Thursday, February 01, 2007
I’m a child of mixed heritage. On one side I’m
descended from a long line of Yankee settlers.
On the other, I’m descended from Irish Catholic
immigrants who came to Boston in the late
Meet my maternal grandmother, Agnes McFarland.
In the family she’s known as Aggie. I believe the
picture is for her Confirmation.
She was born in 1898, eighth child and third daughter
out of the ten children that would survive infancy. She
grew up in a Irish Catholic family, her father a laborer
on the Boston Elevated Railway.
She had rheumatic fever as a child in a time when it
was a deadly disease and although she'd survived it left
Aggie with a weak heart. In 1924 she married Edward F.
White Sr. They had two children before a third died, then
Edward walked out in the middle of the Great Depression
leaving Aggie to raise the children on her own.
Aggie divorced him in 1935.
It was hard for her; in those times the label "divorced"
was somewhat shameful for an Irish Catholic woman.
Work was hard to come by for a woman with children
so she scrimped and saved. Some nights dinner was
bread soaked in milk. My Mom and uncle were sent to
a nearby dental school to have their teeth worked on by
students. When Mom came down with what was known
as St. Vitus’ Dance in those days, Aggie somehow came
up with the money for the doctors and to buy liver to
serve at dinner to get Mom’s iron content up. I suspect
Aggie’s parents must have helped her out here and there
financially. My Mom once claimed that the legendary
Boston Mayor James Michael Curley helped out with
some problem as well.
But Aggie was no cream puff, either. One story my
Mom told was of the time she and Uncle Ed skipped
school to hang out at the cottage out on Houghs’ Neck
with their cousins. The place was owned by Aggie’s
younger sister Peggy and her husband Leo McCue and
was quite a distance away from the Jamaica Plain
neighborhood of Boston Aggie and her children lived
Yet suddenly my grandmother was walking down the
beach towards them. She’d taken the trolley and two
different buses to get there. She stayed long enough
to let Mom and Ed get their things and then took
them home by the same route she’d used to get there.
Somehow she did it. She raised her children to adulthood
even though it meant sometimes ducking her rebellious
son's head in the sink when he used swears or nursing her
daughter through a case of scarlet fever. She survived
watching her son join the Navy at 18 to fight in WW2.
All this while living life as a divorced Catholic woman
whose husband had left her for another woman.
She never remarried.
I knew her as Nanny, my grandmother, and she lived
with us when I was a kid. My Dad and Uncle Ed had
bought a two family home after the war in Malden on
a GI loan and so Aggie saw all five of her grandchildren
everyday. But she spent most of the time with my sister
and I because my parents both worked fulltime.
I have memories of her.
She was a quiet woman, black haired with grey streaks
and usually wore those one piece housedresses. She’d eat
peas by rolling them down the blade of her knife into her
mouth and looking back I think she did it to amuse me
and tease my mom. She never yelled but I remember
her breaking up a knockdown fight between two Italian
ladies who lived in the houses to either side of ours and
doing it with a slightly louder than usual voice and a
disgusted tone at their behavior in front of children.
I remember her being upset when the goldfish got sucked
down the drain of the kitchen sink when she pulled the
sink plug by accident after cleaning the goldfish bowl. And
I recall how she kept me from looking out the window after
a worker fell off the roof when it was being reshingled.
(He survived by the way; he broke his back and narrowly
missed landing atop the picket fence that ran between our
house and our next door neighbor’s.)
As time went by her rheumatic heart got worse and she
needed an oxygen tank in her bedroom for when breathing
Aggie died at age 58 on February 12th, 1957.
She lived a tough life but she always carried herself like