My sister, Jean Marie Swirko, was born on December 26, 1961. In as much as she was born the day after Christmas, and on her birthday in 1964 my Dad suddenly died (again the day after Christmas) when I was nine years old, the Christmas Season always brings back memories of that time, and I find myself thinking a lot about Jean as Christmas approaches.
Needless to say, I remember a lot about the day Jean was born in 1961. Christmas Day that year, was one of the earliest Christmas’ I can remember. I have fond memories of that day as well as much of my time living in Dorchester. We lived at 95 Pierce Av, off of Adams St. which was in the Neponset section of Boston. We lived on the 2nd floor of a typical Boston style three decker, for which Boston and many of it’s neighborhoods are somewhat famous for. My Mom and Dad owned it, and they took good care of it. It was a fantastic neighborhood to spend your childhood in, or, at least in my case, part of my childhood. During that time, I went to the Kenny School on Oakton Ave, and I also have good memories of going to school there.
I attended Religious Instruction classes at St, Ann’s School, once a week after my regular public school classes. The last class before Christmas that year, we were all given a gift from the nuns, which was a plastic little baby Jesus which was laying in a plastic cradle of straw. I remember leaving the class, and I was really on the proverbial cloud 9, because Christmas Vacation from school had finally arrived and begun with the dismissal of this class. As I walked home with my friends it was just staring to get dark, the colorful Christmas candles were turned on in most windows we passed. Sometimes, we could even look into the windows we passed by and see Christmas trees that were lit up. It was Christmas Time in the city, a beautiful thing to enjoy. All was right in my world.
I came home and gave the little Baby Jesus to my mother, and for several years she hung it on our Christmas tree. I don’t know whatever happened to it. I suppose it just disappeared among the lost remnants of my childhood, as had so many other things I had once possessed from that time period of my life.
That Christmas season, my Dad brought home a couple of 33 RPM / LP records. One contained several Polish Christmas Carols. Being a kid, I never cared for them. Over the next few years, when he would play that record, I would always complain and whine to him. I didn’t want to hear that. I wanted to hear “Here Comes Santa Clause” and Jingle Bells” I think it always bothered my Dad that I wouldn’t sit and listen to those Polish Carols with him. That is one of those things that I have regretted many years after he was gone. But I think I was a normal young kid and not understanding the words plus the unfamiliar tunes, well, I just couldn’t get into them.
Christmas Day was wonderful, as it always was while my Dad was alive. I was an only child at the time. However, my parents did let me know that they were expecting another baby soon, although they didn’t make as big a deal out of it as they did the previous time my Mother was pregnant. She lost that child, so I assume they didn’t want to talk too much or raise my hopes (or theirs, for that matter) that I would soon have a little brother or sister.
As usual, I can recall a lot of great presents from Santa, and a few that I remember included a Tonka Car Carrier truck, a Structo Garbage Truck, a set of Block City building blocks and a Kenner Girder and Panel Turnpike highway and bridge set. Oh yeah, I cant forget the Erector Set and the toy detective cap pistol with a shoulder holster. It was a great Christmas at my house.
The next day came. I remember it was snowing something fierce. One of my parents suddenly announced “The baby is coming!” A phone call to the doctor, a bit of rushing around, and finally my Mom, Dad and I hastily climbed into a taxi and headed to St. Margaret’s Hospital. I was born at St. Margaret’s and in 1978 they would save my oldest son’s life after he was born with some serious problems. But this day, it was my first sister that would be born there.
We didn’t have a car back then. Hardly anyone in my neighborhood did. There was a ramp that led to and from the main entrance to the hospital, and I remember the taxi slipping and sliding, and no matter how hard he tried, the driver couldn’t get up that little steep ramp. So, we got out and walked up to the entrance. I don’t remember a whole lot about that day, but I do remember my Dad telling me sometime later that I now had a little sister. Nevertheless, despite the seemingly happy circumstances there was something else troubling him.
I didn’t realize how serious it was at the time, but I was able to piece things together between the conversations he had with his mother and sister, and what my Mom had told me years later. Apparently, the doctor told him there were serious complications with the birth. Apparently they thought they could save the life of my mother, or save the life of my sister, but not both. And, in as much as this was 1961, and this was a Catholic hospital, my Dad was told by the doctor that Catholic ideology was that when making this type of a choice, the old must always make way for the new. My Dad was told that they would save my sister, my mother would most likely die.
This didn’t sit well with my Dad. He had a long discussion with the authorities at the hospital, some by phone, some in person, but in the end he insisted that they save his wife. I remember him asking, more like demanding an answer to his question which was, what good will it be for his daughter to grow up without a mother? No, he insisted. Save both. And if they could not do that, save his wife and my mother. In the end, both lived and in a few days my new little sister came home. I was very, very excited! As I sit here writing, I wonder what Jean would have though about that if she had known.
Naming their kids apparently was an on-going debate between my parents. My Mom wanted to name me after my Dad, but my he was dead set against it. In the end, he prevailed, and they named me Martin, after his father who came here from Poland and his first name was Marcin. Regarding my new sister, my mom wanted to name her Cindy. My Mom loved that name. She also loved the song “Cindy, oh Cindy” which was done by the folk group the Highwaymen back around 1960. This group should not be confused with the later group called the Highwaymen which consisted of, if I remember correctly, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Wille Nelson and some others.
My Mom lost that debate, and my new sister was named Jean. Dad made a concession of sorts to my Mom, and Mom gave her the middle name of Marie, so her full name was JEAN MARIE SWIRKO. We all loved Jean. Some people called her Jeannie, but my mom hated that, always corrected them telling those that did that Jean’s name was Jean Marie, not Jeannie!
A couple of years later, my brother was born, and Dad and Mom named him Frank, after my Dad, and later, when my youngest sister was born, my Mom got her wish and named her Cindy.
My Dad always doted on me, and I’m sure I caused him a fair share of heartache at times, especially later in school when my grades weren’t as good as he thought they should have been. Report card day at my house was often a tumultuous time when my Dad was alive, and I never looked forward to bringing my mediocre report card home. It didn’t help that my 3rd grade teacher at the Pollard School in Quincy later told him that I didn’t put enough effort into my work at school.
But Jean, that was different. I fondly remember the days following Jean’s birth. Dad and I were still alone at the house. In the evening we would walk across Galavan Boulevard and visit with my Grandmother, Uncle Paul, Aunt Annie, and my cousin Barbara. That was always a lot of fun for me. I remember My Grandmother Swirko would only let me drink ginger ale if it was half ginger ale and half water! Too much sugar she thought, I guess. But I didn’t care.
Another great memory I have of that week was sledding down the hill on Pierce Ave. with all the other neighborhood kids. No one had a car on the street that I remember, so there were no cars parked along the sides of the street, and very little traffic. My Dad walked me to the top of the hill dragging my new sled, another Christmas gift. I was afraid to go down the first time, but I finally did, After that first ride down, I never wanted to stop. I sledded that day with everyone else until well after dark. My Dad had to walk up to the top of the hill to get me when it was past time to go home and eat dinner.
Some months later, my Dad bought a car at Dickson Buick, and after the first one didn’t work out too well, he ended up with a 61 Ford Falcon. Having a car was, up until that point, a previously unknown luxury for us. It certainly made the world a lot smaller for us. The car also permitted my Dad to sell the house on Pierce Avenue and buy a single family house in Quincy Point. Previous to owning the house on Pierce Av, he owned another three decker on Maryland St in Savin Hill (once affectionately known to those who came from there as Stab and Kill). I guess my Dad just had it with being a landlord and problem tenants. Boston had also enacted a new tax on property owners, so for him it was the last straw, and as a result we ended up in Quincy.
I hated leaving my school in Dorchester, my friends, everything that I had come to know and love during my young life. I was so upset on our first Halloween living in Quincy, that my Dad took me back to the old neighborhood (dressed up as Casper the Ghost), where I tricked or treated amongst my friends. Little did I know, that night would be the last time I would ever see my friends Paul, Ricky, Joey and Gerry from that hood. To this day, I have no idea whatever came of them.
Nonetheless, getting back to the week Jean was born I settled in with my new baby sister. I loved Jean, but my Dad, well he adored her. He couldn’t spend enough time with her. When the three of us would take a ride together she would sit in the middle, in the front seat, in her car seat, in the Falcon. My Dad would sing “My Darlin Clementine” to her. He liked the Beatles, even though he found them weird in appearance. He would sing ‘I want to hold your hand’ and “she Loves me Yeah, Yeah Yeah”to Jean while he drove. It got to the point that Jean would sit in the kitchen window which overlooked our driveway and wait for her daddy to come home from work or wherever. When he pulled into the driveway, she would always get so excited and announce his arrival to anyone nearby.
I was once fighting over some toy with Jean, and I grabbed it away from her and pushed her away from me. My father saw my behavior and was not happy with me. But, instead of yelling and giving me “the strap” he took me aside and gave me a stern talking to. “A real man” he told me. “would never put his hands on a woman” He went on to tell me that any man who would hurt a girl or a woman was a coward and would never fight another man. He made some serious threats to harm or punish me if I ever hit or pushed my little sister again.
That conversation resonated with me for years to come. I always remembered it. It formed one of my core beliefs in life. Much later in life, when I became a cop, I always worked a little harder when I responded to domestic assault calls, and the 6 years I spent working in the MPD Domestic Violence Unit was absolutely a direct result of that talking to my father gave me so long ago. I never saw him strike or hurt my mother. I always worked hard to hold batterers accountable for their behavior and even force them into a situation where perhaps they would straighten out their act, so to speak. I’m proud to think that in some ways, I am my father’s son, at least in that regard.
As you might know, especially if you read part one of this series, Jean was three years old to the day when my Dad died. The day my Dad died, our childhood also died. I had nine good years up until that point. As far as Jean, and baby brother Frank went, neither remember their father, and their childhood was robbed from them before it began. Even Cindy, (yes, my mom finally had a daughter she could name Cindy) my younger sister who came a couple of years later, well, the die had already cast for her as well.
I remember that Jean’s favorite TV show was the Partridge Family and she had several of their records. I always teased her about the show, threatening to change the station, but we always let her watch it when it came on TV. A close second for Jean was the Brady Bunch.
Unfortunately, most of her childhood was very tumultuous, starting after the death of Dad. During her teenage years she dropped out of school and became a chronic runaway. By that point, I had left the house and struck out on my own. Once I did that, Jean became the target and in may ways the victim of my Mom’s problems. My Mom lost the house in Quincy, and after being homeless for a while, she and the kids eventually landed an apartment on Boston St. in Dorchester. Frank and Jean endured forced busing in 1974, and as bad a time as the black kids had who were bussed to South Boston and Hyde Park, Jean and Frank had a horrendous time being the only white kids bussed to Roxbury. (There were only three kids on the school bus, no other mother would send their kids to Roxbury.) In the end, they both quit school. In Jean’s case, her dropping out of school set an even less than successful course for the remainder of her short life.
Jean would run away, and I would often track her to the housing projects in South Boston. I was driving a taxi there at the time, and I got to know my way around (I was pretty familiar with Southie to begin with because I spent a lot of time running around there with cousins and friends when I was a kid) and I got to know many people there, both honest and hard working and shady. I never had trouble finding Jean when she ran away. Jean was about 13 or 14 at that time, much too young to hanging with older guys, druggies and the assortment of people I often found her with in the Old Colony Housing Projects around East 8th and East 9th Street, and places like Pilsudski Way and Carmody Court.
Often, after finding her, and not being allowed entrance to the apartment she was hiding in, I would go to the old District 6 Police Station on D st. The cops were sympathetic and always came with me and were very aggressive trying to find her and sending her home. I spent several evenings chasing Jean across the roof tops and through the tunnels of the projects along with the cops as Jean ran trying to evade us. Sometimes the cops forced their way into the apartment we found her in and threatened the occupants with arrest.
We caught her several times, and I often took her to the old Howard Johnston’s off the expressway on Boston St, for a late night meal, give her a good talking to and took her home to my Mom. The Boston cops that helped me those days were great. They couldn’t do enough to help me get Jean home to my mother, and again, they became role models for me later in life, and like them, I became very aggressive looking for teenage runaways during my later police career.
Looking back, I’m not sure I did Jean any favors returning her home to my Mom, but what else was I going to do? Couldn’t let her run around with the thugs and deviates she was hanging with. I insisted she go to school. I took her in to live with me and my wife a few times, but it didn’t work out. She just stopped going to school. One day, she joined the carnival. That’s right, the carnival!
I don’t know everywhere she went, but I do know she ended up in Florida. My brother fled home when he was 17 and joined the Army in 1980. He ended up in Germany, where he would regularly get letters from Jean. Frank, who was 1 1/2 years younger than Jean, was very close to her. Eventually, she worked her way back to Boston. I was driving a taxi for Red and White Cab in Boston, and I got her a job as a telephone operator at the cab company. She would answer the phone and take calls and pass the calls to the dispatcher. She didn’t hang around, and before long she took off and headed back to Florida. I loved her very much, she was my kid sister, but, she had problems and they got in the way of us having a good relationship by that time. I slowly and regretfully came to the conclusion that I could do nothing for her. In 1981, after I joined the Army and was away at Ft. Benning, my wife tried one last time to help Jean, but in the end, Jean bit the hand that tried to feed her and she went back to Florida.
In May of 1982, she was living in Florida, and she babysat her 10 year old neighbor from time to time. I knew she was in Florida, and she was working at a carnival on and off, but I didn’t know too much about where she was living or working. My mother was really suffering from mental illness related problems at the time, and when Jean was home, on and off she and my mother fought all the time. It was both crazy and sad.
On the afternoon of May 29th, 1982, Jean was riding a bicycle on the way to the store. Riding with her on the bicycle was her ten year old neighbor. She was in Ocala, Florida, and a drunk driver struck her and killed both Jean and the ten year old boy. The autopsy said she died of massive head trauma, and as a result of the speed with which the driver was driving when he hit Jean, she was thrown almost 300 feet. I recall the Florida Highway Patrolman who arrested the driver and investigated the crash telling me there were no brake marks visible. He swerved and hit her while doing what was believed to be somewhere between 60 and 70 MPH.
The driver himself was well known to police. He was a burglar, and had previous arrests for DWI. I remember the cop telling me that the highways in Florida have become a slaughter house for drunk driving deaths, and something had to be done. He charged the driver with some type of manslaughter, based on his causing the two deaths, but due to some unique circumstances that existed at the time of the collision, and Florida Law, he did not expect a conviction and advised me not to get my hopes up.
Meanwhile, Jean was laying in a morgue somewhere in Florida. My brother was in Germany, and it was left to me to tell my mother, and my other sister, Cindy, that Jean was dead. Needless to say, it did not go well. None of us had any money. I was home from active duty and in the Army Reserve. I was running a failing business, on the cusp of losing my house. My mother had nothing, and there certainly was no life insurance to bury Jean with. I called the Red Cross to notify my brother and get him home. Being in the Army Reserve at the time, I knew how this drill went.
That evening, in Germany, Frank was called into his Commanders Office. When he arrived, he found a young Lieutenant that he did not know. He started by telling Frank that he had bad news. Later, Frank would tell me that he automatically thought something bad had happened to one of my kids. The Lieutenant then told Frank that his sister, Janice had been killed in an accident. Frank wiped his forehead, and said “Whew!. L-T, I don’t have a sister named Janice. You scared the shit out of me!”
The lieutenant looked puzzled, then looked through his papers and looked back at Frank and told him he made a mistake. He then asked Frank if Jean Marie Swirko was his sister. Frank replied in the affirmative. The lieutenant then told Frank he was sorry, his sister Jean Marie was killed in an accident. Needless to say, the unprofessional way this officer handled this notification made the news even more painful for Frank to receive than it had to be. Frank would tell me that after notification, he never saw the Army work so fast. Within no time, he had money in his pocket and he was on a flight headed for the States.
I made my notifications, and my Mom did not take it well. This would have been tough for any normal person. But my mother’s various psychological problems made this a particularly cruel and almost impossible situation for us.
The next day I got a call from Frank. He had landed in Newark. “Thank God’ I told him. Frank and I talked for a bit, mostly about the circumstances surrounding Jean’s death. Finally, Frank got on a plane and eventually arrived in Boston.
The next week was a nightmare. Frank and I went around and tried to figure a way to get Jean home. We begged and borrowed.We found that before Jean could be sent home, there were preparations to her body that had to be made by a local funeral home in the Ocala area. No credit available there. Money up front. Same with the funeral home in Boston. I scraped some money together, Frank got some help and a loan from an Army Relief agency, and my father’s sister, Annie, chipped in and gave us some money.
I cried just once that I can remember. It was a day or two after I learned of Jean’s death. I went to my bedroom and broke down. No one saw me. When I did, I cried and cried. I couldn’t stop. I was sobbing and wailing, seemingly for ever. Eventually, I regained control, straightened up, and went on with our grim business. It was the last time I have wept for Jean. I love her still, and I miss her, but I haven’t cried since.
My mother insisted on an open casket wake. It’s a catholic / Irish thing. The Funeral Director, Joe Casper, from Casper’s Funeral Home in South Boston, a good guy, tried to talk us out of that idea. In the end, we had two wakes, open casket, and after a funeral mass at St. Ann’s in Dorchester, she was buried at Cedar Grove Cemetery, where she remained for many years.
My brother and I both wore our dress greens. We were only Privates at the time, but we shined our collar brass until they radiated a blinding shine when light reflected off of it. The funeral director did a great job, and he was really excited and proud. I thought she looked like an old lady who had been through an ordeal. Jean was 21 when she was killed. Unlike me, she never had much of a life.
The trial came for her killer, The Florida Highway Patrolman stayed in touch with me, and kept me informed. As time went on, more and more states started to take drunk driving offenses seriously. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) eventually came into existence. The highways everywhere were becoming a slaughter house. The event that changed things in Massachusetts was an accident where a drunk driver wiped out a family in the Hyde Park Section of Boston on Christmas Day, killing a family on their way to have Christmas Dinner at Grandma’s house. They never made it.
But this was still 1982. Getting pinched for drunk driving in most places was no more serious than getting a traffic ticket. Sure, he took two young lives. But, he didn’t mean to do it. Today in NH, he’d probably do 20 years hard time. But, in Florida back then, this man was ACQUITTED of killing Jean. Sure he did it, but he was found not guilty. The defense attorney argued they shouldn’t have been on the bike on the side of the road. The lack of tire marks showed the driver didn’t see my sister. If he had, surely he would have hit his brakes. There were some other technical issues I won’t cloud this story with. In the end, he was found guilty of speeding, not guilty of drunk driving or manslaughter. Go figure. The fact that this man was never held accountable for my little sister’s death has always, and still does bother me.
Some years later, my brother Frank had the occasion to go to Florida. He had just gotten on the job, and he went to the Ocala police to see if he could get a look at the accident investigative file. The cops couldn’t have been nicer. They talked about what they knew about the man that killed Jean. They also dug out, the by then old, investigative file. They removed the photos. Frank asked about them, and the cop told him candidly that Frank, cop or not, did not want to see those photos. Frank relented. I’m sure whatever was there, he would never have wanted his last memories of his big sister to have been those photos. The reports themselves were graphic enough.
The years passed. My mother never really got over the death of her daughter, even when her mental health improved later in life. Her one wish was to be buried with my sister when the time came. Well, her time came in January of 2001. The big decision that Frank, Cindy and I had to make was whether to bury my mother here in Manchester, or in either South Boston or Dorchester where she grew up. Burying her with Jean was out of the question. We bought a single grave at the time we buried Jean. In the end, we figured that since what was left of our family had pretty much migrated to Manchester, we would bury my Mom here. It wasn’t an easy decision for us to make. We placed obituaries in both the Boston Herald and the Manchester Union Leader. It was the right decision. The Manchester Police Department members pretty much closed ranks around us, and were with us and were a large presence right up though her burial where a lone MPD piper played the sad bagpipes by her grave. Something that the Catholic Priest who presided at the burial site refused to allow while he was there. We will always be thankful to MPD Police Officer Rich Ell for playing the pipes at my Mom’s grave site. Being Irish, she would have loved it. At the end, Tommy, a close family friend who was a singer also honored her with a song after the priest left and the piper followed.
In 2014, I retired as a full time cop. I stayed on and worked part time in various capacities, but once I retired, and took care of some financial issues, I decided it was time to bring Jean and my mother together. It wasn’t easy, but with the help of Joe Casper and Casper’s Funeral Home, 32 years later I had Jean brought up to Manchester and buried her with my mother. The deed to my mothers grave belonged to my brother, and when he bought the plot for my mother back in 2001, that plot was for two persons. We had the hope back then maybe someday we’d get to grant my mother one of her longest and last wishes.
Today, Jean rests with my mother at a local cemetery here in town. I visit it often. Usually late in the afternoon when I can sit in the shade. I leave things so that others who pass by can tell there are still some people around that care about Jean and my Mom. I visit them often. I bring a chair, cup of coffee, something to read and enjoy the peace, quiet and the birds. When my time comes, my hope is to be buried nearby.
Like my mother, Jean had a tough life. Sometimes, I tell my own kids about their Aunt Jean. And now, I tell my granddaughters. Neither Jean or my Mom ever got a break in life as far as I can tell. Hopefully they’ve found some peace now. Jean certainly found little enough of it when she was alive. She’s been gone for a long time. Longer than she was alive. But, I still miss her.