Guest Author, Irene F. Ficarra (1912-1993): “What I Remember About the Molasses Tank Explosion”

[While delving into my “Women’s Writing” file* recently, found this horrifying, first-hand account written by Irene F. Ficarra, one of my writing students back in the 80’s. As I have been exploring how better to lift up forgotten women’s voices, I’ve decided to “publish” Irene’s recollection of January 15, 1919 this week.]

Trigger alert: Gruesome details.

“I was about 7 years old and the memory of it all is very vivid. My father worked for the Western Electric Company which was located in South Boston at the time. My mother worked as a “chocolate dipper” for a candy factory called Lowney’s which was situated where the Coast Guard Station was later located. We lived right off Commercial Street opposite the chocolate factory. My mother came home for lunch that day and heard the noise of the explosion; the screams of  the excited Italian neighborhood brought everyone to the street.

My mother announced that she should call my father’s place of work and tell him to come right home. When he got home everything was in total confusion and rush. Fire engines and ambulances kept a steady line to and from the molasses tank. I remember seeing one of the ambulances going by and the bodies were stacked on the floor of the vehicle. One of the heads was almost severed from the body and molasses and blood were mixed. It was an awful sight.

An extension of the MBTA then known as the Boston Elevated Railway passed along Commercial Street on its way to Rowes Wharf. Steel girders supported the tracks. The force of the escaping molasses caused these seemingly invincible uprights to bend.

The father of a friend of mine worked in the Boston Navy Yard. In spite of the fact that the Navy Yard and the molasses tank were separated by the Charles River, there were casualties at the Yard. He was one of the casualties.

It was a day that I will never forget.

*Where I found “Lowell Offering,” a collection of poems and essays written by “mill girls.” More to come from those forgotten voices!

“Sensible and Human Things”

If we are all going to be destroyed by an atom bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting with our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep.

[C.S. Lewis, 1948]

Climate disruption and endless war and global health issues and political unrest undeniably lurking, looming, can we be sensible and human? Can we, despite our fears and how numbingly and satisfyingly comforting it is to scroll, scroll, scroll, can we keep on keepin’ on? Can we co-create the just, equitable, radically-inclusive world we yearn for? Can we remember to be silly? Can we celebrate this precious gift of life. Loudly? And together. In a park, maybe, or having taken over city streets. Let’s sing together, not just “Amazing Grace” or “This Land Is Your Land,” but maybe something written in this century.  (“Imagine”!) Let’s dance as if  no one’s watching. Let’s shout out whatever/whoever is precious: our grandchildren’s names. “Guernica.”  Mount Ararat. Blue Whale. Lake Superior (which, let’s face it, really is.)

Let’s be grateful.

Let’s get to work.

 

“Who Are You Wearing?”

“I think she looks almost what you call a Quaker” [Middlemarch.] 

At first glance, I must seem a very bad Quaker. A member in fairly-good standing with a religious sect that espouses simplicity and claims a shade of gray for its very own, my palette is comprised of shades of red—which, felicitously, includes purple. But having just finished Sofi Thanhauser’s excellent Worn: A People’s History of Clothing, I am freshly reminded that my clothing choices—most bought at Goodwill or the Material Aid and Advocacy Program’s semi-annual tag sale—should reflect another Quaker value: integrity.

I remember the first time I thought about the history of my clothing, my cotton clothing: The waterfront director at a  camp in the Adirondacks the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, while I lifeguarded up north my family moved from Lynchburg, Virginia to Huntsville, Alabama. At the end of the summer, I flew to “Huntspatch”; my parents, my two brothers and my sister picked me up from the airport.  My family chattering around me, I stared out our minivan’s window at what seemed mile after mile of flatness slathered by mini-malls. When we finally turned off the highway we were surrounded by cotton fields. And Black teenagers, crouched low to the ground, picked that cotton, their long bags snaking behind them like contrails. I will never forgot my double shock at driving past this mid-sixties version of slavery—and that my family continued to chatter. In the brief time our New England-based family lived in Alabama they’d already become inured to the sight of underage workers picking cotton? What?

Did I stop wearing cotton? No. I’m not Lucretia Mott. But when I do, sometimes I remember to ask myself the same question fashion journalists ask on Oscar night as the glitterati parade by: “Who are you wearing?”

 

 

“(Mill)Dam!”

[Faulkner Mill, North Billerica, MA]

Where there is a mill there is a river. And a dam. Currently (no pun intended) interested in that mill—once owned by ancestors of mine*—I am therefore interested in that river: The Concord.

You know who else was? Henry Thoreau. Who, for a week in August of 1839, along with his brother, traveled along the Concord River. As the brothers’ dory approached Billerica, they noticed that the salmon, shad, and alewives had disappeared. Thoreau wrote this:

Poor shad! where is thy redress? When Nature gave thee instinct, gave she thee the heart to bear thy fate? Still wandering the sea in thy scaly armor to inquire humbly at the mouths of rivers if man has perchance left them free for thee to enter. . . . Armed with no sword, . . . but mere shad, armed only with innocence and a just cause. . . I for one am with thee, and who knows what may avail a crow-bar against that Billerica dam?

The original mildam had been built in 1710; in 1721, another irate Concord resident, Dr. Jonathan Prescot and his buddies indeed took a crow-bar to that damned dam and nearby grist mill. (Was Dr. Prescot an eco-warrior? No. The dam had caused flooding on his property.) Subsequent reiterations of that milldam, its falls powering several mills, including the side-by-side Talbot and Faulkner Mills, prevailed. (The story of the Faulkner Mill—and the wealth it generated—is a story for another day.)

Until now. 

Wouldn’t Thoreau—and all those poor salmon, shad, and alewives—be amazed!

* Keen eyes will notice that mill owner Luther Faulkner’s daughter was Amy Prescott Faulkner Wild. She was my grandfather’s mother.

“Beyond A Reasonable Doubt?”

When I was growing up, my family ate dinner at precisely 6:00. My father, who liked to remind us that a family is not a democracy,  served as those meals’ moderator. If, God forbid, one of us should stray from daily, generalized check-ins to a personal, detailed, granular gripe, or recount at length some drama on the school bus or during lunch, Dad would interrupt: “Not of general interest,” he’d decree. And the miscreant would have to quickly change the subject. Or stop talking.

So, dear friends,  knowing that what I am about to write about is probably not of general interest, you might justifiably ask, “Why?” And the (whoo hoo) answer is that, sometimes, I sense there’s Something I am supposed to better understand. And invite you to join me as I ponder.

Okay. I’ll begin with a confession: Sometimes, dear friends, I watch televised, IRL trials. Like, last year, Alex Murdaugh’s. And for the past couple of weeks, the trial of Michelle Troconis. Who, yesterday, was found guilty of conspiring to murder missing Connecticut mother Jennifer Dulos.

But is Ms. Troconis guilty? Although the State did a stellar job recounting the numerous instances where timing, lies, omissions, and her own statements point to “the socialite’s” guilt (and they’re probably right), two things concern me. One is a wonderful quote from Tara Brach: “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.” It’s highly probable that Jennifer Dulos, a sunny, beautiful, doting mother of two sets of twins and a singleton, was viciously murdered by her ex-husband, Fotis Dulos—who committed suicide without confessing. Imbedded in Ms. Troconis’s resounding conviction on all counts, might we detect our collective grief not only for a loving, lovely young mother’s death but for the next-to-impossible-fact-to-accept that her body may never be found. To mention closure might seem hackneyed to some. Overdone. A joke. But closure is a genuine, human need, isn’t it? Fotis Dulos, the real perpetrator, is dead. But somebody “needs to pay,” right? On some primal level, is that not what we secretly believe?  Is Michelle Troconis our collective, lazy-thinking scapegoat?

Daughter of that dinner-table autocrat and, like all women, no stranger to oppression, abuse, gaslighting, manipulation, or just plain fear and, like everyone believing they’re in a loving relationship, susceptible to the wiles of a charismatic partner, I have to wonder when Michelle Troconis, the owner of her own successful business, told the police, “I’m the stupid girlfriend,” (Not an exact quote. But close) she was telling the truth?

I know, I know, it’s a stretch. Watching the trial, most of the time I’d snort,” How could she possibly not know?” But not all the time. Sometimes I’d wonder if despite all her wealth and seeming competency,  Michelle Troconis is a very special version of a battered woman. Especially when I watched the Connecticut police’s clumsy, almost ludicrous interrogation process!  Several male officers and detectives (There might have been one woman) barraged; they threatened a woman whose first language is Spanish, a fearful woman, no doubt, who’d lived with a volatile, murderous man whose anger issues were at the heart of his contentious divorce. Yes, Ms. Troconis initially lied to protect Fotis Dulos. But because of the police’s clumsy treatment and her pervading fears, she’d then doubled down. And felt stuck. A feeling strangely comforting; known.  And so, there she remained. (Another confession: I am also a huge fan of The Behavior Panel. I have watched skillful interrogations.)

Beyond a reasonable doubt?

(What’s reasonable?)

 

 

 

 

Looming

Oscar season, this week I saw “Boy and The Heron,” a Best Animated Feature nominee. Instantly, this rich, episodic, allegorical film makes clear it takes place in Japan during World War II—so like many other viewers, I’d instantly anticipated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Spoiler alert: Hayao Miyazaki, the film’s director, goes in very different direction!) But we, seated in a darkened movie theater, don’t know that yet, do we. So we wait, already sensitized, already alert, already prepared to mourn.  Every scene—and there are a lot of them—become that much more rich, more precious. It’s an experience not unlike reading The Diary of Anne Frank, isn’t it? We know the horrific fate of the gifted young writer we’re reading and so appreciate her every word, her every sentence that much more fully, don’t we.

Also this week: I discovered I have a sinus infection, am now on antibiotics, and feel almost like me, again. Looking back, I realize many of the low-grade yet affecting symptoms I’d had for almost two weeks—fatigue, mild depression, sensitivity to cold/chills—I’d assumed were because I’m getting old! (My sense of smell had also been affected, it seems, although that loss never registered.)

Hiroshima and Nagasaki did happen, didn’t they.  Old age happens, too. Poignantly aware that, looming, changes will happen to my body that amoxicillin won’t cure, may I fully appreciate this extraordinary, present, rich gift of Life. All of it.

 

 

 

“Sorry!”

[Walgreen’s, February 3, 2020]

This week, as I continue to read the amazing On Repentance And Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a snippet from one of my favorite movies, “A Thousand Clowns” nudged me. And, lo, fifty-nine years later, this cinematic moment is actually  better than what I remember! (It’s “scientific.”)

Unapologetically sick and worn-out this week, I am delighted to let Jason Robards/”Murray” explains what he’s discovered:

Enjoy!

Your Cup of Tea?

English novelist Barbara Pym is not everyone’s cup of tea. Slyly hilarious, her emphasis on cosy (British spelling) and the seemingly dull, drab, poetry-reciting, aging women who people her novels are not to everyone’s taste. But when “the world is too much with us, late and soon,” I will grab one of her books—and get cozy.

Long-accustomed, I think, to close-third writing, Pym’s revelation of multiple characters’ interiority is so skillfully done that for years I never noticed. (Her liberal use of adverbs never registered either. Until it did. And was forgiven.) Nor did I adequately appreciate how she’d created female characters like “Jane” in her Jane and Prudence who, I finally realized after multiple readings, deserve my compassion and not the scorn their creator ruthlessly heaps upon her badly-dressed and wretched-cook women! Professionally-thwarted women like Jane—whose thin volume of essays written before she’d married could have been the beginnings of a successful writing career! Discounted women.  Lonely women. Women seared by their war experiences and the privations that followed. Like I said: Barbara Pym is sly.

Best of all, while exploring those women’s interiority, she’ll write something like this (The context is World War II in an air raid shelter, at night, as Nazi planes fly overhead on their way to Liverpool):

“It’s so terrible,” said Laura helplessly, wishing there were something adequate one could say. But there was nothing. It was of no consolation to the bombed that the eyes of women in safe places should fill with tears when they spoke of them. Tears, idle tears were of no use to anyone, not even to oneself. This oppressive sorrow could not be washed away in the selfish indulgence of a good cry.

As I grieve for Gaza, as I grieve for the dear ones I’ve recently lost, as I grieve for the pain and suffering surrounding safe-place me, I, too, know my tears are of no use. I, too, know oppressive sorrow. Yet how elegantly Pym captures this enormous, endlessly confusing and confounding dilemma of consciousness! (I would quibble with that still-upper-lip “selfish,” though.)

One lump or two?

 

 

Lumi means “snow” in Finnish; it also means Light.

I’m not a dog person. Which means quizzical-verging-on-contemptuous looks from the numerous dog owners in my neighborhood as I briskly walk past their adorable fur balls without comment or gushing. (“Sorry. I really don’t mean to offend you. I’m just not into your pet, okay?”) But, serendipitously, the same week an intriguing article on dog tail-wagging came out, which examines the long-term relationship between dogs and humans, a blue-eyed husky named Lumi reminded me that “dog” backwards is “God.”

This spiritual awakening happened like this: I was in New Hampshire visiting dog-owning family and offered the opportunity to try snowshoeing. Which I instantly loved! Although walking on snowshoes is a lot like wearing the heaviest, most mud-caked boots ever, snowshoes allow you to trudge on fresh, deep snow. (Duh.) So silence-lovin’ me immediately saw how eerily quiet and reverent such unsullied walks could be. And if, given global warming, it makes sense to buy me a pair, I’m in. (How do I even figure this out!)

Not that our Saturday trek was all that quiet. Two parents, one granddaughter, two dogs, plus me meant a less than worshipful stroll. Especially when Lumi would suddenly stop to frantically dig some piled-high snowbank. And have to be scolded, again and again, “Leave it!” Huh?

Under all that pristine, glistening snow were woodland creatures—and Lumi could hear them?! That stopped me in my tracks. (Which probably looked like Grammy catching her breath.) It wasn’t just the sudden gestalt when recognizing the symbiosis between ancient humans and dogs unearthing what’s for dinner tonight that earned my slack-jawed awe. I stared at Lumi as if seeing God made manifest: “You heard chipmunks or field mice or . . . under all that snow? What an amazing creature you are!”

And dog-owners get this, right? They get to have moments when their pets remind them: “Actually, creation is not anthropocentric. Humans just assume it is. If we’re incredibly lucky, we humans may be in a long-term relationship with lots of life forms. Dog willing.”

 

 

The Colors of White

“Group With Parasols” by John Singer Sargent

That mustachioed, opened-shirt guy with an umbrella? That’s my great-grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Wild; who’d preferred to be called Frank. (Did anyone ever joke, “Can you B. Frank, Frank?”  I sure hope so.) The shyly smiling woman seated in front of him, who may be holding Frank’s boater, is my great-grandmother, Amy Prescott Faulkner Wild. Because I have seen other photographs of those people in those same clothes, I happen to know that they, like Sargent’s four snoozers, had actually been enjoying the out-of-doors the day this stiff, posed [studio?] photograph had been taken. Which means that Frank’s umbrella is actually a parasol! And, as his open shirt indicates, that day had been as indolent, as lovely, as deliciously warm as the snoring moment Sargent has so magnificently captured.

Sargent, who also sported a mustache, was born in 1856; Frank in 1853, Amy in 1858. Knowing a little about how their respective timelines overlapped, I’d walked through the current Museum of Fine Arts’ “Fashioned by Sargent” exhibit yesterday adding historical context to what I ogled. And the same questions.

I knew, for example, how The Gilded Age, a time of enormous wealth and equally enormous exploitation, had overlapped a fierce, post-Civil War battle: the suffrage movement. Who was to get the vote first? Women? Or African-American men?  So when I looked into the eyes of one of Sargent’s exquisite women, for example, I could ask her the same questions I’d already asked Amy Prescott Faulkner Wild: Had you been a secret or even an open suffragette? Did you, like my great-grandmother, ever consider the workers who produced your wealth? For my great-grandmother, it would have been miners whose harsh, dangerous labor produced the coal her jaunty husband sold all over Greater Boston. Did she understand how those faceless miners made possible her mansion on Somerville’s Highland Avenue, her gorgeous summer home on Cape Cod’s Bass River, the family plot in Mount Auburn Cemetery?

I’d like to think my shy ancestor did. But, knowing a little something about White people, I doubt it.

Sargent’s “Group with Parasols” is displayed with several other white-featured paintings; towards the end of his career, the great portrait painter became fascinated with white. And therein lies a profound difference between his subjects and my family: My ancestors may have been wealthy—but they hadn’t been rich enough to wear white to a picnic!

Such a vast scale of difference! It echoes the difference between a millionaire and a billionaire.(The magnitude of difference between billion and million can be illustrated with this example of the time scale: A million seconds is 12 days. A billion seconds is 31 years.)

Oh.

 

What Am I Called To Do (with asterisks)?:

To listen another’s soul into a condition of disclosure

and discovery may be almost the greatest service 

one human being ever performs for another.

Douglas Steere

As my father got more and more frail and his children and grandchildren had begun to take on the major responsibilities at family get-togethers, leaving him with nothing to do, he’d say, “Never mind. I’ll just sit in the corner and drool.” He didn’t drool. But sometimes a younger family member would pull up a chair, sit down beside him, and listen to his stories. Which were wonderful.

As I and the warring, climate-disrupted world we all inhabit get more and more frail, asking the Universe: “What am I called to do?” seems an existential/spiritual question with some asterisks:

* at almost-eighty.

* that doesn’t add to my carbon footprint if I choose to witness/show up/minister.

*that would actually make a difference yet which I, on a fixed-income, can afford.

(You get the idea.)

Lately I have been pondering some ways we potential droolers might be useful in this unimaginably challenging time. Let me count the ways (so far):

Like the wonderful Steere quote, we can listen as others share their grief, their fears, their suffering.

Like my father, we can share own experiences; we can offer a long-view perspective. No, let’s be clear, there has never been a time quite so fraught (my dad’s word) as this. Yet surely our stories contain some nuggets the present generations might appreciate? Dare I say learn from? (Some buy-in’s probably required. Someone willingly chose to sit beside my father. Someone needs to ask us to recount the time when . . ., right?)

We can speak to the non-binary-All because we, too have suffered. We, too, have experienced unmitigated joy. And here we are. Our breath of experience adds more to the spectrum of What Being Conscious Is About, the All of it, its spectacular, wondrous, terrifying, maddening, unlimited array of experiences.

And, finally, this: I have seen what Love can do. Love is thoroughly embedded in that All; Its all-embracing power continually takes my breath away. It feels naive—silly—to write that, now, as wars wage everywhere. Everywhere! Yet over a lifetime, in the midst of conflict, when I remembered to speak or to act from a place of Love, everything shifted. Improved. Softened. This I know at almost-eighty.

Where is Love in Gaza? Where is Love in Ukraine? Yemen?  The streets of Haiti, the streets of vandalized San Francisco? That’s impossible to say. What I can say is this: some of us along Elder Path may want to listen to your grief, your rage, your fears. Grateful to be able to experience this “greatest service one human being ever performs for another,” we can hear you with Love.

 

 

“That’s What Art Does, Right?”

While still dark, the Garbage to Garden driver arrives in front of our house; the truck’s rattling wakes me up. Quietly, very quietly, the driver disposes of our sodden, green-plastic bag of compost and leaves a neatly-folded new bag tucked around our compost bucket handle before, slowly and respectfully, pulling away from the curb.

Three-quarters asleep and still under the weight of the existential dread I wake up with these days, I think: “This is why those of us who are warm and cozy and safe in our beds think everything’s okay. We tell ourselves that climate disruption isn’t happening because: look! We’re doing our part and, look! How smoothly, how gracefully that swap-out just happened! Seamless! Efficient! All is well.”

But it isn’t.

Three-quarters asleep I was reminded of that old, old “New Yorker” cartoon of a NYC garbageman who, I all-these-years-later realize, was probably drawn as a man of color, who stands at the end of a dark, Manhattan alley, grinning maniacally, as he prepares to heave the heavy, metal garbage can he clutches across the alley;  another warm and cozy and safe in bed’s [purposely loud, evil] version of another unseen worker’s toil in the dark. And a racist depiction—if I’m remembering correctly—the “New Yorker” would abjure today.

Earlier that evening, I’d talked with friends about visiting the Cape Cod Art Museum’s current exhibit featuring Bob Staake, brilliant, whimsical illustrator, sculptor, children’s book author, et al.  And “New Yorker” covers artist. Because they’re friends I could share my overwhelming joy to see Staake’s “New Yorker” cover when Obama had been elected. “I remember how incredibly hopeful I’d felt when I pulled that issue out of my mailbox,” I told them. “And,” I sternly instructed, “I do not want to go there about how I feel about this country now,  okay? I just want to remember that moment. That joy, hope, sense of possibility. That’s what art does, right?”

Three-quarters asleep, I again remembered that precious moment. That glowing Lincoln memorial; its quiet, watery reflection; that O of YOrker as moon, as Light, as that Light that has never been overcome by the darkness.

Thank you, Bob Staake.