The Corsage


I was 13 and Dad was three years dead. Before he died, he made Ma promise to sell the three-decker apartment house they owned on Mall Street in West Lynn. That section of the city was getting rough. Ma finally settled on a plot of land in East Lynn on Bacheller Street across from Sluice Pond. This was an odd choice when you consider she had rejected property on Highland Ave. because the house was near a cliff and also a house on Jenness Street because of traffic. Maybe drowning was preferable to falling off a cliff or being struck by a truck. Oh well. She hired a contractor, a Mister Girardin who had a smile similar to Oliver Twist’s Fagin, to build a small bungalow painted cranberry red. We moved in on a Saturday. A young guy around my age named Billy Doyle came over, introduced himself, wouldn’t stop talking, and wouldn’t leave. Ma finally had to send him on his way.

"Terrible upbringing", she told Dolly, my aunt on dad’s side who was helping with the move.

Evidently, brother Joe and I must have been getting under foot because we were dispatched to the Paramount Theater in downtown Lynn where ‘Haji Baba’ was playing in Technicolor. The only memorable scene was seeing real blood as one of the protagonists swung his sword across some poor guy’s back.

I have two brothers and one sister, all younger. We called Joe, the older, Mr. Mischief because he was always getting into trouble (actually, we all got into trouble but it was always Joe who got caught). Joe was also a student of television.

"Look at him in front of the TV, oblivious to everything and his mouth wide open. I’ll bet that mouth is catching flies." Ma would say.

David, the next youngest, would be in the bedroom listening to the Bruins on the radio.

"Tom, the Bruins just had a power play."

"What’s that?"

"That’s where the other team is one man short because of a penalty. Shot from the point to Bronco Horvath. Scores!!!" Recounted Dave who was so skinny he ate yeast cakes in the hope of quick weight gain.

The youngest, Marianne, was banking fat for the growth spurt that would follow a few years later. We cruelly called her ‘Gravy Train’ after a famous dog food commercial of the day.

Being the oldest was no picnic but it did come with certain perks. I was usually treated more leniently than my siblings and I had my own bedroom where Joe and Dave shared one and Ma and Marianne shared the other. I was gangly, shy (my relatives will never believe that), ultra sensitive, prone to fantasy, and had just started smoking. I was happier alone than with others at this period of my life. This would change dramatically after I left the seminary, but that's another story.

It was 6 weeks before Easter and Sister Mary So-and-So announced that our class was going to do a Passion play. Good old St. Jean-Baptiste, a French-Canadian school managed by the Archdiocese of Boston but run by the Sisters of Ste. Anne from Lachine, Quebec. The morning classes were conducted in French, the afternoon in English. The nuns taught, we listened. Consequently, we graduated understanding a little French but unable to speak the language. Go figure. Anyhow, Sister Mary So-and-So allowed us to vote for who would have the lead part in the play.

"OK, class, who will be Jesus?"

Roger Legere pipes up, Robert Runyon!" Since Robert was the most popular kid in the class (after all, his father was a commercial pilot), we all agreed with the choice.

"Now, who will be Peter?"

"Robert Runyon!" Roger yells out again.

"Now, Roger, Robert is going to play Jesus. He can’t play Peter too. Francis Belliveau will be Peter. Next is Mary. Who wants to be Mary?"

"Robert Runyon!" Shouts out Roger.

Roger should have been an agent but instead he became a ‘Turd Chaser’ AKA plumber at the General Electric Company where, after years of faithful service, he developed Asbestosis and was forced to retire at forty something. Roger and I were always uneasy soul mates. He could be your best friend one minute and your worst nightmare the next. Both our fathers died at early ages but with Roger, a case could be made that his family was cursed. His mother was our cub scout den mother. She made huge, legendary chocolate chip cookies. When Roger was in high school or thereabouts, she developed a blood clot or an exploded aneurysm in the brain. She spent the remainder of her days in the Danvers State Asylum. In later years, his niece, an aspiring Broadway actress lost her life at the hands of terrorists on a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland. Fate indeed can be a cruel mistress.

Back to the Passion play. I was given the part of Caiphas, the High Priest. I only had one line: "Es tu le fils de Dieu?" (are you the son of God?). When Jesus answered yes, I was to rend my robe. They had a funny way of showing anger in those days. If someone blasphemed, the righteous would tear their clothes as a sign of fury at having been so insulted. Tailors must have thrived. Well, Ma made my robe, a magnificent costume that buttoned down the front. She sewed a bunch of loose stitches to make it easy to rend the robe.

It seems we practiced hours and hours for weeks and weeks.

Opening night arrived. There were over 300 parents, relatives, friends, and assorted clergy on folding chairs in the basement auditorium of the school. Monseigneur William E. Drapeau and his two curates, however, parked their ample butts on velvet lined, high back wooden chairs smack in the middle of the first row. Monseigneur Drapeau was a real character. He had huge jowls on each side of his face. He had a black and white bulldog named Blackie who also had huge jowls. When they walked down the street, it was difficult to tell who was Blackie and who was Monseigneur Drapeau.

Anyhow, as we approached the great moment, I kept going over the lines in my head with different accents.

"Es TU le fils de Dieu?"

"Es tu le FILS de Dieu?"

"Es tu le fils de DIEU?"

The moment arrived that would earn me at least the Tony for best supporting actor in a dramatic role. Shall we set the scene? I’m seated on a throne surrounded by four guards. Jesus is brought in by eight other guards. A hush of expectation descends over the audience. Suddenly, I can’t remember my line and blurt out in mumbles, "Est tu le blah, blah, blah?" without skipping a beat, Robert Runyon says in French "Yes, you have said it." At this point, I stand to rend the robe. The damned thing won’t rend. In exasperation, I pull at the stitches of the robe with Herculean strength. The robe tears from top to bottom and falls off my shoulder. I’m left standing there in my skivvies, in embarrassment . Exit Carmody from stage left to peals of laughter. The worst moment in my life to that point is now but a blurred image.

The rest of the week passed as slowly as it always did when you’re a student and a holiday is coming up. I probably spent the week reading and making occasional forays into the neighborhood.

Our gang, The Gang, comprised Donny ‘Pis’ Poore who disappeared later into obscurity, Bobby Green whose favorite pastime consisted of turning verbs into nouns. My particular favorite was ‘abhor’. He went around for the longest time calling everyone an ‘ab whore’. Bernard ‘Poochie’ Pelletier, the youngest of the group, later, with his motorcycle, became one with a telephone pole at the corner of Chestnut and Boston the day before my brother Dave became one with Rhonda. Roddy Deland who was talented enough to be in the NHL eventually took over his dad’s thriving service station where he remains today. Lastly, there was Carl ‘The Twink’ Swanson. His mother literally yodeled when she wanted Carl to come home. You could hear her clear across the pond. Carl suffered the toughest puberty of any of us with acne that left him disfigured.

We played – well – they played baseball in the streets, football in the Shoemaker Post parking lot, and swam in Sluice Pond across the street at Pis Poore’s aunts’ house that was right on the water. I wouldn’t learn to swim until I was fourteen the following summer.

Ma sent me to Camp Pow-Wow in Amesbury for one week with other members of Troop 26 from St. Jeans. The only things gained from the experience were constipation and learning to swim. The first day, everyone in my patrol got their ‘yellow’ designation meaning they could swim in water over their heads. Day five dawned with me still designated ‘green’ or a tadpole with several others tadpoles who were only allowed in waist high water. Ray Donahue, a classmate, took enough interest in my plight to take me out in a row boat. He threatened to throw me out of the boat if I didn’t voluntarily jump into the water and sink or swim. Ray was smaller than I but spoke with authority. Knowing that he meant it, I gathered enough strength to stand up and put one foot on the top of the side of the boat. Ray rocked the boat and I unceremoniously fell in. From that point, the water and Ray became my close friends.

Now, don’t get the mistaken notion that I was athletically inclined. That wouldn’t occur until I was 37. I usually watched rather than join in any reindeer games. Baseball was a mystery and as far as football was concerned, I didn’t understand the concept of ‘line of scrimmage’ until later in adult life. Ray Donahue once convinced me to try out for the basketball team. I told Ray I didn’t know beans about basketball but he said I’d learn easy enough. My mother scrimped somehow and got me a pair of sneakers and gym shorts. Well, like the swimming episode, Ray pushed me onto the court, the domain of one Coach Larry Fagan. He threw me the ball. I took two or three steps and tried to bounce the ball.

"You double dribbled, you idiot." Said the coach. He threw me the ball again. The same sequence was repeated a second and then a third time. He delighted in taunting a novice. I used to have two ways of handling situations like this, to wit, mouth off a round of obscenities, or, with tears streaming down my face, take flight. I chose the latter on this occasion. The NCAA and the NBA will never know the missed opportunity that ran crying from the court that afternoon.

So much for tangents, now let’s get back to the main story here.

It was the night before Easter. Besides her job as a stenographer at the Lynn Police Station, Ma worked part time as a police matron. That usually meant chaperoning high school dances or public events where things might get raucous. St. Patrick’s Day events come to mind as an example. But, for the past couple weeks, she had drawn an unusual detail. Joe Barbosa Baron was reputably a small time Mafioso hood and big time assassin. He was about to sing a tune that would eventually years later add to the downfall of Nahant’s Angiulo family. Joe lived by the gun and later died thusly. Anyway, Joe had a wife and kid who needed protection. Ma was to be the female matron who served as a ‘true witness’ of sorts to make sure there was no hanky-panky (her term) with the all male law enforcement agents. We didn’t know about it until one night a limo pulled up to our bungalow on Bacheller Street and four plain-clothes detectives got out. Two were carrying twelve gauge shotguns. One maintained position at the limo, the other stood at our door while one of the two remaining rang the doorbell. We four kids stared out the living room window in awe. I remember hoping and wishing that any of our friends would walk by, but no luck. Like a ‘C’ scene from a ‘B’ movie, Ma rode off with a flourish.

Ma left us $2. to get whatever at the mom & pop store down the street. The store was called Pinky’s. Two bucks went a long way: Coke, candy, chips, etc. We used to call it a party when Ma worked nights.

Later after the kids were in bed, I realized that Easter was tomorrow morning and I hadn’t got Ma any kind of gift. Never mind that I was only thirteen and lacking in funds except the mammouth deficits I ran with a small paper route. At about 9:30 that evening, an idea was made manifest. I would make her a corsage like those I saw high school girls wear at proms and other occasions. I found some wire and green construction paper to make the stem but the flower part was a problem. After a trip to the bathroom, I settled on bunched up toilet paper and sprinkled green food coloring on the, dare I say, flower petals. I then found an old shoebox in the cellar and cut a square hole on the cover and glued cellophane paper on it so you could see inside. I rested the flower on wax paper that had lined the shoebox and put the whole package in the refrigerator like I had seen done on TV. Surely this was the greatest gift ever bestowed upon a mother. I went to bed a happy camper.

The next morning I got up early and ran to the fridge to see if she had discovered it when she came home. Evidently not. She must have come home late and gone to bed. This morning, we would attend the nine o’clock mass at St. Jeans and hear the men’s choir sing. As soon as Ma was dressed, I presented the corsage. I can still remember the look on her face. It said how nice but is he crazy enough to think I could possibly wear that to church. Added to that, the food coloring was dripping in the box. She was pretty quick on her feet though and said the corsage would look better in a vase where everyone who visited would notice. I bought it like the immigrant who bought the Brooklyn Bridge.

Before we went to mass, Ma always started the roast lamb in the oven and prepared the veggies so all she had to do when she got us all home was to turn everything on.

When we got home, it usually took about another 45 minutes for the food to be ready. She would pour herself a glass of Narragansett Porter, sit at the small Spinet piano we had in the living room, sit us down around the piano and play classical music until dinner was ready. Today, however, gracing the top of the piano on her finest doily sat a leaded vase with my corsage for all to see.