Unexpected questions can be difficult, even when we have an answer. I have stumbled more than hurtled in my life-time of answering questions. One that often gets me is "where are you from?" While out at a community event the other day, a local reporter asked my husband a version of this question. After Greg described Lowell as his home, even though we don't currently live there, the reporter asked him why. Greg stumbled in his answer as well.
Each time I stumble over an unexpected question, I spend days afterwards thinking of my best answer. Greg's stumble has given me the opportunity to reflect and prepare, should anyone confront me with the same question.
Why do I call Lowell home?
The easy answer is because I was born here, this is where my story started. My parents and my siblings were born here.
I grew up on the outer edges of the city, in South Lowell, near the towns of Tewksbury and North Billerica. The variety store where I bought cigarettes for my sister and Hershey bars for myself was actually in Tewksbury, though close enough for me to walk to on my own even in elementary school. I didn’t have to cross Woburn Street, so it was a safe walk. When we were very young it was called Ray’s and run by an Archie Bunker looking guy who always wore a white buttoned-up shirt and a black belt. He was gruff, and kept a close eye on us as we surveyed the candy counter, as if we would ever have considered taking a Charleston Chew without paying the coins for it. Later, Pete bought the place and he was much more welcoming and trusting. His bearded smile greeted us most days and he had no problem handing over the pack of Marlboro Lights my sister sent me in buy. It was clear I was not smoking them myself as I was always so absorbed in making the decision between something chocolate or something more sugary. (Lick-em sticks and candy cigarettes were cheaper than Hershey Bars so you could get twice as much, but some days, chocolate is what you need.)
The Variety Store on Woburn Street is completely different now. Truth be told, I’m not even sure its still there. But the mostly packed dirt sidewalk between my house and the store is a part of my home. That walk and those interactions with Ray and Pete helped to shape me. Ray’s suspicion confirmed the lessons of church and family that I should strive to be honest as I didn’t like being thought otherwise. Pete’s daily smile showed me the importance of such simple kindness as I could not continue to be mad at my brother in the face of such happiness. When Pete was in a sour mood, we all suffered.
Lowell is my home because we lived in a neighborhood with a variety store where people knew my name, or at least who my parents were. That straight path is mapped into my memory.
For some in Lowell, the city is divided into parishes. My parish was a bit mixed. In proximity, Saint Marie’s was our parish. The church was right down the street, an easy walk from the house in the opposite direction down Woburn Street from Pete’s. It was a walk I couldn’t make alone as early as I was allowed to wander down to Pete’s though. To go to St. Marie’s you had to walk across Christman Avenue where the 495 on-ramp is, under the highway bridges where sometimes teenagers hung out, and past the off-ramp. Even before the Dunkin Donuts opened at the gas station, this could be a busy road of drivers unconcerned with a nine-year-old’s spiritual journey. I didn’t walk to St. Marie’s much though, because we belonged to Sacred Heart.
Sacred Heart Church, and the accompanying school where I attended from grades 1 through 8, was on Gorham Street. It was walkable and my brothers and sister and I walked home from school plenty of times, but going to church at Sacred Heart meant we were with Dad, so we always went in the car. We passed that spot on Lawrence Street where for years the chain-linked fence was bent in where my brother drove his motorcycle nearly into the Concord River. It was kind of sad when they finally fixed that fence, but I still think of Bobby every time I cross that bridge. Most Sundays we went to the 9:00 mass which usually had the children’s choir since Dad liked the children’s choir better than the operatic voices of the adult choir. I even joined the choir for a little while, despite my Lamarre voice. Dad always loved to sing but he would never join the choir himself.
So much of my life was celebrated in that church. We were all baptized there, though of course I have no memory of any of that. I do have pictures of just about all of my sisters in white dresses my mother made for each of them, standing in front of the statue of Mary with the priest or the head nun or a grandmother after making First Communion. A few of my sisters were married there. Every Christmas and Easter and just about every Sunday of my life until college included church attendance. The priest knew us. The old ladies complimented our behavior in the pews, unattended when Dad was on the alter as a Eucharistic minister.
We buried my brother from that church, with Father Madigan calling him “Bob” and me wanting to stand up and shout at him that my brother was Bobby, my Dad is Bob so stop making it sound as if my father has died.
Lowell is my home because, even though the school building has been torn down and the church turned into condos I grew in spirit there. I journeyed from blind acceptance to determined adherence to angry rejection of the Catholic Church, landing now in a place without anger or acceptance (though I do like the tone of the current pope).
Lowell is my home because I sat at the counter in Woolworth’s to have lunch with my grandmother.
Lowell is my home because I took the city bus downtown to shop at Jordan Marsh.
Lowell is my home because I could tell the difference between the Aiken Street bridge and the Bridge Street bridge with my eyes shut because of the weird noise the metal grating of Aiken St made when you drove over it.
Lowell is my home because I know that you shopped at Saint Joseph’s shrine when you needed a first communion cross and that you could get a mass card for a funeral at the rectory at Sacred Heart, perhaps from my mother or my aunt if one of them was working there at the time.
Lowell is my home because I graduated from Lowell High School and can still sing the fight song, and so could my Dad right up to the day he died even though he didn’t graduate with his class but earned his GED there in 1978.
Lowell is my home because my grandparents and aunts and uncles and sister and niece are buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery and my brother and parents are in the Lowell Cemetery just down from the lion who my daughters and I named Ezra.
Lowell is my home because I know where things are and how to get there and even though I have lived in Westford for over 10 years, I still don’t know the best route to take.
Lowell is my home because I spent my teenage years traveling by LRTA and gratefully accepted some change to pay for my bus ride home when a stranger saw me crying at the public phone after realizing I had spent my bus fare calling my Mom to let her know I was running late.
Lowell is my home because I went to the teen health clinic that was run out of an old mill building where they would leave a message that “Susan called” so your parents wouldn’t know you were getting birth control pills.
Lowell is my home because that is what I instinctively answer every time someone asks me where I’m from.