I know that many of you have been enjoying Charles McGrath's stories
of his father and his uncles in his "Little Down-Neckers"
series. The McGrath boys had two sisters, Annie and Catherine. Catherine
was my grandmother. After the last of the "Little Down-Neckers,"
Uncle James, married in 1935, Granny moved into Aunt Annie's household
in a little duplex on Vincent Street.
Charley has some wonderful memories of visiting Granny and Aunt
Annie there in the 30's and 40's. My memories are from the 50's
and 60's. In the 50's, with her children grown, and Granny no longer
with us, Aunt Annie moved out into an apartment in the "Pru."
(The Chellis Austin Apartments on Oxford Street -- built and originally
managed by the Prudential Insurance Company). My grandparents moved
into the Vincent St address -- to keep it in the family. Considering
In 1959, when my grandfather died, my grandmother and her three
youngest children moved out of the house at 21 Vincent St. and we
moved in. Compared to the cold-water flat we'd lived in before,
it seemed huge with bedrooms upstairs and a large backyard, and
a "stoop" to hang out on in the front.
The first floor consisted of a living room in the front, and a
kitchen in the back. The stairway to the second floor ran along
the wall we shared in common with number 23, the other part of the
duplex, and started about three feet beyond the front door (just
enough room for a doorway into the "Front Room." The cellar
stairs were directly below the other stairs, and began in the kitchen
and faced forward.
The Front Room had an alcove with a set of bay windows. The Christmas
tree went in that alcove, and it was used as the setting of all
the important pose in your nice clothes "occasion" photographs:
Proms, Christenings, First Communion, Confirmation, Graduation.
My mother's and father's wedding pictures were taken in that alcove
when Aunt Annie still lived there.
When indoor plumbing was added to the house (long before my time,
but the results were obvious), the back porch was converted into
a bathroom and a new back door was built next to it. This required
building a structure over the cellar door, more of a little wooden
bridge than a back porch.
Upstairs, there were three bedrooms. The front bedroom was over
the Front Room, and included an alcove, just the size of a bed,
over the landing at the foot of the stairs. The area over the kitchen
was divided into two bedrooms and a small hallway.
The smaller bedroom was barely large enough for a bed and a chest
of drawers. My brother and I shared that room. We had bunk-beds.
The house was heated by a coal-burning furnace in the cellar.
Imagine a pot-belled stove with a big kettle welded on top, water
pipes and steam pipes attached to the kettle, and the whole thing
wrapped in asbestos, and you get a picture of the furnace
The coal bin was just under the bay-window, where there was a
small cellar window through which the coal chute could be placed
when the coal was delivered.
Eventually it became my job to bank the fire at night and stoke
it in the morning. I'd get up about half an hour or so before anyone
else, and pad down to the basement, Shake down the ashes, careful
to just uncover the embers, not to shake them down as well. Then
I'd throw a shovel of coal on the embers and open the vents in the
door, so the fire could get more air, and shovel the ashes out of
the lower chamber where I'd shaken them.
About half-way through breakfast the pipes would start clanking
as the steam pushed it's way through to the radiators. A few minutes
later, the radiators would start to feel warm. As the warmth started
filling the house, my brother and sisters would start to stir. Invariably
one of them would complain "It's too cold to get up."