“Oh, Babe, What Would You Say?” A Holiday Mosaic
St. Patrick’s Day, 1986, Liberty Hall (Merrimack Repertory Theatre) in Lowell Memorial Auditorium. Benefit reading for a new organization pledged to raise the profile of Jack Kerouac in his hometown. Headliners are poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, but a few locals are on the bill, including student writer Tara Taupier, French Canadian bard Gerry Brunelle and me. When it’s my turn, I read my short poem, “A Hundred Nights of Winter,” describing a loaded street scene of life-size creche figures that grace City Hall Plaza being hauled away in an orange dump truck of the public works department. In the packed house of 300-plus people, Lowell artist Vassilios “Bill” Giavis sits in the balcony, center stage. The image hits him like a dart in the forehead. The next day he starts a painting depicting the poem and then asks me to write the lines on the right side of a sheet of paper. People still talk about the painting, which became popular in prints that he sold at the Brush gallery downtown.
A Hundred Nights of Winter
It’s been so cold and bad
that it took until last week
to dismantle the public manger.
From my office window, through flurries,
I saw an orange dump truck
pull away in traffic
with Joseph, Mary, shepherds, and angels
standing crowded in the back
like a bunch of refugees.
After a hundred nights of winter,
I’m ready to get out.
That manger set removal happened in 1982, a brutal winter that prevented city workers from dismantling it until early March. We were all ready to get out — the situation of course not as dramatic as the current extended lockdown ordered to protect our health. Imagine if the virus had hit us last November and spread everywhere while the weather was freezing and we were stuck indoors.
The thing is, that tough winter is not typical of my recollections of winter holidays in the Merrimack Valley. Born in Lowell, I grew up close by in Dracut (the only place in the U.S. with that name, which comes from the hamlet of Draycot Foliat in England, dating from 1086 or earlier). When I was a kid, Lowell was downtown Dracut, which had no shopping hub to speak of except the affordable Beaver Brook Mills department store in the Collinsville section of town. My family is a Lowell creation anyway, with roots on both sides going back to 1880, when ancestors quit Quebec. Plus, my mother, Doris, always sold fashionable women’s clothes in Cherry & Webb at the corner of Merrimack and John streets.
My family had seasonal rituals at year’s end when I was young, one of which was a visit to the manger I would write about many years later. Those figures were probably the same plaster Joseph and Mary that I took in as a youngster in the ’50s and early ’60s. Back then, Lowell, like other old factory cities (Haverhill, Lawrence), was the commercial magnet for surrounding town residents. Up until the early 1980s, Lowell had Cherry’s, Bon Marché and Pollard’s department stores, clothes shops like McQuade’s, Lemkin’s, and Martin’s, Prince’s Bookstore, Lull & Hartford sporting goods, Birke’s for basics direct from the garment district in New York, Record Lane and the now still-in-business Garnick’s for music and TVs, 5 & 10-cent stores with everything from sewing materials to green parakeets, and many restaurants.
For me, the priorities were toys and sports equipment. The top floor of Bon Marché (later Jordan’s with the prized blueberry muffin recipe) transformed into Toyland in mid-November, not as big as the whole floor-sized Enchanted Village at Jordan Marsh in Boston, but more than adequate for the needs of kids from Billerica, Chelmsford, Tewksbury and other border towns. Santa was up there, too, taking notes. Bon Marché stocked the toys local kids learned about from TV ads, the Sears catalog, and Christmastime broadcasts of the Uncle Gus kids show on slightly snowy Channel 9, WMUR, out of Manchester, N.H. If I was lucky, my parents would take me through the toy display at Bon Marché a couple of times between Thanksgiving and Dec. 25. When my mother got word of my wish list, she might put a gift on “lay-away” with a deposit, and pay it off over a few weeks. I pronounced the store name “Bomma-shay,” clueless that the French term means “inexpensive” or simply, “cheap.” My mother would have said, “a good buy.”
In college in the early ’70s, with my mother’s help, I got a part-time job running the manual elevator in Cherry’s. (There was a Mr. Cherry, but I never met a Mr. Webb.) All the stores downtown had Monday and Thursday night hours. The action picked up big-time for the holidays. This is before the mall era, before Burlington and Methuen shopping meccas drained much of the retail life out of Lowell — a pattern that would spread to similar cities. I remember the excitement in the heart of what we’d now call a “festival marketplace,” all the shops and stores with windows decorated, lights and garland, even small Christmas trees displayed.
Nineteen-seventy-two was a blessed year if you were 18 years old like me. Not only did the Vietnam War draft get suspended just when I had a low number in the Selective Service Lottery, but also the legal drinking age dropped to 18 and we got the right to vote, the first 18-year-olds so favored. This of course pumped up downtown life as young people flooded into A.G. Pollard’s brick-and-fern saloon on Middle Street: tall beers, giant crocks of cheddar cheese plus crackers, and all the peanuts you could eat, tossing the shells on the floor, so radical. The Old Worthen a few streets away drew crowds also with small beers at 25 cents and no free nuts but a distinctive vibe propelled by the belt-run ceiling fans from the old days.
One of our family rituals when I was small involved driving around Greater Lowell to see the houses lit up like birthday cakes — bright colors, gold stars, electric candles. Not every year, but several times, my father, Marcel, drove my mother, two brothers, and me to Boston on a late, darkening Saturday afternoon so we could marvel at the Boston Common lighting display. People came from all around to walk amid the shining trees. If there was snow on the ground, all the better. Side visits to the S.S. Pierce specialty goods store filled with wines, jams, and canned delicacies, and Shreve, Crump & Low jewelers (window-looking only) completed the big-city tour. We’d get ice cream at Brigham’s no matter how cold the weather. This was a large deal. I knew classmates at Dracut High who had never been to Boston.
My 10-years-older brother, Richard, made things from the time he was a kid. Growing up in St. Louis parish in Lowell before we moved to Dracut, he’d walk home from school and rescue “good” items on trash day to create installations at home. He was an art guy who took the train to MassArt in Boston and got a teaching degree. He married around the time that Lowell was rediscovering its history, and he and Florence were fixtures at all the Victorian Christmas events that were trending in the ’70s in the lead-up to Lowell being crowned a national park. It was the age of Dickens in the city, top hats and long dresses. When he was younger, he collected mountain laurel and sprigs of red berries in Colburn’s Woods near our Dracut home to make wreaths that he sold to family friends. He showed me how to make Mexican god’s eye tree ornaments (ojo de dios) with colored yarn and crossed sticks we picked up in the yard.
People would be backed up 10 deep to get into my elevator car. Going up. Going down. My freshly dry-cleaned light gold uniform suit jacket and required necktie. In my pocket an official elevator operator’s license (we got tested once a year). Coats, dresses, juniors, undergarments upstairs; bargains in the basement. The main floor featured hats, shoes, gloves, jewelry, and the magnificent cosmetics counter topped with many small mirrors and offering a plethora of powders, lipsticks, and lotions. The elevator crew from my time produced a future mayor of Lowell and a roadie for The Cars of Boston’s rock scene.
My first Christmas season in the store yielded a massive crush on a sparkling blond Girl Officers’ colonel from Lowell High School, Leslie, who worked in cosmetics. She was clearly out of my league, but she gave me a chance. I missed the moment after a concert date to see John Sebastian at Merrimack College in North Andover and a dazzling time at the store holiday party at the Speare House (Camelot-themed on Lowell’s riverbank), where we danced to “Oh, Babe, What Would You Say” — a throwback song by Hurricane Smith in the winter of 1972 sung in the style of a 1940s crooner. The DJ played it several times, excellent for a peppy slow dance, along with “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” (pick up the dance pace). Leslie wore a red-wine silk outfit with jacket and flared pants. She was gliding that night. Turns out I was not in the advanced math group for relationships. Leslie moved on to higher education in the Midwest. I had to look up the song and was amazed to learn that Norman “Hurricane” Smith had been a jazz performer before going into record-making. He engineered 100 Beatles songs up through the Rubber Soul album. John Lennon nicknamed him “Normal” Smith. Who knew?
Churches put on their best for the season, from Advent to the Nativity for Catholics. I was not worldly as a boy, so the Protestant church services and different holiday observances for Jewish families existed beyond my cultural horizon. Lowell had three synagogues and a related thick social tapestry. I regret what I missed, but didn’t know enough even into my late teens to appreciate the diversity of the community. When I got my driver’s license, it was great fun to go to Christmas midnight Mass with a pile of friends. Even a few Methodists would squeeze into the back seat because we had well-dressed young women in there for the group date. We lived a parish-bound life in many respects, attending Catholic elementary school and the home church in Dracut, Ste. Thérèse, a French-Canadian spillover from St. Louis de France parish in the contiguous Centralville neighborhood of Lowell. Hundreds of returned WWII veterans used their GI Bill mortgage benefit to buy starter homes over the line in Dracut in the early ’50s. I chose public high school in Dracut, but even there the group was homogeneous, the Harris family being the only African Americans in the school. Not much beyond Christian believers visible.
The Marion family realized the good fortune of having a turkey at Thanksgiving, a ham with canned pineapple for Christmas, and a roast for New Year’s. On the inside of one cabinet door above our kitchen counter my father always tacked up a calendar for the year — and behind the calendar he had Scotch-taped a newspaper clipping of a ragged-looking boy about 5 years old looking out a tenement window. Dad said he never wanted to forget the suffering in the world, the misery that is often out of our sight. In the holiday season, he donated money to help needy families and contributed to the Jimmy Fund, the Red Sox-backed charity for children and adults with cancer. He had studied to be a priest but left before the serious seminary training. The bishop should sell all the gold items in the church and use the money to help poor children, he said.
When I think about past holidays, the family gatherings, the celebrations, the comings together on sidewalks downtown, the gifts given and received, the Christmas music (no other holiday matches this song catalog), the feeling I get is one of community, being with familiar people or strangers in an open exchange. Joyeux Noel, Happy Hanukkah, Merry New Year’s, the greetings, the upbeat expressions, the sense of sharing that takes hold. We’re in a time of caution and distances, and will be for a while. The cherished rituals will likely change, but not enough to be unrecognizable. It will be important to draw on our warm memories of less anxious days. No person, no power, can suppress the good will we want to express.