By Jay O'Callahan
printed in The Museletter, May 1997
Orange Cheeks was the story that got me started telling personal stories.
I had been telling a series of stories to my son about an imaginary little boy named Willie. One night I was telling Ted one of these stories and I realized that I was really telling a memory of my visiting my own grandmother. The memory was sharp because some years ago I had written up the incident and put it in my files.
When I was about 6 I had visited my grandmother, who lived at 9 Leonard Avenue in Cambridge. I was fascinated with her buzzer and with her very steep narrow stairs. As a little boy I was intrigued with the wonderful smells of her house.
I had once seen a carpenter go about a house making pencil marks on the wall, and one Saturday afternoon I began making pencil marks on her wall. My grandmother said to me at one point, "You're not making pencil marks, are you?" "No", I said, "I'm a business man." When she found out I was making pencil marks, she was angry. I had never seen grandmother become angry, and so the memory was etched in my mind.
Now as I told the Willie story, it turned out that Willie did the same thing, and when his grandmother found out, Willie begins to cry and his grandmother is enormously comforting. She becomes an Orange Cheeks grandmother.
What my imagination had done in telling the story to my own son, is to tell the deeper truth. The deeper truth was that my real grandmother was an Orange Cheeks grandmother, that is she was warm and funny and it was magical to be with her. My imagination, all by itself, came up with the image of orange paper cheeks, and that told the real truth.
I began telling that story and found people really wanted to hear about an ordinary event between a little boy and a grandmother.
I remember one night in Africa telling that story. It brought people alive. We all have grandmothers. We were all young and we all get in trouble and make mistakes, and some of us were lucky enough to have a grandparent who's just like Willie's.
Years later I began working on some long personal stories. One of those stories is called Chickie. It took 2 or 3 years to get the story right. Why? Because I kept putting in large scenes about me and my father, so the through line of the story was muddy.
What kept me going was the image of Chickie's grin when we were 11 year old boys. And what kept me going was a need to tell a story about Chickie's sense of fun and daring and spirit. By the time we were at Brookline High School, Chickie seemed to be getting lost. I had the feeling that in later life, people would look at Chickie and say, "He isn't any good. He's wasted his life."
But I knew that grin, and I knew his sense of fun and daring and laughter. I wanted the world to know of that boy and I wanted the world to know of the tenement section he grew up in.
The last image that kept me going, was that of a dynamite parade. In the 6th grade, the boys who lived in the tenement section, which was called The Farm, found a box of wet dynamite in Muddy River. After lunch, they paraded through Brookline Village singing out that they were going to blow up the school. It was in the front page of the old Record American. My parents were so upset that they took me out of the school.
The dynamite parade was certainly dangerous but it also showed what a wild imagination these boys had. The world I grew up in was very class conscious. Chickie and his friends were considered "low class" and they were stereotyped. It was thought that they had no imagination. It was thought that they had no sense of drama or fun or poetry. To me the dynamite parade was poetry.
The truths I wanted to get at in the story are that Chickie and his friends were full of wild daring. They were not wrapped up in the saran wrap of the middle class. They were not half suffocating with politeness. Their lives were harder and more immediate than ours. They fought and used bad language, but they were immediate.
I felt and still feel a fury about the ease with which well educated neighbors sneered at anyone who lived in the tenement section. I still feel rage at the way Brookline High School had dismissed those who were in "the business course". There was a sense that only those who were going to college were truly good human beings.
These are the truths I wanted to get at. These were the images that kept me going. I wanted to be true to Chickie and his spirit, and often I would invent lines and situations so the story is fictional. But underneath the fiction is the truth I lived with, and still hold.