My dad never forgot how his uncle saved the family
More than half a century later, the unbreakable bond between my dad and his uncle stays with me.
For two years in the early 1960s, starting when I was 8, my father and I took a ride a few times a week. We traveled from our home in the Spring Hill neighborhood of Somerville to a faded Victorian manor in Malden that had long ago been converted to a nursing home.
Entering, we passed elderly folks sitting on the big porch and lining the narrow corridors. Many of them wanted to go home. Indeed, some wanted us to take them there, as they shouted when we walked by. My initial fears subsided when I saw my father greeting them kindly, but I had questions. Did they remember me from one time to the next? Why did they give us their rapt attention and long for ours? Did anyone ever visit them?
Deep inside the building, we would turn into a simple room. There sat my father’s maternal uncle. Tom was a bachelor, a gentle man with Coke-bottle glasses and more than a hint of an Irish brogue. I had known him all my life. We had regularly visited him and his unmarried sister at the boardinghouse they maintained in Boston’s run-down South End. Like most of their siblings, they had immigrated to Boston around the turn of the century. They trusted that their new country, unlike the old, held a reasonable possibility of homeownership.
That possibility turned into reality for Tom’s eldest sister, who successfully struggled to purchase the rooming house, on now-fashionable Montgomery Street. Two other sisters cooked and cleaned for the lodgers, Irish immigrants who became virtual family members. Tom and another brother held jobs outside the home. Since their youth, my father and his siblings had frequently dropped in on their aunts and uncles there. By the time I was born, all but Tom and his youngest sister had died, and his health had necessitated his leaving the family home.
I admired my father’s devotion to his uncle. From visit to visit, the old man’s memory and grasp on reality wavered. Dad chatted nonchalantly with him, no matter whether Tom was calmly conversing about family or frantically urging us to get out of the way of a truck he believed he was driving. My father was pleased when I tagged along. One day, I asked him why we went there so often.
My father explained that his parents had proudly purchased our house in 1927. To pay off the mortgage, my aging grandfather held on to his factory job of many decades, while my grandmother worked hard at home. Just two years later, the Great Depression hit. My father and his two sisters, single young adults living with their parents, helped with obligations to the bank. But when my grandfather’s workplace closed, all five soon suffered the shock of foreclosure and relocated to a rented apartment.
Uncle Tom devised a plan. His job as the wine steward at the Copley Plaza Hotel was modest but secure, like his room in the boardinghouse. He made an offer to his married sister’s discouraged family, which they gratefully accepted. He would buy their house from the bank at auction, and then start to collect on an informally and generously arranged loan. The house would ultimately belong to the payer: his nephew — my father.
The plan worked. After a few months in exile, the family returned home, and years of repayment began.
My father, bringing me to the nursing home until Tom’s death when I was 9, was reimbursing his uncle in one more way. He wanted the old man, wrenched from his cherished home, to have as familial an experience as possible. I think he also wanted to communicate to me what he never quite put into words: a hope that Tom’s readiness to sacrifice might catch on, that I might learn how crucial it is to support loved ones needing an experience of home as best they can achieve it or receive it.
The Rev. George Evans is pastor of Holy Name Parish in West Roxbury and Roslindale. Send comments to connections@ globe.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.