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Southbridge Recollections:

Mrs. Lombardi’s Meatballs
By:  Edward Brousseau


     A combination of recent Evening News articles managed  to tease some dormant childhood memories from the subconscious, not unlike the Spring rains coaxing colorful flowers from the thawing ground.  Reminiscing can be a dangerous pastime.  Time and exaggeration have a direct correlation, in that as the first increases, so does the second.  Having put forth my disclaimer, the following is a very small window into the Brochu Street neighborhood of the 1950’s.

     The island of land formed by the Quinebaug River,  Mechanic and Charlton streets, and Sacred Heart Parish down in the “Flats” area of Southbridge,  was the fertile ground that produced my first memories, and oldest friendships.  The families were mostly French-Canadian and Italian.  Names such as Tiberii, Lombardi, Jacques, Boivert, Vespucci, Brousseau, Tardif, Cyr, LaFleche, Leduc, and Arpin, all evoke stories when meeting by chance on the streets today.  Dussault, Bartlett, Laverdiere Cote, Girard, Guibeault, Favreau, Garceau, Trudeau, Yvon.  Names that have fallen deep into memory, names that planted seeds that blossomed into those memories.

     We all lived in three deckers with small yards around a dead end---- Brochu Street---- with Sacred Heart School at the end, and enough of a rocky dirt lot for baseball to simulate the ageless Red Sox-Yankees rivalry.   All the Italians were Yankee followers due to the DiMaggio brothers who wore the hated pinstripes.  The most ardent fan was Joe  Lombardi’s father Dominic.  He was probably also the one who gave us neighborhood delinquents the most exercise----chasing us from his backyard garden after we’d plucked juicy tomatoes or scallions---always mispronounced scunnions.  Our bounty clutched tightly in our grubby fists,  the escape route was always the same, hop the fence into the schoolyard, then into the woods down by the river.  Before the flood of August 1955, the area between the schoolyard and the river was a fair sized patch of trees and rocks, afforded safe refuge.

     It was also the scene for hours of imaginary western shootouts and war battles complete with swinging vines, caves and a swift current that threatened to carry us downriver into the AO power plant turbines, never to be seen again.  At least that was the admonition from mom; dad just gave a knowing wink.
 
     We were always brought to justice.   Looking back, Mamie Lombardi, my sisters Alice and Lorraine, Diane Jacques, Joann Boivert, Paula Therrien, and Lois Lemire always seemed to be “squealing” on us.  And our mothers never seemed to accept our version of the story.  Could it have been the river muck on our shoes, the tomato or the grape colored stains down the front of our shirts?
 
     Unlike Pavlov’s dogs, we tough lads never did learn the law of cause and effect. From the cause of terrifying our sisters with pinching crayfish plucked from beneath river rocks or slimy frogs captured in the weeds, the effect was twofold, both unsatisfying to us.  The first was the expected scolding.  The second was the more painful.  The “victims” were given money and allowed to cross Mechanic to LaVallee’s pharmacy for an ice cream. Can anyone remember the long cool marble counter? The row of booths with the phone booth at the end?  Or the name on the large brown wooden Root Beer barrel that sat at the end of the counter?  Was it Hires, A&W,…….?

      The pre-flood Mechanic St. bridge spanning the river had arches, and these provided a “rite of passage”----out of boyhood into tough guy---- to the more daring or idiotic of us.  I have yet to classify myself.  Scampering over the iron beam, one end to the other, brought immediate and lasting recognition.  It also brought swift and lasting retribution if your mother heard of it.  My father just lowered his head, looked over his glasses, and gave me another wink.  Mothers just didn’t understand.

     They did keep the neighborhood safe; one of them always finding time to sit on the porch, keeping an eye on all that went on.  I can still hear David and Steve Tiberii’s mom hollering out “David Arthur Tiberii”.  The use of all three names always meant big trouble for those being summoned.  Or Mrs. Lombardi cooking.   She would make enough so that the kids would line up on the porch, move into the kitchen, stab a tasty meatball smothered in rich sauce, and disappear through the shed door.  More stains on our shirts.  Now that was Prince spaghetti day.

     There were some disappointments.  The day the schoolyard received a new layer of asphalt was one.  All these gigantic machines, a boy’s dream, come to life.  I was quarantined with the measles.  Another was DiFederico’s market closing.  David and Donny’s father Gabriel would pay us in candy to help stock the shelves or sweep the floor.  Or Richard and Popeye Jacques’s dog Steppy running off with our only baseball to some undiscovered lair.  Steppy was the only dog that I remember in the area, and he was a celebrity, of sorts.  At the old Strand Theatre, he came home with the prize in an “Old Yeller” look alike contest.
 
     And there was an exciting (to me anyway) day that turned scary very quickly.  The flood of 1955 started as many others had my father.  Born and raised in the Flat, he had seen the water level cover the sidewalks many times.  My mother, on the other hand, had grown up on Litchfield Ave. --- where there were no sidewalks--- and could not convince dad to heed the numerous warnings to move to higher ground.   Finally, about 10AM on Friday he relented.  With the rising water lifting the linoleum in the kitchen, we climbed the dark stairs to the second floor apartment abandoned by the Arpin’s.

     From that vantage point, I could see cars bobbing as they were carried down the street. Our blue Studerbaker was found under a slab of cement at the very same AO power plant we were warned about—mothers are always right.  Shelves with groceries still stacked high, exiting the broken windows of DiFedirico’s floating towards the river.  And most alarming, six family houses ripped from their foundations, carried with the rushing murky water into whatever was in their path.  As the water level subsided, so did the level of fear, and the excitement rose in its place.  Then panic set in.  The Board of Health made the dreaded announcement that all would be subjected to a series of shots to prevent Typhoid Fever.
 
     And the families all came back.  We could again buy baseballs at Perron’s hardware, get buzz cuts at Chet’s barbershop, have our skates sharpened at George the Greek’s shoe repair, the top of his head as shiny as the shoes in his window, waiting for their owners.  The trees down by the river were gone, the schoolyard all cracked and lumpy, the cellars cleaned of any and all neat stuff, including Mr. Lombardi’s wooden barrels filled with homemade wine --remember the grape stains on our shirts mentioned earlier?
 
     The hours spent watching Howdy Doody and Hopalong Cassidy on Ronnie and Joanne Boivert’s grandparents black and white TV, getting grease under our nails at Savoie’s gas station, skating at Carpenter’s Pond or hiking up the hill to the dynamite shack, all are part of who we become.  Mr. Tiberii taking us to the family farm in Charlton, washing the smoke stained windows at Brousseau’s Cafe, carving forts out of the mountains of plowed snow piled high at the edge of the schoolyard.  Retrieving discarded alter flowers from behind the church for our mothers.

     And watching my mother break into tears upon seeing the thick, gooey mud the flood waters carried into and onto everything we owned, destroying tangible triggers to memories, and leaving misty connections to the past, susceptible to the dangers of time and exaggeration.

     But while friendships and memories do fade with time, they do not die.  They lie dormant, waiting for a spark to awaken them, memories to cherish and pass on, exaggerated or not.
 
 

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