For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

Mary in Woodlawn

by Mary O'Riordan


n the 60s, the Irish began to buy houses in Woodlawn, enclosing porches,dropping ceilings, tearing down moldings, transforming the middle-class Protestant enclave to a working-class Catholic neighborhood. Woodlawn was a good place for the Irish to invest and to live. In the bars, the fathers would find work. At the playground, the mothers would learn from each other what they no longer had the opportunity to learn from their mothers at home. Most had come from somewhere else in the Bronx: my parents from a one-bedroom apartment on the Grand Concourse and Fordham Road, right next to Alexander’s; others from Bainbridge Road.

My parents’ first house was a three-family. They lived with me in the basement. Not long after my brother Jimmy was born we moved upstairs and soon afterwards the “girls-downstairs” moved in. Mary, Kathleen, Sheila and Brida, four Irish sisters from Mayo, shared the one-bedroom apartment. They had long hair, wore miniskirts, and listened to 45s of the Beatles and The Association on a portable turntable in the living room. During the summer, I’d accompany Sheila to her job at the phone company, where I’d play at typing and filing. On weekends, we’d take the #4 bus to the #4 train to the #5 train to the #12 bus to go to Orchard Beach, on the way home getting off at Fordham Road for burgers at Sutter’s.

They remained the girls-downstairs even after we moved from 247 to 245, after the “old-lady” next door died, and her daughter Evelyn Long moved up the block and married Mr. Hugel, who had been courting her from a lawn chair in the driveway in the shade provided by our two houses. She sold the one family to us cheap in appreciation for all the years that my mother watched over her deaf mother, running over to turn off the whistling kettle.

Four blocks up was Woodlawn’s western border, Van Cortlandt Park. My mother would make the trip there with us several times a week, pushing my little brother Paul in the big carriage long beyond the time he could have been walking. Born one year after the other, Jimmy, Eugene and I had been pushed on to make room for the next in line. My mother found it easier to manage Paul, on the other hand, by keeping him corralled in a playpen or strapped in a carriage harness. The carriage also gave my mother someplace to put the pails and shovels we’d use in the sandbox for our forts, carrying water for our moats from the puddle we’d make by stopping up the drain around the base of the sprinkler. When we were older, we’d go off on our own through the surrounding woods, back hundreds of years to when it was inhabited by Indians, our imaginations stirred by a nearby stone monument to a group of Mohicans felled and buried there during the Revolutionary War.

Mrs. Coughlin was the old lady’s name and she had taught across the street when the nursing home had been P.S. 19. Evelyn worked at the cemetery facing the nursing home’s south side. Even if Catholics had been allowed to be buried in the non-denominational cemetery which gave Woodlawn its name, there wouldn’t have been any of our family there to visit. My mother had nobody in this country other than her Aunt Bridget, who was alive and well in Brooklyn. The same was basically true for my father. There had been an uncle who had emigrated before he had a chance to know him, a WWI veteran who had died alone in the middle of the East River on Ward’s Island, an erstwhile refuge for the insane and destitute. Otherwise, my father only had an aunt, living across from Van Cortlandt Park, known to us as Mrs. Dillon. As a pretext, my mother used to take us to the cemetery to feed the hungry ducks in the little lake among the graves. Some years later, like many of the other women in the neighborhood, the cemetery was also where she went to learn how to drive, a skill she would need in middle age in order to make the trip up to Valhalla every Saturday morning to visit Paul’s grave in Gate of Heaven, the Catholic cemetery there.

Three blocks down, Woodlawn was bordered on the east by the Metro North Railroad, running along the emaciated garbage-strewn Bronx River and, a few blocks further over, the graffiti plastered #2 line running loudly over White Plains Road. The other side of the tracks was West Indian. In Woodlawn, there were no blacks, Hispanics, or Asians. Although their churches were still there - Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Methodist - the few Protestant children, I had heard, had stones thrown at them. Maybe it was just a story borne of Irish Republican fervor. In any case, the few Jews were received with more respect. Molly ran the 5&10; Father Biglin, whose mother had converted, taught us religion, and Frank collected signatures at his candystore against proposals like the one to extend the # 4 train to Woodlawn.

Approximately six blocks behind our house was Woodlawn’s northern border. Where the city ended and Yonkers began, the lots were bigger, taxes were higher and the American roots longer. St. Barnabas, on that city line, was the heart of Woodlawn. Before I could even go to school, I wore my veil to the old dark church, with blood red carpeting down the center aisle and dramatic depictions of the Stations of the Cross along the sides, and played with the pearl rosary beads while the priest offered prayers in front of the altar in an incomprehensible ecclesiastical language no longer Latin but not yet English. During weeknights, entrusting us to the girls-downstairs, my mother would slip out to Rosary Society meetings. Once in the Church, she’d take out her own silver beads and, with the other women, pray five decades of Holy Marys, punctuated by Our Fathers, while meditating on the mysteries of the day: if it was Monday or Saturday, the Joyful Mysteries; if it was Thursday, the Luminous; if it was Tuesday or Friday, the Sorrowful; and if it was Wednesday or Sunday, the Glorious (with the exception of the Sundays of the Christmas Season when the Joyful Mysteries were substituted for the Glorious and the Sundays of Lent when they were to be Sorrowful).

The women would look for fortitude to Mary in her bright blue robe and white headdress with pink lining, welcoming arms outstretched, standing demurely to the side of her son’s crucified body behind the altar Afterwards, the women would go to the school cafeteria for coffee and cake. Unlike the ladies of the Legion of Mary, who went around from home to home saying the rosary, my mother confined her prayers to the church, her sanctuary. When she could, she would go by herself, light one of the smoky, red, brass-trimmed candles flickering in front at Mary’s feet, kneel, take out her worn holy cards, and ask Mary to intercede on our behalf.

We all went to St. Barnabas for elementary school. And there we also venerated the Blessed Mother, once a year marching towards her statue in the convent courtyard, the girls in their white communion dresses singing, “Immaculate Mary, your praises we sing. You reign now in heaven with Jesus, our King. Ave, ave, ave Maria. Ave, ave Maria.”

My Miraculous Medal never left my neck. I felt honored to be a Mary myself, as were many of the girls. Shortly after entering into puberty, we’d find on our pillows an elliptical pamphlet emphasizing the purity of the Virgin Mary. Soon after that we would be expected to continue in St. Barnabas High School across the street while the boys went to the neighboring Mt. St. Michael. I went with everyone else. As in Frank McCourt’s Ireland, there were no teenagers in Woodlawn, not in my world. Even though I knew I could have gone to the academically superior Bronx High School of Science nearby for free, I also knew that every afternoon I spent late at a co-ed school would be one subsequently fraught with tension.

I helped my mother at home dusting, baking, and sewing. I ironed my brothers’ school shirts, polished their shoes and made their beds. Always “Little Mary”, to distinguish me from my mother and my aunt Marys – Pat’s Mary, Eamonn’s Mary and Sister Mary -- I eventually became “Young Mary” as I surpassed them in height, graduated from high school and left Woodlawn.

About ten years ago, I moved back into that first house with my son. When Danny complains about the size of his room, I can tell him that I shared the same one downstairs with my three brothers. Marion O’Sullivan mother and daughter now live on the first floor and Angela Larkin, a nurse from Wicklow, lives in the basement. I can see my mother going to bed from my living room window. The Irish are still here, even though the little girls aren’t named Mary anymore.

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