Tuesday, April 11, 2017

14 Leicester Street

14 Leicester Street***

"You brought the warm weather wit' ya!" I hear her say with a chuckle, as I sit on her front steps with my brother, aunties, and cousins. We spent many hours on this porch together, through the years. Tanner, my youngest cousin, is pumping his fist in the air, trying to get tractor trailers to blow their horns at us as they pass around the curve. It is February in New England and there is snow on the ground from the recent blizzard, but I am in a tank top because, somehow, the warm sun has found us. And though her voice is there, she is not. We just buried my grandmother the hour before, in the purple dress she wore to my wedding. I still have incense in my nostrils from the beautiful Mass at St. Ann's, where I read a part of Thessalonians 4. My brother, Jamie, and I called her "Meme," and she was "Grammy" to my younger cousins. My father is the oldest of the seven Casey children, and I am the oldest of the seven grandchildren--the only girl, the "princess".

As more gather with lawn chairs and coolers, Uncle David tells the story, again, of the guy who came around the curve too fast on his bike and ended up on the front lawn. Every time we sit out front together he tells it, even if years have gone by. It's not so much the story, but the passionate way he says his words, with his thick, Central Massachusetts accent, that makes me laugh--a welcome break from the heavy grief of the day. The relief lasts for only a moment, though, before I'm brought back to earth by the cold of the concrete steps seeping through the legs of my jeans. I stare at the steps through my bare toes and remember when the cement was crumbly and bluish gray. That was back when Pepe was alive. He left us nearly 20 years ago. And now, these moments today with my family, are the last we will spend together in the front yard of this house. Tonight will be the last night I will ever sleep here at 14 Leicester Street. I breathe in and try to soak in the fleeting moments--the voices of my loved ones, the crisp Massachusetts air, the warmth of the sun. We take one last "cousin picture" on the porch steps before the sun begins to set and before my cousin, Casey, has to catch his train back to Boston. It doesn't feel right to me without Tyson and Andrew, but we take it anyway.

Left to right: Jarrod, Sarah, Jamie, Casey, and Tanner (seated)
Missing: Tyson and Andrew

Inside the house, we are told to choose the things we want to keep. I can't decide if this task is comforting or exactly the opposite. Meme and Pepe are both gone now, and the house will be sold. As much as I don't want it to be so, I also can't imagine coming back again without either one of them inside. No matter how you slice it, it's painful to my fiercely sentimental heart. As I walk slowly through each room, I want everything and nothing all at once. I feel like an intruder as my father and I sift through their old papers from the lock box. At the same time, it is mysterious and exciting as we find the building plans for the house from 1926, signed by my great grandfather, Edmund Casey. We also find first communion certificates, birth certificates, report cards, girl scout awards, and Pepe's World War II Army records. He actually did two tours, and had commendations and medals, including a bronze star, that we never knew about. This little cottage holds lifetimes upon lifetimes of memories, and these material things represent just a fraction of them--my own memories a fraction of that.

Original general contractor proposal for building the house

As the temperature continues to drop, along with the sun, we gather for Chinese food around the large dining room table in the modest-but-big-enough dining room. We're long used to the close quarters of a Casey family dinner and it is never uncomfortable--and there is always room for one more. When I was 11 my father moved our family to Florida. Since then, when visiting, we've traditionally had Chinese food as our last meal before leaving Massachusetts. The Polynesian flavors of New England Chinese restaurants are something we miss the most. The Chinese restaurant next door, which was a clamorous pub until just a few years ago, has beef sticks that Meme recently said were her favorite. So we order tons of beef sticks. She was right. They are some of the best I've ever tasted. Jamie and I vow to eat them in her honor every time we come back to visit, from now on. We toast to Meme, clicking our beef sticks together as if they are champagne glasses. I wonder if she and Pepe are watching. I wonder what they're thinking as they watch us eat our last family meal together in their house, at their table.

Me, I'm thinking about Meme's delicioius ham that we ate at this table on Sunday afternoons after church. And the homemade Boston baked beans she made every single time I visited, their aroma from the oven hitting me within steps of walking through the door. I'm thinking about Pepe putting a thick layer of black pepper on his food...all of his food. Going down cellar to get him another tonic. Making sure I appeared to be chewing my food thoroughly so he wouldn't say, "Chew it good! You're going to choke!" He worried a lot about that for some reason. I'm thinking about Lady, the little black dog that would wait under the table, just in case we dropped something--until Pepe caught her and yelled for her to go to bed. It feels like that just happened. It feels like it's happening right now as I sit and eat my last meal in the dining room.

Pepe and Lady

Oh, this house. It has always been a special place for me. I spent my childhood here in North Oxford, Massachusetts, and most of my spare time at 14 Leicester Street, the childhood home of both my father and my Pepe. Everything happened here. Family birthday parties, holidays, lazy summer afternoons in the chilly pool, chewing rhubarb that grew in the backyard, with a cup of sugar from my Meme's kitchen to dip it in. "It'll be too sour!" she'd say, and then force the cup into my hand as I walked out the back door. One winter, Pepe thought it would be fun to get the old toboggans out and try to go down the small hill next to the rhubarb. We positioned ourselves at the top of the hill but the snow was too soft and Jamie and I sunk as poor Auntie Terry tried to get us going with a running start. Pepe joined her, lifting the front of the sled, but instead we slid sideways and flipped over into the frozen fluff. Auntie Chris pulled us up out of the snow as we laughed until we cried. Happiness!

I earned a lot of money in that backyard, picking up trash after the big celebrations we'd have. "I'll give you a nickel for every cigarette butt!" Pepe would say. And, if anything, he was a man of his word. I'd always look for trash near his grapevine or blueberry bushes because, chances were, there would be something ripe to pick and eat as I made the yard clean. I stayed away from the garden, though. Somehow I always would step on the newly sprouting crops no matter how careful I was to avoid them, earning a shout from the kitchen window to, "Get out of the garden!" I also earned quite a bit of candy money shooting hoops in the beat up basketball hoop at the end of the driveway. "A dollar a shot--for every one you get in a row," Pepe would tell me. Once I got better at it, it was a maximum of 10 shots in a row for $10. To an 8-year-old little girl, that was some major cash. I practiced so hard. I'll never forget the look on his face when I actually made 10 in a row. For the next week he told everyone who came down to the house about my skills. With my riches in hand, Auntie Pat walked me to our cousin's neighborhood store right down the street, and I traded some of my cash in for red Swedish fish, tootsie rolls, and sometimes an ice cream bar.

The backyard. The rhubarb grew toward the back left. The former garden is covered in snow.

My most distinct memories of Christmas are from "the porch" of Meme's and Pepe's house. The porch was formerly a true front porch. Before I was born it was enclosed with windows all around, to make a sun room. My Pepe loved to sit out there with his brothers, when the weather was nice, and play cribbage or backgammon or cards. But at Christmastime, when it really was too cold to sit and play anything, it was where the freshly cut Christmas tree had its home. As we'd crunch on the snow toward the front door of the little maroon house, I felt like I could smell the evergreen before the front door even opened. The tree always glowed with perfection and held what seemed like hundreds of presents close to its trunk. I loved to sit out on the porch by the Christmas tree. As a young girl, I would curl up on the frigid floor taking in the wonderful scent and imagining which presents were the toys I had earmarked in the big Sears catalog--until I was numb from the frozen outside or until I was caught and told I was going to catch pneumonia.

Now, I stare into the parlor and see their painted portraits staring back at me. My Meme and Pepe were both privileged to be able pass from this earth right there in the comfort of the parlor--the cozy room where I saw my first horror movie, played Atari for hours and hours, squeaked out my first sounds when learning to play the flute, and learned to cheer with my heart and soul for the New England Patriots, and yes, even for the poor, cursed Red Sox.

After I finish my beef sticks, I go and sit under their portraits, near the parlor window, hoping I can feel their presence somehow. It's strangely quiet because the next door pub, which normally provided constant background noise of loud Harley Davidson's and rowdy citizens until the wee hours of the mornings, is now making Meme's favorite beef sticks. I look up at their painted faces and wonder if we all will have the same faces in heaven. They look so happy up there on the parlor wall, here at 14 Leicester Street. And really, in all of the pictures I saw that day in the memorial slideshow, they looked so happy to simply be together. I know they had their share of troubles, hard times, heartaches. But at the end of the day, they loved each other and they loved their family. What else really matters?

 Pepe and his mother, Ida

The family trickles out as the hours pass. It is dark and only a few of us are left around the kitchen table. We talk about arrangements to get some of Meme and Pepe's items from Massachusetts to Florida. We talk about memories of the house, of Meme, and of Pepe. The past 48 hours have been a dream-like blur and then, suddenly, time screeches to a halt. I am alone, in the kitchen, locking the doors and switching the lights off for the night--the last night. I stop to listen, trying to memorize the sounds of the house that already have a home in my 39-year-old memory; I'm afraid I'll forget, so I keep listening. Then I tiptoe to the doorway of the parlor and stick my head into the darkness. "I love you," I whisper at their portraits. Maybe they hear me if this is where their souls were last on earth? I glance over my shoulder into the dining room, flooded with a memory of my Pepe playing Christmas carols on his big record player, underneath the cuckoo clock. Perry Como's The Little Drummer Boy. It will always be my favorite.

Finally, I head upstairs to bed. I count the stairs as they creak below my feet, on my way to Meme and Pepe's room. "Thirteen," I say out loud when I get to the top. I turn and look down the stairs. They used to be covered in dark, green carpet and I would slide down them on my back, feet first, until Meme caught me and told me I was going to crack my head open. I giggle at the memory. Meme's pink, flannel Nick and Nora pajamas lying on a table catch my eye as I walk into the bedroom. I gave them to her one year for Christmas. I think I want to take them home. I pull the 3 shades down over the row of windows and turn out the light. As I lay in their bed I listen for the sounds from the old pub that used to keep me from falling asleep. The silence is deafening. How is this day even real? The statue of Jesus on the headboard is watching me, just as it did when I took my Sunday afternoon naps as a child. Eventually, my body gives in and I find sleep. In a few hours I wake up to a blurry Jesus, still watching me, and practically startling me to consciousness. After breakfast we make some last minute decisions on a few of the items in the house and prepare to leave, not before I panic and start taking pictures of the rooms, the stairs, the yard, and even the splash of original maroon paint on the stone foundation--the only clue that the house wasn't always made of tan siding.

The Stairs

Maroon paint on the stone foundation. The house once had painted wood siding.

Before I pull out of the driveway, I roll the window down and listen one last time for traffic coming around the curve. I am leaving 14 Leicester Street forever, but I am taking with me so much more than the dining room hutch, Pepe's cribbage boards, and a pair of Nick and Nora pajamas that I gave Meme 3 Christmases ago. I'm taking front porch laughs, cousin pictures, and motorcycle wipe-outs on the front lawn. Close quartered meals in the dining room underneath the cuckoo clock with lots and lots of pepper. A reminder to be thoughtful and generous--making room at the table, even when it's crowded. Knowing how to chew my food "good." Beef sticks. The peaceful rowdiness of the North End Pub. The happiness of being together in a snowy backyard. Perseverance from the challenge of the basketball hoop. Knowing how to earn my keep, take pride in my yard, and exactly where to step in a newly planted garden. Swedish fish from walks to the Gagne store. The scent of Christmas trees on a cold porch. Exceptional Christmas decorating skills. Perry Como. Knowing how not to get pneumonia. Knowing how not to crack my head open. Hams, turkeys, meatballs, baked beans, carrot cakes, cookies, and holiday pies from the hands and the heart of my Meme. Being a woman of my word like my Pepe. Knowing how to cheer for my New England teams from my sports lessons in the parlor, superstition and all. Expert Atari skills. Endless kitchen table conversations and cups of Folgers coffee. Jesus always watching over me. The love for family through thick and thin. And all of the other countless precious memories in that house that my heart can hold, and hopefully conjure up at will, for the rest of my days. These memories--my little fraction--are worth far more than the humble house in North Oxford, Massachusetts that I will forever love. One day I will be with my Meme and Pepe again. And we will sit and talk for hours about our happiest days together in the house at 14 Leicester Street.

In loving memory of my precious Meme and Pepe
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. Thessalonians 4:13-18

***Note: The original address of the house was 14 Leicester Street. It was changed to 18 Leicester Street some time after Pepe passed away, I believe, to accommodate the addition of residences on that side of the street. This is why in the photo you can see "18" as the house number instead of the original "14".