Tom Zappala, 62, is back in the old Italian neighborhood this spring day dropping by the place where he grew up, home to memories that unfold on the pages in his book “Bless Me Sister.”
It's a nostalgic and often humorous look back to the late 1950s and 1960s in a six-block area rich in Italian-American culture, a time when recorded opera music drifted from open windows and mothers and fathers called out from stoops for their children to come inside from playing.
It was also time when the nuns who taught at the neighborhood parochial school had a steadfast place in students' lives. To this day, Zappala can hear the wooden clickers that the sisters held in their hands, the number of clicks telling the children to stand, sit or quiet down.
The book's scenes shift from classrooms to home and to church, to markets and pizza places and the grounds where kids played.
The book remembers first communions, confession, nuns and priests; and fire drills, pasta, report cards, snowball fights and Sunday dinners.
Here, on this spring day a half century later, Zappala parked his car at 100 Summer St. by the boarded up brick and stone Catholic grammar school he attended as a kid, Holy Rosary School.
The first thing on the 1917 building that catches your eye — and a feature shown on the cover of Zappala's book — are tablets between the first and second floors. The gray tablets display the names of great Italian artists, musicians, scientists and writers including Michelangelo, Verdi, Galileo and Dante.
Prominent names inside "Bless Me Sister" are Forsemi, Nicosia, Fiorenza and Peterson.These are the names given to some of Zappala's friends.
Other prominent names inside "Bless Me Sister" include Sister Eleanor of the Child Jesus, Sister Mary Rita, Sister Mary Benevolent and Miss Beauchamp.
These are the names given to some of the nuns who taught Zappala and his friends.
Zappala changed the friends' and nuns' real names, even of the school (called Holy Saints Grammar School in the book) and businesses, because he didn't want to upset anybody.
Inside the school, more than 50 years ago, he and other neighborhood kids learned, under the watchful eyes of nuns, to diagram sentences and multiply numbers and some other things not necessarily tied to academics.
"The Nuns," were the Sisters of Notre Dame — Irish-American nuns who taught Italian-American kids.
Zappala thought about them this late April day as he walked across Summer Street from the school to the driveway of the Victorian-style house where the nuns lived, the convent.
He pointed out the spot where he and his friend Wayne Peterson were rescued by Sister Maria. They had been chased by a local street character the kids nicknamed "Baggy Pants." He was drinker, but one who could run. The kids would harass him, hollering out, "Hey, Baggy Pants," and he would chase them.
Zappala continued to reminisce. He walked to the far end of the driveway and pointed to a brick duplex on East Haverhill Street. It was the home where he grew up, and where his parents lived until the late 1970s. His mother lived in the house for 70 years, he said.
Most of the nuns were an extension of the students' mothers during the school days. They were surrogates.
"There was a love-hate relationship, depending on the nun," he said. "Ninety percent of them I loved. There were some who were borderline abusive."
Miss Beauchamp was in the latter category. One school day, when none of the students would admit who had put an unfinished carton of milk in the milk basket, Miss Beauchamp took all the boys in the class to the janitor's room in the basement and showed them the door to the boiler room.
"She told us that if no one would confess, she would take us into the boiler room, one by one, and saw us in half on the large table saw that was in the room," reads a section in "Bless Me Sister."
After the milk culprit was identified and he broke down crying, Miss Beauchamp told him there was no saw in the next room. Miss Beauchamp did not stay a teacher at the school for long.
She was clearly the exception. Most of them were disciplinarians but loving, too.
The students learned, especially as the years went on, that the nuns wanted them to succeed, and were there for extra help whenever it was needed, Zappala said.
"They stayed after school as long as we wanted," he said.
Their rule was absolute, however, and respected by parents.
In one scene in the book, a big hardened scary third-grader named William Lampone struck Sister Henry Marietta — a nice person with a temper— on the chin, knocking her out after she pulled his ear lobe for swearing.
Zappala recalled in the book that later that night his parents were talking about the incident at the dinner table and his mother said she thought William should get life in prison for hitting a nun.
One of the students featured in the book, Tom Forsemi, is, in real life, Tom Forzese of Methuen, and he has read the book, "Bless Me Sister."
He said that the students and their parents understood that the nuns were carrying on for the parents during the school day.
"Like our parents in those days, they towed the line," he said.
The book took Forzese back to a time he fondly remembers. He and old school chums still get together each month to reminisce about the old days.
Zappala was last inside the Holy Rosary School about 15 years ago.
"It was sad," he said. The beautiful building is largely an apartment for pigeons, he said.
The three-story Romanesque Revival building near the Common has boarded windows. Marble floors have buckled, he said.
Zappala pointed down the street to the first floor of a light-colored brick building. That was a market the kids would frequent. He would buy something and steal something, he said.
There was a chicken store across the street.
Zappala's walk in the neighborhood, like the writing of "Bless Me Sister," triggered memories.
He had wanted to write the book going back 10 years ago, but got sidetracked by other book projects.
Zappala, who is married with grown children and vice president of a small communications company, started writing "Bless Me Sister" in fall 2013.
As of the last week in April, it had been available for purchase for about two-and-a-half weeks and had sold almost 1,000 copies.
He recognizes in the pages at the end of the book that the Catholic Church is much different today than it was in the time chronicled in the book.
"A lot has happened," he writes. "Over the last decade or so, the Church has been rocked by scandal. The number of people entering the priesthood is down to a trickle, and many people have just stopped going to Mass. The same holds true with the number of women entering the convent."
Zappala says he doesn't know how things are going to turn out but he wouldn't trade his education at his Catholic grammar school for anything.
He expresses that enduring affinity for his old school in "Bless Me Sister."
His goal in writing the book was to create a happy read.
"I want them to read it and smile," he said.
The book puts a smile on your face, and will make you laugh out loud.
To get the book:
The book is available on Amazon, and on the website blessmesister.com.
Also, pick it up locally at Borelli's deli on Route 110 in Methuen.