Friday, August 29, 2014

Wednesday in Bellows Falls: oh, what a day…

When we found out that my husband’s time on earth was short, Jim and I spent some talking about where he wanted his ashes to go.

Most of them, we decided, would be buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery.

But he also wanted some to go to the places he loved: to Ireland (they’re now in Galway Bay), to Paris, to New York City. I told him that I would be placing a bit on my parents’ graves (done), as that’s a place I visit a couple of times a year.

After I mentioned that I would be bringing him to Worcester, he said that, while I was there, he’d like to get a bit of himself buried with my Aunt Margaret. My cousin okayed this, so that’s done, too.

Jim then said that he wanted some to go to his parents’ graves in Bellows Falls, VT, and to the graves of his Uncle Bill and Aunt Carrie in Western Mass.

That Jim wanted part of himself to be with Bill and Carrie didn’t surprise me. He was very close to them, and I considered them my in-laws.

I was a bit surprised by the Bellows Falls request.

In general, Jim had no great fondness for his home town.

Jim grew up poor in a town that never seemed to have shaken itself out of the Depression. His father died in a hideous work accident when Jim was 11. Jim had an indifferent relationship with his mother, and our visits to her and to Bellows Falls were rare.

Anyway, earlier this week I went up to Bellows Falls to make good on repatriating Jim to his home ground.

The visit to the cemetery was tough. I think it was seeing the name “Diggins” on the gravestone that really did it. That and playing Dolores Keane’s version of “Jimmy Mo Mhile Stor.” Jim would have groaned at the translation – “Jimmy, my thousand treasures” – but he liked Irish traditional music, and the You Tube video I played was made at the Quays in Galway, a place where Jim and I had gone many times. We sat through plenty of trad sessions there, but never saw anyone quite as wonderful as Dolores Keane. (I’m no good at embedding videos. Here’s the link. Well worth a listen.)

I decided to spend the night in Bellows Falls, which has fortunately picked up in the years since I last saw it, which was shortly before Jim’s mother died eight years ago.

I stayed at the Readmore Inn, a wonderful B&B in a fabulous Victorian mansion. The couple who run it are named Read, and they’re readers, so there are books everywhere. Anyway, the place is completely charming. It may even be enough of a reason to head back to Bellow Falls at some point. (Actually, Jim and I had looked in on it once when we were in BF, but never ended up staying there.)

I did a bit of walking around town, and swung by the house where Jim had grown up, in the poor and rough north side of Bellows Falls. The house has been spruced up a bit since Grace (Jim’s mother) died, but the people living there, lounging around on the front porch smoking, looked scary-trashy.

I also stuck my head in at St. Charles, where Jim had been an altar boy. It was a classic old late 19th/early 20th century R.C. church, built by the Irish immigrants who populated the town. (For a town founded by Yankees, BF was very Catholic. A town of 3,000, there were two Catholic churches: the Polish one (Sacred Heart), and the Irish one (St. Charles). The St. Charles stained glass windows were very beautiful. And the church was so old-timey that they even had real light-with-a-match votive lights. (How could I resist?)

While trucking around Bellows Falls, which is not all that large a place, and, thus, has limited trucking around opportunities, I did some shopping at Village Square Books, an indie bookstore that I wish were in my neighborhood.

While there shopping away, I started chatting with the owner, a blow-in who’d grown up in Queens, and asked her if she had any books about Bellows Falls.

Among the books that she brought out was Behind the Iron Horse: The People Who Made the Trains Run in the Bellows Falls, Vermont Area (1941-1980). The book was published by the Vermont Historical Society, and written by Giro Patalano, a name I recognized from Jim’s talking about his childhood.

Well, I figured that this book would surely have something about the death of Jimmy Diggins, who was killed while working on the railroad in 1955.

There was no index, but I decided to spring for it anyway.

Giro had a lot to say about Jimmy Diggins, who was a friend and fellow-worker of his.

Jimmy was “memorable…energetic, keen of mind…agile of foot and articulation…not averse to taking a drink…[but someone who] could hold his liquor.” (He also put his keen mind to work getting himself on extra shifts to support his family.)

Well, aside from that “agile of foot,” all I can say is that my Jim was a chip off the old block.

After Giro talks about Jimmy, there a section on the accident that killed him – he was crushed between a train and a line shack, in what was called a “close clearance” situation. The railroad was supposed to have taken care of it, but hadn’t.

Anyway, Giro was one of the first to reach Jimmy after he was crushed, and wrote that “his death hit me hard.”

Giro Patalano, as the union rep, was the one who fought for Jim’s mother to get a settlement from the railroad for their negligence. The settlement wasn’t a lot of money, but Jim’s part of that settlement put him through college.

[And just for the record: Jim’s father was sober when he was killed.]

The railroad book was written 17 years ago, and Jim and I had been in this bookstore a couple of times over the years.

Although going through the details of his father’s death would have been plenty painful, how Jim would have loved reading about his father! (Also painful would have been the picture of the “close clearance” – track and line shack – where Jimmy was crushed.)

I read the book while having lunch at a nice little café called, I think, the Village Café, where I had a very nice sandwich and lemonade. It was kind of a crunchy granola place, but that’s, in fact, what Bellows Falls has pretty much become: a kind of classic Vermont hippy-ish, folky, artsy community.

Not that everyone in the Café was a classic Vermont hippy-ish, folky, artsy type.

In fact, one of the folks in the Café was Red Sox great, and Hall of Famer, Carlton Fisk, who grew up nearby.

Carlton Fisk!

He of the beautiful wave it fair homerun in the doomed 1975 World Series against the Reds. The moment that, upPudge and Moe until the curse was lifted in 2004, was just about the greatest moment in Red Sox history.

Well, here was one famous person that I wasn’t going to pass up meeting. He was very gracious and charming, and agreed to a picture.

I immediately sent the pic off to my sister Trish, who – as I told Pudge – had a crush on him when she was a kid.

Later that evening, I had dinner at a very upscale, very modern Italian restaurant, Popolo, which most decidedly was not there the last time Jim and I were in town. I had a scrumptious dinner, with dessert – lemon panettone with blueberries  - on the house, based on my telling the waitress about the mission I was on.

Oh, what a day.


The day after, I had lunch with Jim’s cousin and his wife, and buried a bit of Jim with Bill and Carrie. Few more places still to go on Diggy’s ashes-to-ashes wish list…

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