My great-grandmother’s garden lay on a narrow street in an immigrant neighborhood of north Boston. Large triple-decker houses filled the tightly packed lots, leaving only a thimble of earth for roses, petunias, and her fecund Rose of Sharon. From her wheelchair, Nana Durgin, my great-grandmother, ruled 21 Otis Street. With three sons in their 70s and a husband long buried, she still called the shots in everyone’s day. Behind her back, she was called the Queenie, but to her face she was obeyed.

Her temperament had been formed in the generation of  “lace-curtain Irish,” when watching the neighbors’ business on the porches and street corners was a spectator sport. She grew up in an era of limited opportunity, when reputation and kin connections led to working-class jobs as housemaids, mechanics, and bank clerks. Propriety and authority ruled that world, and she passed on that mental landscape to her family. We all internalized that voice, and by my college years I had made it mine.

When I was a child, my family made the trek north from Philly to Boston about twice a year, somehow cramming eight kids and my parents into our gray Buick station wagon.  Summer visits were my favorite, when we stopped to see Grampy and Nana on the way to our Maine vacation. After the squirmy, eight-hour drive over the Pocono Mountains near Stroudsburg, across the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York, and along the Massachusetts Turnpike, we would finally turn into the narrow side-street of their home.  First I would spot the hedge of red roses shielding the breezeway from the sidewalk. Our grandfather would step off the porch, stooping to protect his bald head from scraping on the doorway.

The rest of our arrival day was a frenzy of hugs from Grampy, kisses from Nana Durgin’s paper-thin lips, and joyful poking into all the nooks and crannies of that brown clapboard house. So many items came from a different time and held family stories, from the tall kitchen hutch with bins for flour to the coal chute in the basement and the black rotary phone in a special table in the doorway. After a barbecue in the backyard, lots of boring adult chatter, and a stroll through the neighborhood visiting other porches, we would settle upstairs, two or three to a bed, for the night. The ride in the Buick had transported us from our boring ranch-home suburbs to this exotic, theme-park neighborhood jammed with history and hustle.

The morning after we pulled in, I would often wake early and wander into the dining room, gazing at the unfamiliar china and the ornate statue of the Infant of Prague. Under a glass bell jar, a fine porcelain statue represented Mary, Queen of the Universe, standing tall, the world under her feet with snakes vanquished by her weight, a lovely blue mantle clothing her body, and a crown of stars capping her veiled head. On her right shoulder, she carried the infant Jesus, lightly and effortlessly. I would gaze at this statue, not sure what to make of the iconic figure, here in the house rather than in an alcove at church.  Even though Nana Durgin could no longer stand, she still carried herself with the same pride of holding up her world of family and household.

As I turned behind me I could look into the kitchen to see my great-grandmother at her morning ritual. Each day, she started off with combing her thin gray hair 100 times—to keep the shine, she  always said. Then she would pile the waist-length braids in a neat bun.

As soon as I breathed hard or trod on a noisy floorboard, she would turn around, eyes bright as a robin, and say “Here, come here, I need you to get me some potatoes from the pantry.” Up since dawn, she had already made scones, neatly cut in doughy circles with a drinking glass. All her life, she cooked breakfast for “the men,” who went off to work at the family coal heating business. So we’d eat a hearty breakfast: bacon, eggs and ketchup, with pepper as our only spice.

From where I stood, Nana seemed to take a special pleasure in ordering me to do chores–especially dishes, my least favorite task. Calling my sister and me into the narrow kitchen, she would handily wheel her chair over to the deep white farmer’s sink, filling it with sudsy water. Women in my family did not get manicures; dishes were washed in hot water with no gloves.

Somehow I would maneuver the tips of my fingers into the suds, pulling a cup or fork out of the scalding water and gingerly placing it in the dish drain. Usually my sister Karen was pressed into service as the designated dryer. Her job was to carefully buff each piece of china so it was bone-dry and sparkling.

Of course, Nana Durgin supervised us closely, making sure dishwashing in the family was held to her exacting standards. Many years later, when my mother finally got a Kenmore installed next to her sink, she would frequently say, “Thank God for dishwashers.” Thinking about how many meals it took to raise a family of ten, it was likely she washed and dried a stack of dishes higher than a cathedral.

I also learned years later that it wasn’t just me: each of us eight kids was given the special once-over by Nana. For the oldest boy, Danny, his “Yoo-hoo, come here” came with precise instructions on how to water the prized petunias in her kitchen window-boxes. The flow of the water, the direction of spray, the technique for curling the hose—all were fodder for her commands on the way things should be done. In later years, that same brother began a tradition of arriving early on Mother’s Day to give our mother a flat of petunias, just like the ones on Otis Street.

One might wonder, when we eight Helferty kids visited, how Nana Durgin kept control of such a large brood. But she had raised three sons, in addition to several nieces and nephews. Twenty years later, when I spent college summers at her house, the bossing continued apace. Instead of shining drinking glasses, her chore list grew with my stature. I’ll never forget the day she commanded that I hang the towels on the clothesline virtually the moment I walked in the door.  Sulky as only a smart-ass sophomore can be, I pulled out the line and threw the towels over it, tossing them haphazardly in halves. I had almost finished the whole basket when I heard the familiar rapping of knuckles on the kitchen window.

“Yoo-hoo, come here, come here,” Nana shouted. Groaning, I went over to the kitchen steps, looking up at her wizened face through the screen, her lips tight and thin when work was to be done. Her eyes beamed at me and her sharp chin pointed at the line as she stated that I needed to use clothespins and rehang all the towels or they would not dry.

Despite my having survived the rigors of freshman physics and chemistry at MIT, there would be no persuading her that it was a hot sunny Back Bay afternoon, or that thermodynamics ensured enough evaporation to dry the towels. Instead I shut my mouth, stomped on out to the back yard and put a handful of clothespins in my mouth. I rehung all the towels. There are some immovable forces in life, and it seems mountains and Irish matriarchs had about the same weight.

Most of the time, her call of “Come here, come here” meant a chore needed to be done. But sometimes she would gaze at me with her proud hawklike eyes. Reaching past her low-slung breasts deep into a cavernous apron pocket, she would pull out a bright quarter. Nana Durgin would lay it flat on the kitchen table, pushing it towards me with her arthritic swollen knuckles, saying “Take it, take it,” as she rapped the table. Then she would shoo me away, cooing “Go now, go now.”

I don’t remember what I did with those special quarters—maybe bought ice cream from the Mr. Softee Truck or tucked them in a change purse for buying a second-hand book. But in my blue-collar, big-family childhood, there were few extravagances like a secret gift, not for a holiday and all my own. It made 25 cents into a king’s ransom.

Now, thirty years later,  I sit enjoying the cool evening breeze and smelling my petunias, on the porch of a Philly house built for and by immigrant workers. The flower-scent reminds me that secret moment with my great-grandmother — nearly as precious as all the others.

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