my family and I returned to Winthrop, Massachusetts, to witness
the rededication of a beach. The beach is named for my great-uncle,
a long-ago son of Winthrop, a 17-year-old casualty of World War
I. It's just a little bit of a beach, a sweet place now, but in
my Vietnam-era childhood and until quite recently it lay polluted,
overgrown. When I was a child that beach spoke to me, in the mood
of the time, of forgotten dead, lack of care, even cruelty. For
my uncle's name—Simon J. Donovan—to be etched on a sign above that
beach seemed equal parts honor and insult.
The beach faces one of Logan Airport's runways across a narrow recess
of Boston Harbor, and on that Friday morning at low tide, the sounds
of surf and speech-making were muffled by the roar of engines close
overhead. My late father, who grew up in Depression-era Winthrop,
used to swim across that brief channel. The runway didn't exist
then. Just a spit of sand and beyond that, Boston. And the Boston
skyline—well, that didn't much exist either, people tell me, except
for the granite spire of the Custom House Tower. Boston sat low,
Winthrop sat quiet, and the sea could be heard from the porches
of the closely planted houses along the shore.
We went back to the beach in our usual way, as a clan. My family
got wind of the beach's recent refurbishment by word of mouth, even
though our branch of Donovans had long ago left town. My uncle David
I. Donovan, a Jesuit, asked whether he could give a blessing at
the dedication. The Winthrop selectmen were happy to hear from him,
told him the date, and asked if he might also say a few words about
A few words. None of us on the beach that day had ever met the man.
Still, as both an absence and a presence, Simon J. has lurked at
the edge of our collective family experience.
We brought to the beach a few tokens of his presence: some letters,
his induction photograph. The framed photograph was heavy, awkward,
and odd to carry to the beach. Oval, with curved glass and a brass
ribbon at the top, it has long hung in my parents' house. Simon
J. looks young, handsome, serious. As children we enjoyed being
scared by his image; we dared each other to stare into his eyes,
told creepy stories, asked Simon J. to communicate with us. Time
and—depending upon your belief—supernatural forces or mildew have
stained the photo in eerie ways: that white spot, for instance,
in the middle of his high forehead. We're told he was indeed shot
through the head.
The letters we brought to the beach were handed from Simon J.'s
mother to her daughter, my great-aunt, then to my late father, Simon's
namesake. We'd rediscovered them among my father's papers, and one
Saturday we sat and read them aloud.
The first letter was written on a train out of Boston. Simon J.
had lied to the Army about his age and enlisted at 16.
September 6, 1917
Just leaving New Haven. We are all having a good trip. All the fellows
are going to sleep now. We are bound for New York. I don't want
you to worry at all for I am feeling fine and will stay in the best
of health until my return . . . . Expect to reach New York by two
in the morning. We don't know where we go from there. Frank Hogan
is just going on guard. He has to guard the door of the car so as
not to let anybody get out. I was on from six until seven.
Bill Barry is singing Ireland Must be Heaven . . . . I cannot write
this letter very plain as the train is so unsteady. I will write
as soon as we reach the first stop after New York. I will close
now with the best of health and many hugs and kisses awaiting my
Your loving son,
Simon J. saw action in the trenches of France with the U.S. infantry's
Machine Gun Company 101. He wrote the following letter a week before
he died, barely a month before Armistice was declared. It reached
his mother after the telegram announcing his death.
Oct. 14, 1918
Just a few lines to let you know everything is alright. We are still
in reserve and the news we are receiving now seems to make us all
very happy. I guess the Boche have decided to quit and have a little
peace for awhile. We are liable to go in the lines any minute but
it would not surprise me if we would never get another wallop at
Well, we met the old crowd and believe me it seemed like old times.
The only thing missing was the park. Leo, John H. and a few of the
other boys stayed with us last night. Leo slept with me. They all
look fine and are anxious to get a little action but the trouble
is they don't realize what they go up against when they go in the
lines. I hope they never have to go in.
Well, Ma, there isn't much more to say so will close with love to
Your loving son,
The rededication of the beach was a small affair: a smattering of
neighbors whose houses abut the place, some high school classmates
of my father's (1948), a handful of local dignitaries, and one or
two townspeople whose lobbying had loosed the federal and state
funds for the cleanup. Our family doubled the crowd. It was low
tide and my two young daughters and their cousins combed the flats
for shells. Red, white, and blue balloons bobbed. When it came time
to cut the matching tricolored ribbon, my girls, with steady hands
and serious faces, held the ends taut. Their feet were still sandy
Just before my uncle David was to speak and give the blessing, the
family huddled for a moment. My sister shoved the letters at him,
letters he had never seen before, and he hurriedly agreed to read
the few paragraphs I pointed to in Simon's last message. His voice
broke when he did so. The years fell away, and the words of the
young writer whom we carried with us were heard through the roar
Eileen Donovan-Kranz '84
Donovan-Kranz is a lecturer in the English Department and assistant
director of the first-year writing program at Boston College.
Photo: Eileen Donovan-Kranz holds a portrait of her great-uncle,
killed in World War I, on the Winthrop beach named for him. By Lee