COPP’S HILL MOMENT: A Christmas Story

Make Way for Duckings at Christmas (Photo by Mary McGee)

It’s that time of the year again when Earth tilts away from the life-giving sun and creatures big and small seek sanctuary in the warmth of a burrow or hearth. Thoughts bend backwards to the past — sometimes all the way to childhood — as creeping darkness slips over late afternoons, shrouding us in remembrance of past Christmases, both sweet and melancholic.

In the silence of growing shadows and greying light, I linger as long as possible before rising from the chair to flick a lamp switch. A stack of blank holiday cards awaits me at the kitchen table along with a hodgepodge of leftover postal stamps salvaged from past holidays. There are singles and batches of various Virgins and Childs, stars of Bethlehem, holly sprigs, mistletoe, Hanukkah menorahs, and even a few Elvises thrown in for good measure. Somewhere under the pile is a mailing list with the crossed-out addresses of dear friends and loved ones who have passed away or have simply moved to parts unknown over the years. I sigh and light a blue flame under the tea kettle on the stove top.

One holiday card in particular peeks out from under the mound of papers on the table. It is a winter scene of an iconic sculpture in Boston’s Public Garden where the bronze figures of a mother mallard and her eight offspring in tow have been memorialized from Robert McCloskey’s beloved children’s story Make Way for Ducklings. One literally stumbles upon this artistic installation in a corner of the park where children tug on their parents’ sleeves with shrieks of glee. At Yuletide each metallic figure sports a bright red bow — sometimes a Santa hat and knitted scarf — around its neck to celebrate this festive season. The mere sight of the Christmas card on the table triggers a memory of a certain neighbor and conversation.

Mary Lou is no longer with us. She lived in a steep and narrow clapboard house that leaned against a row of former redbrick tenements. She cherished her independence and loved teaching senior high students in her English literature classes at a South Shore school district. A troubling neurological disorder and series of falls forced her into retirement and, ultimately, an assisted living community. She had moved to Copp’s Hill from the suburbs in her middle years and devoted herself to the preservation of the North End which she loved dearly. The apartments for the elderly in the former Michelangelo School on Charter Street would not have been built without Mary Lou’s advocacy. And, the 55-foot height limit on North End buildings which preserves our neighborhood’s distinctive human scale was made possible due to her efforts and a small band of dedicated residents.

In one of my many conversations with Mary Lou, she told me about a friend from down the Cape who had been diagnosed with cancer. Calling upon the expertise of the best that Boston has to offer, the woman sought treatment at a major downtown medical center. She had been initially distraught upon being informed of the diagnosis and underwent a series of daylong chemotherapy treatments which brought her into the city on a weekly basis. She often had to travel into town alone. Fighting back tears of discouragement, she carried on without complaint throughout all her appointments. But, hospital waiting rooms were not for her. Given the long intervals between tests, treatments and consultations, she slowly ventured out into the city around her to observe the sights and sounds of the urban landscape, including the Public Garden. And, that’s where and how she discovered Mrs. Mallard and her feathered babies.

Mary Lou said that her friend kept returning to the sculpture to be distracted by the excitement of children in the company of parents and nannies. Sometimes despondently, sometimes hopefully — depending upon a doctor’s tone of voice and duration of a chemo session that day — she would sit on a nearby bench and take in the scene. As the weather grew colder and snowflakes began to fall, an idea came to her. One morning before her journey into town at the approach of the holiday, she stuffed scissors and a large roll of bright red ribbon in her handbag. In the late afternoon, she walked into the public garden when the children had already come and gone. Unobtrusively and lovingly, she bedecked each bronze figure with a neck bow and returned home for the evening.

The next time she stopped by the site, the bows were still in place, but now there were tourists posing for pictures along with the children at play. Eventually, Mary Lou’s friend completed her treatment and received news one morning that she was finally symptom free. She was relieved. She was grateful. And, she vowed that as a sign of her appreciation, she would continue to tie bows on the ducklings every Christmas season for the rest of her life. And, when the calendar page turned to December in the following year, she excitedly drove into town with her scissors and ribbon. However, after parking and a stroll to the Public Garden, she discovered with delight that someone had already tended lovingly to the ducklings. All of this took place back in the late 1980s. That was a long time ago. Now it is an established tradition cherished by Bostonians and visitors alike from around the world during this special time.

That’s Mary Lou’s story. She was not one to embellish or exaggerate. Not exactly a miracle like the one in Bethlehem. But, still, an act of hope that morphed into a lasting sign of gratitude to be imitated for generations to come. Figuratively speaking, the ripples from a stone, tossed several decades ago into a duck pond, are still washing ashore.

Make way for ducklings, make way for hope, make way for Christmas.

And … Peace as you journey through this season.


From Boston’s North End, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living.

7 Replies to “COPP’S HILL MOMENT: A Christmas Story

  1. Simply beautiful. Mary Lou was a special woman. I was lucky enough to be on the board with her of the North End Union before it closed. We would discuss the many facets of the teaching profession. Last time I saw her she was struggling to walk. I knew it was from some neurological disorder , having lost my mom to a very rare one. We smiled at each other and I knew she would not be living on Snow Hill very long. I still miss her.
    She certainly deserves your wonderful tribute. Thanks for posting… Merry Christmas.

  2. Indeed, Mary Lou was a staunch supporter of 55-foot height limit for North End buildings. Our dedicated group was spearheaded by North End native Peter Petrigno.

  3. Although I didn’t know Mary Lou i would like to say what a beautiful story may she rest in peace. When i see the ducklings i shall think of her Corinne Testa

  4. Our Hope at Christmas knows no limits of time or space. May we each leave a memory like Mary Lou and her friend.

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