Not long ago, I was talking to a group of people, one of whom was a comic who said he likes to begin his standup routine by telling the audience he lives in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He noted that people almost everywhere understand what he means by that, because Lawrence often makes the news for the wrong reasons: crime, corruption, drugs, arson. In other words, saying you live in Lawrence gives you some sort of street cred.
I nodded and smiled. Then, some words fell out of my mouth. “I’m originally from Lawrence,” I said. “I grew up in North Andover, but I lived in Lawrence until I was almost five.” The conversation went on around me, but I sat back, a bit surprised. I’d just told a handful of people I barely knew that my roots were in Lawrence. Most of my closest friends don’t even know that.
You see, my family moved out of my grandfather’s two-family home in that mill city in 1969, a few months before my fifth birthday. My brother was two. It hadn’t been my parents intention to stay in Lawrence even that long–they’d hoped to buy a home in leafier, nearby North Andover right after their marriage–but finances had been tight. By the time we left, most of our neighbors and friends had already bailed out on the city, which seemed to be getting more run-down by the day.
I recall sitting at the dinner table in North Andover one evening–I was probably in third or fourth grade by then–asking my parents where I should tell people I was “from.” Both of them agreed that North Andover was the correct answer. After all, I’d never attended school in Lawrence, and all my close friends were in North Andover. I recall feeling relief. Because despite the fact that Lawrence and North Andover are right next to each other, demographically, they’re quite different. Lawrence is an immigrant city that flourished during the mill era, but has struggled significantly since the 1950s, while North Andover is a suburb that began as a farm town. Call me a snob, but I liked being from North Andover. It sounded so much nicer to me.
My father, on the other hand, loved Lawrence until the day he died. Born and raised there–his dad was the city’s chief probation officer for a number of years–he always maintained that Lawrence would “come back” some day. Sure there was crime, but every city goes through hard times. Its sister city, Lowell, has recently seen tremendous revitalization, and my dad never lost hope that the same thing would happen in Lawrence. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that I lived in North Andover as a child and teenager, I found myself in Lawrence quite frequently. My grandfather and aunt lived there for years after we moved out, and all my dad’s relatives are buried in Lawrence cemeteries. So we’d visit fairly often, for various reasons. And, since North Andover didn’t have any clothing stores when I was young, my friend Laura and I would often take the bus to Essex Street in Lawrence to shop at McCartney’s, Cherry & Webb, and other stores that no longer exist. My orthodontist was in Lawrence, as were my regular dentist, and pediatrician. My first real job was as a telephone operator at the phone company on Canal Street.
But although I was happy to talk about all those things, as I got older–and the city dealt with more violence and corruption–I grew increasingly reluctant to admit that I’d ever lived there. I guess I sort of mentally erased that fact from my history.
So I’m not sure what it was that inspired me to seek out my first home this morning. Certainly, I visit the Merrimack Valley a lot, as my mother lives up that way–as do some friends from high school–but I haven’t been to Lawrence in years. Today, though, my son was participating in a sporting event in Methuen, and after dropping him off, I had a huge urge to see–and show my husband–the residence where I’d lived as a young child. I felt quite confident that I could find it.
We had time to spare, so my husband was game. And although I got a little lost when we were a few blocks away–luckily, we have a GPS–we found the house. It didn’t look great, and the neighborhood looked significantly more downtrodden than I recall it being. Still, the home stood there, clearly occupied, and with a building permit on one of the front doors. I took a chance and walked down the driveway to see if my grandfather’s rose bushes remained, but they were gone, as was his shrine to the Virgin Mary. That made me a little sad, and yet, there was something special about seeing the back yard where I’d played as a toddler. I remembered swinging on my first swing set, while my mom sat on the steps and my grandfather talked to me and tended to his flowers.
Of course, I was trespassing on someone else’s property, so I didn’t stick around. I snapped a quick picture, then got back into the car with my husband. But as we drove away, more memories began to flood my mind: memories of walking those streets with my mom as a kid, stopping into the local butcher shop for meat, and the corner grocery for milk. Occasionally, we’d walk as far as the shoe store that smelled like leather, so I could get my feet measured and maybe get a new pair of shoes.
I didn’t cry or anything like that. Instead, I realized I’ve been denying the truth for decades. I may have grown up in North Andover, but Lawrence is where I spent my formative years. I’m not particularly tough and I don’t have much street cred, but I am, in fact, originally–proudly–from Lawrence.