I didn’t grow up in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, but we lived close enough that I could walk down Division Street (up the hill, down the hill) to Main Street. Or, at the fork in the road, veer right down First Avenue and arrive at the other end of Main Street.
When we moved to Cowesett in 1968, one of the first things I did was accompany my father to the Almac’s Supermarket in East Greenwich. He bought enough food to fill four brown paper bags (and one of those smaller bags with silver inside for ice cream). Then the paper bags were set into a big gray box and the box was placed on a wheeled conveyor belt at the front of the store. My dad and I walked back to the Ford Fairlane station wagon, and by the time he’d driven to the market’s entrance, that gray box full of our grocery bags had traveled on the conveyor belt to the outside of the store, where a young man wearing a white shirt put the bags in the car. My dad gave the boy a tip, probably a quarter.
Next to the Almac’s was the Newport Creamery, where my grandmother took me for lunch one day. I had a cheeseburger on toast and a chocolate cabinet (that’s a milkshake with ice cream.). Next to the Newport Creamery was Thorpe’s, where my mother bought cough medicine and Q-tips and bright red lipstick. And finally, at the other end, was Woolworth’s, one of the best stores in the world for a ten-year-old.
My first job was at the Kent Cinema. Chinese food meant Cathay Garden for sweet and sour pork or egg fu yung. No one had heard of nime chow or banh hoi. Pizza was at Two Guys from Italy, now known as Frank and John‘s from Italy (two different guys, I assume). The pizza is still great, even if there are no more tableside jukeboxes.
In tracing my late mother’s ancestry, I discovered many ties to old East Greenwich, and she and I had a great time traipsing through historical cemeteries, finding Stones and Wightmans and Arnolds. I’m reminded of a passage from Wally Lamb’s book The Hour I First Believed –
“I was just thinking that that’s what your ancestry’s like. Anyone’s ancestry, really— not just yours, but yours is what’s on my mind because of Lydia’s diaries.”
I told her I wasn’t following her.
“Think about it,” she said. “What do we do when our elders die?”
“Call the undertaker and start fighting over the will,” I quipped.
“No, really. We put them in the ground, right? But we also carry them forward because our blood is their blood, our DNA is their DNA. So we’re intimately connected to these people whose lives— whose histories— have gone underground and become invisible to us.”
“Like that river,” I said.
“Right. Except in your case, a spring has bubbled up.”
Lamb, Wally (2008-10-28). The Hour I First Believed (pp. 375-376). Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition.