, Salem, MA


September 20, 2012

Column: New England neighborliness and the lady at Number Nine

About seven years ago, as my husband and I were preparing to move to the North Shore so I could take a job at Gordon College, we were duly warned: New Englanders are chilly people. Don’t expect to fit right in, folks told us, raising their eyebrows. And do not expect to get to know your neighbors. It won’t happen. There’s a reason, the charges went, that the stereotype of cold Northerners exists.

But stereotypes are almost always based on ignorance or a solitary experience gone bad. They are not to be trusted, I have learned.

After all, the moving van had barely tumbled away from our new house in Beverly when our neighbors to the left invited us over for a cookout. A few others had stopped by throughout the day to welcome us to the block. And the woman across the street? Well, as she described herself, the Lady at Number 9 — who turns 95 today — went out of her way to establish a model of neighborliness we will always be grateful for. She makes us feel like we belong.

Mary Burke was a mere 88 then. She was born in this same house across the street from us, the very place she has lived her entire life, a mind-blowing fact for transients like us who have had so many addresses throughout our lives we’ve lost count. Mary’s house, though, defines who she is — it is the house her Irish immigrant father helped build in the early 1900s, the same house where she got her tonsils out on the ironing board (the legend goes). It is the home where, even after their parents passed, she shared with her brother — who worked in the shoe machinery factory that is now the Cummings Center — and sister — who taught in the school building that is now Montserrat College of Art. It is a home where each room, each corner, each picture has a personal meaning.

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