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Chapter One: The House
By Slyvia Simmons

As I closed my bedroom door and began my nightly rituals, they began to move, to prowl, to greet each other. I could not see them, but I could hear them. Who are they? Some may scorn, others may laugh, yet others will know. They are the ghosts of Clifford Street. I was not afraid, I did not yell and scream, I felt at peace. I felt protected.  


The house where the ghosts or spirits dwelt is on Clifford Street, number 19. The house is what you would call “a big house”.


It would be seen as a mansion in other circumstances, but it was a victim of its location. I was the sole inhabitant. At the time of this writing my husband had passed away, and my children and grandchildren, who once filled the house with noise and laughter, had departed to focus on their own lives. My first attempts at first to sell Clifford Street so I could move on with my life had been fruitless—no off-street parking, no yard, the location and on and on. At the time I had a vision of myself as Mrs. Havisham from Great Expectations, as she sat dying among the cobwebs, sweet and bitter memories of the past circling around her.


Let me tell you about #19 Clifford - this house of ghosts that was a central part of my life for so many years. It was and still is an imposing Queen Anne structure at the end of a street that connects two main thoroughfares. You could have seen a similar house as the imposing structure in a haunted house movie or as, described in a history about Boston, as the perfect summer home for the residents of downtown Boston which was only two miles away. 


The house was built in the 1850’s when a carpenter from Beacon Hill decided to move away from the city to a town, called Roxbury. At that time, as was mentioned before, Roxbury was a summer colony for the Beacon Hill crowd.


We do not know the circumstances that motivated the carpenter to build a home for himself and a home for his mother-in-law at 19 Clifford Street. Perhaps the mother-in-law was a widow, and her daughter would not move beyond the city limits without her or perhaps the carpenter was a loving and compassionate man, and just thought that this was the right thing to do. Whatever the motive, my husband’s family benefited from this decision and the Simmons’ in 1930 became the fourth or fifth owner of 19 Clifford at a time when few families of color lived in the neighborhood.


My husband grew up in this house until his parents divorced. As part of the divorce settlement, my husband’s father remained at 19 Clifford and his mother moved on to a new house, a new life and new marriage.


I first met my husband when I was about 11 years old. We were good friends for many years but did not start dating until I was a senior in high school. I remember the stories he would tell of his weekly visits to Clifford Street where he would receive his allowance for the week -- always being greeted at the door by his stepmother who was always polite and welcoming. 

I remember the first time I saw this imposing Queen Anne structure and was given the grand tour of this magnificent house. I entered from the porch through a huge oak door that opened into a hallway. The first thing I noticed were the high ceilings that were perfect for chandeliers, glowing with candles, and eventually electric lights. The living room and the dining room were on opposite sides of the hallway. Both large rooms had fireplaces and long windows demanding custom-made drapes, and curtains. The original wallpaper in both rooms was of flowery figures on a golden background. At the end of the entry hallway was the kitchen, the door to the earthen cellar and the doorway to the side yard. Near the back of the kitchen was the butler’s pantry that led to the dining room. Ah, if only more houses had such pantries, an extra space for special cutlery, dinnerware and special items that cannot be housed in kitchen cabinets. Come out of the kitchen, back into the hall and go up the wooden staircase to the second floor, and step into a large reception, space or sitting area surrounded by a bathroom and three bedrooms also with long windows and fireplaces. Fireplaces were also part of the living and dining rooms on the first floor. If you keep going up the wooden staircase to the third floor you will find a sitting area, three smaller rooms and a bathroom. This floor may have been used as the servant’s quarters. There were 38 steps from the first floor to the third floor. Many years later, I counted these steps and was satisfied that this was my exercise for the day because I walked these steps at least five times a day.


On that first visit, I found the house a bit strange, not in a scary way, but in a way that I felt   there was more to the house than this structure and its inhabitants. Did I sense even then that the house was home perhaps to others who did not want to leave a special place?


When it became my home, I continued to feel it wrap around me like a warm blanket. I continued to feel that it was strange in a comforting way. The odd noises, shadows and unexplained events became what I loved about the special place. For my husband, it was always home-an imposing structure that continued to be his birthplace. And now as I look back and remember our homes together in various places, I realize that he always hoped that one day he would return to 19 Clifford, the six bedroom three story house that for over 150 years had been witness to wars, social movements, waves of immigration and times of poverty and prosperity.


During our time at 19 Clifford, the house was one among other big houses on the street. A street that also included an apartment building, a seller of marble blocks at one end of the street, along with a florist shop, and at the other end of the street, a local grocery store, and—  

The site the marble seller occupied was once a stable, housing the horses for the residents of Clifford Street and the surrounding areas.


During the days of our residency, Black families, many who had left the south after World War II, now made their home on Clifford Street. Once a place for the Beacon Hill elite, Roxbury, and Clifford Street became, after the elites with modern transportation moved to locations further from the city, a street with Jewish and Irish inhabitants. Many of the new residents were immigrants and lived together among a plethora of Jewish delicatessens, Jewish bakeries, and Irish dance halls.


I visited this neighborhood as a child. It was not very different from my neighborhood. My Irish grandmother lived near Clifford Street. I remember walking with her and her dog, a Husky named Butch along Blue Hill Avenue strolling past the vegetable stands, the kosher meat markets, the delicatessens and following the scent of freshly baked challah bread.


The circumstances by which Clifford Street became our permanent residence as were due to the death of my father-in-law, the patriarch of the Simmons family. His wife, my husband‘s stepmother, wanted to move to Florida after his death. So after months of struggling and meeting with lawyers to sort out the estate of my father in law because he died without a will, the way was cleared and my husband purchased 19 Clifford.


It appeared to be the perfect solution at the time. My husband worked for the city, and there was a new requirement that city workers had to live within the city limits. My parents were in need of housing. My father had just retired, and my mother was ill. But we had various concerns, particularly me. We had a dog. I loved the dog. My husband tolerated the dog. After my husband moved into Clifford Street, I had tried several times to bring the dog to the Clifford Street house, but the dog could not adjust to city living, so I schlepped back-and-forth from Clifford Street to that western suburb to keep the dog and my husband happy. After a while, I realized I had to decide. As my parents needed housing, Clifford Street was the best solution for them. I could not expect my husband to live with my parents without me so we tried to figure it out. Lest you think it was an easy decision, it was not. But after rounds of sound and fury, and quiet and contemplation, the issue resolved itself. My daughter and son-in-law would move into the suburban house since they were renting an apartment and needed more room for their young twins. I would give the dog to a trusted friend. All barriers being removed. I became a permanent resident of 19 Clifford and my parents joined us.


So there we were - my husband, my parents, me and the spirits and ghosts who welcomed us with a soft whoosh or the flash of a shadow.


We were all happy to be together.

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