DUBLIN — Here in Ireland, misery-laden memoirs remain popular nearly 20 years after the ground-breaking publication of “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank McCourt’s graphic depiction of his early life in Limerick. Thanks to the late Mr. McCourt, the “Irish mammy” in particular continues to cut a pathetic figure on the national bestseller charts.
Well, with Mother’s Day here, I figure it’s my turn to have a go at this genre. Unfortunately, the deeper I delve into my Medford upbringing, the clearer the truth becomes: My formative years were unspeakably . . . ordinary. No matter how hard I try to conjure up scenes that a publisher might find sufficiently harrowing, the fact is that my mother has always behaved like a well-adjusted and normal adult whose primary concern was the welfare of her family. (And the same could be said about my dad.)
It’s unlikely I’ll ever recover from such an unmarketable childhood.
I should have done something about it years ago, maybe insisted that our Corey Street home include a small measure of squalor and neglect, but who knew? Coming of age in an Irish-Italian household in 1970s Medford, I figured there’d be plenty to moan about later.
I was wrong.
If only “Angela’s Ashes” had been around when I was growing up, to counsel me in the ways of the miserable memoir. The tips are all there on the opening page. In a single paragraph we’re told that “the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.” And: “Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish-Catholic childhood.”
But it gets better. After an impressive roll call of supporting players — including pompous priests, bullying schoolmasters, a shiftless alcoholic father, and a pious defeated mother — comes this marvelous summing up: “Above all — we were wet.”
Frank McCourt, needless to say, is a hard act to follow.
Still, despite my raw material being significantly less wretched, I’ve decided to mark Mother’s Day by tackling the memoir. So with Mr. McCourt in mind and my poetic license ready for inspection, I present a short account of my early Medford years:
When I was young, school was a torment fully endorsed by my uncaring parents so they might get on with the trivial business of running a house and earning a living. The daily walk to our neighborhood school — covering all of four breathless blocks — taxed our little bodies almost beyond endurance. But our heartless teachers were unmoved, herding us outside for recess each day.
As for the school building itself — the now defunct Dame Elementary on George Street — how could we be expected to learn in classrooms that openly mocked us by featuring our own rudimentary work on the walls, illuminated by the Dame’s unforgiving windows?
Every afternoon after my brother and I had staggered home, my mother would ask about our day and then insist we have a snack. If we found nothing to our liking, she’d whip us . . . up anything we wanted. (Our family movies document another distressing truth: As soon as my father got home from work, he’d also beat us . . . at basketball, on the flagstone patio court in our backyard.)
Most days in the fall and winter we’d head out with our friends before it got too dark. For a couple of hours we’d engage in an archaic suburban game called street hockey, which involved simulated fisticuffs that sometimes got out of hand.
Occasionally we’d challenge kids from other neighborhoods and this meant lugging our nets and equipment a few blocks, maybe to Clark Street or as far away as Burget Avenue.
In the spring and summer our hardship took another shape. Then, it was the endless monotony of punch ball and relievio and “outs” against someone’s front steps. I remember one day disaster struck. I was maybe 9 or 10. Two older friends were playing pitcher-catcher — with our front steps as a backstop and using a hard ball — when a wild throw rode up the hand railing and smashed our porch window. Everyone ran for cover except me. It was my house. Where else was I going to go? So I had to do the explaining.
Frank McCourt may have had it rough, but episodes like that stick too.