Wednesday, July 8, 2015


My personal geography maps a Pawtucket childhood in the 1950s, and in that geography the places where I played are happy, but the places where they -- the grown-ups-- worked are legendary. I never visited the Corning Glass Works where my Aunt Anna Coleman worked, or the Coats Mills cloth room where my mother started when she was only 14 years old. Or the Saylesville Bleachery where my father worked, or Collyer Wire where my Aunt Grace and my father worked. I never saw them, but I knew them. I knew them from the effects they had on their bodies and spirits; how the hours they spent there left them wearied and worried. For example, my Aunt Anna, who worked at Corning Glass on Broad Street in Central Falls, would sit out on the porch of our second floor tenement at 130 Englewood Avenue through a hot, breathless summer dusk combing her hair with a fine tooth comb. I heard the sprinkles of glass fall to the newspaper she spread to catch them. She showed them to me glistening in the light, –“Imagine if these are in my hair, what the inside of my lungs must look like?” She urged. And I could only imagine -- her time spent working beside furnaces on sweltering July days, inspecting hot tumblers that passed her on the line, and after eight hours of that she came home with her long black hair glistening with glass particles. I marveled that they could bear such things. 

My Aunt Anna Coleman died this past year -- September 18--  and in the last year of her life she had acute respiratory problems  that  eventually led to her admission to Memorial Hospital and the Respiratory Intensive Care.  Her  lungs were so badly damaged she could not breathe  deeply enough to supply oxygen for her brain.  After that and for the first time in her 95 years she showed confusion and   some loss of cognitive function.  Her doctors questioned me about her  smoking  habits and I had to tell them that she was a  person who never smoked in her life.  My mother, her sister, smoked and like all of us in those years she was exposed to the constant  secondary smoke of co-workers and friends. The doctor asked if she had  worked in a  place where she had exposure to  some  contaminants and suddenly those hot nights on the porch in Pawtucket came back to me..  And I understood that  her  refusal to smoke  or drink  was her way to stay as  healthy as possible in an environment that was  harmful.  Those glistening pieces of glass had come back to haunt us both.

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