By James A Donahue III
IMAGINE running down the steps of the Boston subway, passing some change under the ticket booth window, getting tokens, going through the turnstile, running down some more steps and waiting, not too long, for the train. Before the train came a huge rush of air pushed across the platform, then the loud clatter as a black and brown row of subway cars came to a stop. Tightly holding my hand, my Aunt Nezera took me on the train. We would go a few stops or all over Boston, never in car or taxi; always on foot , trains, trolleys or buses.
When we got to our station, we get off, stopped and waved to the conductor, the person who sat at the end of the train looking out to see if he could close doors. Then we would take off again. Up the concrete stairs with their metal edges, we ran, and through the exit turnstile with a teeth like a comb into the sunlight. That was Aunt Nezera get the job done as quickly as possible, but don’t forget to stop and thank or wave at those helping you.
My earliest memories are of Boston and Cambridge with my Aunt Nezera. She lived in Cambridge. My parents, her sister and brother-in-law, lived in Sherborn, at that time, a rural town outside the city. I would spend lots of weekends with her. We never really sat still. We traversed the city; sometimes for errands, sometimes for fun. Aunt Nezera enjoyed all the things young kids loved: The Franklin Park Zoo, the Swan Boats at the Boston Public Garden in the summer. The Circus, the Ice Capades and the Ice Follies in at the Boston Garden. I went to all those shows and all those places with my Aunt Nezera. She took me to my first movie, a Disney movie, The Incredible Journey, about two dogs and a cat lost in the wilderness. Aunt Nezera loved dogs, so this movie was especially fitting.
Even though my Aunt Nezera was born in Nassau, Bahamas, she viewed Boston as her second home. She lived there from before World War II, working in series of factories and ultimately at Jordan Marsh, the huge downtown Boston Department store. While working at the Hood Rubber Company in Watertown, Massachusetts, during World War II, she won an award for making more life rafts than anyone else in the factory. The award earned her a handwritten note from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
That award sprung from her core. She worked. She worked hard and she worked all the time, except when the Circus, the Ice Follies or a good parade was in town. Her work ethic arose from a sense of responsibility. Her parents died when she was 19 and 20, leaving behind 12 siblings. Four of those siblings, including my Mother, were less than 10 years old. With her older sister and two of her older brothers, she cared for them.
After she came to Boston, her three youngest sisters came to a boarding school near her. When they would have time off, she would shepherd them around Boston, much as she had done for me and my brothers and sister many years later. I suspect she showed them Boston, the same way she showed us. In the warm months, she would go to S.S. Pierce, which had a grocery store across the street from the Boston Common. There she’d buy some ham, some rolls, a small bottle of mustard and we would go have lunch on a park bench with a bag of peanuts she picked up from a street vendor. Her sisters could be stuffy, seeking out nice sit down restaurants around the city. Aunt Nezera preferred the unassuming park bench.
Shopping was progress with her. We did not window shop. She went in decided what she wanted and bought it. Her sisters could look all day at two black pocket books and be unable to decide which one to buy. Aunt Nezera saw what she wanted bought it and moved on. If she did not see something see liked, she did not waste any more time in a place. On November 22, 1963, my Aunt Nezera, my Mother and brother came up out of the subway at Park Street Station in Boston. As we walked the couple blocks toward Jordan Marsh, a man unloading a truck said something about President John F. Kennedy being shot. We listened to the news for a minute on his transistor radio and ran the remaining blocks to the television department of Jordan Marsh. There hundreds of people had come to watch the news.
Later in 1970, when Cardinal Richard Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, friend of the Kennedys and architect of a furious expansion of Catholic churches and schools in the Boston area died, Aunt Nezera and I went to his wake at the Boston Cathedral. We travelled by subway, of course, waiting in a line that wound around the block for our chance to pay our respects at the open casket of Cardinal Cushing lying in state.
Aunt Nezera eventually left Boston to return to Nassau to live full time and to work in her family’s business A. Baker & Sons. From that time, until just a couple years ago, she had the same routine: Get up around 5; start breakfast for her brothers, sisters, and guests, go to 7 a.m. Mass and go to the grocery store or the Old City Market on Bay Street, the Fish Market, Potters Cay or all of these. By 8 she was back at the house to finish breakfast. By 9 she was ready to go to work.
In later years, she went to Mass at St. Thomas More in Palmdale, not her home parish. But she liked it better. The same dedicated group of parishioners was there every morning. Everyone hugged each other before communion.
As I grew older and could do the driving, she would sometimes ask to go for a little ride around the island if we got through with the grocery stores a little early or it was Sunday when she would not be going to the shop. A little ride was one of the few bits of relaxation she allowed herself.
Although most people viewed it as a chore, Aunt Nezera loved grocery stores. She knew all the managers and butchers in every grocery store from Palmdale to East Bay. She would scold the managers if they moved her favourite butchers to another store. The managers invariably assured her that the new butcher had been trained on how exactly Miss Baker liked her roasts prepared.
Even when visiting us in Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, where we moved in 1972, Aunt Nezera would ask: do you know where such a town was? The reason was that she had seen a commercial on television or an advertisement in the newspaper of some grand opening of a new grocery store in that town. If we did, off we went. Some of the best meals we had, were special items she picked up at grand openings or were just new products she wanted to try.
She always cooked whether in Nassau or visiting in the states. She would occasionally eat out for lunch. In Boston, it was chicken pot pie at Filene’s, Jordan Marsh’s department store rival, across the street. In Pennsylvania, it was the chicken pot pie at the William Penn Inn. She always cooked dinner.
In more than 90 years, she never ate hamburger she did not grind herself. She always ate a lot of fruits and vegetables. In all this time, she rarely complained about the work she did, although she vigorously complained about those who could not work as fast as she could, which was nearly everybody. After her sister died in 1995, she and I were peeling potatoes for a meal that would take place after the funeral. She aired one complaint that she had making meals for after funerals since she was a child and she was tired of doing it.
She never tired of dogs. She always had one. Her favourite was Fido, a part Chihuahua mutt that followed her to the car, in the parking lot of a grocery store, of course. Fido adored my Aunt Nezera and waited for her to come home every day. She took a big shipping crate that he could stand on and look into the kitchen window. She would talk to him as she fixed dinner after work. He would bark back and excitedly wag his tale.
A fall, while visiting my parents in September 2001, resulted in a broken hip. When she learned that she could go home as soon as she could walk down the hallway, she set her mind to doing that and was out of the hospital in a few days. When she returned to Nassau, she went back to work at A. Baker and Sons.
At the shop, she marvelled at how the kids who came into the store decades ago and who she taught how to tie a tie or what clothes they would need when they went to college up North had become the men and women in places of power in government and business in the Bahamas.
These men and women had come into the shop as kids, and talked with my Aunts about their lives. They were encouraged to stick with school, to not give up and to work hard.
She went to work at the shop every day until age 94. For the past year or so, she has found it harder to stand. She also had gotten forgetful, but she was always happy. She talked about how good the breeze felt, how nice the sun shone and how beautiful the flowers were. She always made plans for her next trip to Boston.
Nezera Baker was born January 15, 1917, in Nassau, Bahamas. She died on February 22, 2013.
• (James A Donahue,III, son of the former Helen Baker of Nassau and her husband, James Donahue, is the Executive Deputy Attorney General for Public Protections (Acting) in Pennsylvania. He is the nephew of Nezera Baker, who died on Friday at the age of 96 from pneumonia).