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    collage of old family photos and newspaper clippings

    Uncle Albert

    An Irish-Catholic family’s story of crime and forgiveness, finally told.

    By Springs Toledo

    November 23, 2000
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    Albert sees her running across Center Street toward a gas station with a baby bundled up in her arms. She is a wife and mother – a wife and mother like his sister Mary, and in obvious distress. He rushes over to her; others do too. She is crying and pointing at the apartment house she’s just fled. It’s her husband, she says – he came home from a wedding drunk and crazy; he yanked her by the hair, tried to throw the baby down the stairs.

    All heads turn as pandemonium erupts across the street. A chair is hurled through a second­-story window, then another. A face, contorted with rage, appears for a moment and then a coffee table is hurled out, a shortwave radio, another chair, pieces of a bookshelf. The mother and child are quickly ushered into the gas station under a hail of obscenities.

    Albert, at twenty-two the youngest of the men watching the window, volunteers to go calm the man. Others follow, but Albert never hesitates. He is one of those singular someones, rashly selfless, who comes rushing in like the wind where there is distress – the first to open his hand, his wallet, his arms. Only months earlier, he was driving in a blinding snowstorm somewhere in Vermont when his car stalled dead on a railroad crossing. He jumped out and rushed up the track toward the approaching express train, frantically waving his arms. The train screeched to a stop. The passengers were only slightly jolted, the car only slightly damaged. Albert Burns made page 11 of the Bethel Courier.

    Albert Burns would soon make page 1 of the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald.

    collage of old family photos and newspaper clippings

    Top: the Burns family, with Albert, left, and Mary, right; Mary’s daughter Barbara on Cape Cod, 1980; St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis. All images courtesy of Springs Toledo.

    But right now he’s rushing into an apartment house and up the stairs, several steps ahead of a local merchant and a lawyer. When he gets to the second-floor landing he knocks on the door. There’s no answer, and no letup to the pandemonium on the other side.

    “I’ll open it,” Albert says. He backs up a few feet, heaves his shoulder against the door, and it gives a little just as a gas station attendant comes bounding up the stairs with a key in his hand. He inserts it into the lock – and a blast from a 20-gauge shotgun shatters the panel. Albert is hit in the lower abdomen. He collapses to the floor.

    The others duck and run. Three blasts follow the first; one of them goes through a door across the corridor and destroys an easy chair. As the Good Samaritans gallop across Center Street to the gas station, the face returns to the window, this time behind the shotgun. He fires and misses.

    Sirens. The Massachusetts State Police and Hyannis police come skidding up to the building. Four deep, with guns drawn, they enter the house and are climbing the stairs when a sixth blast gets heads ducking again.

    Then, silence.

    They continue upward, moving warily now, and behold a horrific scene. Albert is lying in a pool of blood across the threshold of the door. He’s barely breathing. Inside is the man he had come to help. He too is on the floor. Half his face is blown off, the shotgun clutched in his hand like a last false hope.

    That happened in 1933. “The tragedy in the sudden death of Burns was particularly felt by employees of the chain store where he had worked the past few months,” read the next day’s Boston Globe. “A tall, handsome chap … athletic, spirited, and very religious,” he was, said a coworker, “as fine a man as I ever knew.”

    His sister Mary, a wife and mother, had celebrated her twenty-fourth birthday earlier that week. She would never get over his death.

    Mary and Albert were Irish twins, born twelve months apart. They were raised in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston with Francis, the baby, who arrived eight years after Albert. Their father was a letter carrier whose arthritis bent him, head almost to waist, when he was still in his forties. He was kind. Gentle and kind. Mary and Albert spent their childhoods clinging to him.

    Their mother was neither gentle nor kind. After a century of almost impenetrable Boston Irish-Catholic silence, little is known about her and not much can be said. Old records, however, offer a sketch to begin with, a hint perhaps of what was wrong. Mary McNamara was born in the village of Silverhill, in Galway, Ireland, in 1875 and immigrated to Boston in 1899. With no more than a sixth-grade education, she was a servant there and a servant here before marrying Terence Burns in 1908. She was thirty-two. He saved her from poverty-stricken spinsterhood, which was twice the infirmity his was. She may have resented him anyway.

    There was only an ancient command – “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” – and the example of another mother, full of grace.

    She resented their daughter most of all. Why is anyone’s guess.

    Two words have slipped through the silence, drifting like dry leaves across a century’s span. “Hard” is one. “Unyielding” the other. Images follow: Withering looks. Withering words and blows from a switch. These were brought across the backs and the spirits of the Irish twins, one for the crime of being her daughter, the other because of his insolence – rushing in when his sister was in distress. The cruel mother is an unsettling motif, even today. Motherly love has elements of the divine, but what about motherly loathing – can anything be more harmful to the human heart? The idea of it was too unsettling even for the Brothers Grimm, who winked at innuendos of sex and violence in their collected stories and yet replaced wicked mothers with wicked stepmothers. The original version of “Little Snow-White” included three attempts at filicide and “Hansel and Gretel” turned the sacred image of maternal attachment on its head: Now their mother led the children even deeper into the forest.

    But Mary and Albert, like Hansel and Gretel, had each other. There was warmth there, and the kind of unbreakable bond that can only be forged in a childhood forest. There was something else. Someone else. The Burns children turned to the Blessed Virgin Mary – the mother given to all by Christ on the cross. “Behold, there is your mother,” he said to the apostle John, to us. But he beckoned the Burns children – “Behold, there is your mother.”

    The appearance of the Blessed Virgin to three shepherd children her age at Fátima, Portugal, in 1917 held a special place in Mary’s heart. She would attend the novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Wednesday evenings and she and Francis recited the Rosary every day of their lives, Mary in her favorite chair and Francis during his after-dinner walks. They ended each decade of the beads with the Fátima Prayer: Oh my Jesus, forgive us. Save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need.

    Their mother was unmoved by such devotion. It wasn’t long before she banished her daughter for reasons only she could understand.

    Mary quietly accepted it as she did all things she could not change. On her own and still a teenager, she attended Boston Clerical School, graduated, and applied for a job at Frigidaire. She overdressed for the interview. Salesman Frank Ryan heard her high heels clicking before he saw the seam running up the back of her nylons. The ice cubes in the floor model melted in her wake, he was sure of it, and so he took a deep breath and approached her, his limp from childhood polio plain to see. All she saw was a swagger. They went for rides in his 1926 Ford and ended up at the altar of St. Theresa of Avila Church, the Burns family’s parish. It was March 26, 1930. The ceremony was brief and the guest list thin; Mary’s childhood friend was the maid of honor, the groom’s cousin the best man. They boarded with a family across the street from the church, a short walk from the Burns house.

    After her wedding, Mary gathered up her courage and knocked on the door. Her mother opened it, frowning, I imagine, like a thunderstorm. “Don’t ever darken this doorway again,” she said.

    collage of old family photos and newspaper clippings

    Left, Albert Burns with his sister Mary; right, page 1 of the Boston Herald, October 15, 1933.

    Albert was banished soon afterward. He too did the best he could on his own, and his best was very good. He worked at a veterans’ hospital and attended Boston College before landing a job in the circulation department at the Boston American, a Hearst newspaper. He was representing them in Vermont when his car stalled on a railroad crossing and he stopped a train.

    He stood at another crossing around that time, a spiritual one. Within five months, his decision was made: he would devote his life to Christ and become a Jesuit priest. On August 13, 1932, Albert entered St. Stanislaus Novitiate in Guelph, Ontario. There are traces of him to this day: his name appears in the diary of daily activities serving at table, putting up Christmas decorations, attending Adoration during the Forty Hours devotion. We know that he struggled during that first year there, and he wasn’t the only novice who did. It was the discipline, the severity of it. The words “hard” and “unyielding” come to mind. An entry appears on February 20, 1933: “Bro. Burns went to Toronto to see Provincial – back in P.M.” He persevered another eight weeks before taking a hiatus. The last entry that includes his name appears on April 13.

    Albert headed to Cape Cod, the most beautiful part of Massachusetts, where he would recover from the stress and the strain at Guelph. He got a job at the First National, a chain grocery store in Hyannis, and made many friends that summer. Mary was never far from his thoughts. He’d take day trips to see her and the burgeoning Ryan family in Hyde Park, a Boston neighborhood next to West Roxbury. The $25 he’d leave on the kitchen table was a godsend during the Depression years and likely all he had until his next paycheck. He lived his life day by day, did what good he could, and told those closest to him that he planned on resuming his studies to become a Jesuit priest.

    He never would. October 14 was hurtling toward him – like blind fate, some would say. Or an express train.

    October 14 fell on a Saturday, the day of the week dedicated to the Virgin Mary since the early Middle Ages and the day devout Catholics attend Confession. Albert was among them that Saturday at St. Francis Xavier Parish, receiving the sacrament and the consolation that comes with it at about three o’clock that afternoon. A little over an hour later and a little less than a mile away, he saw a man in distress and went right to him, as he knew Jesus did in the stories of Jairus and the widow at Nain.

    Detectives who saw Albert near death on the floor and his murderer’s body inside the apartment noted that the door between them had been opened. They surmised that the murderer opened it, saw Albert, and in his despair committed suicide. Were words exchanged between them? No one was there to hear, but had he one more breath Albert would have absolved him then and there, as he himself was absolved at St. Francis Xavier.

    Perhaps he did.

    Albert’s funeral was held on October 17 – a High Mass of Requiem at St. Theresa’s at 9:00 a.m. The wake was at the Burns family home at 8:00 a.m. Mary gathered up her courage and darkened the doorway. Her mother was closing the door on her when she heard her father hobbling toward it. “Now, now! We’ll have none of that on this day,” he said.

    Mary’s father died in 1944, the year after Frank plunked down $5,000 for a five-room grand-mansard colonial at 1040 River Street and the year before Barbara, their sixth child, was born. She remembers Mary cooking three meals for nine every day, scrubbing the floors on her hands and knees, beating the rugs with a broom, pulling in a clothesline that seemed to stretch to eternity and back. This was long before front-loading wash towers and microwave ovens. “I don’t know how she did it,” Barbara says. “I never heard her complain, never once.”

    Frank wasn’t complaining either. When he brought home a Kirby in the late 1940s, she’d vacuum the parlor wearing high heels and nylons with the seams up the back – still melting ice cubes for the father of seven.

    In the 1950s, they’d roll up the rugs at 1040 (the family home was always called “ten-forty”) for the annual New Year’s Eve party. There were sing-alongs with Mary at the piano, a Manhattan with a maraschino cherry in every hand, a “here we go again” performance by a wobbly uncle at the top of the stairs with a towel around his neck – “I’m Superman!”

    The house was crowded and the door always open. When Mary’s mother got cancer, the door was open for her too. Mary’s children remember her brushing the Victorian-length white hair of “Grandma,” a silent, almost ethereal figure. There’s a picture of her taken only months before she died in 1955; she isn’t smiling. I like to imagine a moment, just a moment, where she found the grace to touch her daughter’s hand and look upon her with love, or something close to it. Mary probably never expected it and may not have needed it, despite modern-day assumptions. She sent a thousand, ten thousand, twenty thousand heaven-bound petitions for her mother’s soul. That was how she reconciled herself to what was done to her; there was no confrontation, no catharsis, no copays. There was only an ancient command – “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” – and the example of another mother, full of grace.

    Her best friend, also named Mary, wasn’t so magnanimous. Barbara remembers hearing the still-fresh outrage of one who witnessed the cruelties. She had barely begun to touch on it when a voice came from the kitchen. “Hush, Mary! That’s enough.”

    The laughter of Mary’s grandchildren filled the parlor at 1040 in the 1960s and ’70s. I was among those crowded onto her lap as she read The Wind in the Willows, Madeline, and Hansel and Gretel  – the tidied-up version. There were Sunday dinners and Lawrence Welk (I still watch the reruns). She’d play Perry Como records on the hi-fi console and stare off wistfully as he sang “Ave Maria” (I have it on now). By then the Manhattans were mixed, one a day, for Frank in his chair. He didn’t get around much anymore and became something of a sitting sage, watching soap operas with an Irish quip for every occasion and circumstance. The Lincoln Memorial reminds me of him. Barbara, my mother, saw to it that he finished his days at home. When he died in August 1984, it was by a bay window and blue hydrangeas; Mary was in the kitchen doorway and heard his last breath.

    I was a teenager then and spending more time at 1040 than I should have. My mother sent me there for whole weekends when I got into fistfights: “Don’t you dare tell your Nana!” So I’d go in with a bag of clothes, a black eye, and bad explanations: I fell. I fell again. A branch hit me. She must have thought I was the clumsiest grandson in Boston. I was everything Albert was not.

    collage of old family photos and newspaper clippings

    Left, Jeffrey Toledo with his daughter Victoria; right, the author with Mary, his grandmother, 1980. In the background is the house at 1040 River Street.

    My brother Jeffrey was a different story. On Saturdays, he’d drive her and a host of her friends (all of whom seemed to be named Mary) to 4:00 p.m. Mass at Most Precious Blood in Cleary Square. I was doing who knows what, who knows where, and there’s Saint Jeff sitting like an ostrich in a pew with blue-haired Marys on both sides.

    One summer day, I poured a glass of cranberry juice and offered Nana the same. “Where’s Jeffy?” she said.

    “I think he’s outside, Nana. I’ll go get him for you.”

    I returned to my cranberry juice. My brother came in.

    Her eyes lit up at the sight of him. “Jeffy, can you make me a glass of cranberry juice?”

    I think he was twenty-two at the time. Some years later, I came across an old newspaper article about the death of Albert Burns at twenty-two. His photograph was included and the moment I saw it I got something in my eye. I was looking at my brother.

    She kept a box in an antique writing desk. Inside was a letter written in 1934 by one of Uncle Albert’s fellow novices at Guelph. It was addressed to “Mrs. Mary T. Ryan.”

    I wish to express my heartfelt sympathy in this irreparable loss of a fine brother (and to me, a dear friend). However, I feel that you will find great consolation in the fact that Albert has quickly gone to his Maker and eternal salvation far removed from the sphere of poor mortals. You should feel supremely happy in that Albert made his long journey away from the cares and strife of this old world completely prepared spiritually. …

    You must realize that the eventual accident was undoubtedly God’s answer and reward to one who had tried so hard to perfect himself, spiritually, against odds. I’m sure that Albert is waiting at the end of the road for all of us who are fortunate enough to reach his destination. …

    Sincerely yours,
    James Murtagh

    She cherished that letter. I learned of its existence sixty years after it was written. When she gave me permission to read it, I sat by the bay window with the blue hydrangeas. I asked her a few questions but didn’t press – my brother and I had been told that Uncle Albert’s death was still a source of great pain for her. We never heard his name on her lips.

    Losing him was harder on her than cancer, which she overcame three times – breast cancer in the 1940s, uterine cancer in the 1960s, and colon cancer in the 1970s. Oncologists in Boston called her “the Iron Horse.” When she got up over eighty and could no longer live alone at 1040, my mother took her in. The last decade of her life was spent in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where she continued her daily devotions and buried two sons, including Albert’s namesake.

    January 14, 1999, Mary’s last day, was exactly sixty-five years and three months after Albert’s. It floated toward her as gently as a dove. My mother was awakened that morning by her voice, calling out from the adjacent room: “Mama, Mama.” It was before dawn.

    Perhaps it’s no surprise. As death nears, mind and memory return to the first warmth – to the womb, the first breath, the arms that gathered us up. It makes neurological sense. But science has little else to say and no comfort to give as the body dies. It comes to a cliff and walks itself back. “Show me and I’ll believe!”

    Faith doesn’t need terra firma. It isn’t bound by the scientific method because its subject and its object aren’t beholden to time or space. It’s a whisper in our hearts. “Believe, and I’ll show you.”

    It was snowing outside the window of Mary’s room the night she died. She was lying in bed and her hands were fidgeting, reaching, as if for her hat and keys. My mother was nearby and heard her say something that sounded like, “I have to go, I have to go.”

    There was some distress. We believe that Love Eternal gazed upon her, a favored daughter, and saw that distress.

    Whom shall I send?

    Here I am, said a familiar someone. Send me!

    And he came rushing down, as he would. Mary’s eyes widened like a little girl’s. “Al-buh-buh!” she said. “Al-buh!”

    Albert.

    And then she was gone.


    Special thanks to Barbara Toledo for her memories (and permission), and to Meghan E. Burns and the late Ronald W. Golden Jr. for their genealogical research.

    Contributed By SpringsToledo Springs Toledo

    Springs Toledo is a freelance writer of literary nonfiction and the author of Smokestack Lightning, Murderers’ Row, In the Cheap Seats, and The Gods of War.

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