September 1, 2014
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Local History: Author has a gift for personal history

Oh, to have had a grandmother who took the trouble to write about her life and her family! So many questions could have been answered, so many anxieties set aside.

Personally, for instance, I would like to know why my grandfather bought a barrel-making factory in South Boston, just before Prohibition was passed and the market for barrels dried up. That’s a question I would have liked answered because I was always anxious that I would grow up to be that dumb. Well, in too many ways to mention, I have become just as stupid myself, but I still would have liked to hear more about my grandmother’s life. She didn’t write and I was too young (and stupid) to ask questions when she was still alive.

Margaret Pilkington Riley’s family lucked out. Not only did this grandma write about her life; she did it in a stylish and conversational way that would be the envy of many in the writing profession.

“Calvin Coolidge was in his first term as President of the United States, Premier Lenin of the USSR had died, Alaska and Hawaii had not yet achieved statehood and ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams,’ by Gus Kahn was the hit song of the year when I was born May 8, 1924 in the front bedroom of my parent’s second floor tenement. The three-decker house in a middle class neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island, owned by my mother’s family, was to be my home for the next twenty-seven years. I am told that I weighed about eight pounds and that I had a very wrinkled, red, fat face. In the midst of my dad’s pacing while awaiting the birth, Dr. John Hoey emerged from Mom’s room and Dad nervously asked if it was going to be a boy or a girl. The doctor replied, ‘Bill, only God knows that now, but when the baby is born, I will be the first to know.’ Several hours later, the bedroom door opened and a smiling Doctor announced ‘Well, Bill, it’s evening gowns and dancing slippers for this baby.’”

Margaret will be celebrating her 90th this year. She has children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and she surprised them all this Christmas with “Evening Gowns and Dancing Slippers” (Lulu, 2013), her memoir of growing up in Providence and her subsequent life.

Although everyone’s life and experience is different, you find yourself recognizing Margaret’s world and she is very good at evoking the joys and anxieties of an American woman coming of age at the same time America did in the mid-20th century, from the Depression, through several wars, through eras of prosperity and periods of despair. But, through it all, she maintains a light but serious attitude about her life.

“George became King. George had two daughters, Margaret Rose and Elizabeth. It was often said that I looked like them and for years, my dad called me his princess. This was quite exciting when I was ten years old, but became less so as years went by and Elizabeth became Queen, frumpy and matronly. Years later, my mom called me one day on the telephone to tell me that my picture was on the front page of the Providence Journal. I opened the paper to see a picture of Queen Elizabeth, but Mom said that she didn’t mean the Queen, but the infant son (John-John) of our president, John F. Kennedy Jr., who was perhaps the homeliest baby I have ever seen.”

Margaret graduated from Classical High School and attended Providence College. Many people know her for her work with Friends Way, a bereavement center in Warwick that provides support to children who have lost a loved one. She is an active member of Christ the King Church in North Kingstown, a member of the Liturgy Committee, a Eucharistic Minister and a Bible study facilitator. So, not surprisingly, she writes a lot about her faith and how much it has meant to her but not in a way that is overly preachy, which will perhaps make her easier to take for younger readers who have yet to be shown the simple pleasures of her youth.

“When Billy and his friends were playing they always included me in their games, probably because I was energetic and peppy and because I could run as fast as most of the boys (and faster than some!). Cowboys and Indians (I would be tied to a tree), Hide and Seek, and Peggy Stick were a few of the more popular games in the twenties and thirties. As I grew older, I played with my dolls (some were made of paper), jacks, jump rope, house, dress-up, hop scotch, roller-skating and all sorts of games with rubber balls. Dressing up in Mom’s clothes and pretending to be a grown-up was one of my favorites.”

Her grandchildren may very well be puzzled about having aunts, uncles, cousins and other extended family members living in such proximity.

“My three great aunts, Winnie, Fan and Mame Hunt, lived on the first floor of our house and were an integral part of our family circle. They were very involved in our everyday lives and on Saturdays and Sundays we dined together and my aunts often took us to church or shopping. Their brother, Jim Hunt, who ran a little variety store, lived a block away. He was a tall, quiet man with a gray moustache. He sold, among other things, penny candy, and it was a real treat when we stopped by his store after school and he gave us little brown bags and allowed us to fill them with whatever selections of candy that we chose. Sometimes he gave us a limit of a nickel’s worth, but that was a lot of candy, for we would choose the kinds that were four, six or eight pieces for a penny. When he ran little contests, we often won, but not so frequently that the other children did not ever have a chance. He and his wife, Mary, had no children and I know we were a joy to them.”

So, we know that Margaret’s family is lucky enough to have a gifted chronicler in the branches of the family tree and have had the book since they found it, under the family Christmas tree. But just about everyone agreed that the story was larger than a small clan of people from South Providence and the book will be available to non-family readers next month. You may not be related to Margaret Pilkington Riley, but you may wish you were after reading this book.

There will be a book release party on March 9 at The Perfect Touch Salon on Pont Judith Road in Narragansett from 2 to 5 p.m. For more information about the book and future signings, call Jayne Harvey at 954-8233.


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