Sunday, January 16, 2011

Mrs. Mastrullo's Hands

I received news on Friday night that Mrs. Mastrullo had passed away.
Her daughter told me only a few weeks ago that she hadn't shown her the photos I sent.
They would only confuse her she thought.  I've never met Mrs. Mastrullo
so I was a taken a little off guard when I found the news upsetting.

Photo: " Crossroads:  Stories of Central Square,"
Cambridge Historical Commission publication

Vincent James Mastrullo--"Jimmy" as he was known in the neighborhood--was the son of Italian immigrants.  He was born just around the corner from here in 1919, no more than 10 houses away.  He may have even known Mrs. Ray, the piano teacher who lived here. 

Jimmy fell in love with an old house in 1940.  The house was already 100 years old and it needed a a lot of work. He renovated the house, adding beautiful new bathrooms with clawfoot tubs and a new back porch before going off to the war.

Upon his return from WWII, he married Margaret, the sweet young woman from Nova Scotia that had been on his mind the entire time he was gone.  She was a good woman, deeply religious, and he knew she would make a good wife and mother.  They moved into the house that Jimmy had renovated and two children, Michelle and James, soon followed.  Everyone knew Jimmy Mastrullo LOVED his house but it was Mrs. Mastrullo's hands that shaped her home.

Her hands opened her pink bedroom curtains
to let in the sunlight each morning...

...and touched the pink trim that matched the
flowered wallpaper she had chosen as she
rounded the corner to her children's rooms...

...where she pulled the crystal knob on the closet
to dress her children for school. 

She opened this door each day as she
returned from the Central Square market...

...and pulled on this red crystal to light the pantry
as she prepared her family's dinner each afternoon.

Mrs. Mastrullo's hands opened this door
to the bathroom and...

...turned these knobs to draw a bath after a day
filled with cooking, cleaning, shopping and laundry...

...and grasped this newel post each evening
as she climbed the steep stairs to her bedroom.

Mrs. Mastrullo's hands embraced her daughter when she went off to nursing school.  And when her son Jim chose a career as a police officer, she prayed that he would stay safe.  But Jim's career was cut short after being diagnosed with a debilitating illness.  I imagine her hands opened this dresser drawer where she kept her most precious things...

 ....where she reached for her rosary and asked for help and strength.

Despite their adaptations to the house, there came a time
when her son could no longer stay at home.

Only a few short years later, Mrs. Mastrullo lost her husband.

It was during these most difficult times that I imagine her returning to that dresser drawer for her bible or her rosary to seek strength and comfort.

When neighbors became concerned about Mrs. Mastrullo, noticing times when she seemed confused, they contacted her daughter Michelle and Mrs. Mastrullo went to live at an assisted-living facility near her daughter's home.

It was at this time the torch was passed to me to care for this old house.

* * *

As I was finishing up the exterior project on the house, the real estate agent that sold the house stopped by to tell me I MUST send photos to Michelle.  I wasn't sure how they would feel seeing their home changed so much, but knowing the real estate agent was a friend of the family, I sent off photos just before Thanksgiving.

Just before Christmas, I received a card.

Dear Steve,  Thank you for updating me on the house.  I enjoyed seeing the transformation and am very impressed with your vision and motivation.  The house looks wonderful!  My brother also enjoyed the pictures and details you provided.  

I did not show the pictures to my mom.  Her dementia has progressed and these would only confuse her.   

My dad loved this house and when he was healthy did a lot of work on it himself.   My parents would be pleased to know you care about the house as much as they did and would be impressed with your care and commitment to it. 

Happy Holidays and Warm Regards,


* * *

Receiving news of Mrs. Mastrullo's passing so soon after my correspondence with her daughter was surprising.  It's been a solemn weekend reflecting on Mrs. Mastrullo and her time in the house.

I will admit that I've thought of her many times since moving in to the house.  

I have experienced her "hands" all over the house.  I feel them most strongly in the master bathroom where I've imagined those hands turning the creaky chrome knobs to pour baths that would wash away her dirt and disappointments.



Mrs. Mastrullo's hands touched all of these things for over 60 years, and I think I developed a little bit of a connection with her through these things.  Maybe that connection was stronger than I knew.  If you live in an old house, perhaps you know what I mean.

Mrs. Mastrullo's funeral was yesterday and, although I didn't go, I felt the need to go back up in the attic to light a candle in her honor.  I felt this was an appropriate tribute to the woman whose hands cared for this house longer than anyone else.  The candle illuminates what was most likely placed by Mrs. Mastrullo's hands, way up in the peak of the attic where it was closest to God's eyes, this prayer:

"Bless Our Home."

Bless you, Mrs. Mastrullo, and go in peace knowing the house is in good hands.


  1. awww steve,

    what a lovely, lovely tribute to this woman. how wonderful that you feel such a connection to her and honor her death in this way. we could only hope that someone would do that for us on our passing. very touching.


  2. What a beautiful tribute! I know she was sweet because she was a fellow Maritimer. How lovely for you to feel such a connection to the previous owners. I hope her daughter reads this post.

  3. Beautifully written. I can't help but believe she is looking down thinking, "well done, now what's next?" Thank you for sharing for your heartfelt tribute.

  4. Okay, I'm teary. That was just so lovely. The light in the attic, well, that put me over the edge. Not that this is about me -- it's about your ability to move people with your words and your sensitivities about the love in a home. The house does, indeed, have the right caretaker. I'm sure she would be proud.

  5. Oh, what a beautiful, beautiful tribute.

    I am completely crying ... all those images and Mrs Mastrullo's hands and rosary beads.

    She'll look down from her new house with many rooms and bless you and your home, I'm sure.

  6. that was so beautiful. (typing in tears) What a wonderful tribute to the person who owned your house for so long. How wonderful for her children to know how much you care about it. We all can only wish for someone like you to realize our touch in this world.

    What a beautiful thing to have hanging in your attic. so deserve this home...if only all homes and their owners would be paid such reverence.

  7. love that red crystal hanging from the light cord in the pantry.

  8. I write this through tears running down my face..... what a magical remembrance of a sweet, wonderful woman. I 'do' understand exactly what you mean... I long to know who lived in and loved my home before me.
    I think Mrs. Mastrullo is a very happy woman now being able to see her beloved home being so lovingly tended and loved by you. Your tribute of lighting a candle in the attic is poetic...I shall raise a toast to you both.
    Bless your home.


  9. Oh Steve, you broke my heart with that one and have me in tears! What a beautifully written tribute and more beautiful still that you have thought of her and love the house she loved before you. It takes a special person to notice and connect to these things the way you have done. Her children must be so pleased their home is in such good hands - what a tribute to their mother above all else. A beautiful post and the highlight of my day! I am sure she will be keeping an eye on you from her spot in heaven.
    Thoughts and prayers for her family today.


  10. Tears. It is a beautiful legacy to live in an old house cared and touched by so many others. It was always one of my favorite parts. Imagining the hands on the the sink.

    A beautiful and soulful tribute. I, too, light a candle for Mrs Masrullo's hands.

    You do the home well,

  11. Just another reader you've moved to tears. I don't even know you...but now I feel like I know Mrs. Mastrullo.

  12. What a beautifully written tribute...for a dear woman who spent her life in what is now your've brought me to tears. A well loved home...yesterday and still today.

  13. Thank you for sharing this. I do not live in an old home, on the contrary, we built our home 25 years ago, and I have every intention of staying here until the end. It's not a palace, but we have put our blood, sweat , and tears into this place, inside and out. My "hands" have been everywhere. Sometimes I wonder about the next owners. Will they care as much as I do about everything? Will they know how to properly prune the trees and shrubs? Will they take care of the birds and woods? Will they appreciate the tiny details that we have so lovingly put into our place? Who knows.....but after reading your moving tribute, I hope it's someone as thoughtful and understanding as you...someone who will "honor" the home that we built, while putting their own mark on it, and preserving it for years to come.

  14. Steve, the imagery of her hands in the house, and the connection then passing to you is so beautiful. thank you for this thoughtful post.

  15. I love the relationship that's grown between you and this house as you've cared for it, bringing in Mrs. M. as an earlier steward. A well-loved house is a joy forever!

  16. Like others, I cried when I read this...what a beautiful and thoughtful tribute to someone who has had a touch on your life without even knowing it.
    The candle in the attic was the perfect way to honor her.
    This was one of my favorite posts I've read yet ... from any blog.

  17. My eyes welled up reading your post. You and Mrs. Mastrullo have a connection, and now she's with the love of her life. I'm sure she would be thrilled to know how much your care for your home. Have a wonderful weekend.


  18. My first visit here and I was so moved by your beautiful tribute. I understand so well your feelings and thoroughly enjoyed this post. Someone mentioned this post on another blog I read and I'm so glad I took the time to find you here. ~Lili

  19. Lovely post, Steve. I know exactly what you mean and feel the presence of the past inhabitants of my house nearly every day. It is a reminder that we are only caretakers of our houses, yet we leave a lasting impact in more ways than one.


  20. You told this story beautifully.

  21. beautifully written.
    so glad I wandered over to your blog...
    - {darlene}

  22. Dear Steve, so this is why the very walls of your house breathe love. And how sensible of her daughter to leave Mrs Mastrullo with memories of an 'M' on the metalwork and a room that is pink.
    This is a wonderful posting and you are a real story teller.
    Thank you.

  23. that is so lovely on the history of the house. May they RIP. Thanks for sharing and God bless your hands!

  24. Steve,

    That brought tears to my eyes. I, like you, appreciate the history, the working hands, the life that is contained within the walls of old structures, years after the previous inhabitants have moved on. I have been following your blog for a handful of months, and went straight to your first post - reading everything like a huge story that unfolded into the beautiful home you've created. I know Mrs. Mastrullo is just tickled pink, like her curtains, with what you've realized for her home, now your home. Thank you for sharing this, and my thoughts are with her family as they grieve, and you as well, as you remember her through your transformations.
    All my best wishes in 2011.

  25. Beautifully said!

    We live in an old house and I had the pleasure of meeting a man who was born in our house in 1922. He had come to town on his 80th birthday to have lunch with a friend. I invited him in and was deeply touched listening to his memories. When he left, I wrote down everything he told me. I plan to share this story on my blog in the near future.

    Old homes are special not just for their architectural details, but for the history of the events that took place inside their walls. It was so nice of you to share your home's personal story.

  26. I know exactly how you feel Steve. I think of May, the woman who owned our house and her mother in law who owned it before her. There are signs all over the house of their presence over the years. I am deeply connected to the family and how they loved the house. You completely understand what it means to carry the house through, for yourself and for them. Beautifully written with sensitivity and respect. Susan

  27. Beautiful....thank you for sharing this....smiles.

  28. Steve, This is exactly why some of us live in funny old rickety- boo houses, referred to by our brick'n'tile dwelling mates as 'character homes'. Ours was owned by Annie and Oliver Twist and he built it while they lived in an army demountable in the yard for two years. Last year I was thrilled to chat on the phone for a long time with his daughter who was a baby at the time and is now in her 70's. She explained some of the building mysteries and incongruities and of course there were wonderful stories as a result. Our families have a bit in common... lots of kids, wind instruments, first names...Once I found a note written on the wall above his bed by my 6 year old son to "Dear Olly". When we redid the kitchen we and the kids graffitied all over the wall behind the pantry with hand prints and ages and invites to look us up if somebody redoes it in another fifty years. I love that you have left so much of your house true to the prior owners. Lovely!

  29. Dear Steve-
    I just found your blog this evening and definitely feel like you are a kindred spirit. This post you wrote about Mrs. Mastrullo brought tears. It definitely is a beautiful tribute. I feel a similiar connection with the family who lived in our home too. It was built as a wedding gift for Phyllis and Francis Werner in 1940. I had the privilege of speaking on the phone to her once and got to ask her all kinds of questions. She was away this fall at the age of 94. I consider it a privilege to be the keeper of her home.

  30. Thank you Steve for a lovely, sensitive photo essay - countless Nova Scotians - myself included - have lost cousins in what we used to call the Boston states. My aunt married an Italian and raised 11 children there. Your house is lovely - I look forward to going back to the beginning our your blog and reading right up to the moment. Thank you again! Hope you have somewhere to put the new snow!!

  31. What a beautiful sentiment. My grandmother was also from Nova Scotia and lived in Central Sq. I wonder if they knew each other while doing errands? I wonder if they attended mass together at Blessed Sacrament or St. Mary's? So much wonderment...

  32. I just found another entry by Mr. Mastrullo on page 135 of Crossroads: Stories of Central Sq.

  33. Hi, Ms.

    They have indeed know each other. I'm not sure what chursh she attended. Her services were over in East Cambridge so I suspect it there.

    Yes, there are two little sections in that Central Square book with interviews of Mr. Mastrullo. That book gives a wonderful snapshot of the neighborhood at the time.

    Thanks for your comments!

  34. Hi Steve, I accidently stumbled upon your gorgeous blog tonight. I am now going to live vicariously through you! We moved from Boston to the Carolinas. I am very home sick. I met my husband over tweleve years ago when he was living in Central Square. I grew up in Everett and lived in Beverly as well. This story about the Mastrullo's touched my heart, as I felt like I was in my relatives home in Everett. My great aunts and great grandparents had that same exact door except with the letter "S" for Sirignano. I almost feel like I knew that name growing up..anyways, I love what you are doing to your urban cottage. Thanks for the escape back to Boston, as now I am living in a surburbia subdivision world with other "soccer" moms and a minivan. I could totally live there and raise my children happily just like Mrs. Mastrullo....

  35. Steve this is my first visit to your blog and I am so touched by this wonderful tribute to the previous owners of your lovely home. I love the fact that you are taking such wonderful care of a home, not a house but a HOME!!!! I loved reading this story, Kathysue

  36. This is such a beautiful post! Mrs. Mastrullo would be honored, and she would be so proud to see what a good steward you are. After all, as old home owners we are the caregivers for the next generation.

  37. Steve,

    This was a very moving piece. I appreciate the way you have honored her memory and celebrated her mark upon the house. I think Mrs. Maustrullo would be pleased to know her home has fallen into your hands.


  38. You write beautifully of one of life's most sacred rites. Mrs. Mastrullo's home, now yours, is indeed in good hands and very blessed.

  39. You brought me to tears. Such a beautiful post.

  40. Your blog reads like a collection of short stories. Beautiful. :)

  41. how lovely that mychelle connected her father's love of the house with yours. thanks for this, it's beautiful.