told,  she was a kind woman who was dedicated to keeping her family together, and by the grace of God, the help of their Aunt Lenora (from Winthrop) and fellow parishioners at St. Eulalia’s (now St. Brigid’s), they were able to do so.  Grampa Doc graduated from Tufts Dental School, later became an oral surgeon, and eventually taught at Tufts. 

     My Aunt Eleanor, born in 1907, was the ninth of the ten Kearney’s.  She graduated from the Boston City Hospital School of Nursing in 1931 and worked on a ward in the hospital, caring for more than fifty patients in a shift.  Shortly after America became involved in WWII, she joined the Army Nurse Corps, and was stationed in London.

     I was very close with my Aunt Eleanor.  She was most generous to my family and for many years during the sixties and seventies, she gave us her South Dennis cottage for a week in August so my ten siblings and I could enjoy the sun and sand on Cape Cod.  During the winter she lived on Canton Ave in Milton and on Sundays, we would stop there on our way (from Bedford, where I grew up) to visit my grandmother’s house in the Lower Mills of Dorchester.  I loved Eleanor’s stories about growing up in Southie—how people took care of each other, how friendships spanned a lifetime.  Until she died, she made two phone calls every Sunday evening to speak to her friends who still lived in her beloved neighborhood.  At 5PM, she made a call to Lil Manning who lived her whole life in a house on East Third Street behind the St. Brigid School yard.  Afterward, she called Marie and Frank Crimmins who lived on Marine Road.

     So that’s the back story, which laid the foundation for my affinity for the grid of alphabet blocks and numbered side streets we affectionately call Southie.  Here’s how I got here.

     I graduated from Westfield State College in 1981 and moved to Brighton where I taught physical education at the high school with Cliffie MacDonald, a real class act, amazing teacher, and, a Southie guy! 

     On the last day of school in June of 1982, I received a pink slip from Boston Public Schools, but couldn’t care less, since I was about twenty four hours away from getting back to my “other life”, my lifeguard-by-day, bartender-by-night life style.  I bolted from the city for a second summer on fantasy island (no, not Castle Island, it was Nantucket!). 

     One of the benefits of teaching is the ten weeks off during the summer.  I spent my free time in Nantucket where I made great friends, excellent money and got an incredible tan (for an Irish girl).  I had lots of fun, but by mid-August, I began to wonder what I would do after Labor Day.  On a whim, I bought the Sunday Boston Globe and perused the Help Wanted section.  One ad jumped out and grabbed my face.  It said something like, ALL GIRLS CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL IN SOUTH BOSTON SEEKS PHYS ED TEACHER.  Mind you, it was the first time I bought the Globe all summer.  I mean, really, who cares what’s happening in the real world when you’re in Nantucket?  The word SOUTH BOSTON just screamed at me, “This job is for you, Mo!”

     What transpired in the following twenty-four hours made me a believer in fate.  I bumped into my cousin Andrea Krupa, in a bar.   She was a writer, and on Nantucket to stay with a friend for a month.  She had brought her typewriter with her.  I needed a typewriter to do my resume.  She let me use hers. She was thrilled for me, because she spent her summers at the sailing camp at the Southie Yacht Club, and said I was a moron if I didn’t apply for the job.  By 4 o’clock on Monday, August 23, 1982, my resume and cover letter were inside a sealed and stamped envelope, which I dropped in the blue mailbox outside the Federal Street post office.  Then I slapped my forehead.  Bam!  What did I just do?  Why leave Nantucket when I didn’t have to?  I could stay in this playpen forever! What about my new boyfriend? (Pete Lisiecki.  Yeah, we met in Nantucket, and married in 1988).  I ran inside and told the guy at the counter that I dropped something in the mailbox by mistake, and I wanted it back.  He said, “Too bad”.

     Two days later I got a call from Sister Mary Ryan at Cardinal Cushing High School for Girls.  Could I come for an interview the next day?  She was a nun, so I was afraid to say no.  I booked a flight on Will’s Air (a six-seater plane!), landed at Logan around noon the next day, hopped on the blue line, then the green, then red, and finally crawled up to the street in the middle of the Broadway Bridge under a rickety wooden kiosk.  It took a second to get my bearings.  I sprinted across the street (um, drivers had no respect for the traffic lights), passed Triple O’s and made my way to 50 West Broadway.    A disheveled man was outside the door, ringing the door bell.  It opened, a woman handed him a brown bag, which he grabbed.        

     She invited me inside, and introduced herself as Sister Mary Ryan.  She said homeless men often rang the bell for food, and they gave them boloney sandwiches.  I was inspired by her kindness.

     We went to the front parlor and there, I met Sister Mary Mulligan and Sister Mary Murphy.  I broke out in a sweat.  I was being triple-teamed by Sister Marys .      

     I chose a seat in the far corner, away from Sister Mary to the third power, my heart throbbing in my chest so loud I was sure they could hear it.  I sat up straight when I noticed I was the only one slouching.  Then, I suddenly remembered that my mother had told me she had come to this very same parlor to visit her aunt Claire (the fifth of the ten Kearney’s) who was a Sister of Notre Dame, and had taken the name Sister Eleanor Augustine.

     “Tell us about yourself,” Sister Mary Ryan said.

     I stammered, “I have six brothers and four sisters, and my aunt was a nun here— Sister Eleanor Augustine.” 

     The three Marys smiled.

     “You look kind of young,” Sister Mary Mulligan noted.

    “I’m twenty-two,” I replied, as if that meant I was old and wise.  I didn’t tell her my birthday was just six days prior.  My liver reminded me though, but I chose to keep that between the two of us.

     “Well, you’re not much older than some of the girls,” Sister Mary Mulligan persisted, “And they can be a bit tough.”

     “I just spent a year at Brighton High School.  I’m sure I’ll be fine,” I replied.

     I got the job.  On Tuesday, September 7, 1982, I attended my first faculty meeting at CCHS.  I wore a yellow Nantucket tee shirt that highlighted my deep dark life guard tan.  A friendly, very pretty  lady invited me to sit next to her.  Her name was Nina Hayes.  I had just made my first Southie friend, and to this day, Nina remains one of my dearest friends.  The “faculty meeting” was really a casual dinner in the gym, a “Welcome Back” event, and an opportunity for me to meet my colleagues.  The dinner concluded at Triple O’s, essentially, my baptism to the community.

   Over the next three years, I taught more than six-hundred girls from various Boston neighborhoods—Southie, the South End, Dot, Roxbury, the North End, and Charlestown.  Honestly, (except for the pay) they were some of the most rewarding years of my life.  I moved to Southie in September 1983, and lived for the next six years in a studio apartment in the old St. Brigid convent at 789 East Broadway.  With great reluctance, I left that dream location, after I married Pete.  My pre-nup agreement (kidding) included a stipulation that I refused to move out of Southie.  And we have been here since, first in a condo on Bolton Street, and now on H Street.

     My friends know that every winter I whine and threaten to move to Milton because I want a driveway and I’m tired of sharing walls with people.  But I’m not sure that will ever happen.  This neighborhood had been so kind to me.  Just as neighbors helped my grandfather nearly a century ago so that he could keep his family intact, my dear Southie friends rushed to our side when I was in a horrific accident ten years ago.  I broke my neck and jaw and was stuck in the house for months after a two week stint in Boston Medical Center.  I am proud to say that because of my dear friends and even people I did not know well, we did not have to prepare dinner after I was injured, because people brought meals to us FOR SEVERAL MONTHS!  I couldn’t drive for a year, but friends made sure that my boys got back and forth to school and sporting events,  and that I got to appointments if Pete couldn’t get me there. They did this for a year!  This is what Southie is all about, and we are forever grateful for the love and kindness that was extended to us.

     While I am not a Southie native, my heart is embedded in this peninsula on Boston Harbor. September marked the beginning of my twenty-seventh year in South Boston.  My three sons were born, raised and educated here, and collectively, we have met hundreds of people we call friends. We are all proud to say that South Boston is our home.