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The day my grandmother saw my future, and saved it

In 1935, Mary Elizabeth King Sheehan set out to find my family a new place to live. My life was never the same again.

The author's grandmother would have boarded a trolley like this one on Highland Avenue in Somerville at the start of her journey to Saugus.
The author's grandmother would have boarded a trolley like this one on Highland Avenue in Somerville at the start of her journey to Saugus.West End Street Railway Company/Wikimedia Commons

It was a Saturday in August, 1935, and the decision had come down: We were to move from Charlestown to Saugus. This was not in itself an upheaval — we had made other moves — but this one would change the course of our lives.

Earlier in the month, Mary Elizabeth King Sheehan, my adventurous County Cork-born grandmother — who worked for 60 years as a bookbinder at Ginn & Co., a publisher in Cambridge — had boarded a trolley car on Highland Avenue in Somerville, bent on getting us out of the city. After a number of transfers, she ended up on a bus headed to Saugus.

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She never said what had prompted her to come here, to get off the bus here, and to seek a real estate agent here. I think she had once visited my Aunt Bess, from the other side of the family, who lived on Main Street, across from Longwood Avenue.

Some of the flavor of the town must have remained with her.

It may have been a change of scenery, a change of opportunity, or a matter of space. Space, long important to her, and of which we had none, might have made a final demand. Perhaps it was the trees, the fields, the neat lawns, the quiet sidewalks, and the slow, cumbersome ride on a Hart Line bus along Essex Street into Cliftondale Square.

Space. Change. Opportunity. On the skyline hung the future.

Those Hart buses were gray, long-hooded juggernauts with a share of carbon monoxide seeping through floorboards or open windows. Prominent was a large lever that the talkative drivers used to open the door to passengers they knew by name.

I don’t doubt my grandmother plumbed the driver’s knowledge about rental agents. If they were working in those days, drivers like Johnny Taatjes and Charlie Davis knew volumes of Saugus history and legions of Saugus people. Such drivers not only made connections but had them, too.

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Two hours after she got off the bus, at the green rotary in Cliftondale Square with the elm trees towering like Jack’s bean stalks, grandmother had rented for us a third-floor cold-water flat near the bus stop. To this day, the ground floor has housed, in turn, Bill Carter’s Barroom, a paint store, a travel agency. It was my first of three homes in Saugus — the third, my home since 1958, was built in 1742, for the ages.

Grandmother saw the move coming, and I can’t help but believe that with it, she saw our future, and saved it.

I can picture her — the tall, beautiful lady with glasses and a perky black hat, who spoke the clearest English and whose grammar was sharp as a knife’s edge, who insisted her grandchildren be readers and provided them with hundreds of unbound books from her employer’s reject pile. She urged us to read Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci from books without covers, saying, “They breathed like you do now. Think like they did then.”

It allowed her to walk into a realtor’s office saying, “Let’s make a deal. I need a flat for my son and his family. He works seven days a week in Boston and can’t get out here to arrange a move, but I’ve decided, with blessings I am sure, that Saugus is where they shall live from now on.”

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Did she know that we’d snitch the plump, ripe goodies off Reverend McDuffie’s sole peach tree where a condominium now stands on Essex Street? That we’d watch the jugglers and unicycle riders and puppets on the open vaudeville stage where Staff Road drops off into Cliftondale Square? Or on rainy days read comic books behind the great door of Morrison’s Drug Store on the corner of Smith Road, the proprietor’s kind eye always on us? Or deliver circulars for the First National Store and the Economy Store and distribute morning and evening papers in the square with the “daily number” in them?

How would she know that roads would glisten with ice and moonlight as we started downhill on our sleds with a rush, gathering speed on Oceanview, swinging wildly onto Western Avenue with a swerve and a screech, jamming onto Cinder Path halfway down Western Avenue, dropping suddenly with a slam across the bump that was Clifton Avenue, finishing the Cinder Path, and gliding effortlessly down Smith Road, in neutral gear of course, taking one last free breath as we edged into the square before our long climb back to the summit?

I swear to this day, she saw it all. Each day, every day.

Her omniscience knew that wooden crates and boxes, tossed out behind Walkey’s Market and the First National and Economy Stores, would be ours for burning in the kitchen stove. That when we upgraded to range oil, Al Manley would dispense it from the Gulf station across the street, that brother Jim’s rubber-band-motor model planes, framed up on an old dough board, would be tossed from the high porch and leap into flight out over the Square, often to be crushed by traffic.

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The lady knew that early business would be conducted with Mr. Levine or Mr. Goldberg, who daily came plodding down Lincoln Avenue with horse and wagon looking for rags, junk metal, ways to gather nickels and dimes for the family kitty, which was an open jug on a mantle nobody would touch but my mother, by the grace of God.

Somehow, she knew before we did, any of us, that there’d be a new post office whose walls we could run over to and hide behind for months on end during construction; that on Bond Place a deserted print shop, three floors high, would yield all the printing lead needed for an outsized army of lead soldiers; that the railroad tracks between Essex Street and Laurel Street would produce little red wagons full of stove coal for a number of years; that nearby Anna Parker Playground, flooded and frozen, seemed acres wide in the dead of winter under dim yellow lights that threw as much shadow as they did light. On weekends swept up in speed’s hysteria and out well past our bedtimes, we were dragged away from that hallowed surface by sleepless parents.

Another day, bright and rich as ever, awaited us.

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Tom Sheehan is the author of 52 or 53 books and lives in Saugus.