Natalie McGee, mother of North End resident Mary McGee, recently passed away at the age of 94 in Long Branch, New Jersey. Her son-in-law affectionately recalls Natalie’s adventures as a sometime visitor to her daughter’s fourth-floor walk-up in a former tenement atop Copp’s Hill.
The girl from Jersey City has gone away, leaving behind a bouquet of memories as an honorary North Ender. It was 1974 when Natalie McGee first set foot in the Copp’s Hill neighborhood. If my mother-in-law was skeptical of the suitability of her daughter’s living quarters, she suppressed it with a smile as she caught her breath after ascending 44 steps from the outside sidewalk to the hallway entrance of a tiny top-floor flat on Snow Hill Street. What she discovered was a claustrophobic space crammed and piled to the ceiling with cheap tin cabinets, pegboard hooks for cooking utensils, and stacked wooden produce boxes — scavenged from Haymarket vendors’ trash — that served as makeshift bookcases filled with law school textbooks.
The apartment’s ambience left something to be desired, but as newlyweds Mary and I thought we were living in the lap of luxury because the $112.50 monthly rent included an indoor toilet and combination bathtub and shower. Our first sublet on Hull Street for $64, similar to flats in many other North End tenements of that era, had come with a windowless hallway toilet closet with a pull-chain hanging beneath a mounted wooden flush tank. There was no bathtub or shower, which explains why people still relied upon the North Bennet Street ‘bath house’ later converted into the community center now known as the Nazzaro Center.
This was the scene that first greeted Natalie’s wondering eyes. As a post-war bride transplanted to a coastal suburban tract down by the Jersey Shore, perhaps she saw a young couple who were too much in love to dwell upon their circumstances as penniless graduate students. Maybe she suppressed her awe because she recognized that it took more than furniture to confer dignity upon a marriage. Also, from her childhood days in Jersey City, she recognized how wonderful— even magical —it could be to live in an urban village where ladies in their housecoats sat out in beach chairs on warm summer evenings and when a 5-minute walk to the corner store for a carton of milk grew into an hour-long adventure as you ran a gauntlet of neighbors going and coming who shared the latest gossip.
As described in a touching tribute drafted by her daughter, Natalie McGee shined as an exceptional student, graduating two years early from high school. But, in her mother’s obituary, Mary recalls that “She had dreams of attending college and law school, but resources were scarce during the war years, and she had to store her aspirations away for the next generation.”
With unquestioning steadfastness, she raised five children, devoted herself to the care of a disabled mother, worked for 21 years as a federal employee at Fort Monmouth, and tended to her husband, Tom, during a lengthy debilitating illness in his later years. After his death, there were increasing opportunities to visit Boston as Natalie‘s granddaughter Christina grew up along the sidewalks and byways of a neighborhood in much the same way that she herself had come of age. The city girl at heart had a chance to experience vicariously once again the excitement and adventure through the eyes of her grandchild.
Weekend visits morphed into extended stays and sojourns when Natalie was a frequent holiday guest of the memorable Ciampa sisters—Lena, Evelyn and Josie—as well as Arthur and Pat Puopolo of Hull Street fame. It was during the Christmas season in the North End when Natalie had her first taste of eel in the Ciampa household and sampled baccala salad at the Puopolo table. And it was one Christmas Eve when Grandma achieved immortality in the McGee family’s humor Hall of Fame….
We had scored an invitation to the Puopolo house feast of the fishes, which was an amazing display of Arthur’s culinary virtuosity as well as the annual appearance of one of the most flamboyant and theatrical characters within his circle of friends ever to set foot on Copp‘s Hill. Meanwhile, at the McGee-Schiavoni household, the women were assembling their most festive and stylish outfits. Here it bears noting that among Natalie’s many trademarks was her unique sense of style. Downstairs in the guest room, she was putting the final touches to her holiday wardrobe with a—please, let us speak frankly—a most daring out-of-the-park fashion statement. She had pinned a brooch the size of a serving platter several latitude degrees south of where one might usually mount it on the upper regions of a female torso.
When Natalie appeared all powdered up and ready to party in a rather pronounced form-fitting sweater, we silently contemplated with grim speculation that she might have borrowed Joan of Arc’s armor plate from the siege of Orléans. There was no way that Mary could persuade her mother to select another body ornament before we crossed the street to our neighbors’ house. And I for one was not about to curate that conversation. Arriving at the Puopolos, I pressed the door bell and then hid behind Grandma as my human shield when I recognized the person descending the hallway staircase. It was Bill, who was legendary for giving unsuspecting arrivals a Christmas goose enroute to the upstairs sitting room one day before Arthur plunked a real one down on the table. I know, I know. It was cowardly of me, but I thought at least that she would have diplomatic immunity. Of course, that was a miscalculation.
Within seconds of opening the door and a quick introduction, Bill gazed downwards on my mother-in-law‘s brooch and cheerily exclaimed: “My goodness! If you had another one of those, my dear, you would look just like Brunhilda.” This went completely over Grandma’s head. My wife gulped and swallowed a quantity of tears so copious from weeping in silent laughter that she experienced a coughing fit. This camouflaged the hilarity of the moment as we trudged single file at the rear of a procession up the winding staircase.
* * * * * *
And so the years passed along as Grandma graced us with her presence and continued on her merry adventures until deep into her 80s when she grew frailer and relied upon a walker. Her mobility posed challenges for navigating passage to our fourth-floor kitchen and dining room. Finally, in 2013 her health took a serious turn when she began exhibiting symptoms of congestive heart failure and excruciating arthritic pain in her right foot grew intolerable. When Natalie’s local cardiologist ruled out surgery due to age, Mary advocated for her mother to be accepted by a cardiac research team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who screened her in for restorative state-of-the-art vascular surgery followed by equally miraculous orthopedic surgery.
She had two extended series of rehabilitative interventions over the course of one year during which time she was ensconced in our first-floor guest area. For any other person, such sequestration would seem positively confining. But, if Natalie could not venture out into the neighborhood, the world would come to her via day-long cable TV, three newspapers (Boston Globe, Boston Herald and New York Daily News) along with weekend editions of the New York Times. Of course, Grandma needed a daily cappuccino to-go from the Café ‘Lil with a croissant thrown in for good measure.
Natalie kept her finger on Boston’s pulse so much so that she would brief us every evening in exquisite detail when we arrived home from work. All of this occurred in the same period as the Boston Marathon bombing and Whitey Bulger’s murder trial at the federal courthouse. Those were the soundtracks and video streams of her convalescence on Copp’s Hill.
As Natalie’s condition improved, we wheeled her to Sunday Mass at St. Leonard Church, which by then had constructed a handicap-accessible ramp. We maneuvered along Charles Street and through the floral paths of the Public Garden at the glorious height of spring. We rolled down to the waterfront at Columbus Park for summer concerts. And I pushed her across the Charlestown Bridge to City Square just as fall colors were making their grand entrance. All through this period I bore witness to my mother-in-law’s adaptation to new limitations and dependencies while I discovered a perspective to city living not readily appreciated by the able-bodied not challenged by obstacles at every bump in the sidewalk.
When the 2013 holiday season approached, Natalie seemed to grow unsettled. What it really turned out to be was not so much homesickness for her senior apartment along a nondescript roadway in the exurbs of New Jersey, but a desire for proximity to her youngest developmentally disabled son. Grandma had her bags packed to head back down the Garden State Parkway, but we were able to hold her off until after Yuletide when her post-surgical medical appointments would be concluded. On Christmas Day in Boston’s South End, we guided her up 13 steps through a side door of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross—not quite the miracle in Bethlehem, but pretty darn close considering her health the previous year. The liturgy within was presided over by Cardinal Archbishop Sean O’Malley. This was the best Christmas present we could ever have given her. At the end of Mass, she insisted on having her photo taken with Cardinal Sean in his liturgical robes which she would show off for the last six years remaining in her life’s journey.
I will miss my mother-in-law for many reasons. She outlived her parents by 30 years by breaking every health rule imaginable and ordering hot fudge sundaes as often as possible. She accepted the cards she was dealt, even though she should have tossed down some of the jokers earlier in her hand. I witnessed her acceptance of adversity and her ability to see humor even at some moments others would consider as disastrous. Her life was not an easy one, but complaint and self-pity was never voiced to her family or friends. She provided a life lesson in humility and patience, although on some occasions I wish that she had thrown a casserole dish against the wall to gain the attention and respect that she well deserved. Finally, having served as Grandma Natalie’s conscripted wheelchair valet along the sidewalks of downtown Boston, I was gifted with newfound respect and empathy for those among us — the ones, you know, who take their city at a slower pace and see it from a different angle.
From Boston’s North End, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life, city living and urban epiphanies.