West Quincy Story

Valerie Forde-Galvin

© Copyright 2023 by Valerie Forde-Galvin

Drawing by the author.
Drawing by the author.

I came of age in the nineteen-fifties. It was a time of promise. Jobs were plentiful. The increasing number of highways enticed people out to the suburbs where they bought cookie-cutter ranch houses and raised their two and a half children. Father knew best and The Beaver's family was the ideal. We knew where we were headed. Higher education was within our reach, even for families with modest income like my own. From our neighborhood in West Quincy, public transportation was available to a variety of colleges in the city of Boston. The future was secure and predictable. Yes, except for the occasional atom bomb scare, it was a safe world that we were about to enter.

Opportunities weren't equally available to everyone. There was definitely a system of racism in our country. Because I was white, I could get by as a member of the working class while life was much more difficult for those with dark skin. Even our obscure community of West Quincy had its history of prejudice dating back to the nineteenth century when Irish and Italian immigrants came here to work in the quarries. This form of prejudice involved a clash of nationalities rather than races. The two ethnic groups never did get along but, unlike the competing gangs in West Side Story, there were no rumbles. I suspect that work in the quarries left them too exhausted to bother with street fighting. Except for the occasional barroom brawl, the Irish and the Italians managed to avoid confrontation. Fast forward to 1950; movies exposed us kids to other cultures and we chose to reject our parents' prejudices.

In my first year at Archbishop Williams Catholic High School, I became friends with Carmella Paluzzi. Like me, she came from West Quincy. As it turns out, we were practically neighbors although we'd never met, having gone to different churches and elementary schools. Her house was down the street and around the block; its location put her family in a different parish and school district.

Where I lived on Perkins Street, families were second generation Irish. It had never occurred to me before but apparently the Burkes were more comfortable living next to the O'Sheas and the Flannigans. And now I discovered that, in a similar way, Italian families seemed to flock together over on Carmella's Crescent Street. Here were two ethnic groups, living almost side by side but retaining their unique individual identities.

The one thing we had in common was religion. The Italian neighborhood was populated by statues honoring the Virgin Mary. The more elegant Madonnas were enclosed in their own shrines but some were sheltered only by an upturned bathtub. We called them bathtub Madonnas or Mary on the Half Shell. Meanwhile, for religious motif, the Irish on Perkins Street were heavily into crosses. Our living room featured a wooden crucifix with a dual purpose. As a wall ornament, it was a stark reminder of suffering and death. When opened, it was found to contain a small bottle of holy water and the oil needed to perform the Last Rites. We called it the religious first aid kit.

Being friends with Carmella now expanded my horizons. After growing up in my Irish ghetto, I was fascinated by Carmella's neighborhood. Fortunately I soon discovered that the backyard of her house could easily be accessed by way of a path through the woods at the end of our street. So I often visited the exotic Paluzzi home where I enjoyed the differences between the two nationalities.

Italian homes featured elaborate stone terraces and intricate wrought iron grill work. Flowers grew in abundance. Portulaca bordered walkways; gladioli lined up against stone walls; ivy and impatiens spilled from urns. And, in every tillable plot of earth, tomato plants flourished. By contrast, my family's home boasted only a backyard barbecue, lawn swings, and a rock garden where a few hardy weeds struggled up between the stones. Even the dandelions wilted on our Perkins Street. I guess the Irish pretty much gave up on horticulture after the potato famine.

And then there was the music. On summer nights Enrico Caruso's heartbreaking tenor voice wafted through open windows on Crescent Street. Pagliacci was a favorite with Carmella's next door neighbor, Uncle Guido. I was enthralled. Who wouldn't prefer opera to my father's bagpipe records?

My family was predictably Irish in other ways. We had our own method of handling family troubles which was the complete opposite of what I'd witnessed at the Paluzzi home. There, when things went wrong, a dramatic confrontation occurred. Each party argued their case at great volume until eventually matters were resolved and the issue forgotten. Unlike the Paluzzis, my family made constructive use of silence. Grievances, it seemed, had a life of their own and us kids got used to waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.

Occasionally I was invited to supper at the Paluzzi household and I felt like I'd been transported to heaven. Veal parmigiana, lasagna, chicken cacciatore. Never had I experienced such delight. There was no comparison with our family's Irish tradition of preparing meals where overcooked meat was accompanied by mashed potatoes and, except for the liberal use of salt, seasonings were unheard of. The closest thing we got to international cuisine was Friday night suppers of fish cakes, a brew of unknown fish parts smelling like low tide, and plain buttered spaghetti with a side of stewed tomatoes straight out of a can. Needless to say, I eagerly accepted any invitation to a Paluzzi family feast.

For me, as a hopelessly romantic teenager, there was another enticement to visit the Paluzzi home. Carmella had an older brother Vinnie – not that much older – with the warmest brown eyes that melted my heart. Unfortunately, because of his part time job, he wasn't around that much. I had to be content with rare glimpses of him. The boy was beautiful but out of my league, of course. He would naturally be drawn toward sultry Mediterranean types and not to a pale and skinny waif like me.

When you're fifteen, you assume friendships last forever. But, after high school graduation, Carmella and I went our own ways. She got a scholarship to Wellesley and I enrolled at Boston State. Gradually, Carmella and I lost touch. After college, I got married and moved out of state. Fifty years later I was visiting my grandson at Northeastern University and decided to swing by the old neighborhood. I stopped for lunch at Bersani's Luncheonette, or what used to be the Crescent Street Pizzaria, and recognized the white haired woman in the second booth. We reconnected instantly and shared our stories – so much to catch up on.

Carmella and I traded memories of our high school days. I remembered hanging out in her room and listening to records. She reminded me of the times we sat and talked on the lawn swings at my house. Somehow I couldn't get past the feeling that most of the good times were spent at her house. As a kid, all I could see was my family's shortcomings. When I grumbled about Irish reticence and admired her family's zest for life, Carmella replied, “Zest for life? Ha, you didn't have to to live there. The noise, the confusion. Try to concentrate on homework. You're the only one I could bring to the house. My mother frightened everyone away.”

“But your mother's cooking,” I argued.”Even if we weren't friends, I'd have come for the lasagna.”

Carmella had a rebuttal for this too. “I guess you never knew about Louie or Frank. Before Sal came along, I dated a couple of guys. Or that is, we had a first date. . . both of which my mother ruined.”

I could relate. My own mother had scared off a couple of prospects with her interrogations. “Well, I guess that's what mothers do,” I said. “They mean well but who can stand up to their scrutiny?”

Carmella sighed. “Ah, but that's not how it went. Louie D'Angelo came to the house to pick me up. Mama didn't ask any questions. She marched him into the kitchen and gave him a slice of her homemade pizza. . . with extra cheese.”

I shrugged. “So? She gave him some of her home cooking. How bad can that be?”

“How bad? Think lactose intolerant.”

I just about convulsed with laughter as she proceeded to describe their uncomfortable drive to the movies following Louie's snack. “I finally had to open a window,” she concluded.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Who ever heard of an Italian with a dairy allergy?”

She had an answer for that; Louie was part Irish. She and Louie never did get to the movie. In obvious gastric distress, Louie turned the car around and drove her home. She ever saw him again.

When I asked about the other guy she'd mentioned, Carmella nodded. “Oh yes, Frank Cassani.”

“Italian?” I ventured. “So, okay with cheese?”

“But not okay with shellfish or mollusks,” she countered. “Mama gave him clams marinara. And then we had to drive him to the emergency room.”

I had to concede to Carmella on this issue. When it came to scaring away boyfriends, her mother won the contest. At least mine merely discouraged them without causing flatulence or anaphylaxis.

Another memory surfaced. The music heard on Crescent Street always gave me the impression that the Italians were so much more cultured than the Irish. As a kid, I had my own notion of good taste and felt sure that my family was totally lacking in refinement. Compared to the snatches of opera I heard from the Italian neighborhood, my father's bagpipe records were peculiar to say the least and after a while just grated on the ears. But when I brought up this issue of cultural differences in music, Carmella just rolled her eyes. “Ah yes, Uncle Guido.”

“Was he an opera singer?” I wondered.

“Ha, nothing as cultured as that. Today I guess he might be called gay or transgender but, in those days, there were no words to describe his unconventional behavior. However, as you can imagine, Aunt Serafina had plenty of words when she caught him wearing her silk pajamas.”

This was news. We both laughed at her memories of Uncle Guido and Aunt Serafina. Although both of them were opera fans, Uncle Guido also had an obsession for Judy Garland. “Believe me,” Carmella said, “you soon get tired of hearing Somewhere over the Rainbow and Pagliacci at full volume night after night.”

Finally, I had to ask about Vinnie and found out that, not long after high school, he married Alice Sweeney, the least interesting girl in our graduating class. Everyone thought she was destined for the convent. Alice Sweeney? How on earth did this mousy little creature ever land a gorgeous prize like Vinnie Paluzzi? I will never understand people.

When I expressed my surprise, Carmella shrugged. “What can I say? Opposites do attract, I guess. But it didn't last long. They divorced after a few years. She left him for someone else.”

She left him? The world just doesn't make any sense. Then it took me a moment to process this information: Vinnie was available! I was now single, long since divorced, and a lot more self confident than I'd been in my teens.

Carmella must have been reading my mind.“You know, I always thought he had a thing for you,” she added.

Unfortunately there was more news. Not long after the divorce, Vinnie died of a heart attack. Carmella explained that his life had gone down hill after Alice left him. “He was lonesome,” she said. Then she threw me a look. “Too bad you weren't around then.”

Of course I wasn't around. I was struggling through a bad marriage myself, then raising my kids and seeing them go off into the world. Meanwhile, back in West Quincy, Carmella was experiencing similar life changes, going through divorce, putting her kids through college, and watching them leave the nest. Her kids and mine eventually married into families from various national origins so that our collective grandchildren now form a virtual United Nations. Metaphorically speaking, the West Quincy versions of the Sharks and the Jets have established detente.

In the end, growing up Irish was not that different from growing up Italian. I wondered why I had wasted so much time wishing for another life instead of appreciating what I already had. I suppose it's human nature. Maybe this yearning to be something different is a necessary part of our evolution. Maybe the dissatisfaction of youth is the burr under the saddle that forces us to create meaningful lives for ourselves. I have to admit that dissatisfaction got me out of West Quincy and made me earn my college degrees.

Now we're just two old women with a shared past. We survived the West Quincy experience, growing up in our divided neighborhoods, and have come away with a pretty good understanding of human nature because of it. Time has shown us that we're more alike than different. Over the years, we've just been doing the best we can. 

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