In the heart of Boston, across from where the Globe Corner Bookshop used to stand, there is an Irish Famine Memorial that commemorates the influx of 19th century immigrants who came to Boston fleeing hunger in their homeland.
The Memorial consists of two free-standing sculptures, one of which depicts a tattered trio of prone and emaciated figures–man, woman, and child–leaving their famine-stricken home, an empty basket of want lying at their feet. The second statue shows three figures standing upright as they stride into their adopted country, the man’s eyes looking into the future while the woman looks back, refusing to forget from whence she came.
The Irish Famine Memorial was unveiled after my ex-husband and I had moved from Boston, so whenever I return to this particular corner, it’s strange to see new-to-me bronze figures there. One set of my maternal great-grandparents immigrated to the States from Ireland, but they arrived at the turn of the century, decades after the particular famine that this Memorial commemorates. I know I should swell with part-Irish pride whenever I see the monument which stands as testament to my ancestors’ struggle against poverty and want, but instead this Memorial makes me feel odd and awkward. To the figures in the statue, Boston represents the land of hope and promise, a way out of starvation and despair. In my mind, though, Boston is the exact opposite, a city I moved to when I was too young to know my way around the world: the city where I first learned the meaning of the world hunger.
Apart from one school-sponsored week I’d spent in Ireland as an undergraduate, Boston represented the first time I’d been out of Ohio. I grew up the daughter of committed homebodies in Columbus; as the first in my family to go to college, my decision to attend a school three hours away versus the university down the street represented the first in a string of misunderstood leavings. Where did I get my urge to wander, to leave? Wasn’t Columbus and its colleges good enough for me? Although my parents fully supported my decision to attend the University of Toledo on full academic scholarship, going to college was the beginning of a journey that would take me further and further away from Columbus and my family’s known world.
I met my ex-husband in Toledo, where I stayed after graduation and then married. Within a year of our marriage, we moved to New England–to Malden, Massachusetts–where he would search for a job and I would wile the summer months until starting my Masters program at Boston College. We landed in Massachusetts with no jobs, only the promise of my slim scholarship stipend and the hope that my then-husband would find gainful employment. We landing in Massachusetts with only the dream of making it in Boston, a city where my then-husband had spent several years as an undergraduate music student. Chris had lived in Boston but I had not. Whereas he had experience and a handful of in-town friends to temper his idealism, I had only my dreams of a city that both reminded me of Dublin (a city I’d wanted to re-visit) and was imbued with the essence of those authors–Emerson and Thoreau–I’d both admired and envied as a teenager.
Chris and I had several months’ of our modest Midwestern salaries in savings, but we nearly depleted this reserve our first day in Massachusetts. In order to park the car we’d driven all the way from Ohio, we’d need a permit; to obtain a permit, we’d need to register our car, obtain Massachusetts car insurance, and switch our Ohio drivers’ licenses. Our first day in Massachusettes, we trudged from one bureaucratic office to another, queuing and waiting to write one check after another: six months’ car insurance here, plates and registration there, a hefty check to cover a road test we didn’t need to take (but were required to pay for) in order to get Massachusetts drivers’ licenses.
At the Department of Motor Vehicles in Malden, we each nearly flunked the computerized test covering road signs and signals we’d never seen in Ohio. What’s a rotary? What the heck does a solid red and green light signify? Our bodies still aching from a two-day drive and our still-loaded car parked temporarily at a series of parking meters, we came to realize that first day in Massachusetts that we weren’t in the Midwest anymore. Everything was twice as expensive as we had envisioned, and everything was three times as difficult. I felt like a stranger in a very strange land when the fellow at the Malden DMV office looked at the address on my Ohio drivers’ license and, in a thick Boston accent, posed a question I’d been silently asking: “Why in the name of God would you leave beautiful Toledo, Ohio to move to stinkin’ Malden, Mass?”
That first day in Malden was a wake-up call. Our ant-infested basement apartment was the cheapest place we could find, but it still stretched the limits of our modest budget. Our surprisingly expensive wrangles with Massachusetts bureaucracy had nearly depleted our savings. The money that we thought would cover us over the summer while Chris looked for a job would last merely a month: by the time we deposited his first Massachusetts paycheck, our checking account had dwindled to a couple dollars and some change.
That starving summer before I started classes at Boston College–that starving summer before Chris got a decent job and I got a string of do-anything part-time positions to bring in extra cash–we lived on oatmeal for breakfast, macaroni and cheese for lunch, and rice and vegetables for dinner. That first summer in Malden, the only thing we could afford to do on Friday or Saturday nights was drive around North Shore suburbs seeing the new-to-us sights: quiet neighborhoods interpersed with gleaming strip malls with restaurants we couldn’t afford to enter. That first summer in Malden I had seemingly endless hours to myself as Chris worked long hours selling furniture for a store that was too slow delivering commission checks. That first summer in Malden I learned the meaning of the word “lonely” as I sat home in an ant-infested basement apartment, my closest kin in Ohio, as distant and inaccessible as a foreign country.
I’ll never forget one day that first summer while we were waiting for Chris to receive one of his first paychecks. I’d grown tired of staying home alone in Malden; there’s only so long you can sit and read while your stomach rumbles its way from oatmeal to macaroni to rice. It was sunny and gorgeous, and I’d scrounged a couple dollars and change from what was leftover from my weekly walk to the grocery store, where what I could afford to buy for the week roughly equalled what I could carry without a car.
Those couple dollars and change represented a daytrip from Malden to Boston and back: I had enough money for two subway tokens and lunch. After eating a vegetarian-by-necessity diet for so long, I craved meat. Knowing there was a McDonald’s on Tremont Street across from Boston Common, I planned to grab a quick lunch there before setting off to wander the city. I thought I knew exactly how much a McDonald’s hamburger, fries, and small Coke cost, but I’d miscalculated the tax: when I went to pay for my order, I was 5 cents short.
Never underestimate the humiliation a person feels when they plan to pay for a meal with pocket change only to discover they’re 5 cents short. I could, of course, have given the cashier my return subway token, but then I’d have no way of getting home; an ATM card is useless when you haven’t any money in the bank. As I counted and re-counted the change in my hand–as I rifled through all my pockets as well as the bottom of my bag looking for an overlooked nickel or forgotten stash of pennies–I grew increasingly flustered. Outside on the sidewalk had been the usual assortment of panhandlers begging for change; inside that McDonald’s itself sat a rumpled man who looked like he himself might have been homeless. How had I come to the point where I couldn’t scrounge enough change to buy a meal at McDonald’s, a burger and fries at the cheapest place in town?
Just as I’ll always remember the humiliation of being a college graduate who couldn’t afford a meal at McDonald’s, I’ll always remember the kindness that the cashier, himself the restaurant manager, showed when he saw my obvious embarrassment. “Hey, no problem,” he reassured me. “Give me what you have, then pay the rest the next time you’re here.” And true to form, the next time I was in Boston, I stopped by that same McDonald’s and paid an extra dime: five cents plus interest on what I owed. Not only will I always remember where I come from, I couldn’t forget the embarrassment of that moment (and my relief at that manager’s generosity) even if I tried.
After surviving a year’s lease in Malden, which I’d discovered was as far removed from Boston College’s beautiful Chestnut Hill campus as you could get by subway, Chris and I cut my commute in half by moving to Beacon Hill, the upscale neighborhood in the heart of Boston. Although we’d moved up in the world financially speaking, we still couldn’t afford to live above-ground, renting instead a euphemistically named “garden flat” that turned out to be a basement studio with a doorless, closet-less back room that served as both bedroom and office. As I’ve blogged before, that tiny apartment offered little privacy and even less light: both the kitchen and shower were in the living room, and the only place you could sit behind a closed door was on the toilet.
Our days in Beacon Hill represented, as Dickens would term it, both the best of times and the worst of times. I loved living in Boston: there was always something to see or do, and I could explore one of the world’s trendiest neighborhoods by simply walking out my hobbit-hole door. By the time we moved to Beacon Hill, Chris had gotten a corporate job training lawyers how to conduct online database searches, and I was supplementing my teaching stipend with a part-time retail job. We weren’t rich by any means, but we were making it: we had enough money to sit for hours in any of a number of Beacon Hill coffeeshops while I read and Chris wrote computer code.
And yet…woman cannot live on bread alone. Although we’d moved up from our starvation diet of oatmeal, macaroni, and rice, Beacon Hill was still a hard, hungry place to live. Chris remembers our Beacon Hill days as being his happiest, and I remember them as being my darkest: surely that observation alone tells you something about the disconnect that had happened. I’m not sure what it was that caused our marriage to begin to die all those years ago in a basement apartment in Beacon Hill, but that was the scene of the crime as far as I can tell.
Even though we had money in the bank and no longer had to scrounge for pocket change to buy a sandwich, something inside dies after you’ve been hardened by hunger. I’d never told Chris about that day at McDonald’s; knowing how hard he’d been working at the time, I didn’t want to bother or discourage him. And I never told him, either, how famished I’d been the first time we drove back to Ohio to visit our families after that first starving summer in Massachusetts; I never told him how I stuffed myself full of junk food from my parents’ kitchen counter–cookies and crackers and pretzels–simply to feel the sensation of being full. Even then, perhaps, I knew that my hunger was only partly physical, that what I craved so undeniably was the sense of belonging that only family can bring, the reassurance that a hot meal and listening ear are just down the street whenever you need it.
It’s a fateful moment, perhaps, when you start shielding your loved ones from life’s little realities: the Me who had been embarrassed to take charity from a stranger couldn’t bring myself to tell my own husband how lonely I felt 700 miles from my closest kin and how the worry of scrambling to make ends meet was taking its toll. When my parents asked how we were doing in Boston, I told them a crafted version of the truth: money was tight, but things were looking up; I never mentioned hunger pangs both physical and psychological. To tell my parents that I missed them–to tell my parents that life in Ohio had been easy, life in Boston was lonely and rough, and I was starved for both food and affection–would have been admitting defeat. As I shielded both my spouse and my parents from an emptiness that food could only partly satiate, I began a gradual process of psychological self-starvation. Surely I could do without food, without money, without love. Surely to ask for help from others–surely to ask for more–would be asking too much.
As much as I love walking its streets, Boston for me is a haunted city. While others see a city steeped in American history–the cradle of liberty–I see a place where I first learned that the world can be a hard and hungry place. Whenever I return to walk the streets of Boston, I stride with unanswered questions in mind. “What happened: what went wrong? Where did that young and hopeful Ohio girl go, and what happened to her idealistic thoughts and dreams?” In the past, I thought perhaps I returned to Boston to seek the heart that had been broken there, expecting to find it lying on some forgotten street, red and crushed like velvet. But now I know I roam the streets of Boston looking not for a what but for a who, the naive and hopeful young thing I was when I first landed on this shore.
If I were to find her–that Me I was over a decade ago–I certainly would have nothing to say to her: although I’m older now, I’m not sure I’m any wiser. Instead, I’d like to look her in the eye, that Me that I was, and show with a silent glance that I remember and understand what it means to be hungry. Like a bronze woman looking back on her homeland, I refuse to forget from whence I came. If I could find the tattered and prone ghost of who I was when I fled from abundance, I’d stretch my arms across the years to hug and hold her, reassuring her that one day in the future, she’ll learn how to stand strong as a statue without even a husband or child to support her, looking into her own future full and self-sufficiently sated.