Archive for November, 2017

Madonna of Sheafe Street

November 21, 2017


View of Sheafe Street, Boston.

by Robert Israel

The rain that began on Sunday kept the skies over Boston leaden all through the week. Garrulous peddlers at the Haymarket hurled insults at anybody caught lingering underneath their tents and not buying soggy produce. On Blackstone and Hanover streets the accumulated despair from all corners of the city seemed to settle onto the stooped shoulders of intoxicated men who huddled under leaky tarps.

I caved in to the gloom made heavier by the weight of my empty pockets. I trudged down Salem Street, no job prospects in sight. By nightfall, in the shadows of the illuminated downtown office windows that glowed like grinning teeth, I lay in bed waiting for another never-gladdening new day.


Donella raised the venetian blinds, squinting as the first rays of sunlight in over a week danced on laundry strung between tenements. Leaning on a pillow, a kerchief around her head, she tossed breadcrumbs to pigeons that flocked beneath her windowsill.

Lilly, who lived in the apartment next to mine, told me that our neighbor Donella moved to her flat thirty years before, pregnant with her daughter, Maria. She spoke no English. Weeks before the baby was due Donella’s husband announced he was stepping out for a pack of smokes. He never returned. Lilly said that she and her brothers suspected Donella’s husband’s disappearance had something to do with unpaid gambling debts, but no one knew for sure.

Facie brute,” Lilly called the vanished man. “I don’t blame her, she’s a peasant, from the mountains. But him!” She hurled a mouthful of spit onto the sidewalk. “If he ever returns and I get my hands on him, he’ll be dead before the spit on that sidewalk has a chance to dry.”

Lilly dressed in black that matched her dyed hair. She never married. She smelled of lacquer and perfume. Her voice was raspy from years of smoking. Her brothers visited her daily, their footsteps trudging down the long linoleum corridor to her rooms.

Once a week a van from the church parked on Sheafe Street. Two nuns trundled up the stairs to fetch Donella and Maria from their flat that was furnished only with a toilet and a kitchen sink. The nuns brought them both to the public baths at the North End Union on Parmenter Street so they could be bathed and groomed.

“Sometimes, when it’s cold outside the old lady can’t make it down the stairs, Maria boils water for her on the hot plate and washes the old lady’s hair, like she’s making pasta,” Lilly said. “I used to go over there to help them, to bring them things, but not lately. If I go over there now, it’s too much for me, it breaks my heart.”

Women from the neighboring streets would appear every now and again holding plastic boxes of food and spuckadellas from the bakeries on Prince Street. They’d rap on the windowpane. They’d call Donella’s name aloud, twice, maybe three times. Donella would raise her venetian blinds, pull back her curtains, prop open the window and smile her toothless grin. She’d lean over, and accept their food and then she’d hold up her rosary to bless them.


Most summer weekends the neighborhood prepared for the street-side festivals held in honor of the Saints. Crowds streamed down Salem Street beneath colorful lights strung between tenements and draped onto light posts. Vendors sold cream-filled pastries, meatball sandwiches, clams on the half shell, curbside shot glasses of homemade grappa.

At the Feast of Madonna della Cava, men from the social club on Battery Street displayed a banner depicting Mother Mary as she had appeared in a mute boy’s dream from a 13th century Sicilian folktale. They paraded the banner through the streets on a stretcher covered with plastic flowers. The crowd cheered, “Viva Madonna della Cava!” Greenbacks, tossed from tenement windows, cascaded over the procession like confetti. Alter boys retrieved the fistfuls of cash from the gutters and pinned the bills on the Madonna whose eyes stared heavenward in blissful reverie. A priest, crucifix in hand, led the throng. The Roma Band played “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Smoke from the grilled sausages and the steam from manicotti bubbling in aluminum trays blanketed the air like fog.

I had no reason to celebrate. Another month passed and still no work. Lilly wormed it out of me that I was skimping on food and threatened to give me a sciafo unless I stocked up. The next day, and every day thereafter, she “cooked coffee,” as she put it, delivering a canister to my apartment sweetened with sugar and evaporated milk. She’d leave stuffed peppers on my doorstep covered with foil paper or calamari with the squid’s tentacles and darkened eye sockets positioned on the plate so it looked as if they had just swum to the surface from a sea of red sauce.

Lilly clipped coupons from the newspaper and slipped them under my door, but I found other bargains: day old spuckadellas from the bakery, half-price; free pizzas still warm if I asked for the owner by name and showed up before the close of business; overripe fruits and vegetables at the Haymarket that had been left in crates on the sidewalks every Friday and Saturday evenings.


One Friday morning I spied Maria lumbering down Salem Street past butcher shops where carcasses of lambs hung from meat hooks and the shiny slaughtered pigs, their pink hooves tucked beneath them, looked as if they had just finished some sort of morbid ballet.

I caught up with Maria at the Haymarket’s open stalls. She poked tomatoes and argued over prices with the men at the pushcarts. I approached her, offered to carry her bundles back to the North End. She acted as if she didn’t comprehend. So I did a pantomime: I hunched over, swayed back and forth on the balls of my feet, pretending to be a beast of burden. She nodded consent.

We hoofed it back to Donella’s and Maria’s apartment. The old lady was waiting by the window. She waved to me. I waved back. Donella gestured, insistent I approach the window. Pigeons scattered. With Maria now beside her, she opened the window. She tried to thank me, indecipherable words spilling forth from her toothless mouth. I looked up, puzzled. She held up a rosary. I lowered my head to receive her blessings.


On the following Monday morning, a temporary employment agency telephoned with an assignment, to report the next day for work at one of the downtown office buildings.

Crossing into the city the next morning, I passed the corner of Blackstone and Hanover streets where the homeless men in Haymarket Square were sleeping it off in the chill morning air. I raced up the steps to Government Center plaza. The city was drenched in brilliant sunlight. The Madonna was smiling.



(dedicated to Robin Chase)

The Madonna of Sheafe Street will be be included in Robert Israel’s collection of essays, Light Upon the Roads, to be published in 2018.


Liam and the Woodpile

November 14, 2017


By Robert Israel

Liam telephones. His voice is whisper-thin.

“I can’t get to the woodlot today,“ he says. “I’m in the hospital.”

I ask if he’s all right.

“Nothing to worry about,” he says, and the call ends.

Two weeks later he telephones again.

“Might it be convenient for you to stop by today?” he asks.

Liam is seventy-three, with six grown children. He emigrated from Ireland as a teenager. I visit his woodlot each autumn to load firewood into my Honda. He employs two workers from South America, they wear overalls and thick round-tipped work boots and they never wear gloves: their hands are caked with grease so no splinters puncture their flesh.

When I arrive at the woodlot at our agreed upon time, Liam is stacking firewood alongside his helpers. Liam’s son Declan is scuttling about the woodlot in a Bobcat.

Liam has wracked up several vehicles over the years, including his beloved green flatbed, the one that had his name stenciled on the driver’s side door. This past winter, when over six feet of snow fell between January and February, he swerved onto a patch of black ice and hit a light post.

“It was mighty icy on the roads,” he says, “and I felled that post clean at the trunk. When the coppers came by they threatened to write me up with a hefty fine, but after we talked awhile they agreed to go easy on me, factoring in the bad road conditions and all. But I had to go down to Town Hall to settle up.”

He didn’t wait to be summoned. He arranged to meet the town controller the next day.

“He wanted twenty-four hundred, but I told him I would only pay twelve hundred on account of the ice and bad roads and all, and I said the cops would stand by that amount, so the controller accepted my offer so long as I paid it on the spot, which I did, cash money, and I went on my way,” Liam says.

Liam has had two surgeries on his shoulders. He survived a nasty bout of gastrointestinal cancer awhile back. He walks with a limp and he’s as skinny as a sapling. He never complains except to express chagrin that even after two surgeries he can’t quite lift his arms up above his head. He shows me, raising his arm, and when it meets the halfway mark, it shudders. He quickly lowers it.

I’m convinced Liam is a leprechaun who holds sway over people, what with his pale blue eyes that glow when he speaks in that soft, lilting brogue of his.

Declan is just as accident-prone as his dad. The day I visited the woodpile he tipped the Bobcat over. Convinced he was injured, we all ran to him across the wood lot — Liam and I and the two hired hands – and it took the four of us pushing on the opposite side of the Bobcat’s frame to right it up again while Declan sat, hands folded on his lap, pinned sideways. I offered him a hand so he could steady himself. He shooed me away. He dusted himself, his father inspected him and the Bobcat and since there was no visible damage to either, he nodded to Declan who cranked the Bobcat’s ignition and resumed hauling tree trunks, stacking them beside the hydraulic log splitter.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I was sawing a tree and my head got wedged between a branch and the tree trunk and forced my eye to pop out of its socket?” Liam asks. “I managed to get my head free and oh, let me tell you, it ached mightily, but my eye popped right back into the socket. I see just as good as I did before.”

2017 Nobel Peace Prize: Toward an Abolishment of Nuclear Weapons

November 7, 2017


Sumiteru Taniguchi (1929-2017)

By Robert Israel

The selection of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) as recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize – to be awarded in Stockholm, Sweden on December 10 – comes at an uneasy time. The global community has read of a possible breakdown in deterring atomic weapon development in Iran, seen nuclear weapons testings in North Korea, and heard President Trump’s bellicose threat to the North Koreans: “They will be met with fire and fury such as the world has never seen.” One needs only to consider the testimony of Sumiteru Taniguchi – who died of cancer at age 88 on August 30 while being considered by the Nobel committee as a recipient of this award – to understand our collective peril and dread.

On August 9, 1945, Taniguchi was a sixteen-year-old lad riding his bike to make postal delivery rounds, when a single atomic weapon, dropped by an American Boeing B-29 and nicknamed “Fat Man,” exploded over Nagasaki. He survived but was was so badly burned that he spent the next two years lying on his stomach while the wounds on his back were treated at the local hospital.

“When I woke up (after the blast),” Taniguchi said, “the skin of my left arm from the shoulder to the tip of my fingers was trailing like a rag. Bodies, burned black, voices calling for help from collapsed building, people with flesh falling off and their guts falling out. This place became a sea of fire. It was hell.”

I was a visiting reporter in Japan years ago when I met Taniguchi at the Nichidai Middle School in Nagasaki, in a rebuilt section of the city not far from Ground Zero. Students brought origami cranes made out of multicolored paper, the dual symbol of the hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) and the international disarmament movement. Taniguchi, standing onstage amidst these paper cranes, described how he tried to gather letters sent swirling in a fiery, radioactive maelstrom.

The citation from the Nobel committee for ICAN reads: “For its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is meant to stir our collective consciousness in support of ICAN’s mission to abolish nuclear weapons and to acknowledge the hibakusha’s hopes that they remain the last witnesses of a nuclear holocaust.


Robert Israel, a Boston-based writer and editor, reported from Japan as a recipient of the Hibakusha Award. He can be reached at