West Quincy Story
Copyright 2023 by Valerie Forde-Galvin
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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?”
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.”
“So? She gave him some of her home cooking. How bad can that
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.
minute,” I said. “Who ever heard of an Italian with a
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,
I ventured. “So, okay with cheese?”
okay with shellfish or mollusks,” she countered. “Mama
gave him clams marinara. And then we had to drive him to the
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.
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.”
an opera singer?” I wondered.
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
full volume night after night.”
I had to ask about Vinnie and found out that, not long
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
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.”
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.
must have been reading my mind.“You know, I always thought he
had a thing for you,” she added.
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.”
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
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
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.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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