- The Family Face Laughter and Joy, Anguish and Despair
A writer of crime fiction, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith here looks back at her childhood in a blue-collar ethnic neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut, with justifiable nostalgia. Nostalgia gives way to flashes of anger as she examines the background, trial, and execution of Robert Malm, who raped and murdered Irene, her fifth-grade classmate. Descended from French- Canadian and Italian immigrants, Smith grew up surrounded by a large extended family in a time of turbulent social change. Her immediate family was defined not only by its ethnic blue-collar background but also by the presence of an autistic child at a time when there was little understanding of autism. Intertwined with the chronicle of Smith’s own family is the story of Robert Malm.
The world of Smith’s family was changing in the fifties as African Americans from the South and Puerto Ricans moved into low-income neighborhoods [End Page 460] and blue-collar workers moved out. The two groups—first the French Canadians, Italians, and Poles and then the southern blacks and the Puerto Ricans—crossed paths in public schools and the workplace. Smith provides an interesting perspective on the efforts of school administrators and teachers to help with the assimilation of the newer immigrants. Mary-Ann and two of her classmates were assigned to tutor Magdalena, a recently arrived Puerto Rican student; in turn they learned new techniques of jump-rope from Magdalena. Glimpses of workplace assimilation were seen in the hiring and later promotion of Freddie Ravenel at Abbott Ball Company by Smith’s father. Ravenel was the first African American to be hired by Abbott, a company that produces ball bearings.
In the expanding economy of the fifties Smith’s family became upwardly mobile. When she was a small child, her family lived in the D section of Charter Oak Terrace, the first low-income housing project constructed in the United States. Her family was described by her father as “working stiffs” as distinguished from the “truly impoverished,” but like many people in that era they were moving on an upward trajectory. The father was promoted to foreman at Abbott. With the added income from the mother’s new job at Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, the family no longer qualified for low-income housing. They then moved to a larger house and summered at the beach. The mother took up golf and colored her hair. Some people thought that she was putting on airs.
The church was a dominant force in the lives of Smith’s family members who were God-fearing, but irreverent, Catholics. The church was often a target for the derisive and bawdy humor of the family. Smith’s account of her confusion as she struggled to understand concepts of church doctrines regarding death, heaven, and hell is familiar to those who have encountered religious dogma at an early age.
Smith casts an amused eye on the shenanigans of her large boisterous family. The ebullience of her family spills over into her writing as she limns the characters of family eccentrics and recounts their antics. Family rituals are fondly recalled: her father and Uncle Guido making bagna cauda and trippa; times spent with her grandfather Pippi at the beach, crabbing and eeling; and summer visits by uncles and aunts.
Smith stresses loyalty when she portrays her family. At a time when there was little support for families such as Smith’s as they dealt with an autistic child, it was the family that helped with her brother Tyler; and, when her father developed Alzheimer’s, Auntie Palma and Uncle Guido checked on him in the evenings, got him into bed, and made sure he was safe before they left. Uncle Guido went to the nursing home to help him learn to walk when he had forgotten how.
Smith’s account of life with Tyler is heartrending, but there is...