(Thomas F. Schiavoni recalls a childhood story from the memorable Ciampa sisters –Lena, Evelyn and Josie – along the sidewalks and cobblestones of Snow Hill and Hull Streets.)
Lena spun her best stories at the kitchen table – center of Ciampa family life – while a pot of drip coffee percolated on a stovetop gas flame. Tugging on a cigarette, she mentally thumbed through distant memories of summertime adventures in a bygone North End. No one needed keys, deadbolts or even bells because it was safer back then. And, there was usually one or more elderly neighbors silently gazing from an open window, elbows propped on a pillow at the sill of an upper-floor tenement. Lena shook her head as she recalled the thing that happened to Mikey Moschella who once lived several doors away.
Eight-year-old Mikey was usually the earliest to show up on the downstairs stoop, sitting in expectation of a sunny day with the neighborhood kids – if only to tag along in silence at the fringe of their fun and games. He always looked a little scruffy and ragged, but no one made a big deal of it. Actually, the children were somewhat protective of him, especially if a newcomer made a sarcastic comment about his looks.
Within the protective embrace of Copp’s Hill, the gang played in the street without a care. There were very few cars, and the only thing to avoid were the tell-tale calling cards of a passing horse-drawn cart which were quickly scooped up by an elder to fertilize roof-top barrels of tomatoes. Old North Church marked the eastern boundary of their territory which stretched from Hull to the intersection of Snow Hill and then down the hill to Charter Street. Sometimes the caretaker behind the gray granite blocks of the ancient burying ground would allow them passage as long they did not stray from the brick paths and ‘minded their business’. But, the kids whined and pleaded daily with their parents to permit them to play on the walled-in overlook at Copp’s Hill Terrace. After all, there were swings there and a fine view of the boats and barges of the inner harbor and the trucks, trains and trolleys of Commercial Street. Eventually they wore down their parents and were allowed access.
To pass time, the kids toted jump rope, hopscotch chalk and rubber balls for tossing in a game of bounce-and-catch. Mikey was mesmerized by the ball and would make an occasional half-hearted effort to retrieve it. Sometimes in jest, more often out of kindness, the children – especially the girls – would find a way to entertain him by bouncing a ball back and forth over his head until it was ‘accidentally’ dropped thereby allowing him to snag it. The fun rolled on without interruption until the fresh coolness of morning air turned towards the heat of a warm afternoon, and a series of maternal shouts, reverberating down the block, called the boys and girls home for lunch.
After chomping down a sandwich – SANGwich, as Lena enunciated the word affectionately with emphasis – the kids grew as restless as flies in a bottle awaiting maternal clearance to rejoin their rag-tag comrades. And so, it went from mid-June into July and August until school bells welcomed them back to class in September. But, on a sky-blue day in August, a ball rolled too fast and too far towards the stairwell leading from the stone terrace at Copp’s Hill down to Commercial Street. Ever watchful and vigilant even in his silence, awaiting a chance to prove his loyalty, Mikey tore off after the bouncing ball as it dropped to the sidewalk below and out into traffic where the tabby met its fate.
The youthful screams were ear-piercing, the tears were copious as truck drivers shepherded the knot of distraught children back up the stairs and homeward to perplexed parents who sighed with relief when they learned that Mikey Moschella had furry ears, a long tail, and spit out an occasional hairball.
News of Mikey Moschella’s passing spilled down Copp’s Hill onto Salem and Prince Streets as children’s gossip around the dinner table finally caught the attention of immigrant parents struggling with English. Amidst the initial confusion, something was lost in the translation as word of the neighborhood tragedy spread door to door. Some families did not quite catch the part about Mikey’s feline origins. When the rectory of old St. Mary’s Church was flooded with a torrent of Mass card requests for a Michael Moschella, naturally the pastor was puzzled why he had not been among the first to learn of such a shocking fate that befell a congregant of another North End parish.
Of course, the Irish Jesuit might have been a little put out by the whole thing had he later realized that he had offered prayers for the soul of a deceased cat sorely missed by children of the tenements. Mercifully, he was none the wiser, and, only God knew – as well as a workman who witnessed the incident – where Mikey was finally laid to rest. Still, a gaggle of neighborhood kids made a wooden cross and a motley wreath of drooping, mismatched flowers (collectively filched from elder aunts’ and grandmothers’ vases) and then silently and solemnly marched around Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in a procession befitting the untimely demise of a cat.
Lena’s story was now winding to a close as she took a last puff before extinguishing her cigarette in a tuna-fish can used as a makeshift ashtray. Within several days, Edith and Nancy Moschella‘s parents saw the frowns dissolve on their daughters’ faces as the postman dropped yet another batch of bereavement cards through the door slot, further softening the children’s mourning for the loss of a pet – more wild than domesticated if you wanted the truth. Lena paused a moment and then concluded with a nod: Despite the lack of a corpse or gravesite, Mikey had received a grand and splendid send-off – Mass cards, funeral ceremony and all.
North End resident, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living.