, Salem, MA

September 20, 2012

Column: New England neighborliness and the lady at Number Nine

Jo Kadlecek
The Salem News

---- — 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.

And it is this house that Mary still invites us to regularly to sit and chat, here where she tells us delightful stories from her 48 years of working at the House of the Seven Gables. Every time we visit, we learn from Mary a little more about the town where we live, the “marvelous place” that, for her, is not comprised merely of dates and facts, but of personal memories filled with details and emotions and family.

Like the childhood summers she loves to recall, of swimming at Dane Street beach in the mornings and spending her afternoons reading in the "new" library on the Commons. Or the amazing vegetables and flowers her brother grew on the plot of land where our home now sits. Or the services she’d attend at St. Mary’s (where she was baptized), the friends she’d meet at the movies (in what’s now the Cabot Street Cinema) or the restaurants she loves (like Stephy’s or the Wenham Tea House, where her friends surprised her for her 90th birthday).

Mary doesn’t have many living relatives any more but there’s a steady stream of visitors to her house, hoping to hear her recite an original poem or a story about one of her trips to Ireland or “that time in Beverly when . . .” They come, too, to talk about their latest news, because she asks and she listens.

Though she says she doesn’t want any fuss over another birthday, those of us who know her can’t help but celebrate her remarkable achievement of turning 95 and of living a rich and full and deeply local life. Mary personifies so much of what makes Beverly a great place to live, that it’d be downright un-neighborly to let the moment pass. Besides, her local story is what The Salem News — the newspaper she’s read almost every morning of her life — is all about.

So to the Lady at Number 9, Happy Birthday! Thank you for your ongoing cheerfulness and inspiring example of what it means not only to be a proud New Englander but a great neighbor and friend.

Jo Kadlecek is the senior writer and journalist in residence at Gordon College in Wenham.