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Massachusetts-based storyteller Jay O’Callahan invites the listener home with him to his older sister’s wedding, which was transformed by a great snowstorm that blanketed Boston and the surrounding communities.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
For our holiday storytelling special I’m joined by storytellers Jay O’Callahan and Diane Ferlatte and writer André Aciman.
Jay, we’re going to finish up with you. You have a story that takes place at your family’s home near Boston in the dead of winter.
O’CALLAHAN: I was sitting in my room in the basement in our big, old house on Pill Hill. We call it Pill Hill because there were doctors all over the place. I hate law school. One more case: Gabriella Rugani vs. the Food Mart, Trenton, New Jersey.
Oh, here I am in a basement, the basement of our house. I thought it would be a good idea to move my room down here. It’s as dark as Dostoevsky. Gabriella, I have a, have a job, put me through law school. At night I clean one of the Boston schools. The only thing alive is the rats in the basement.
Bad year for Dad, too. A few years ago Dad discovered he was a very good actor, amateur acting, but he could go to New York, he could do it. But I think he’s decided not to, support the family. It’s tearing him apart.
I shut the law book, good night beautiful Gabriella. I went upstairs, stood in the dark hall, our great front hall that can hold about 80 people. Bong, bong, bong, bong. Our grandfather clock striking midnight. It’s a new day now, February 4, 1961. In 11 hours my sister Patricia will be married. Oh, grandfather clock, eight feet tall, dark oak wood. You know, clock, I used to like you. When I was a little boy, you seemed to be full of play. Not now. Your sound is demanding now. You’ve turned into time, time, watching us, judging us. Never joining in.
I started up our wide front stairs, I was going to sleep in my bedroom. Mom wanted all of us to be where we’d been all these years this last night. Got up to the second floor and I looked at my sister Patricia’s door. It was shut. Patricia, she’s 24, she’s going to come out tomorrow in her wedding dress, come down the stairs and she’ll never go back to that room. She’s marrying John Madell, John Madell, graduate student at MIT from Chicago. His parents from Chicago are here in the neighborhood, all of his friends. They flew in yesterday; they’re staying with our friends all over the neighborhood.
I don’t look forward to the reception tomorrow. There will be 150 people here in our house and I’ll have to be polite. How is law school? Well, I’m falling down a well. Good, that’s the spirit, keep it up.
Bong, bong, bong, bong. I woke 7 o’clock, grandfather clock, and I stretched, went back to sleep and I snapped on the radio. The announcer was saying, “It’s the biggest snowstorm of the century. This is a blizzard, ladies and gentlemen. Two feet of snow and it’s snowing, going to snow all day and all night. Everything is cancelled: Celtics, Bruins, college boards.”
I sprang out of bed and I looked out the window and there was two feet of snow and it was snowing hard. It was wild out there. Only the bluejays could move. Everything was transformed. By 8:30 and quarter of nine all the wedding guests, the Chicago guests, our neighbors, they were all tramping through the blizzard into our big front hall. “Going to be a wedding? How far is the church?” “A mile.” “A mile!” The Norwegians, graduate students at MIT, they were living across the street. They came in and one of them said, “We will ski Patricia to the church!”
Dad said, “Quiet down, everyone, I’m calling the Department of Public Works. Listen, we need a plow up here, my daughter is getting married. Up on Pill Hill.” Dad held his hand over the phone. “He says he’s got some nut from Pill Hill.” Dad listened and put the phone down. “[Laughs] I could hear the superintendent in the background, Ed Hickey. He said, ‘I’m going to that wedding, get a plow up there.’”
I said, “Dad, we’ll need a heavy car to get Patricia to the church.” “That’s right, that’s right. I’ll call Fred Fredricks. I’ve done a lot of acting with him. He calls me Lear.” “Fred, yeah, it’s King Lear, [laughs]. Listen, Fred, Patricia is getting married this morning. We need a car that’ll get through the storm. Great, great! 10:30.” “He’s going to send a funeral limousine.”
I grabbed a shovel and I went running out into that blizzard. Five of the Chicago fellows, they followed me. I got them shovels and I started shoveling. Snow was heavy. I was shoveling away and making a path for Patricia. And I was thinking of Patricia’s long path, painful path.
When Patricia was in the eighth grade she weighed 65 pounds, held together with freckles. She was in mom’s bedroom one night, “Nobody has asked me to the eighth grade dance. I’ll never have a bosom!” All through high school, Patricia, she was freckles, bones and brains, a lot of brains. Every college wanted Patricia. She knew she’d be homesick, so she commuted to college. She would study up in the third floor, that’s where Gram is. Gram has the idea that if a girl isn't engaged by the time she’s 11 she’s an old maid. Gram would crook her finger and say, “Now Patricia, be standoffish but not too standoffish.”
Then late in college Patricia started to act. Never forget, at the Footlight Club she was in “Pygmalion.” She was Eliza Doolittle. And toward the end of the play she was the transformed Eliza Doolittle. She came out, stood on stage and she was so beautiful, the audience gasped.
“The plow is coming!” The plow was coming like a ship through the blizzard. We shoveled an hour and a half. I was freezing, all of us were. We ran into the front hall and mother said, “The bride is coming down the stairs, everyone.”
Patricia. She started down the stairs, my sister, she was the bride coming down the stairs, and I thought of when Patricia was 12, her birthday. We were in the dining room and Dad said, “Get the birthday cake.” I was 10, my sister Kathy 8. We ran into the kitchen and we lit the 12 little candles and Kathy carried the cake into the dark dining room. Dad had snapped the lights off and Dad was singing, “Happy birthday to you...” Kathy set the cake down in front of Patricia and Patricia’s face was long, narrow, and it was filled with such happiness that I didn’t want the moment to end. I didn’t want any more tears. I didn’t want her to blow the candles out, but she started to blow them out and I willed that the candles would not go out. But the flames leaned to the left and they went out. And I wanted to say, “Dad, don’t turn the lights on yet,” but he snapped them on. It was over. I went to bed hurt, felt time didn’t care.
Patricia kept coming down the stairs in that beautiful bridal gown. We all applauded. When she got to the bottom, Dad put a cape around her shoulders. He had galoshes. We went out into the blizzard. Patricia got into the funeral limousine and off it went. And the rest of us, we walked, we walked in that blizzard all the way down Pill Hill. My feet were so cold they felt like needles. On we went through the village, and the only sound was a police car with chains: clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk. We were all freezing.
We got to the church. It was warm but we were shivering, just 40 or 50 of us, not 150. The organ played and we turned and Dad and Patricia were coming down the aisle. Dad was an epic with a moustache and Patricia looked like a beautiful candle. They walked all the way down the aisle. And just then there was a great rumble. I thought the roof was coming in. I looked up and I realized it was snow sliding off the roof. And Dad handed Patricia to John Madell of Chicago.
There was something solid about John, something solid and steady. He was like a Yankee clipper ship. The wind was so loud, it was like a roaring river. So we couldn’t hear the ceremony but we could see John putting the ring on my sister’s finger. And they kissed and we cheered. A moment later, the bride and groom, they went running out into the wild blizzard towards the limousine. The blizzard was happy now, it was throwing snowflakes at them. Off they went in the limousine and we pelted it with snowballs.
We walked up Pill Hill and Mrs. Lawrence said to me, “The whole world has turned into a bride for Patricia.” Old Mrs. Archibald’s brown wig flew off, landed in a tree. Mrs. Lawrence said, “It will make a lovely nest.”
We got back to the house and I was busy lighting fires and shucking oysters, pouring champagne. The caterers arrived. They were late but cheery, and soon enough from the kitchen the clatter of dishes and the smell of baked ham, and time was moving on. Bong, bong. Uncle Eric playing the piano [singing] “Waltzes, polkas, dancers galloping round.” The violinist arrived, he was a cannonball of a man. Patricia was speaking with a guest and the cannonball violinist went right up behind her and he played [humming].
Dad was in the hall, “Harry, Minetta, Patricia, come see who is here.” Patricia came running down and the cannonball seemed stuck to her. [humming] She gritted her teeth and went to the dining room, cannonball with her, [humming]. She fled to the bathroom, cannonball was outside [humming]. All afternoon the hall door burst open, people came in with tales of heroic deeds and drifting snow. And late in the afternoon dad said, “Harry [laughs] look who else is here! Come on in, Dick, Lydia.” Mother came running down, “Lydia, you were marvelous, Dick, you’re marvelous, everyone is marvelous!”
By 5:00 there were 90 people there. Everyone wanted Patricia to sing. So Patricia, she stood on the red rug in the piano room and she sang grandmother’s song. [singing] “Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you.” And she was radiant, not because of stage lights. She was radiant because she was in love and happy.
When she finished, everyone applauded. It was like an explosion. And Aunt Virginia, she led us in the Hawaiian war dance out into the big front hall, everyone dancing and singing. Suddenly, everyone was singing, [singing] “Chicago, Chicago, wonderful town.” People are dancing and singing, and outside the storm, it was singing and dancing. We were dancing around, [singing] “I saw a man who danced with his wife.” The bride and groom were dancing. Everybody was dancing.
The Norwegians were jumping up and down, the cannonball were jumping up and down, and it was then I saw the grandfather clock, it was vibrating. It was vibrating. And then it leaned just an inch. It leaned towards us and then it fell back and leaned towards us, and then it began to bounce. The grandfather clock was bouncing, bong, bong, bong. Oh, and I thought, ah, Gabriella, if time can dance, then you’ll dance, there is hope! If time can dance, Gabriella, there is hope, there is hope, there is hope!
CURWOOD: What a story, Jay O’Callahan. So, what did the guests say to you after this wedding?
O’CALLAHAN: The guests stayed, actually.
CURWOOD: You couldn’t get rid of them, huh? They were snowed in.
O’CALLAHAN: They were snowed in. My mother came down the next morning. Everyone had to sleep where they could, and there were three of the Chicago fellows underneath the dining room table, so she went right back upstairs. People couldn’t leave. After two days mother was in her room saying, “When are they going to leave?”
CURWOOD: And so, how would you say this affected later homecomings to your family house on Pill Hill?
O’CALLAHAN: The house that we bought, mother and father got after the war, was a millionaire’s house, but nobody wanted to heat the house, and so they got it for very little. And it was sold just a few years ago, great deal of money. And a wonderful couple who lived there invited us all back, so last year we were all back. Was the first time in 40 years the five of us siblings were there for his birthday party, and I was to tell Pill Hill stories.
So we gathered back and many of our friends were invited, so they came from different places in the country, as far as California, to just spend the night again, well, an evening, at the home again, telling stories. Everybody. I told mine, but everybody telling stories.
CURWOOD: Diane, how about you? How did this story touch you?
FERLATTE: Well, it brings back memories. Because I guess being born in Louisiana, you don’t see much snow. And as a child living in Oakland where I lived growing up the rest of my time, I hardly saw very little snow. And the first time I saw snow I was in my 20s. And funny thing, though, speaking of weddings, I got married in the snow. I don’t know how that happened.
I got married the end of January. And before we went up to Tahoe to get married, a snowstorm. And I could not believe it. We rented a five-bedroom house in Tahoe and we knew nothing about snow and about chains and all that. And then when we got to the cabin, we finally found the cabin, we had to shovel our way to the front door. We couldn’t even get in this house. It was just like awful. People were late, they couldn’t find where we were, and they were stopped because there was so much snow. Some of them didn’t have chains. Oh, it was just awful, and we didn’t know what to do or how to really handle snow, so we had to do a lot of shoveling, lot of shoveling.
CURWOOD: André, what about you? What experiences of your own does this story remind you of?
ACIMAN: Well, I was thinking as I was listening, it’s a wonderful story, and very moving. I mean, one of the things that made me think of was, of course, I discovered snow when I was 17 in the States. And I always wondered, you know, what does snow mean? What does it do to one? Is there a particular feeling that comes with snow? And I think there is, but I’m never quite sure I can put my finger on it. It’s something between family, ceremony, warmth, you know, the hearth and all that sort of stuff.
But as I was listening to this story I kept saying to myself, this story, it’s the product of someone who has lost something. And I always think that the best thing that we have, however real they were, are always the product of something we lost. In other words, we remember them and that’s why they begin to glow and they become very special.
CURWOOD: And wonderful. And I think, for me, snow creates this wonderful illusion that the world is perfect. Because first when it’s flying you can’t see anything else but where you are, and then when it’s settled and the sun comes out or the moon comes out, everything is perfect. You know those leaves you didn’t get in the yard? They’re covered. The car with a bit of a crumpled fender, it looks just as beautiful as a brand-new shiny vehicle. Everything is made new by that snow.
And everything is quiet. Around you there’s this padding so that when you’re with the folks that you’re with, you hear each other but the outside world really doesn’t intrude, unless it’s the scrape of the plows. But it just creates a magical moment.
FERLATTE: You’re from the East Coast, right?
CURWOOD: I’m from the East Coast, yes. New Hampshire.
FERLATTE: That’s how East Coast folks think. Everything is so perfect. I don't like snow. It doesn’t seem perfect to me. It seems awful. Too cold.
CURWOOD: It’s perfectly cold, huh?
CURWOOD: Well, I know we’d all like to hear more storytelling but, unfortunately, we’re just about out of time. I’d like to thank you all for joining me for this year’s Living on Earth Holiday Storytelling Special. Jay O’Callahan, Massachusetts-based storyteller, who shared his tale of winter festivities.
O’CALLAHAN: Oh, thank you. I loved the stories. Thanks so much.
CURWOOD: André Aciman, essayists and professor of comparative literature at the City University of New York, who took us across the ocean to Rome.
ACIMAN: It was wonderful being here.
CURWOOD: And Diane Ferlatte, storyteller from California who brought us home with her to Louisiana.
FERLATTE: Well, thanks for having me here. I love sharing my stories.
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