I was ensconced in utero on the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and not long after my birth in June 1942, my father went off to war. John Michael Lennon is my full name, but from birth I was called Michael to avoid confusion with my father, John Charles. I am the eldest of four children (my brother Peter, is approximately five years younger, and my twin sisters, Kathleen and Maureen, six), and the oldest of 34 first cousins. For my first five years, I lived with my mother, the former Mary Mitchell and her parents at 44 Bark Street in Fall River, Massachusetts, until my father’s return in April 1946 (the same month Mailer returned from Japan).
“Your father’s coming home,” my mother announced to me one day, and late in the afternoon, he walked through the French doors into my grandparents’ parlor at wearing his first lieutenant’s army uniform. He was tall, thin, and had dark hair. Black Irish, it was said. His face stubble scratched when he picked me up. He gave me a dozen packages of Wrigley’s chewing gum, and I immediately swallowed several sticks and got sick.
While he was away in Europe, I was the little king, the hub of the familial wheel for my several aunts and grandparents. At family gatherings, right up to the present, the same story of my spoiled early life is wheeled out by one or another sibling or cousin. Over the mantel in my Grandmother Lennon’s home (she was a widow, I was told) hung Charles Chambers’ painting of the Christ child, “The Light of the World,” which during the first half of the 20th century was the most popular religious print in the U.S., especially among Catholics. When I was around three, as my mother told it, “Jesus came down and Michael went up.” My photograph hung there for decades. Taken by a photographer uncle, the color photo shows a freckled, pug-nosed me holding a toy gun, and one strap of my overalls down. I still have the holster that my grandfather made for my pistol, one that he fashioned out of a piece of soft grey leather, held together with now-rusty brads. I knew I could make him make it for me.
John A. “Jack” Mitchell was a dour man, but gentle and loving with me. At age 65, just before I was born, he was diagnosed with colon cancer, and had a sigmoid colostomy, one of the first in the country. He wore a colostomy bag that my grandmother emptied and cleaned every day. When I sat on his lap, I could feel the bump it made under his blue wool cardigan sweater. Gram told me not to touch it.
Except for my large head, the rest of me could have been constructed of Popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue. I was puny, but game, and walked unattended from my grandparent’s home to visit Lafayette Park, about a quarter of a mile away on the main drag, Eastern Avenue. This wide thoroughfare, which fronted the Park and two parochial schools, or academies, as the French-Canadian people who lived nearby called them, was my turf. I knew many of the French people along the way—Nadeau, Boissoneau, and Pelletier, and also had a special relationship with two merchants. I was also friendly in a formal sort of way with the equestrian statue at the entrance to the eponymous park and, across the avenue at the intersection of County Street, with an object that dominated my imaginative life as fully as Stonehenge did that of the Druids: Rolling Rock, a 140-ton egg-shaped boulder deposited on a natural pedestal some 10,000 years ago by a glacier. Before it was stabilized, the rock could actually be moved slightly by hand, or so it was said. Neighborhood children were told that the Indians, the Wampanogs, used to place the hands of traitors beneath the edge of the rock, and then roll it slowly over their digits until they were flat as a sheet of paper … red paper. When Gram would send me Dagnall’s grocery store across from the rock, I would salute the General, conjure scalawags screaming beneath the rock, and then, my pockets bulging with rusty screws and other bits of gutter junk, return home to help Grandpa.
My grandfather was the head pipefitter at one of the cotton mills in Fall River, then known as “The Spindle City.” The numerous many-windowed (built before electricity) textile mills, four to eight stories high, and hundreds of feet long, were constructed from granite cut from local quarries. The mills employed the greater part of the city’s workers for over a century, and all of my family, the Lennons and the Grants on my father’s side, and the Mitchells and the Lynns on my mother’s, worked in the mills. The cotton mills were complicated steam-punk operations that required an army of loom fixers, bobbin boys and pipe fitters to keep the machinery running. The noise from the looms was almost unbearable and hand signals were necessary to communicate. Women also worked in the industry, including my grandmother Mitchell, or Lizzy Lynn, as she was known when she worked in the mills after completing eighth grade. Shortly after she began, she lost the index finger of her right hand in the interstices of a loom in the enormous Weave Room of the Sagamore Mill. She received $12 compensation and one day off. She continued thereafter in the mills, until the age of 28 when she married Jack Mitchell. He was 38, an Irish bachelor. She told the story of her digital loss many times to me, and it got mixed up in my head with the crushed fingers of the Indians. Later, I recall, my siblings, and then our children, would rub the stump, a family ritual. Gram wasn’t even slightly nostalgic for her severed finger —it was gone and that was that.
Grandpa Mitchell housed his pipefitting tools in a garage workshop behind the house. He had dozens of hammers and mauls, and every variety of wrench, some three feet long, some with wooden handles. He named them all for me, but I only remember my favorite, the eagle beak wrench. There were chain falls, stump pullers, pipe threaders, and bins brimming with bolts, flanges, fittings and elbow joints. Pipes everywhere. It was Ali Baba’s cave for me—dark, mysterious and treasure-laden. He carried his tools back and forth to the mill in the trunk of his Buick sedan, and also plied them in that dimly lit garage on a blackened workbench anchored by two massive vices and covered with a row of files (I remember, of course, the rat tail file), and pots of grease. His pipefitting prowess insured that his home was one of the first in the neighborhood to have a second bathroom, a tiny cubicle off the kitchen at the top of the cellar stairs. To flush, you pulled a chain to release water from the gravity tank above. The unmuted gurgling rush resonates still.
Helping Grandpa with his garden chores was my great pleasure. He had a large Victory garden, as did everyone in the war years. We brought in produce from the garden—beans, squash, tomatoes, and reddish-green stalks of rhubarb, which I particularly liked. Gram would give me a stalk after adding sugar to the groove to cut the tartness. My grandparents also kept chickens and turkeys, and let me toss feed into their cages. I was fascinated by the way the turkeys rotated their heads and undulated their necks, and the red flaps of flesh beneath their neck. The yard, with a garden, garage, barn, and the two-story coop for the fowl, seemed vast, and full of marvels, and engaged me entirely as I made my daily rounds (driving by the old house now, I see the lot is no more than 100 feet wide and perhaps 200 deep). There were apple trees too, maybe a pear, and the stump of a massive cherry that went down in the great hurricane of 1938.
The chickens had their cage on the first floor of the coop; the turkeys, about a half dozen of them, were on the second. Every day Grandpa and I fed the birds. I carried an empty water bucket, and he had a larger one filled with feed. I threw the mixture of corn kernels and other seeds into the cages while he filled the bucket from a faucet he’d installed in the coop. The turkeys had names; the male was Tom, but I’ve forgotten the names of the females. They gobbled and flapped with ravenous excitement when they heard our feet on the stairs. The turkeys, I thought, were infinitely more interesting than the quotidian chickens, whose eggs Gram collected in the mornings. I asked Grandpa many questions about the turkeys, and he told me what a wattle was. He didn’t say much else about them, or much at all for that matter. He liked to linger in the coop, and watch the turkeys scarf and strut. I realize now that he knew his days were numbered, and was therefore, at times, morose.
After the war, my father and my three uncles—my mother’s brothers—would talk and drink beer and Caribous (half whiskey, half Flame Tokay) while they played darts or watched the Friday night fights. I lurked and listened and recall them talking about the turkeys. As the story went, one spring Grandpa bought a rafter of birds, several poults and a tom, with the idea of fattening them for holiday meals. Grandma always cooked a turkey dinner on holidays, eaten around the big kitchen table under the Tiffany lamp. When it came time to slaughter a bird for Thanksgiving, Grandpa decided to wait. He’d do it just before Christmas, he said. But Christmas came and went, and the turkeys lived. They were a constant presence in my life for a couple of years, and I was quite fond of them. My uncles laughed telling the story, and Uncle Joe, the youngest of the five siblings said, “All those birds died of old age.”
After my father’s return from the war, he and my mother rented an apartment on Eastern Avenue, just around the corner from my grandparent’s home on Bark Street. My parents pointed it out to me when I was older. But I have no memory of it and almost none of my father in those years. While he was away, I had established a happy routine on Bark Street, and when Dad returned, he didn’t fit into the picture. Also, he worked long days as a meter reader for the Fall River Electric Light Company. My mother and I spent most of the day at my grandparent’s house, and usually ate the evening meal there, supper, as we called it, before he came home. My uncles were also home from the war, and during the day my mother helped in the kitchen, while I explored the premises, and visited neighbors. But the larger reason, I believe, that I have no memory of our Eastern Avenue apartment is that 44 Bark Street—with its wrap-around piazza, its Stygian garage, the turkeys, the rhubarb, the cherry tree stump, the black bird (Martha, my grandmother’s crow), and the mysterious third-floor attic, reachable only by traversing the Dark Closet—held sway over my days and dreams.
One day Gram found a crow lying in the yard. A large bird with shiny, almost iridescent feathers, it had a broken wing. Gram took her into the house, named her Martha, fed her for several weeks while the wing mended, and then set her free. Martha flew off but soon returned. In the morning, Gram would step out on the piazza and call loudly, “Come Martha.” The bird swooped down and, sitting upon Gram’s shoulder, ate scraps from her hand. Sometimes Gram would sit on the glider on the piazza, and Martha would extract, one by one, her bobby pins. There is a photo of this, now lost. Martha made bird noises, and Gram spoke softly to her. She told me that Martha might peck me if I touched her, and I never did. Gram was very good with strays, and after Martha finally left she took in a big red dog, part German shepherd, that had been beaten. I can still see the welts. Rusty had always-erect ears and was a formidable watch dog, a heroic beast that could leap over the six-foot chain-link fence into the woods beyond the garden, chasing deer and fox. Rusty lived at 44 Bark Street for several years, outliving Grandpa by a year or two.
Grandpa died on his 75th birthday, August 15, 1951 (my mother, reputedly his favorite, had the same one and, although not notably superstitious, was somewhat agitated as her 75th loomed. It came and went). The next-to-last time I saw Grandpa, he was lying in the spare bedroom across from the Dark Closet. My mother told me not to go in. When I asked why, she said. “He’s turned his face to the wall.” I did not know until many years later that my mother got the phrase from a Scottish folk song, “Barbara Allen.” Nor did I know until recently that the song borrowed the phrase from the Book of Isiah in the Old Testament, where it referred to Hezekiah, a righteous Jewish King. The last time I saw Grandpa was at his wake, which in those days lasted three days. At one of the afternoon sessions, I asked Gram if I could touch him. She knew how close I was to him, saw that I was serious, and nodded yes. At a quiet moment I did, putting a finger on the side of his neck. It was very cold and I recoiled. Gram watched me. After the final day of waking him, Gram, her five children (all unmarried save my mother), my father and I returned to Bark Street. The Tiffany lamp was on and the family gathered at the table, smoking and drinking coffee. Having been told I was precocious (for reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels), and desiring to impress my uncles, I waited for a quiet moment, and in an assured voice, asked, “When are we going to read the will?” This brought laughter, and some nods of appreciation. I had stepped inside the adult world. But there was no will.
For months I cried at night thinking of how I loved and missed Grandpa, who was alone in his cold grave. I felt very sorry for myself. It was delicious. But I think I cried more when Rusty died. He was buried by my uncles in the Victory garden.