This holiday season stirs starkly different emotions as the calendar turns to the year when I will be 65. As I fill out Medicare forms in advance of my 66th February 4th on this earth, I sense that my anticipation of the future and remembrance of times past will slowly evolve into a more balanced equation than has been the case up to now. As a widower trying to shepherd four boys, ages 21 down to 8, along the road to productive and fulfilling adulthood, I have to keep a clear-eyed focus on what's ahead, but I want my boys to realize how important the support of family can be to the good and successful lives I hope they will have long past my time with them.
That realization is tied intimately to times past that I have shared with my large family since I was born at St. Margaret's Hospital in Dorchester in 1943, the middle year of our country's involvement in World War II. So when I get a chance, I talk past their wide and deep yawns and tell my boys what life was like in the 1940s and 1950s at 22 Lonsdale Street in Dorchester's St. Mark's Parish, a five-room, first-floor flat with one bathroom that I shared with my mother and father and my sister and my three brothers.
It was, memory whispers insistently, a time when all the little things counted in big ways because money was tightly held and diligently applied to broad family needs rather than every individual Christmas Eve "have-to-have" request.I tell them that we had 23 first cousins in my father's family and 23 more on my mother's side. Add in the five Mulvoys and the first-cousin coterie in each family was 28, each of us a descendant of Irish families named, variously, Mulvoy, Mulloy, Harrington, and Curley. Not to leave out mention of the 19 aunts and uncles who went along with the children. Throughout the year, there was constant interaction with cousins, some of whom lived just a few streets over in St. Mark's Parish, some a train ride away in Somerville, others a borrowed car's ride away in Brookline and Weymouth, still others a continent away in Oregon and California.
At Christmas time, when we might have wanted to stay home and play with our toys and wear our cowboy hats and boots, we made treks to various cousin-places while other cousins came by our house, aunts and uncles in tow doing present-swapping. And birthday parties came along as often, it seemed, as the Ashmont-Fields Corner trolley on Dot. Ave.
But the best - and, to me, the most poignant - part of this history lesson for my boys is that as the Year 2008 dawns, we have living witnesses to it all that I can call on to fill in details about life in Boston across almost the entire spread of the 20th century: three aunts, and Dorchester natives, who are still very much alive and very much alert to the passing scene. Two of them are my late mother's sisters, Elinor Harrington Barron, born in 1914 before World War I broke out, and Mary Harrington Cyr, born in 1920 as presidents and prime ministers were working out the details of the Versailles Treaty. Then there is Frances Garvin Harrington, 86 this year, a Harding administration baby. She married Elinor's and Mary's and my mother's late brother Vincent at Christmastime in 1946.
I will have to live yet another quarter-century to match the fetch of their lifetime experiences: Elinor and Mary have lived with 16 presidents, Franny with 15. They passed through their teen years in a world laid low by the Great Depression; they and their loved ones endured, fought, and survived World War II; and they were married shortly afterwards. Elinor and Harry Barron raised four of my first cousins, Mary and Herman Cyr raised six, and Franny and Vinny Harrington four. They lost their parents, and then their husbands, and, one by one, Elinor and Mary watched five siblings pass on, Anna (my godmother, who was unmarried and who had a huge influence on me until her death 20 years ago) and Bob and Vinny and Frank and Julie.
My surviving aunts, especially El and Maisie, who attended my mother at my birth, have been on hand or nearby for every important step I have taken in my life to now, affirming the enduring warmth of family love and connection at every occasion.
I'm not sure I have ever told them directly by word how much it has meant to me to know that even as they have been busy attending to their own families, they have found time to be in my corner for all these years - for my Baptism, Confirmation, First Communion, graduations, severe illnesses, job promotions, my wedding, and the funeral of my wife in the summer of 2006.
Here's to auld lang syne, dear El and Mary and Franny, and to 2008 and beyond, with love and thanks.