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Michael Patrick MacDonald
Michael Patrick MacDonald
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 Michael Patrick MacDonald, author of All Souls: A Family Story from Southie

MacDonald was born when his family was living at the Columbia Point Housing Project.

?A young mother's struggle - and survival?

By Michael Patrick MacDonald

My oldest memories are of my mother crying. I don't know how old I was, but I remember looking up from the floor and seeing her sitting on the old trunk that her father had carried from Ireland when he was 18 in search of some good luck in America. She was only crying a little, and tried to hide it from me when she saw that I'd noticed. I climbed onto her lap and asked her why she was sad. She told me then about her baby who'd died and gone to heaven. She said his name was Patrick Michael, but that it was all going to be OK now because we had someone watching over us, praying for us every day. She told me that I'd taken Patrick Michael's place, and that she'd switched the name around, calling me Michael Patrick, because the Irish always said it was bad luck to name a child after another who had died.

She showed me the light-green knit hat that someone had given Patrick -- she couldn't remember who. He wore that hat home from the hospital when he was born, and he was baptized in it. It still smelled like a baby and had yellowing food stains on it. It was all we had of Patrick. There was no picture ever taken of the 6-week-old baby. Throughout my whole life, whenever I saw her putting out very different emotions for the people around her, I have thought of my mother crying that time when she thought no one would see. And I could never really get mad at her the way most kids did at their parents. I could never judge her or blame her for anything in our lives. After I saw her cry for Patrick Michael, I only wanted to protect her.

I was born in Columbia Point Housing Project, at 104 Monticello Ave., on the South Boston/Dorchester waterfront. Actually, I was born in a hospital across the city. But most children in Columbia Point who were born around the same time I was were delivered in their project apartments, since back in the '60s, ambulances wouldn't enter the development without a police escort. Many of these children were born before the ambulance arrived, long after it was called. And many of this generation had birth defects. I was lucky. I was two weeks late, and my mother had planned ahead and arranged through Catholic Charities for the other kids to be placed in foster homes during her stay in the hospital. As soon as they were placed, she called the police to pick her up. She was told she'd have to meet them a mile down the road, outside of Columbia Point. She didn't mind, so off she went. And it's a good thing she had the extra time to make arrangements, because when I was born I was almost 13 pounds, and had given my mother 20 hours of labor.

I held the record for birth weights in Boston, and Ma always told everyone how the doctors and patients came from all parts of Beth Israel Hospital to see me in the nursery. She said I was twice the size of the other infants, and while they all cried, kicking their legs with eyes sealed closed, I was quiet with two big spooky eyes staring around the room and observing all who had come to observe me from behind the glass window.

I was my mother's ninth child, with two sisters and six brothers before me, including Patrick. And we always did include Patrick in the count. The family had settled into Columbia Point three years before I was born. My mother was still married to Dave MacDonald, but he was nowhere to be seen. According to Grandpa, Ma's father, the marriage of his oldest daughter had fulfilled everything he'd expected of it. On the day of her wedding, Grandpa woke Ma up, and told her to ``get up for the market.'' Soon into the marriage Dave MacDonald beat my mother, fractured her skull on two occasions, and broke her ribs on another. To this day, though, Ma will remind you of that one time she knocked out his teeth with one good kick.

Dave MacDonald was an entertainer, like Ma. He played country-western music on the guitar in barrooms throughout Boston. They'd met each other in a Valentine's Day minstrel show at the parish hall. Ma had entered the show and played her Irish accordion while her four younger sisters step danced. Ma always told us that when she first laid eyes on Dave McDonald, playing Davy Crockett, she immediately remembered that she'd had a terrible dream about him, a nightmare about a bad marriage. Nonetheless, Ma married him at the age of 19, and before long they became a musical duo. But the good times were few. He was an alcoholic, and further along in their marriage he would disappear on his wife and kids. A ``womanizer,'' Ma called him. My older brothers and sisters don't remember seeing him around much. Occasionally, they'd hear him back in the house, and learned to expect the yelling and things breaking. Ma always said there was ``no such thing'' as divorcing your husband back then. You lived with whatever you had married, even if it was all turning to hell. When she went to Father Murphy about the cheating and abuse, he told her, ``You're a Catholic, make the best of it.''

For her, drinking too much was one thing, disappearing and going out with other women was another, and the beatings were bad. But not showing up for your own baby son's funeral? When Ma confronted Dave MacDonald about being down at the local bar while his son's tiny casket was carried through St. Thomas's Church, he said that he'd seen too many buddies go down in Korea to give a [expletive] about one baby dying. That was the official end of the marriage.

Ma had already started to take care of the kids on her own, with financial help from welfare. Ma says that at the time the welfare policy actually encouraged you not to have a man, as you could receive a stipend only if there was no man around. So even when Dave MacDonald had been at home sometimes, Ma started to tell welfare that he wasn't there with them anymore. It was the truth really -- he wasn't ``there'' for his kids like a real father. The family was living with cheap rent in the project -- $65 a month. The project wasn't a safe place, but it was all we could afford with the $65 we got from welfare every two weeks. And with the boxes of surplus cheese, butter, and powdered milk Ma dragged home from the maintenance office, we could survive there.

It was while living in Columbia Point that Ma realized she and her kids were surviving without any help from her husband anyway, money or anything else. She was alone when she had to shove three of her kids into a bush to hide from a shoot-out between two speeding cars. She was alone when she had to confront a drunk mother about her teenage son trying to strangle my sister Mary to death when she was 5.She was alone when her kids came home with stories of being chased down and beaten for being white in a mostly black neighborhood. And she was alone when she ran through the project banging on neighbors' doors, frantically trying to breathe life back into the mouth of her baby, already dead in her arms.

Grandpa was the one Ma turned to when she did need a man, and she'd have to be desperate for help because the two of them didn't get along. Grandpa always said, ``Didn't I tell you?'' or else, ``You made your bed, now lie in it.'' Ma and Grandpa had brought Patrick to the emergency room of Children's Hospital the night before his death. Patrick was having trouble breathing and Ma thought he had a croup. Ma had no health insurance, and Medicaid was a year away. The hospital turned the baby away. Ma says that the hospital had filled its quota of what were called ``charity cases,'' and didn't need to take any more that night. They said it wasn't an emergency case. The next day, Davey, the oldest in the family, found Patrick not moving in the crib, lying still and blue. The coroner said he'd died of pneumonia and should have been in a hospital. Ma later asked a lawyer about suing the hospital for neglect, but the lawyer said there was no case -- the hospitals weren't required to admit welfare babies with no insurance.
Ma says that when you lose a baby, it's the worst feeling in the world because a baby depends on its mother for everything, and so ultimately it's always the mother's fault. I suppose that's why she ran around with a dead baby in her arms -- a baby that hadn't been allowed into the hospital, in a housing project that ambulances wouldn't come to. It was her baby, her fault, and she was going to do whatever she could do as a mother, which at that point wasn't much.
My family hated Columbia Point Project, and hated living in our apartment even worse after Patrick's death. In the mid-1960s it was one of the higher crime areas in the city, a neighborhood of tall yellow-brick buildings with elevators that often didn't work. Even when they were working, Ma says you'd take the stairs up seven flights to avoid being beaten and robbed on the elevator. And rats infested the hallways.

Davey always told me how he used his lunch box as a weapon to and from school, ready to smash anyone in the head who'd attack him or his younger brothers and sisters. Johnnie, the second oldest, tells me he'd be sent down to the Beehive corner store for milk and bread, only to be robbed repeatedly of the money Ma had given him for groceries. When Frankie was 5, a gang of teenagers circled him and turned him upside down to shake all the coins bulging from his pockets for penny candy. Mary and Joe, the twins, used to pass one teenage girl in the courtyard who made them pull down their pants in order to get by. Drug dealings and shootings were becoming more common on hot summer evenings, so Ma started to call the kids into the house early in the afternoon.

Besides the usual fights and bullying in the project, the whole family remembers the tension of being part of a white minority in a mostly black development. Ma was always being called ``that crazy white [expletive]'' after going after some of the black mothers who'd watched their teenagers chase down and beat my brother. While most of the project was made up of black families, Monticello Ave. was still about half white. The white teenagers organized gangs to protect their turf from the black gangs, and were admired by the white adults for their ability to ``stand their ground,'' as my mother said. Like us, most of those white teens eventually moved to the all-white housing projects of South Boston. Many are now the parents of today's teens ``standing their ground'' in the Southie projects, now undergoing integration through what locals are calling ``forced housing,'' after ``forced busing.''

My older brothers and sisters looked forward to the weekends, when there were free buses out of Columbia Point, to Broadway, the main shopping street in white South Boston. The white families of Columbia Point would all go on excursions to the toy stores and supermarkets there. Many recall seeing my mother getting on the bus, with her long, red country-western hair, leopard coat, fish-net stockings, and eight kids wrapped around her. Everyone talked about her ability to look so good after having all those kids, and even though she had to be both mother and father. Ma wouldn't be seen in public except in spike heels. To keep her figure, she went jogging around Columbus Park, down the road in Southie. She'd walk over to the park in her jeans and spike heels, carring flat sneakers in a brown paper bag. It was only when she got to the park, where no one could see her, that she changed into the sneakers, putting the spike heels into a bag and throwing them behind some bushes. She might have had to be the man of the house but, she as always said, she wasn't about to start looking like one. Ma liked the praise she got for her looks, and she would remind people, ``Imagine, after having nine kids!''

After a day of shopping on Broadway, Ma would sit for a cup of coffee at the Donut Chef and talk to everyone in the room. She was a great talker, and whether you were on a stool right next to her or on the far end of the room, you were part of her audience. While Ma did her storytelling, the kids stood lined up against the wall in descending order, each one hugging a bundle of groceries, watching for the free bus to take them back to Columbia Point.

All the other white families from Columbia Point were glad to see Ma and the kids climb onto the bus. They knew she'd be telling stories from one end of the bus to the other, keeping everyone laughing. As the bus approached Columbia Point though, things turned somber, and Ma says that's when the white families would start telling their stories of being attacked and of being scared to be in a black project. If only we could get into Old Colony Project in Southie, they'd say.
Before long, we were one of the last white families holding out in Columbia Point. The white neighbors on the free bus were getting few. Many of them had fled to the Southie projects. And my family was beginning to stick out like a sore thumb on those scary walks back to our apartment at nightfall.

Reprinted from "All Souls: A Family Story from Southie" by Michael Patrick MacDonald. Copyright 1999 by Michael Patrick MacDonald.

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Created: March 21, 2008   Modified: March 21, 2008