There have already been plenty of things written in the Boston papers and blogs about the closing of Verna’s at the end of December — about how big chains like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are squishing the little guy — about how Cambridge, Boston, and America are becoming homogenized into some kind of bland land of chain stores from coast to coast.
I’m not going to write one of those posts.
I do, however, want to write about North Cambridge, where Verna’s been located for so long. This was the neighborhood of my father’s family, the close-knit world they inhabited for most of the twentieth century (and the latter nineteenth, to be complete).
When my parents married they moved to Scituate, a coastal suburb about halfway between Boston and Plymouth. My mother’s family had summered there for most of her life, the two were very fond of the town, and many of their friends were heading in that direction too. This is where I grew up, but North Cambridge continued to be a focal point for our family. We frequently visited my grandmother’s house, and my mother taught at the elementary school.
One aspect of being a) Irish and b) generationally-removed from the folks who lived there is that over the course of my life I’ve spent a fair amount of time at Keefe’s Funeral Home, (Another North Cambridge story is that Keefe’s, was almost O’Connor’s, so I was almost born into the mortician’s trade.) While the ordinary Sunday masses at St. John’s definitely outnumber the funerals in my attendance record, it’s the funerals that stand out in memory. Those were some of the stand-out Verna’s memories — Mrs. Kenney pulled Kathleen and me out of Edna’s funeral and down to Verna’s.
Stopping at Verna’s in the early morning on the way in to school with my mother — that’s the other pattern of Verna’s visits that are firmly lodged in my memory. At that time there was a longer, bar-like counter — this is when Verna’s was more than the rump corner of the building at Norris St. I remember sitting on a stool and having honey-dipped doughnuts.
Pretty much all of the men of my grandparents’ generation died before the women, with a few notable exceptions — Fr. Reidy and Tip O’Neill lasted longer than the others. So I mostly remember North Cambridge as a place full of nice old ladies — my grandmother’s friends: Mildred, Edna, Dipsy Doodle.