Friday, February 27, 2009

He took it to his grave …

          image Sitting on the logs

“… Uncle Eddie, what happened in 1925 at a Canadian Logging camp?”

I never knew this uncle, the oldest of my mother’s siblings very well. He and his family live in Massachusetts and visits were on special occasions and holidays but I liked him – He had the same kind of penetrative green eyes as my favorite uncle Nap, aka, ‘Frenchie’. His laughter was similar to a booming sound that reverberated through the rooms like distant thunder from mountain hollows. This was amplified when Frenchie joined the frivolity with his own loud mirth. How I relished those sounds especially when it was hushed by an ultra-reserved aunt (who I thought looked like the actor George Raft) with her misting, “Shhhh, shhhh!” Now, what could of been better than that!

Several ago, as I was going through my filing cabinet, in the back of a drawer was a legal-size pad of paper with curled up ends of pages that sighed (perhaps it was me) when reached for. Scribbled, in big bold letters, were triple-spaced notes spread across two pages, “What the … hell?” What kind of secret code was this? Then it came to me – The notations were about uncle Eddie, told to me by aunt Exilda, his oldest sister. “Maybe you can find out more than I can tell you about this.”

“Is this some sort of mystery?” “Yes.” “Spies and secret agents’ stuff?” “Well, I wouldn’t go that far, no.” “Aunt Exilda, please tell me what you know … “I’m beginning to feel like Charlie Chan".

… During the roaring twenties, when bodies littered streets and machinery reduced employment and the crash on Wall street was a sliced wrist and gasp away, an out-of-work uncle Eddie had to find a job on two counts, he was at an age where he needed independence and a paycheck that would provide that precious extra amount that could be sent to his mother. Raphael, his father, once a respected barber and carpenter, had become a daily consumer and self-appointed connoisseur of bathtub hootch. It did not raise the eyebrows of neighbors to see the little guy brought home slung over a son’s shoulder. “Did you take the back streets here?” “Mother, I brought him home.”

Raphael hadn’t earned a living for several years so the reins of responsibility for the support of the large family automatically passed down to the combined efforts of the oldest sons although everyone who could earn even a nickel or dime, contributed it to ‘mother’s teapot.’ Napoleon (Nap) and brother, Michael (Joe) managed to hang on to their jobs in the mills, as did aunt Exilda who thought herself especially blessed to be working for pittance. There were no chicken-in-every-pot in those days but there was an increasing number of signs reading, “Irish (nor French) need not apply here.” Situations born and bred underground were beginning to surface like nightcrawlers in a downpour.

There, on a main street, a storefront office, operated by representatives from a consortium of Canadian lumber companies was hawking for workers … Anyone who could swing an axe, draw a saw, climb a tree, and skin a cat was sought – all expanses paid. It was the kind of work uncle Eddie’s strong arms and back could do. It was the answer to his prayers! “I don’t trust this, Eddie,” cautioned, Nap. Chimed in, Michael, “Why don’t you go to Boston, first and see what’s there.” “No, I’m not wasting anymore time – I’m going to Canada!”

By the 1920’s,  Communist branches of The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World had cut wide swaths across Canada for the establishment of socialist labor unions that had placed a toehold into lumber camps owned by profit-conscious companies. True, workers lived in appalling conditions and were subjected to many abuses. The pay was rock-bottom though increased slightly because of  steady pressure by the communists. On January 1, 1924, the established IWW lumber workers union called for an 8 hour day with blankets to be provided and a minimum wage of $4.00 per day. The workers, in support, went on strike. After several weeks, the camp operators tried to bring in scabs from various areas in Canada and from the United States. Another feature of the strike worth mentioning was the offer of ‘free’ transportation by the Northern Railways to scabs (certainly not described as such) on condition a man’s luggage was impounded until his strike breaking wages repaid the fare … 

None of this was known to Eddie. As far as he understood he was going to work in Canada, in a lumber camp, good money, just a hard-working guy wanting to make a living, no philosophy, no politics, no nonsense. I think that when Eddie got to his destination, he found himself in an intensely hostile environment however, he was there to make money and that’s what he tried to do. But, taking a striker’s job, especially someone striking for better working conditions, stuck in his throat. A scab? Not on your life! Was he pro communist? Not this man; not this family!  Logically, he supported unionization. Morally, he supported worker rights, the American way that even with its faults and abuses, was the very best way. I think that for a period of time he compromised his beliefs for the money, sending the majority of it home. Then, unable to stay dumb and numb to the beatings and serious injuries the strikers suffered from bad-ass scabs and from company-hired thugs, he crossed over the line and joined the workers, doing his share of striking and head-knocking before returning home.  Afterall, the man was no scab; no strike-breaker. He stood with the strikers and if he had to hurt someone well, it was an understandable matter of protective responses for the cause of rightness against oppression and abuse.

When uncle Eddie returned home, he carried scars but never confided to anyone (though it is thought that he did so to uncle Nap who he trusted) what exactly happened in Canada and went to his grave with that story but I think, based on, albeit quasi, research that he and a few others, also with scars, did some damage there before taking the long way back to the family hearth. But, what do I know? A Charlie Chan, I’m not. A reporter for the National Inquirer, I’m not. But, something did happened in that lumber camp or at another not too far away. Maybe I’ll never get any closer to it than I am at present though I’m close – very close and should leave it at that.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

GeeGee’s Paintings, Part One


“Sea Cove” - Painted for my oldest son, Francis Michael  - Pre 1970. His suggestions created life in my brush-work.
All throughout my painting era until 1979, Francis was my biggest encourager  ... He believed in my ability to paint and in the eventual development of my own unique style. He had a keen sense of perspective and color where all I possessed was a deep need to paint; no know-how, no experience, no idea of what I was doing yet there he was as  unobtrusively as possible peering over my shoulder, “Looking good, Mom.” Even when he gave me softened criticism,
it was always accompanied with praise for the slightest improvement. “I like that wall - looks like part of an old bridge-way or onetime detour from the rocky ledges and shallow waters.”
“Really? Oh, that’s great as I just painted it there because that corner needed to have something occupying that space.”
“You’re improving, Mom.”


I painted the above  in 1971- named: “Something Egyptian” after perusing through piles of saved National Geographic Magazines finding three that had articles and photos of Egyptian history and artifacts that provided me  with what I was looking to express ... No great undertaking which would of been beyond my abilities to do anyway but just a simple, something Egyptian. I bought a canvas board and following a shadowy notion I had in mind, was ready to begin when another thought took hold: One of the magazines had the prayer of the dead, in hieroglyphics, displayed. I couldn’t wait for Francis to come home from school!
He suggested taping a border around the canvas-board where  he would mathematically figure out where each symbol of the prayer of the dead would fit in total for me to draw in with ink or marker after the painting was done. “That’s brilliant, Fran!”
The bottom part of the border was for it’s name and date and my ‘John Hancock’.
Unfortunately, instead of  ‘Something Egyptian’, I named it ‘King Tutankhamun’ because the prayer of the dead was taken from an article about the young king and seemed more rightful.
        Personally, I much prefer my name for this painting  ...


Left: When I was about 1 yr. old and fussing, I was placated with a National Geographic Magazine that  uncle Nap (Napoleon) felt sure would pacify me. And it did, well beyond his visit with grandmother. My aunts told me of this years later, between chuckles of laughter, that grandmother struggled with a stalking feeling of guilt every time I would get bored and wanted attention, naturally when she was at her busiest. It was then she’d resort to a NGM, opening it to a page that met with her approval - no naked folks in wild dancing frenzies! Each page, I would examine carefully then pulled at it till it ripped and with that, tears flowed.  How easy it became for the family to support my love for this ‘opened door to the world’ by keeping  me supplied with this first love, this genuine love of  earth and all it’s exciting inhabitants! At bedtime, it accompanied me. 

Finally, I outgrew it’s companionship but never it’s presence - it’s moving photos and stories, it’s peoples that are have been welcomed every month in my home for the past 76 years.

This painting I did for grandmother and for the handsome couple that my heart embraced  … I’ve named it,  Suspended in Time

Monday, February 16, 2009

“14 Hands Around, Matey!”

                    seagulls and owl

My favorite and  best loved uncle was popularly called ‘Frenchie’, a nick-name that stuck with him throughout all of his life yet, it was more than a moniker, it was a title spoken with fondness and respect … A jolly, “Hey, Frenchie, my good man!” Or, a serious “Captain Frenchie, You can’t turn me down, I need your help – I’ll make up to you.” Most of the time, they didn’t make it up to him but, what the hell, Frenchie understood … “14 hands around, Matey, my friends don’t owe me nothing, glad to be of help!” And this simple, under-rated statement summed up the real altruism of Frenchie, my uncle.

Joseph Louis Napoleon Fortin was born to a mill-working Quebecois family in Amesbury, Ma., 1909 and died in 1987, within the embracement of his West End home, Portland, Maine having lived at Gorham’s Corner and West End sections of this coastal city for the majority of his years. During his hard-pressed and tormented lifetime he was a Coast Guard auxiliary seaman for a spell, patrolling the southern coast of Maine in search of bootleggers, harboring a strong opposition to prohibition and the rum-runners. He was a commercial fishing boat crewman and oft pilot and skipper, labor union advocate and handy backyard mechanic – A ‘jack-of-all-trades’ yet master of none though of one; the Jew’s Harp from which he could create the lamenting sounds of lost loves and noble causes, and then bewitch a listener with tunes that would make a stony man dance with a racing heart. Frenchie could do the same with a harmonica.

He fell deeply in love with a nurse from High Street, not far away, who was as Irish as the earth of Ireland, itself, and possessed the patience of St. Job along with the gift of Irish smiling that made the difference in during days when all hell had broken loose! Now he, himself, was a hot-wire with a temper that was frequently quelled by a heart bigger than his baggy undershirt. Still, his temper was always just below the surface. Frenchie and the Nurse had 7 children, 4 boys, chips of the old block and 3 girls, reflections of their mother, who I grew up with during the  prevalent effects of the infamous 1929 stock market crash.

The wounds of the Depression were agonizingly slow in healing – times were ‘hand-to-mouth’ days with no rest for the weary. This was 1935 … In Maine, the Depression had limited impact relative to the rest of the nation because the state's core industries of fishing, textiles and timber had been in a depressed state since the 1890s, said Richard Judd, a professor of history at the University of Maine at Orono

"The joke was that people in Maine didn't realize they were in a depression because Maine people had been dealing with economic adversities since the late 19th century," Judd said ...” 

Our large family pulled together like that of a wagon train under attack and we survived the ravages of impoverishment in a city that was predominantly Yankee with minuscule consideration for the Irish and least of all for the French, both unfaltering workers who, all too true, earned much less than their productive value on the Portland docks though represented by the longshoremen’s Benevolent Society. It was a labor union that not only had to advocate for the dock workers under political nit-picking forces but had to fend off the maneuvers of communism, mob-run labor unions and corrupted trade practices. Racketeering was a pronounced presence like wharf rats with the lowest rodent looking to fit in with the local ‘big boys’ and move on to bigger piers. Whatever it took to get there was not a problem … It was a blood-thirsty compulsion!

Frenchie’s love was for fishing; his hate was for anyone who stuck their hand in a poor man’s pocket and if that meant speaking out against that, he would - “14 hands around, matey, put them damned gangsters down, I say, put them down.” Grandmother would sigh lightly and reach into a pocket of her starched apron where rosary beads bulged from a lint packed corner. “Don’t look for trouble, Napoleon, you have a family and lucky to be working … This is not the place nor time to speak out. Be patient.” Hmmm, uncle Nap patient?

From this insinuating thought my mind is becoming flooded with a memories that are stitched with graphic images as tatting on a handkerchief, never having faded, or changed, during these many years gone by …

I remember, as a young child, a splendid time when we were having a family reunion that included many out of state relatives. Our home (I was living with my grandmother) on the corner of York and High streets was filled to capacity with jovial and hugging kinfolk that had brought old albums and recent pictures, gifts and cameras with blinding flashes. Throughout the large dinning room were end to end tables with platters of assorted foods – nothing fancy but tasty and filling. In the living room, where the rug had been rolled and pushed behind the couch, there was dancing and singers crowded around the piano where aunt Exilda played tunes upon requests, two uncles played guitar and banjo when she needed a break. Frenchie played his Jew’s harp.

In the mist of this merriment, the doorbell rang sounding like a muffled shrilling, as I recall. Somebody wanted to speak to Frenchie. I saw uncle Nap go out the door and was suddenly overwhelmed with fear!  Enough so that I felt nauseous and had goose-pimples. Grandmother was in another room so I squeezed into a corner furthest away from the front door by a lamp wanting to turn off the light but didn’t dare to. My heart pounded and I heard my voice utter and repeat, “No, no, no, no” followed by piercing screams that froze everyone in the moment! Aunt Bertha, wringing her hands, sobbing and mumbling, kept running back and forth between the rooms. As if in slow motion I weaved through the gathering crowd and pandemonium to the front door and there, at the bottom of the stairs, laid uncle Nap on the brick sidewalk in a pool of blood! A thickening, dark red fluid surrounding his head and shoulders, staining grandmother Amanda’s fancy dress as she rested his head upon her chest. Aunt Exilda handed her a towel to hold against his throat that had been sliced from ear to ear. Unnoticed, until I was roughly pulled away, I was sitting next to grandmother poking at the blood with a crooked twig trying to push it away from our Frenchie who looked like he was just sleeping and dreaming but, he wasn’t. Why? Why would that man with a knife do that? With my mind’s inner eye, I had glimpsed a look at his hands and the knife that had a design, a squiggly line that curved and looped on the edge of the blade like it had been crudely carved in there. The hands were of a intense man who smiled too much. Why would he do this? I felt sick. I knew that this was not an accident like when both my knees were cut and bloodied from falling on rocks at Willard Beach, So. Portland. Somehow, this was as if I’d been forcibly pushed onto jagged rocks, deliberately. A brutal person had forcibly done this to Frenchie, deliberately, but with a knife

Grandmother Amanda, predisposed to her father’s Viking and German genes was not one to over-react to emotionalism or even participate in it, especially not at a time as this because all around her, the family and gathered relatives, were in crisis. Uncle Nap had been rushed to the hospital … Aunt Exilda and uncle Bill were sent to aunt Alice’s home (Frenchie’s wife) as she had left the festivity earlier to release the babysitter and breast-feed little baby cousin Cecelia. … Exilda stayed with the children and uncle Bill rushed his sister-in-law to the hospital to be with her husband. She was prepared for the worse and prayed for his life to be saved as if assured that it would be.

It was a precarious ‘touch and go’ situation for the first days of Frenchie’s hospitalization but, miraculously, he recovered, albeit with numerous stitches and with an abounding amount of high-flying stories from visitors as to what really happened and who really did it and, “who’s going to get it next” to, “damn loud-mouth Frenchman, he asked for it”. Uncle took the tales in yet made no comment – he seemed only concerned with how we were doing.

Paranoia seduced by the temptations of mystery lent the passing days an excitement,not felt for awhile, that had men order an extra tall glass of ale raised to each other, “God help us all”. And the women, they couldn’t wait until mass was over with so they could linger outside church long enough to catch the newest take on the story, understandably, after grandmother and my aunts had passed beyond ear reach.

Time cannot care about what’s happening, it’s not involved in the affairs of ‘mice and men’ so summer turned into a cold, blustery winter and friends and dock co-workers of my uncles and aunts (who worked in fish canning factories on the waterfront) eased back in visiting us everyday though did continue to drop by at uncle Nap’s home fairly regularly till Christmas booted November, out of the way, Ho, Ho, Ho’ing at the hard times and attention was focused on the season. Frenchie had healed and seemed his former self once more - almost. He didn’t laugh as freely and wouldn’t talk about anything even remotely related to what had happened to him. I still observed that bounce in his walk when he visited grandmother. He hadn’t lost that but my spunky uncle had changed; was more protective of all of us, more cautious, more serious. And, there was an anger present as visible as the pigmentation on his skin. The aunts and my mother spoke in low voices when congregated around the kitchen table by the window, one of my favorite places when it was mean-spirited wintry and the coal-burning stove warmed the room. But, during this unsettling period of time, I chose to curl up at the end the living room couch that faced the front door and windows. And think. And feel. And I sensed that more harm was going to come to us.

My family, both French and Irish, were as if genetically pre-programmed to be pro-Quebec, pro-Irish, pro-Catholics, pro-Americans, pro-equal rights, pro-unions. It was a given. What a proud way to live … “14 hands around, matey!”

Most Americans don’t realize the incredible war against workers going on in workplaces behind closed doors. According to Cornell University research, one-quarter of private sector employers illegally fire at least one worker during a union campaign; and 90 percent use some degree of intimidation, coercion or threats to intimidate the workers. When employers deny workers’ their right to form unions, families have smaller paychecks and worse benefits (if they get benefits at all), overtime pay laws are weakened, society’s safety nets are threatened, race and gender wage gaps grow, the tax base is weakened and the doors open wide for more abuse of workers  (Page updated 5/3/04) 
                         From:  MAINE AFL-CIO 
                      A Union of Unions Fighting for
                 Working Families in Maine and the Nation

You’ve read and some may recall, from personal experiences, what it was like on Commercial street before labor unions. Unions were not welcomed by companies and businesses and strong measures were practiced to dissuade the hardworking men and women, and children, from their appeal. It became a standard response to the problem, through third party arrangements, to hire thugs to scare off the union organizers and sympathizers with acts of brutality such as beatings, broken limbs, killings and in Frenchie’s case, throat-cutting that, had the slitting been a little deeper, would of resulted in murder.

I was in my twenties when, one day while visiting my mother and her sister who was there, our conversation took a turn backwards to the sardine-cutting and packing days where I, too, had a fling with scissor-cutting herring heads off as quick as blinking an eye. From there it was a straight line to an older clock where my ladies were walked by me to a place that raised the cockles on their necks and mother shivered in reliving that time “when our the music turned to blood.”

I’ve never liked long silences. It felt like waiting to be anesthetized before having my tonsils removed. “Bastards”, spewed my aunt, who shattered the silence, “they almost killed Bobby, too.” What a rush! I was back sitting on that old horse-hair stuffed couch riveted to the front door and windows waiting … more was coming …

As told to me, when ‘half in the bag’ uncle Bobby became loud and boisterous completely the opposite of how he was when sober, a quiet, small man with a shock of blond hair that was the brassiest thing about him when sober. When drunk and feeling a powerlessness, he became a raging lion and this behavior increased after the attack on his big brother. In a barroom or wherever he was when 4 sheets to the wind and there was an audience, he became foolishly bad. “Whoever cut my brother’s throat has me on his scent and I’m going to find and hurt him. I’m talking to alot of guys and getting closer to that weasel so if anybody wants to help me do right, tell me who he is right now!” Nobody told him anything and he continued to drink and grow booze-muscle and a nastier mouth. 

A month or two later, the police came to grandmother’s home to notify the family that Robert was in the hospital with broken ribs, a shattered leg and a badly fractured The height5 of that arm, broken nose and extensive bruising. Allegedly, he had fallen from the Portland Grain Elevator building. that reminded me of what the tower of Babel would of resembled. He didn’t work there, nor could anyone reason why he had been there so late at night. Bobby told family and friends that he couldn’t remember what had occurred that day and evening – everything was a blank. Actually, claiming that he didn’t think he’d ever remember what happed. At the time I had been told, unconvincingly, that uncle Bobby had pneumonia. After that, he was never the same ever again - a stranger who became a very sickly, garbled alcoholic. Years later, he died from aspirating on his vomit. “Bastards’, my aunt tearfully repeated, “he was almost killed.” Mother replied with rasping words, “But he was! He was killed!” I had listened intently to what my mother and my aunt released from the burial places in their minds and pieces of my puzzle began to fit together as integral parts of the whole story except the identities of the thugs, names forever lost. 

Frenchie’s drinking progressively increased over the years and his value onboard a fishing vassal, decreased, “14 hands around, matey, I’m as good a hand as I was.” … “I know that, Frenchie, maybe next time.” So my hero uncle reeled nets, lumped boats, cleaned decks, fillet fish when his hands didn’t trembled too badly, worked in a cold storage warehouse until he fell asleep in a freezer one day and near froze to death, unloaded trucks but would take off for another drink. before the job was done. Cheap wine became the jug of the day and when that wasn’t affordable, he’d squeeze canned heat, with the walking dead, under a dry wharf. By this time, his children were grown adults; his wife patiently standing by him. One afternoon, as he was staggering home, he crumbled in a heap from a heart attack in front of the Mercy Hospital’s entrance. He died and was resuscitated back within minutes. Frenchie recuperated, dried out, went to AA and talk about sun-drenched endings, my beloved uncle had miraculously been blessed with an extended life, sobriety and the loving closeness of wife and family.

I remember … 14 hands around, matey … I remember. 

                              jew's harp



Monday, February 9, 2009

From the Best of Me Within

(Names have been changed in respect of privacy)

Portland,_Maine[1] My fondest early memories are of the sounds and smells of a working waterfront where three uncles and two aunts and my mother earned their livelihood. My young senses were thumb-printed with the exciting impressions of my environment ... Fishing boats with full holds of fresh catches, cutters sharpening fillet knives, sardines being steamed for canning in dockside packing factories, keen-eyed wholesalers and buyers with scaly hands, weathered boat crews waiting for their money to bring home, a foamy green ocean tide slapping against the sides of snail embedded pilings and gangs of squawking herring gulls overhead - “Aha! You missed me! ” Unfortunately, a bull’s eye often happened when sitting on the docks, our targeted backs exposed, as we fished for tinker mackerel when the season was right.

map_GMRI[1][4] From birth throughout our lifetime, as far as we always knew whether that awareness was inbred or absorbed conditioning, that there were only three areas of this bustling coastal urban center that were the real jewels of the city of Portland, Maine: The West End, Munjoy Hill and Gorham’s Corner, populated by the strongest backs and most courageous hearts from Ireland - sturdy men and women, children of brave souls who had struggled against the infamous potato famine only to be driven, by starvation, from their beloved land. I still can hear the old grandmothers singing, in their Gaelic tongue, from the kitchens of their neat homes.

… It had been a tough and tender place, this West End of mine, similar to embroidered burlap that endures the wear of time and the abuse of scrub boards. Memories easily slide forward in my mind and images immerge from 70 plus years ago; indelible markers to the familiar streets of my childhood where aged brown and gray tenement houses crowded the narrow shrub poked alleys between them. Bare attic windows reflecting back their visuals, dirty from coal dust and the lack of a soapy wipe. From smudged chimneys and beneath ill-fitting doors, the odors of fried fish and boiled potatoes and cabbage escaped and mingled with the smells of coal and kerosene burning kitchen stoves. High above rooftops and gnarled oak trees, seagulls dipped and glided and scolded rowdy children who darted between moving cars beneath their outstretched wings.


“Alaïs Máire!”

“Get away from that bloody road, will ya!”

Mothers hollered and heavily laden clotheslines strained from rusty reels as frosty garments cracked in the wind and became targets for an irresistible pitch of a snowball.

steps[1]  On a gradual incline from the waterfront, overlooking the Irish area which abided one French family, a few Polish residents and one Greek family, the resonant sounds of Saint Dominic’s Church bells announcing services pierced an early evening sky. Matronly women, mitten-covered hands clutching worn rosary beads, puffed clouds of steam as they hastened to the center and pulse of the neighborhood. Cradled under its spires, a red brick school building smugly projected special importance where creamy-faced Sisters of Mercy nuns with rosy cheeks, sternly taught catechism and the basics and lectured on sin and the need to save south sea pagan babies with donations of money from our parents that could be equated with pulling teeth from pit bull terriers. And, as always, the nun’s appeal was followed by a long discourse on frugality and self denial and, unrestricted generosity, an oxymoron I could never make right. St.DomArtisticRendition[1] This building was an all girl’s school but not all of us were the ladies we were groomed to be for had it been up to some of us, the donation would not have been for a pagan baby we would of ‘saved’ but ourselves with sweet raspberry tarts or puck’ery sour pickles the size of a policeman’s baton from a corner store, and swallowed down with a few ‘Hail Mary’s’ lest St. Peter had witnessed our dastardly deed and sent a memo to the ‘home office’. A booted tin can away where the hem of the parish brushed across the harbor, pubs like strategically placed fire-hydrants, lit the length of Commercial Street to the wharfages of the harbor.

Now, contrary to a popular belief, very few Irishmen who frequented the pubs did not become drunks nor did they drink to excess unless it was on St. Paddy’s Day or there was a wedding or a wake or the birth of their first grandchild. These men, including my French uncles (my Irish uncles lived in South Portland across the then referred to span over Casco Bay as the ‘Million Dollar’ bridge were the backbone of the West End of Portland, Maine.   33lngshr3[1] They were fishermen,  longshoremen, cops, construction workers, mailmen … and most efficacious of all, politicians and priests. Plain ordinary men who could sing and dance and knuckle a fist if need be. And, tearfully, when telling stories of Ireland, their beloved ancient mother, they showed you her heart and her bleeding wounds as no other can describe with such beguiling words and fervor. Now, if you were Irish and French as myself (who genetically possessed the best of both nationalities) then you knew you’d been swaddled, at birth, in the ancient wrappings of your ancestors, your neighborhood, your waterfront and though more poor than wealthy you were magnificently affluent!

 If I was to list what priorities came first with our families it would have to be: church and then the pharmacy, and the doctor if you please, the insurance man and the corner grocery store. When it was rained or snowed, the stores’ neon lights sprayed an array of colors onto the sidewalks that glistened in the evenings like crushed crystal. Once inside, your pockets couldn’t hold the amount of money needed to satisfy all the ‘wants’ that ached in our minds. In particular, mouth-watering steaks and lamb chops behind a glassed-in case smeared with fingerprints that had pointed to rolls of bologna, lackluster hamburg, and a tray of bacon ends. On Sundays and holidays we had roasted chicken and, depending on cost, pork or corned beef.

A basement junk shop in a two-family home that bumped it’s chest with end of York street, was a bit mysterious to us kids referred to as Zeeskyte (Sweetie) who just had to visit it once aweek. The several steps into the dimly lit shop were like walking down a straight ladder so we jumped them and, always, broke our fall against the thick door. “Go, Go home! “How many time I tell you this? “Oy vey, you make me Meshugeneh!” Fact is, we liked eachother.

LDJRCAOPY59OCAHWJCT9CATNRNJVCAW371K2CAHPNBE6CABDJUWJCAKSPMQ2CA7KDW5YCAL75W2QCAWFY992CATW4IVDCA05YWMYCACB3A08CA2H2XA4CA0XV49NCA1Y7A2ECARDU6EQCAS09FLE Outside the shop, on the sidewalk and unmovable, was the reason we were there to begin with - A four foot tall, iron cast lion stood grinning at us. Why not? The boys (dear hearts to their mothers) could never come up with a way to steal him. What a magnificent animal he was and so shiny, a sheen we were told that came from frequently being larded down so weather wouldn’t effect it too much. No matter, after a few quick wipes, we took turns riding him and kicking his flanks through the Serengeti plains of Africa! “Alise Marie, (AliceMary have you been riding that lion, again?”

“How do you know, Grandmere?” (Grandmother)

“How do I know? ... Take a look at your backside, and see for yourself!”

O’Houlahhan’s Fish Market was another favorite place. The old man spoke with a thick Irish brogue and wore home-sown bib aprons made from ‘sail cloth’. Most of the times, he saved the lobster bodies for my grandmother, three for a nickel, who patiently picked the meat, a savory enhancement to her delicious fish chowders.

“Have a grand day, Mademoiselle from Armentieres.” I hated him calling me that!

“How can I, Irishman, when you’ve raised the price of these lobster bodies?”

oil_platform_storm[1] I can still hear his booming laughter echoing from the past like the sounds of the factory horns calling in the sardine packers fusing with the undulating tones of buoy bells ... the creaking of docked vessels ... hoarse whispers from a confessional ... an unguarded argument …

A few blocks away; sandwiched in, as an after-thought, between a radio repair and shoe shop, a drab restaurant bar aptly named the “Catch-All” netted in all sorts of folks from the neighborhood and docks; diners, local kids, merchant seamen, sailors, tanker crewmen, shipyard workers and a reporter or two from the Portland Evening Express or Portland Press Herald looking for leads on a waterfront story that was circulating … “You must have heard something – You can trust me.”

The owner, a soft touch for drunks and kids did manage on occasion to wash and wax the floor. Doing both with the same frazzled mop that only sealed in grease and spills on the cracked tiles. Once in a great while, a city inspector would visit and for weeks afterwards, word would spread like melted butter about how clean and neat the “Catch-All” was and how the tables were covered with colorful new oil-cloths. It was then that we’d drop in on a draggy afternoon after hounding our parents for a few cents.

“Well now, what brings you crumb-snatchers here?”

“Can we have a quarter’s worth of potato fries?”

“Why don’t you go home and eat?”

“You cook better fried potatoes than our mothers do.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah ... Your mothers will be chopping me up for bait.”

Half an hour later the 3 or 4 four of us had plates rounded with chunky fries and chopped onion, and four sodas, consuming it all with delight. “Here’s your quarter, thanks a lot, the potatoes tasted so good.”

“Yeah, yeah, keep your money. Just say the rosary for me.”

DA2SCA38KV8SCAKA8DG6CAI6T1ZPCASSNU6DCAK3LFKQCACLL3BFCA79RBWTCAJ0HOXWCA4FB29DCAUD7TO9CAHE3T1QCAKMBJCICAMZPPEHCAPS1WWFCASXYSTOCA0SP7UCCA8V0LNKCANNKNO6 We never did tell our parents of our rare fried potato outings but did regale Sister Michaela with our latest visit to the “Catch-All” who, after regaining her composure, insisted we go to the chapel and say prayers of thanks for the owner and prayers of penance for ourselves. Next time, we would bring her some!

It was beginning to snow. As if following an invisible maestro, December snowflakes pirouetted and waltzed in larghetto, then gracefully descended upon heaped piles of trash that awaited the rubbish trucks. Wet paper bags with their contents spilled and scattered about by scavenging cats and dogs had been strewn against pot-bellied cardboard boxes. Knocked over rusted barrels, with missing lids the boys had used for shields and sleds, leaned on snow-banks that were streaked with disgusting dog markings. Slowly, a cover of snow began to conceal the eye-sores that would, the following day, be cleaned up begrudgingly.

2VASCAXE101YCAVLX3QPCAOIML9VCABPDAL9CAJED1VVCAL9GNX4CA814X97CAKTR3CTCAPXK956CA2HEYX5CAH6S67JCAVH8WH3CA0LH58VCAY90WCZCAVOATUPCAHAJS15CANEUBIHCAI667IA Off in the darkness, a foghorn emitted a lowing, shofar sound and a solitary and iced-over fishing boat - its running lights barely visible -headed towards harbor. A kitchen light came on and a steaming teapot was moved to the back of the stove. The odor of freshly baked bread permeated through the house.

In the hush of dawn, a sleepy voice was heard coming from a chilly bedroom …

“Grandmere, can I get up and have a cup of tea with you?”

“As long as you say the rosary first, Alise Marie.”

Thursday, February 5, 2009

My Beloved Waterfront


Corner of High and York streets, running along the west end of Portland, Maine with Commercial street the dry mat of the waterfront was where this Irish and French petite lass felt the most secure and nurtured … This was GeeGee’s dreaming and thought-provoking realm … This was my ‘Alice-in-Wonderland’ … My ‘Secret Garden’ … My Newfoundland tested boat to the seas of National Geographic … This boat-crowded and messy, smelly and seagull invested harbor was my perfect soul place! Surely a sea-faring Viking gene sails the spiral of my genome from my Norsemen and Celtic ancestors! Yet, as if  from a dry-footed highlander, I am cursed with dreadful mal-de-mer as soon as one foot boards a docked boat whether a Prince of Fundy or the ‘Lazy Day’  fishing boat for paying fishers. God forbid! If I wasn’t heaving over the rails, I was on my knees hugging an opened-faced toilet, swaying, bobbing, gagging, praying for mercy! Oh, to get my hands around that highlander! However, and no matter to anyone but me, I am at least 75 % Viking with light skin and green eyes and hair (once upon a time) black as a moonless night.

1214_03_5---Fishing-Boat--Portland--Maine--USA_web[1] I love the sounds of the fishing and the hell-a-bellyaching screeching of the seagulls. I love the guttural groaning of the bright colored buoys that mark the channels, reminding seamen to be alert and when a nor’easter was on the horizon or a fierce thunder storm flung penny nail size rain pellets that fired at roiling waves - and everything else in it’s path - the buoys called out for pray because a gut-filled fishing boat and it’s weary crew were coming in and we did, my grandmother and I, for whoever they were which usually included an uncle or two who hadn’t docked yet.

P1010008 At the beginning of this blog, I intro with a picture of me  … In this you can see a bit of my ‘beloved waterfront’ in the background, this recent photo shows traffic exiting from Commercial Street (waterfront) onto York and High Streets and to the right sitting on the side of the three decker tenement stairs, where from a long ago past, little GeeGee sits waiting for her mother, aunts and uncles to return from the fishing boats, from the sardine packing canneries … The packers will have dinner at their own homes in the West End neighborhood and if conditions are favorable, return to the waterfront to fish for smelts at favorite wharfs with their pails, and boxes to sit on. Others from the West End neighborhood will be there or join them later. I just knew that the following day we’d have golden brown smelts for supper with deep fried quartered potatoes.