Friday, January 29, 2010

Richard Brignoli, born January 29, 1939.

Remembering Mitchell Street Boston: Richard Brignoli born January 29, 1939

In August 2009, I went to Boston to an exhibition on sixteenth-century Venetian painting at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. A breath-taking show where three giants of western art were featured: Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. The premise of the show or one that was high-lighted was competition among these masters. Titian was obviously Zeus, but Tintoretto and Veronese were his younger brothers; all were divine. This trip was a needed break, brief as it was, from a summer of hard labor, writing, physical ailments, and the medical problems of our Scottish terriers, Aesop and Emma. Each had cancers and Emma, as we were to learn shortly, was diabetic. The weather was idyllic and a Cambridge hotel overlooking the Charles River was my resting place. On this trip, I also had unfinished business. I wanted to go to Mitchell Street where Richard grew up and where his family resided. Although I had been in Boston on numerous occasions, I had no inclination to revisit what was last seen about 50 years earlier. Memories were distinct enough, but now I wanted to test to what extent the mind’s eye, memory itself, was reliable. What did I recall physically of the street and the neighborhood? A narrow street bordered by neatly kept houses that were largely tan. The Brignoli family resided in three of these buildings. Richard’s father and stepmother in one; this is the building where Richard had lived before he moved to New York City, and where I stayed on several occasions; and farther down the street, his grandmother and great aunt resided in another dwelling. On the other side, a cousin had a house. He, I believe was a postman. The street exited at one end on Dorchester Avenue, and it was directly near the bay, from which islands were visible. Richard explained that that was where he had learned to sail. Curiously, during our relationship, before marriage and during the marriage, he did not talk about his love of sailing. Perhaps I did not hear him if he did talk about a future where sailing would eventually take him to distant places and which would be central to his life. What I did hear about, however, were his stints as a merchant marine and as a member of the navy. The navy brought him into contact with Stanley, a Yale ROTC graduate, if I recall correctly. Stanley encouraged Richard to go to New York and to study at Columbia University. Their friendship was close and supportive and was essential to Richard’s success at Columbia’s School of General Education. Stanley was brilliant and a handsome young man but he also had severe medical problems that ended his life abruptly. Richard, I am sure, never forgot him. And Richard’s father Joseph and his stepmother? We got along well and both were generous to me and tried to help me understand Richard better. Likewise his great-aunt and I took an instant liking to one another. In time, I painted a portrait of his grandmother, under the curious eyes of his family. My picture was not traditional exactly and I worked directly from the model without a preparatory drawing. Yet it may still exist, and, as Richard told me, but I had forgotten, I had painted a portrait of his grandfather from a photograph. Perhaps this exists as well among his Boston relatives. And one more memory because it dates the relationship in a particular historical moment: we sat before a large-screen TV as Ted Kennedy addressed the public for the first time, during his run for Massachusetts senator. The speech was received well, I believe; most likely Richard’s parents voted for Kennedy. Although Richard and I may have walked to the bay, I vividly recall going out of the house to see the bay for myself. At that time there were wooden wharfs, all in excellent condition. Today the wharfs are gone and a lovely sand beach has replaced them. When this change occurred I do not know. As for the cousins living on the other side of the street, it appears that their home was razed and now nondescript brick buildings replace the smaller structures that once stood there. One event that occurred that was discordant occurred in that house and has remained with me, a kind of historical memento. The cousin’s wife said to me that she had never had a Jew in her house before. I was the first. She was a plain-spoken woman of Polish heritage. I was shocked then, but time has taken the sting away and life has brought me to understand what caused a comment that was so unexpected, especially 50 years ago. Richard did his best to soften and explain. More would bore the reader and it has little to do with my quest: to compare and contrast past and present. What I found revisiting Mitchell Street was that my memory served me well. The street is narrow, in fact, and it is located off busy Dorchester Avenue and is close to the bay. Except for the “new” brick building, the houses are as they were then except that they have been updated; the types of facings used then are no longer popular. When vinyl siding took the world or at least the USA by storm, the structures on this street were sided too. In the early 1960s the neighborhood was working-class, blue collar; today it appears to have been gentrified, and some apartments are or were in the million dollar range. Census/voting records for Ward 11, precinct 1, reveal a laboring population. Women are listed as housewives (a dagger sign); few have a profession, one example identifies the woman as a clerk. Men are laborers, butchers, teamsters, painters, ironworkers, and so forth. These men are no longer emplyed or, better yet, the USA of today has lost these professions, these skills, and the income generated by them Women are not by necessity housewives; they are free to choose (almost) what profession they desire. In some accounts of Richard Brignoli’s early life he is said to have lived in a slum. Hardly. McDonald mansions these buildings are not but they testify to a period in US history that was about to change but where the families worked hard and aspired to send their children into the world with skills to support themselves. This street, Mitchell Street, is a microcosm of the “world of our fathers;” certainly not one to be disdained. This post has pictures of Mitchell Street taken in August 2009; a subsequent post has photos of the Ward Books, wherein the inhabitants over 20 years old were recorded. Incidentally, Richard lived at 16 Mitchell Street.

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