Last week, I had a card from someone I once knew. Thanks, Beth.
We were in grammar and high school together, though not in the same class. Reading her note sent me back in time, and back on the magic bus of memory to a place that once was my whole world: the old neighborhood.
I grew up in the North End of Pittsfield, not of Boston, where the boundaries included Horrigan Brothers' Garage and Nichols' Variety Store, both on Wahconah Street, St. Charles Church and school, Lenox Avenue and Wilson Street. Walking to school and back twice a day — because we went home for lunch — made this neighborhood seem, as Goldilocks would say, "Just right."
It was big enough for adventures, but small enough to feel safe and comfortable.
One of our favorite adventures walking to school was the exciting trip over the footbridge that spanned the Housatonic River and connected Wahconah Street with Fairview Avenue. When they were dyeing at the Royal Cleaners, the river ran red and fed our imagination to explain the reasons why. When the water level was low, we could see old bikes and baby carriages guarded by scary snapping turtles.
On the low side, past the dam, we could see the old buildings that had housed a multitude of businesses from soda-making to bakery storage. If you ran over the bridge with your friends, you could make it vibrate, causing you to run even faster to get safely to the other side.
St. Charles Grammar School was our daily destination, and the sturdy red brick building seemed a fortress indeed. It shut out one world and opened another. Leaving the playground behind, we marched up the stairs silently to the classrooms where textbooks and chalkboards gave us the foundations of reading, writing, and (challengingly for me) arithmetic, while the saintly Sisters of Saint Joseph taught us catechism and modeled the virtues of patience, understanding and fear of the Lord!
Strolling along Lenox Avenue, I learned to appreciate flower beds, picket fences and the scent of "April violets." I never will forget Mrs. Roberts. She passed us on her way to get the bus to go to work at England Brothers. She loved her cologne, and after we nodded greetings, we would stop and inhale deeply. The scent enveloped us, and for a few seconds we were in the cloud of violets, too.
On Saturdays, I had a much more exciting destination. I walked the half block north to Horrigan Brothers' Garage to take my Pop his lunch. I could hardly wait to get there. Behind that white, wooden overhead door lay the kingdom of Jeepers Creepers, oil bottles, vices, tool boxes and the beloved Coke machine.
Leaving my Mom's realm of cleanliness and order, I ran full tilt into the land of grease and dirt where I learned about fan belts, carburetors and socket wrenches. I also learned how to ride my bike, circling round and round the cars my Pop was fixing.
I also learned how to drive a car a few feet to the inspection area, and back it up again. For fun, I could pump gas where sniffing the gasoline fumes was an added bonus. Of course, the best part was spending time alone with my Pop who always had a ready smile and a twinkle in his eye, and taught me I could do anything.
Back home, I would happily climb the porch steps to my other play space, where I could read books or play school with the neighborhood kids (guess who was always the teacher?). On rainy days we played endless games of canasta and carroms. The neighborhood was our whole world and we were content to live within its borders.
Anne Horrigan Geary is a regular Eagle contributor.