163 Upham St. perfect for Driscolls and for aspiring athletes

... Memoir describes roomy home with two long side yards, barn, orchard — and 'It' cake

by Jack Driscoll

(This is the first of a two-part series, excerpting from a just-published memoir of the Driscoll family entitled, "Picnic for Twelve". The Driscolls have lived in Melrose since 1934, residing at 163 Upham Street from 1936 to 1946.)

163 Upham Street was on the one hand palatial and on the other homey.

Facing the house from the street, a semicircular driveway set off a half-moon section of land with a fifty-foot pine tree front and center. The center-entrance white Colonial had a large white-railed front porch that extended from the left edge of the house across the front and wrapped around the right side for about 20 feet. There were two open fields running down each side (they later became house lots).

Behind the field on the left, which was broken up by a couple of medium-sized trees, was a two-story barn with a dirt-floor basement where the cows were kept years earlier. Betty remembers the creaky wooden stairs that went from the first to second floors. There was no electricity so the stairway was always dark. “And scary,” Betty said. Essentially the barn was used as a huge play house and later a perfect place for teenage parties with crepe paper decorations hanging from the rafters and the old Victrola blaring away. And running the entire width of the property behind the barn and house was an orchard, intermingled with numerous climbing trees, briar bushes and other thick brush that served as a perfect stage for Tarzan activities that evolved into war games after Pearl Harbor was attacked.

The orchard featured juicy McIntosh apples, Baldwins and crabapples, as well as Bartlett pear trees, wild green and red grape vines and who knows what else.  “We would always eat the apples on the ground, because they were extra sweet,” Betty said. That was a no-no, of course.”

To a child the land out back seemed like a huge jungle but in fact was probably 150 feet wide and 50 to 80 feet deep, with a couple of paths running to the house that fronted on First Street and was owned by the Stowers family, who became good friends.

A driveway spur off the main semicircular driveway ran down the left side of the house ending opposite the back door and a spur off to the left of that driveway ran up a slight incline to the three-story, modest-sized barn. The incline, as with many barns, enabled a basement floor that opened out at ground level behind the barn.

Daughter Mary at 16 was crowned Queen of the Mt. Hood Winter Festival in 1938.
The side lot near the barn was broken up by a couple of trees and was reserved as a play area for the younger children and their friends, but the lot on the right as you faced the house was clear and became the unofficial football field (and baseball) for the grooming of members of several undefeated Melrose High School teams in the 1940s …  

There never was any tension among neighbors surrounding 163 Upham Street. It was one, big, happy family.

“Fascinating place to grow up,” said Jim 70 years later.  “Magical for kids,” said Betty.

The field was about 60 yards long and 35 yards wide. Every so often Walter Sheridan would kick a high, spiraling football the entire length of the field when he was in junior high school. He later set the record at Holy Cross for the longest punting average in a single game, requiring at least 5 punts in a game. The record: 48.3 yards.

Sheridan, who later became a well-known high school coach, was most noted for becoming the first freshman ever to win the O'Melia Trophy as the outstanding player in the 1946 Holy Cross-Boston College game. His long pass to speedy Leo Troy of Melrose won that game for Holy Cross. Sheridan and Troy first hooked up at 163 Upham and later became an all-scholastic tandem at Melrose High.

“I remember a young guy showing up after moving from Chelsea,” said Jim. "He was younger than Bob. Named Ralph Loveys. He eventually was a Little All-American at Norwich."

Among the names of other standouts-to-be were Forbes, Robinson, Spadafora, Soule, Grocott, Cahoon, Lloyd, Niles, Harlow, Priestley and more.

Jim Driscoll thought that Chuck Robinson was “the best player in the yard.” Robinson was killed on D-Day in World War II.

The game of football dominated the lives of the four Driscoll boys during their school years. All four played for the Melrose High School, and each had a perfect record his senior year. Unfortunately for Jack that was because his team lost every game in 1951. Jim (1941), Bob (1943) and David (1959) played for teams that had undefeated seasons …

Bob was the only one of the four boys to play football in college. He was a linebacker and defensive captain at UMass-Amherst. During pre-season practice his junior year, Bob broke his leg and was thought to be lost for the season.His cast was in two pieces, so he would find a remote spot on campus and remove his cast so he could jog haltingly every day for a couple of weeks without the knowledge of the doctors and coaches. As his leg got stronger, he forced himself to run. Several days later he was back in the starting lineup for the sixth game. Bob also was Treasurer of his fraternity, Kappa Sigma Chi, whose members included several football players. The budget was straining, so Bob ordered a new procedure for the starving players when they returned to the frat for dinner. At each setting at the table was a tall glass of water. They had to drink down the water before they could have milk. That cut the milk bill by 30 percent and balanced the budget.


The inside of the house at 163 Upham Street matched the family's needs almost perfectly …

To the left of the front door was a long living room and to the right was a 13-square foot music room. Today it would be a TV room, but then it was a playroom with a radio. Before dinner the children would sit in that room with their snacks (usually a piece of bread with peanut butter) and listen to their favorite radio dramas, like “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Man” and “Batman and Robin”. It also was the room where catastrophe almost struck.

Early one Christmas morning Betty, Patty and Jackie sneaked downstairs. It was dark, but they didn't want to turn on a light. Jackie had the idea of lighting a candle. He was about 7. They walked toward the window where they could see a bit better and Jackie lit a candle. Trouble was he was near the curtains and, whoosh, up went the curtains in flames. The Dad and Mom went racing downstairs when they heard the screams. He tore off her house coat and managed to smother the flames and prevent a disaster.

Father Frank was the chef on Sundays and holidays. He also was the master of concoctions.
The irony was that Patty always thought it was she who caused the fire. Jack didn't find out till she was about 65 years old and was able to relieve her of the notion. It had gnawed at her all those years.

Behind the music room was the dining room where nightly meals took place at 6 p.m. On Sunday there was a 9 o'clock Mass for children at St. Mary's. Those who were old enough could go to any Mass they wished, but they had to be home for the dinner at 1 p.m. that was always prepared by their father. He had already cooked a breakfast for everyone, often creating weird concoctions from leftovers. He also liked to buy beef and lamb kidneys at the Faneuil Hall butcher shop area. They were fried up with bacon and onions, sometimes mashed potato patties.

For Sunday dinner he usually cooked a roast (beef, pork, lamb) with gravy and all the fixings. He liked to have one of the children work with him, peeling potatoes, cutting up beans, etc. Even in the hardest of times meals were always hearty. That may have been deliberate, because full plates provided a sense of security. Until they were teenagers and had worn enough hand-me-downs or had overheard snippets of revealing conversation, the children hardly realized the family was barely scraping by.

Visitors at that meal were always amazed when someone would ask one of the boys to pass the milk. Each of them had a full quart bottle on the floor next to his chair and would simply reach down and, yes, pass the milk.

The kitchen was square and had a large stove. From age 6 each child was expected to fend for himself or herself at breakfast. Their mother would make a pot of hot cereal (oatmeal, cream of wheat, etc. ) before any of them got up and leave it on the stove to stay warm. It wasn't unusual for the children to cook up eggs or pancakes.

At the back left of the kitchen was a door to a good-sized pantry with shelves running along the walls on two sides, chock full. Among the cans and jars was a beat-up round orange carboard marked “Epsom Salts”. It contained the family fortune. It was in the empty salts' box that Mary kept a wad of dollar bills and some change from which she drew on to meet everyday needs, such as paying the milk man, who delivered daily, or the grocery delivery person, weekly. No one ever dared dip into the Salts' box without their mother's permission.


The shelves were so well stocked that it was sometimes difficult find what their mother sent them for. “I can't find it,” came the whiney cry. Mother would dash into the pantry, grab the item and berate the child with a twinkle in her eye:

“You can't find water in the ocean,” she would say. Or better yet, “If it was a dog, it would bite ya.” In both cases her remark was made with an unmistakable, affected brogue. Mary and Frank both had a number of cryptic sayings that they would repeat often. It would seem they were derived from Ireland. Interestingly, Mary, unlike her sisters and brother, never had a trace of brogue. Clearly she had made it her business to avoid the lilt at an early age. But there was a trace of a brogue when she spoke those two particular sayings. The sayings she spoke most often were: “Don't cry over spilled milk,” and “What's done is done.”

Frank had his own sayings. With a gentle but firm voice at the dinner table he would say, “Take what you get and say nothing.” During the war he added a new wrinkle when he challenged everyone to become a member of the “Clean-the-Plate Club.” Then there was, “Don't take any wooden nickels.” No one was quite sure what that meant. He would usually use it when someone was leaving the house. His favorite philosophical sayings were: “It's a tough life if you don't weaken,” “It will all come out in the wash” and “Life is short.” And then there was his advice about how to handle criticism: “Take it from whence it comes.” …

The Driscoll family numbered six girls and four boys. The sisters, seated from left: Eileen, Mary, Kay; standing: Jean, Betty, Pat.
Back to the layout of the house.  Upstairs there was the only bathroom for 11 family members, plus five bedrooms and a sunroom overlooking the front door. That room was used to grow plants and keep Eileen’s hope chest secure. One bedroom was off a back staircase. Jim and Bob slept there until Jackie was old enough to share their king-size bed. For a while Jackie’s restless sleeping kept them awake until Jim and Bob learned the magic trick: They slept on top of him.

The room that was joked about most was the laundry at the back of the house, reached by going through the pantry. It had no foundation and no heat, appearing to have been a builder's afterthought. Most of the jokes centered around their mother's “get-ups” when she did the daily wash. She'd sometimes have to wear a hat, a long winter coat and high boots. The old-reliable Easy washing machine continued to do its job, although it throbbed, banged and set records for decible levels.

One day a bill collector arrived at the front door and rang the bell. Mary must have been in the kitchen to hear it ringing. She opened the door and immediately deduced his mission. Mary was known for being a straight arrow, but, when it came to making excuses over unpaid bills, she was know to tell a fib or two.

She thought quickly and said in her thickest brogue, standing there in her ludicrous coat and boots, “I'm just the maid. Mrs. Driscoll is out. You'll have to come back another day.” With that she shut the door, leaving him scratching his head. The children with earshot were in shock. Their mother had told a lie.

Off and on through the years Mary had had a helper or live-in maid, but it was hard to get anyone in the late 1930s. Occasionally a woman came in weekly and helped with the ironing, but more and more the daily chores would be handled by the children. When they got home from school, there would be a list of duties they had to perform before going out to play.

There also were homemade snacks allowed, milk and cookies or frosted cupcakes. The favorite was a piece of “It” cake. That was the name they adopted for a chocolate cake with white frosting. The key ingredient was mayonnaise.

NEXT: War takes its toll at home, too, as eviction notice spells fini for Upham Street house.

(Picnic for Twelve was published by RiverRun Select, an imprint of Piscataqua Press and the RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H. It is available in paperback and e-book forms. The book includes numerous photos, mostly from scrapbooks, and is 360 pages in length.)

January 4, 2013

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