Fun with octogenarians!
Picking the lock of the memory box
How often do you knock on an unfamiliar door and get welcomed like an old friend by a complete stranger? Such was my good fortune visiting Springfield Massachusetts and meeting the magnificent Marty Pilon.
Diminutive and dynamic, what Marty lacks in size she more than makes up with enthusiasm and generosity. She was a one-woman welcome wagon when Father Paul and I arrived on the eve of blizzard in February. Sixteen inches of snow later, whatever plans we had were abandoned but a snow day with Marty and her dog, Petey, proved invaluable. It was great fun getting to know Marty while she poured wine and lifted the lid on the early days of Downey Side during the young life of Father Paul, rogue priest.
Springfield is the birthplace of Republicanism, basketball and Downey Side, of which, only basketball remains vaguely recognizable from its original form. Over the past year, as I listened to over a dozen hours of recorded conversation with Father Paul, it became clear that relying on his recollections to trace the history of the charity was with fraught with difficulties. Memory plays a lot of tricks, chief among them, “the disappearing act”. While Father Paul generally recalls the shape and form of events, the details—names, places, times—are absent, like the faces of stone statues left to weather. It makes writing a huge challenge. But sitting around with Marty, shooting the breeze, brought into relief stories that had been entirely passed over.
Father Paul had never mentioned the barn. He’d told me that hearing confessions from people who hadn’t done anything bad bored him, and as a young priest he was eager to actually do something constructive but until Marty piped up, I’d missed out on a huge part of his personality. During the late sixties and seventies, every Friday night, in the barn next to his house on Bay Street, Father Paul held an informal mass, complete with guitar playing and singing. Young people loved it. It’s where the community of Springfield met and hung out with the Downey Side kids, who at that time, were living in group homes. In so many ways, it highlights exactly what’s wrong with the foster care system today, with foster kids disconnected from the people around them, never getting the chance to just be themselves.
While I won’t give away a lady’s age, together Marty and Father Paul average over 80. It was great to witness how adding Marty’s perspective filled in gaps and also sparked greater recall for Father Paul. Memories seem highly personal, so it was interesting to understand them as a group activity. I came away with a new portrait of the young priest, in tune with the radical flavor of the times, driving his second-hand mail truck full of foster kids around Western Massachusetts and breaking down barriers in his barn.
The snow meant the original purpose of the visit, interviewing the some of the early Downey Siders had to be postponed but we made it to a meeting the following day with Mike Ashe, who with his wife Barbara were the agency’s first “house parents”. Mike later was elected sheriff of Springfield. The first ever to have a social work degree. His forty years in this role, a beacon of progress during decades of draconian backsliding in criminal justice should be the subject of its own book. We decided I would return to Springfield in a few weeks when things had thawed out and talk with him.