Virginie Auguste was surprised to see me. And, honestly, I was kind of unsure of why I was at her door.
It was ten days or so into summer vacation and I missed my St. Gregory’s grammar school classmates, Pierre and his older brother Richard. I didn’t have their phone number. The houses in the Gallivan Boulevard development all sort of look alike, but I was pretty sure this was the right one.
She recognized me— a goofy, ruddy-faced Irish kid from the other side of Dot Ave. She smiled and let me in.
I had been cast in the school musical with her sons earlier in the year. Pierre had the lead role of Jesus in “Godspell” and he really nailed it. I can still hear his father’s very audible gasp echoing across St. Greg’s gym during the crucifixion scene. His brother Richard and I were two of the disciples.
After rehearsal, Pierre and Rich would come to my house on Richmond Street. We’d play basketball in my driveway and drive my mother insane with a boombox blasting Run DMC’s “King of Rock.” It was 1986.
The Auguste boys were at my house a lot, but I’d never been in their home — or any Haitian home— until that day. The smell that wafted from their galley kitchen was new to my senses: rice, fish ,and fried plaintains on a constant rotation on the stovetop. When she offered me a seat on the couch, I nearly slid off. Every stitch of upholstered furniture in the two-story brick house was wrapped up in plastic.
The homes in the Morton Street projects were starter kits, built for returning GI’s in the 1940s. Now they were thick with hard-working families like the Augustes— immigrants, new Bostonians. The parents took jobs as home health aides and janitors and hospital orderlies. Virginie took care of elderly people in tonier suburbs, just like my grandmother, Mary Kate— a new arrival from another island nation, Ireland— had done in the 1930s.
Like my own gran, Virginie and her husband spoke English pretty well, but in a heavy accent. At home, of course, they mainly spoke Kreyol, and as my visits became more frequent, she would expect me to at least try to learn some words. As I tried and inevitably failed, she’d suck her teeth, roll her eyes, clap her hands, and laugh uproariously.
Her kids were mainly like her: Loud, argumentative, mischievous. Easily outraged and less easily cajoled. Constantly exploding with laughter. Frequently joyous. Never verbally profane, though.
This was an Adventist house and Mr. Auguste— bespectacled, gentle, pious, soft-spoken— wouldn’t stand for profanity. The television was off from Friday sundown to sundown Saturday to observe “the Sabbath.” The family’s clothes were immaculate and conservative, the hip-hop-influenced haircuts frowned upon.
Virginie, like her husband Vilaire, was a church leader, both founding members of the Temple Salem Seventh-Day Adventist church on Woodrow Avenue. Their children—including the oldest child Miyonne and baby Sadia— were faithfully, if not always enthusiastically, in attendance by their side.
While Nanne, or Ninnie, as her many friends and relations called her, was prayerful and devout, she had a playful spirit and a twinkle in her eyes. She was stylish, and she sang beautifully.
The last few years were tough on Virginie. She lost Vilaire too young. She herself battled a brain tumor and, before the scourge of coronavirus was even a far-off whisper, she was desperately sick. After she died on April 23, her kids learned that she had, in fact, contracted the virus in her Abington nursing home.
Her death at age 74, while terribly sad, was merciful in the end. As we mourn her this week, I’ll choose to remember the 40- year-old Virginie. The one who let me in the door that day in 1986 and for many more years to come.
Mesi anpil, Nanne.
Bill Forry is editor and publisher of the Dorchester Reporter.