More Than Words
We spent every Fourth of July in Boston, because my parents felt that there was absolutely no better place to be for the Fourth of July. Growing up as the insufferable daughter of American expats living in Canada, I would snobbishly trill to my friends that my family was “off to Boston”, even though we never actually stayed in the city itself. Rather, we would spend a few weeks in Malden, a city suburb of Boston that no one outside of Massachusetts has heard of. If anything, Malden’s potential claim to renown is being the home of Extreme, the band whose album Pornograffitti includes the songs “Hole Hearted” and “Get The Funk Out”. I realise, however, that it’s a bit like saying that Anne Murray really put Springhill, Nova Scotia on the map. At least Springhill has the Anne Murray Centre; to my knowledge Malden still lacks an Extreme Museum.
While in Malden, my family would stay with my mother’s old roommate from college, a chemist named Anne who lived in a two-storey house on a street named for a very famous American writer. My father had grown up in Lynn, another Boston adjunct, but for reasons that were never explained, we never stayed with his remaining family. We’d pile into our sky-blue Ford Taurus station wagon and drive out to Lynn for the day, dividing our time between awkward visits with second and third cousins, and wading in the greasy water at the Nahant shore. My grandparents’ old house would be pointed out to my siblings and I, and we would struggle to pronounce the word “Nahant” as we wrestled with our Canadian accents. Then we would head back to Malden for the night, my parents promising to be better about keeping in touch with “the family in Lynn”.
“Ah, Lynn Mass,” my father would stay, slapping the steering wheel with his palm as we pulled onto Lincoln Avenue. “What a place!”
I could never tell if statements like this were meant to be sarcastic or not, because he was Irish and so switched between being derisive and maudlin so quickly that it could be hard to keep up. I, on the other hand, wore my emotions and admiration like a technicolour dreamcoat. I liked Lynn, home of Marshmallow Fluff and my cousin Susan, who introduced me to the Rolling Stones, but I really loved Malden.
I loved Malden because summers at Anne’s house were magical. Anne had hair down to her waist and could paint better than anyone I’d ever met in real life. Her backyard was a well-manicured jungle, its chain link fence covered by rose bushes and creeping, flowering vines. She had cable television and a La-Z-Boy recliner that my sister Caitilín and I used as a kind of makeshift trampoline. Anne was patient and indulgent, buying us sugary cereal and Hawaiian punch, and letting us use her watercolours. My siblings and I also enjoyed a level of freedom that was equal to what we were accustomed to in our small Canadian hometown. So long as we were home before supper, we could go to the park by ourselves.
“Repeat the address back to me,” my mother would say each time before we left, looking up from the Boston Globe and peering over the top of her oversized sunglasses. “If you get lost, just ask someone how to get back to this street.”
The park had a large pond and was about fifteen minutes away for my sister and I, and about ten minutes away for our considerably taller older brother, Liam. The three of us would traipse off, sometimes carrying homemade fishing poles that we’d fashioned from paperclips and safety pins knotted to the ends of strings. We’d use these office supplies to pierce holes in chunks of Wonder Bread and cast off into the pond, hoping to catch something that could either be eaten or mounted on a slab of oak. The bread would swell, disintegrate and float away almost instantly, but we never considered sussing out new bait.
“What kind of fish is in here?” I asked Liam one afternoon as I re-bent my paper clip hook and mashed a ball of gluey Wonder Bread onto it.
“Probably that three-eyed fish from The Simpsons,” he replied. “Or one that glows in the dark.”
Either scenario sounded good to me, and I eagerly cast my line back into the green, goopy water.
The park hosted a small carnival during the Fourth of July weekend with a Ferris wheel, a Tilt-a-Whirl, and several games of chance that my father scoffed at as being “rigged”. There were speakers that seemed incapable of playing anything from the current Billboard Hot 100, or anything at a volume below 150 decibels. My sister and I rode the two rides repeatedly, getting off one and going directly into the line for the other, singing along to “Informer” by Snow at the tops of our lungs and dreaming about winning a comically-oversized stuffed animal.
When we weren’t at the park or commuting to Lynn or Boston, my siblings and I pretty much had the run of Anne’s house, since she worked and my parents were on vacation and so didn’t want to entertain us. We didn’t take advantage of it by getting into any shenanigans, though. Massachusetts summers were much hotter than what we were used to, and we’d often find ourselves sprawled out on the floor in front of a fan or air conditioning unit, content and listless as house cats. One particularly hot afternoon, Caitilín and I filled up a kiddie pool in the backyard and sat in it, gingerly sipping on glasses of Hawaiian Punch like two old Russian men at a banya. We’d set the pool up in one of the landscaped areas of the backyard where raspberry and lilac bushes grew six or seven feet high, and when we tilted back our heads all we could see was the hot summer sky between the waving stems of leaves and flowers, the air thick with heat and thorns, the chain link fence rattling somewhere off in the distance.
Anne took me to the Stop & Shop to go grocery shopping a few times, which, to an eight year-old, was the equivalent of winning something. American convenience food, in general, is approached by Canadians the way that someone with no formal artistic training might approach a modern art installation: with a mix of curiosity, confusion, and grudging admiration. Food in the United States is often aggressively described, using words that are typically reserved for medical crises and contact sports. I’m not trying to argue that Canadians are particularly health-conscious or virtuous when it comes to food, but only in America will I find things with names like the concussion burger, flatliner fries, and compound fracture chicken wings. The grocery store is no exception. Everything in it is familiar, but different. Ding Dongs and Twinkies instead of Joe Louis and Half Moons, jars of peanut butter festooned with grinning legumes instead of teddy bears, and, perhaps ironically, nothing labeled “President’s Choice”. The crowning glory of these trips to the Shop & Stop, however, were the cupcakes.
In what I will always think of as the pinnacle of American confectionary, Stop & Shop made seasonally-festive cupcakes that were mostly margarine and sugar. They would be decorated with brightly-coloured icing and plastic ornaments that corresponded to the month’s holiday, so the Fourth of July cupcakes were an eye-searing electric blue or candy apple red with plastic sprigs of fireworks and stars popping out of the drumlin of buttercream swirled on top. A tray of six of them weighed approximately twelve pounds. Your teeth hurt just looking at them. They were incredible. Liam, Caitilín and I would sit around the octagonal kitchen table and tuck into these cupcakes like they were lumps of ambrosia. Our sunburned legs swinging gleefully and bare feet slapping the tile floor, our teeth stained blue and red from food colouring, we’d chastise the adults for not wanting any. Didn’t they know what they were missing?
At some point every summer, my family would take a day and go to the other, more famous -alden in Massachusetts. I was a child and so didn’t care about Thoreau, but I did love swimming in Walden Pond. The water was always much warmer than the open Atlantic that I was used to, and the fish in the pond would tickle my legs and sides as they swam through the water with me. Puffing up my lungs to better float on my back, I’d gaze up at the sky and think about how much different the view looked from the kiddie pool back at Anne’s. Here there were no lilacs, no bumblebees, no soft shushing of the fence. I’d stare into the clouds until I had to let my breath out and would sink, momentarily letting myself drop under the pond’s warm muddy waters.
Years later, when my sister and I were in our twenties, we went back to Massachusetts for a trip in the summer. Anne had long since moved to Colorado, and we felt too awkward to contact our family in Lynn. Despite their promises, my parents hadn’t really stayed in touch with the Lynn relatives beyond Christmas cards and condolence calls. This meant that for the first time in our lives, Caitilín and I stayed in Boston proper, in a Hostelling International hotel that aspired to great things but was still very much a hostel. Dutifully, we took the T and made our pilgrimage out to Lynn, walking along a shore that was much cleaner now than what we remembered from the late nineties. We took selfies and went further north to Salem to see the house of the famous author for whom our street in Malden was named. And we talked about the cupcakes. Did they still make them? It wasn’t the Fourth of July, but surely they had, like, summer cupcakes?
On our last night in the city, we took the T out to the suburbs, stopping in Everett and Revere to hit up every Stop & Shop we could find. We combed the bakery aisles, growing increasingly desperate as it became more and more evident that the cupcakes had been discontinued. By the time we got to Malden, we were jonesing to a point where we decided to just dispense with shame.
“Excuse me,” I said in a breathless voice to a seventeen year-old wearing a store apron and restocking the cereal aisle with Apple Jacks. “Do you guys still make those cupcakes with all the icing?”
“Yeah, like, they’re almost all icing and they only come in colours that are definitely not found in nature. Oh, and they have little plastic doodads on the top?”
He shook his head and said that he didn’t know what we were talking about, and we left before he could call security.
Back out in the parking lot, Caitilín and I bemoaned our fate as we headed to the bus stop.
“It’s just… so sad,” she sighed. “I can still remember how they tasted. I mean, I know they were objectively gross, but they were so, so good.”
I knew exactly what she meant. As the sun dipped low over Malden and we looked down the street to watch for the bus, I thought about that sweetness. About something that shouldn’t have been so good, but was anyway. About how the memory of that sweetness is something that you can carry with you always.
About the Author
Áine O’Hare is a writer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her work has been featured in SOMA Magazine, UKULA Magazine, and The Impressment Gang, among others. She holds degrees from the University of Western Ontario and the University of Toronto, where she worked on the board of editors for the Acta Victoriana.