Edwina: Growing Up in Jamaica Plain, 1900-1920

The book Edwina chronicles the life of a precocious and delightful girl who lived in Jamaica Plain in the early 1900s. Edwina’s recently uncovered memoirs, found in old notebooks and diaries tell the story of growing up the child of a single, working mother who never let her daughter know how hard life really was.

Told in the first person, Edwina’s humor, spunk and optimistic spirit shine through stories that introduce us to the diverse cast of characters that populated her world. Edwina’s story evokes the sweet simplicity of childhood memories, with the knowing eye of a wiser woman looking back at them, and reminding us that in her story, we find ourselves. Threaded with life’s lessons and an understanding look at human nature in the simple setting of an earlier time.

We hope you will enjoy the following excerpts from the book. You can buy the book at your favorite neighborhood bookseller.

A Note from the Author

My grandmother, C. Edwina McNeil Connell, once told me she had been writing reflections and stories about her childhood for many years and would continue to do so in a journal I had just given her. She always had great aspirations that I would become a writer, and she hoped that some day I would bring her stories to life.

Although she died in 1996, it was not until spring 2002 that Edwina’s writings were discovered among the daily journals she kept throughout her life. The writings from which this book was drawn appear in various notebooks and diaries dated 1956-1988, given to me by Edwina’s daughter, my mother, Janet Connell McGatrey.

In honor of my mother, and her mother, Edwina, I have written this book. And yes, Grandmother, with this book, I have become a writer.

Jill Hofstra


I grew up in the early 1900’s as the daughter of a dressmaker in suburban Boston. I was surrounded by materials, patterns, buttons, braids, laces, sewing notions, threads of every color, snaps, hooks and eyes, needles, scissors, tapes, and fashion magazines of every description. But more than that, I was surrounded by a variety of people who visited our home, which was also Mother’s place of business. Life with my devoted mother and a father who, for the brief time I knew him, always had peanuts - was the proverbial bowl of cherries.

I took poverty and my Irish Protestant background in stride, not realizing that I may have been at a disadvantage in our Irish Catholic neighborhood. I really feel that my life was quite rich in every sense of the word.

Most of my childhood memories, which will be the subject of my book, are from Paul Gore Street, in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. When I was five I moved to that street, a long street, as the numbers went to over 195. Even now, I frequently meet people who lived on that street, though I have not been back in a single house there since we left nearly 40 years ago. The houses were mostly three deckers, so I daresay in the last 40 years, I figured it out somehow, that nearly 60,000 people more or less, have lived on Paul Gore Street. It seems I never meet someone new that our conversations don’t invariably go through some form of, “0h, you lived on Paul Gore Street? I did too! Do you know so and so?” And most generally, I do.

C. Edwina McNeil

From Chapter 21, Peddlers and Stores

Paul Gore Street was a long street off Centre Street. It crossed over Chestnut Avenue, down through a stop light to Hammett Kind Street and to Boylston Station, where steam trains ran in to Boston from New York City. As children, we used to go up to Boylston Station. It was a big thrill to sit and wait for a train to race past. The stationmaster would chase us off if he saw us, as it was dangerous. We were told that if we got too near the trains, the momentum could suck us right under the tracks.

There were few automobiles, mostly horses and carriages. Cabs were horse-drawn. The grocery man, Cliff Nelson, used to come around with a horse and buggy every morning to take orders for the day, and then he would deliver the groceries before noon.

Sometimes, I would go to the grocer’s store to get butcher paper for my Mother to make patterns. In order for Mother to be able to keep up with the latest styles, she had several customers who would go with her to an exclusive dressmaker’s workshop and try on a dress. Mother would closely observe the dress, come home, and while it was fresh in her mind, make a sketch. She would then make her own pattern for a dress on the butcher paper.

Our grocers, brothers Cliff and Tom Nelson, were very generous, but one day Cliff asked me why my mother always needed the paper. I said, “To make a pattern.” He looked quizzical and said, “Okay,” and just gave me the paper. I suppose he had no idea what I was talking about.

As I think of it now, Tom must have been the owner and gave Cliff a job to help his family. The business came from the father, so I suppose he had to do it. Cliff was a real oldmaid gossiper and carried tales from one house to another. Every housewife knew she had to be careful what she said to Cliff, although the ladies always were anxious to hear what he had for news.

He would say things like, “Mrs. So-and-So, at 10 a.m. didn’t have the breakfast dishes off the table,” or “I saw Mrs. So-and-So’s bed not made at 11 p.m.,” and things that were even worse, because he made them up.

One day, he came for the grocery order, and my mother was combing my very fine, curly hair that snarled and tangled terribly. By this time my hair had grown long again. Poor Mother always had a time to get the snarls out and had to tell me stories to get my mind off the combing. I made a great fuss every morning, and Mother should have given me a good clout with the hairbrush, but she never did.

Anyway, this day she was telling a story, as usual, when Cliff stopped by. For some reason, I guess because of the story Mother was telling me — and because I was somewhat mischievous — I told him we were going to California and I was going to be in the movies. The idea of being in the movies was fresh in my mind, as Mother had taken me to the 5-cent Nickelodeon just a few days before.

Well, didn’t Cliff Nelson go out and spread a yarn how Mrs. McNeil was going to California and Edwina was going to be in the movies. The neighbors knew Mother had a brother in California, so they figured it could be possible. We were a long time squelching that story.

Cliff really got himself into trouble when one of his customers had her brother visiting. Cliff told everyone he saw “a man asleep on Mrs. So-and-So’s couch” when he went for the order. The story spread quickly. The husband was so furious that he beat Cliff up. All the neighbors talked about the incident for a long time. After that, a young boy came for the order, and Cliff stayed in the store.

Mother sewed for both Tom’s and Cliff ’s wives. The families both lived on Sunny Side Street, a few houses from each other, but the wives never spoke to each other. Mother always said the two brothers got the wrong wives. Tom should have married Cliff ’s wife and visa versa. So much for the two wives of Sunny Side Street.

Peddlers came through our street every day, with vegetables and fruits in season. On Fridays, there was always a fresh fish cart, as everyone in Boston ate fish on Fridays, Catholics and Protestants alike. We had an umbrella man who was also our scissors and knife grinder. All of the women came out with their scissors and knives, and he used to let us kids turn the grinder.

In the winter, during the big snows, the streets were never plowed. Everyone just shoveled in front of his own house. The peddlers used to take the wagons and put sleds behind them. We used to love to chase them and hop on for a ride.

I can remember, in particular, that the iceman and his horse would come every day. We had an ice chest that opened up on top and on the side were little shelves. The piece of ice would go on the opposite sides. We put a sign in the window to request either a 10, 20, or 30-cent piece, and the iceman would come up and put in the desired size. If you weren’t home, you would leave the money on top of the chest, and the iceman would come in. People never even thought of locking their doors.

Our iceman was a jovial and pleasant man. He had the most wonderful horse named Clover. He was always most careful with Clover. He talked to him kindly, lovingly and never whipped him. Going down the street, that horse knew just about every stop. The iceman would holler out to the horse, “Giddy up.” and the horse would go. Then he’d holler, “Whoa,” and the horse would halt so the ice delivery could be made.

We just loved Clover, and used to pull him closer to the curb so we could feed him. During the summer, Clover always wore a straw bonnet to help shield him from the sun. We would follow Clover, and on a hot day the iceman would hack off pieces of ice for us to suck. It was delicious.

Minnie Snow was another interesting character. She kept a penny-candy store in Hyde Square. There you could spend as long as you wanted choosing your heart’s desire. Minnie must have been a woman of infinite patience. She would lean on the candy counter and stare into space for as long as it took you to make your selection. You could buy quite a lot for 1 cent, but once Minnie Snow had the penny, no amount of persuasion would let you change your choices. So you held onto the penny until you were certain your decision was final. You could change your mind a dozen times before you gave up the penny, but never afterward. Minnie was not talkative, or particularly pleasant, either. She moved her eyebrows up and down, pulled down her mouth, scowled, and rubbed her tongue around her lips when anyone was talking with her, but said nothing. She nodded or shook her head for yes and no, as the case may be, and for a long time I thought she was dumb.

At Christmas, Minnie gave each child a few pieces of candy in red striped Dorothy Bags, as she called them. We always looked forward to the treat. Some children tried to get more than one Dorothy Bag, but I don’t believe anyone ever succeeded. Minnie was too smart. All the kids believed she had eyes around her entire head. Without moving her head, she would call out the only word I ever heard her say, “Mind! Mind!” when some child in the rear of the store was touching something. We just about jumped out of our shoes when we heard her speak, and were amazed at how she always knew when there were “exploring hands” in her store.

Minnie sold papers, magazines, cigars, cigarettes, tobacco and a few groceries, too, but the store was bare compared to most others. She had chairs along the wall, and men would sit there and gossip, but not with Minnie. She just listened.

Copyright © 2005 Jill Hofstra. All Rights Reserved