Philomena’s Daughter

Saint John’s Catholic Church and School (Evvy Edinburg, artist)
She is not benign. She has riven
my nights with sighs—

Clings, delicious, to the memory
of young men leaping
at the edge of day 
from high school windows
into St. John’s cemetery:
above the abattoir, the mills, 
the stink of smelter fumes
rending Manayunk’s hills in 1929.

Manayunk—Lenni Lenape Indian name
"where we go to drink" —of winter fame
for ice-slick roads that slid to the Schulykill River;
of Irish pubs and German Bier Halles
all knitted together with the wool mills
and paper factories and potsherd homes

hanging on the granite cliffs. Where the sisters
dangled down from the roof to watch Mom,
alone in her whiskey fog, give birth yet again,
while Pop—handsome, self-righteous,
Sons-of-Temperance Jimmy Boyle—
embezzled the mortgage payments of their neighbors.

In Manayunk, where bakers and bricklayers
stalked them at night;
In Manayunk, where she fell
from the ledge of light.

This poem is about my mother, Dorothy Veronica Boyle Haitz. She nursed us on this story of her life in Manyunk when she was a young woman. Her father, an Irish immigrant, was a rising public figure involved in a savings and loan association. Their family’s social status (characterized as “lace-curtain Irish”) collapsed during the 1929 Depression when he was arrested for embezzling mortgage savings. My mother’s hopes of attending a teacher’s college fell through, as she and her three sisters, her brother, and her mother had to vacate their home at night to escape the anger of their neighbors. As the oldest child, she was the primary financial support of the family–a trauma that embittered her entire life. Her father did not re-engage with his family until I was a child, around 1948.

Manyunk was a manufacturing center powered by its access to the Schulykill River. Part of the City of Philadelphia, it’s now a popular destination for its restaurants, galleries, and boutique stores.

Philomena is my grandmother’s middle name; I didn’t want to contend with a third “Dorothy” in the story.

The print of St. John’s Church was done by Evvy Edinburg, a remarkable artist whose talents range through ceramics, quilting, painting, sketching, and sewing. She and her husband Ron Kanter, a documentary film producer, live in Philadelphia near Manyunk. And yes, the building depicted in front of the church steeple was a high school, and boys would sometimes escape classes by jumping into the cemetery from the windows. Evvy knew none of this story when she made the sketch.