My family's old habits and the new Boy Scout

A family of grandchildren is in residence with us. The older boy, Carl, is an enthusiastic new Boy Scout, who happily follows me around asking what project he can do toward his next rank.

My notion of "community service" means something for the town or the church or some such, and I'm a bit startled when he tells me that his scoutmaster was very specific that helping Grandpa with certain sorts of projects qualifies. I enjoy being Grandpa, but hadn't quite thought of myself as being a community service project just yet.

I'm thinking in terms of helping with digging in plants to landscape the new addition to the local church, when he suggests going out in the woods behind our summer place in central New Hampshire. The terrible ice storm of 1998, and a great deal of snow last winter, have left a lot of dead wood up in the air - a real danger for spreading a fire if one should get started. I'm too old to want to learn to use a chain saw, and he is too young, but I do have to admit that his enthusiasm for cutting things down and his willingness to stay at the job with a hand saw are making more progress bringing down the dead trees than I would alone.

This reminds me of the first time my own grandmother, Elizabeth Sisson, asked for help. She was born in 1889, and I was visiting her in Brighton, Mass., part of Boston, about 1970. We walked down from her second-story apartment, down the moderately steep hill a couple of blocks to Harvard Street, and into the shopping district there. At this point she recalled that she wasn't supposed to go out of the apartment without her cane, and sent me back up the hill to fetch it.

She probably inherited this attitude toward age from her own father, Jacob Spear, who was born around 1860 and lived long enough for me to remember him, in the early 1950s. Jacob married in Russia and came to the United States as a young married man with one son, accompanying his wife's family, the Rosenbergs, who came to Boston about 1885 or so.

Getting out of Russia at that time was aided by not appearing eligible to be drafted, so the young son was a big help. (My relatives apparently shared young children from one family to another, so that every emigrating young couple had a child, even if it was a borrowed one.)

Jacob became a door-to-door peddler in Boston's West End, selling anything small and easily portable. He was a talkative man, a good storyteller, and made friends easily, so he was moderately successful as a peddler. But more important, he learned who was newly arrived, who was doing well, who was moving, which new arrivals needed a place to live. He matched tenants to rooms, and then bought a few places himself to rent out. He became successful in the real estate business, but he stayed working as a peddler, since that was how he learned what was for sale and who needed a place to live.

He put two sons through graduate school and even provided some post high school education for his daughter, my grandmother.

The second son, Joseph Spear, was on the faculty at Northeastern University for 50 years. But the first son, Morris, had more influence on his father. While studying at Harvard, Morris fell in love with Florence Lewis, an aspiring and later successful writer who happened to be the niece of an English Duke. Morris felt that the family apartment in the old Jewish neighborhood of Boston - close enough to the docks to smell of fish - would not make the impression he wanted. He rode the train and then the streetcar line as far north as it went about 1904, to the Maplewood section of Malden. He found a house for sale there, a large red house with white trim on a street lined with maple trees.

Jacob bought the house and moved the family there. Morris got dignified and added a final "e" to his family name. Apparently, the image change was successful, as Morris married Florence and the two got along very well.

Morris also had a literary career - he became an editor at Pocket Books, and, if family stories may be believed, invented the paperback anthology as a cheap way to get reading matter in the hands of servicemen. Books edited by Morris Edmund Speare are still easy to find on the Web or at used bookstores.

Jacob tolerated the image Morris wanted in public, but wasn't about to change his ways. In Maplewood he wore nice suits, and was one of the founders of the little synagogue on Myrtle Street, around the corner from the churches on Maple Street. And every business day, he put on his business suit and rode the street car and train into North Station.

But at North Station, he took his peddler's clothes and cardboard suitcase out of their lockers, changed clothes in one of the rental shower cubicles that train stations had back then, and went to work as a door-to-door peddler among the newly arrived Boston immigrants. The nice house was supported by the real estate business, but the real estate business was founded on the contacts he had as a peddler - and neither age nor family respectability was going to interfere with that.

Thinking of a few of those relatives, I recall that my wife yesterday spent three hours hiking with the grandchildren on Mount Ascutney in Vermont. She's 79 and has been climbing Mount Kearsarge, in New Hampshire, since the age of 5. I'm younger than she is, but I guess there is something to keeping up old habits. Maybe my grandson will come with me to saw down a few more trees tomorrow, as a sort of community service project.

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