Joseph and Elenora Masnaghetti lived in an apartment on Hanover Street in Boston’s North End neighborhood, above the Masnaghetti Italian Bakery.
They became new parents on a drizzly cold November morning in 1957 when Elenora gave birth to Frances Elizabeth in Boston Lying-In Hospital. Frances was chubby, cheerful, and unusually alert for a newborn, according to the nurses.
The Masnaghettis’ second child, Portia, came two years later. Frances didn’t protest when Portia’s crib was crammed into her bedroom. The new baby was colicky and hard to please, not exactly great company. But Frances, though still a toddler, felt responsible for Portia, her baby sister.
By the age of six, Frances clambered out of bed at four o’clock each morning to help her father prepare the bakery for its seven o’clock opening, every day except Sunday.
She learned from her mother Elenora how to make chocolate chip cookies. Then she improved upon Elenora’s recipe to create cookies that were just right for her own taste.
When she turned twelve, she began to produce her personally designed chocolate chip cookies for sale in the bakery. She mixed her cookie dough ingredients at night after the bakery was closed, and stored the dough in the refrigerator to chill. Then, each morning before she left for school, she baked her daily batch of cookies so that they’d be fresh and fragrant when the bakery opened. Boston’s North End offered many culinary delights, being a neighborhood of Italians, Greeks, and other immigrant communities, but Frances’ cookies were especially delectable and sold out quickly every day.
Rather than accept an allowance, Frances negotiated with her father for a share of revenues from her cookies. “I want to earn my own way,” she said.
In 1972, the Boston Globe ran story on bakeries in the North End, including the Masnaghetti family bakery. It featured a photo of Frances cheerily thrusting a plate of her cookies towards the camera. “Try one!”
Frances knew the other tenants in their building and in other buildings near where she lived. Frequently she appeared at their front doors, beaming, with packets of her cookies in hand. She’d invite herself in to chat, telling them about her day, and asking how they were doing, really, it seemed, wanting to hear everything.
Their business was her business. She gave her opinions freely on their family disputes. And, because this sturdy, curly-haired dynamo was wise beyond her years, and meant only the best for all concerned, they tolerated her advice. A teenage boy was arrested for shoplifting; Frances persuaded his parents that it wasn’t the end of the world, that their son could still be saved. A friend’s brothers objected to her friend’s choice of a boyfriend; “I’ll vouch for him,” Frances told the brothers, and they backed off.
She comforted families who’d suffered loss. She sat with them in their kitchens or living rooms, and held their hands, and told them that she was in contact with their Departed. Frances seemed so sure about what she heard and reported that they believed her.
“How can we repay you?” they asked.
“Just feel better,” she said.
One day, Portia came back to the apartment looking glum.
“What’s wrong?” asked Frances.
“Nothing. Leave me alone.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Frances sat beside her little sister and took her hand.
“People at school are laughing at me. They say I’m too ugly to have a boyfriend.”
After giving the matter some thought, Frances called Charlie Culmone, who was one year older than Portia but still in her grade at school, having repeated a year. He was handsome, and charming, and easily the most popular boy in Portia’s grade. And he was still struggling with his classes, especially math, as Frances knew, since she was a volunteer tutor.
“Let’s make a deal,” she told Charlie. “I’ll get you through your math tests this year, and you make a big show of liking Portia. A big, big show, so that everyone knows about it.”
Charlie said, “She’s okay, but…”
“It only has to look real, Charlie,” Frances said. “I want to build up her confidence.”
“What if she falls for me?”
“After she’s feeling better about herself, I’ll tell her that you’re too old for her, and that I’m warning you off. You can tell her you have no choice, even though you like her a lot. She’ll get over it.”
“Okay, but I’m still going to fail math, no matter how much you help me,” said Charlie.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to help you pass,” Frances said. “Even if I have to feed you the answers to your math tests. You’ll do fine, I guarantee it.”
“Wouldn’t that be cheating?”
“Do you want to pass math, or not?”
“Do we have a deal?”
Charlie passed his math tests and Portia’s sudden popularity greatly enhanced her standing with her classmates. Maybe she wasn’t ugly after all. Her depression lifted.
The 1970s were a time of economic stagnation for Boston. Young toughs congregated on the neighborhood’s streets after dark. They hassled passersby, vandalized area parks, monuments, and storefronts, and occasionally committed assaults and muggings. Frances knew each of them by name. She knew their parents, their aunts and uncles. Rather than cross the street to avoid them, she marched right up to them and asked how they were, what they were doing, how were their families and, by the way, why were they out lounging on the street, didn’t they have anything better to do?
“Guess we’re all just fuck-ups.”
“You don’t have to be,” replied Frances. “It’s up to you.”
At fourteen, Frances stopped attending St. Leonard’s Church with her parents and sister.
“You’ll go to Hell,” her mother told her, not angrily, just stating the plain facts.
Frances was unmoved. She didn’t need priests and a church hierarchy to define her relationships with the Other Side. She wasn’t impressed by church rituals. She simply couldn’t take the priests seriously. And she certainly didn’t need their help to sense the presence of spirits.
She was the first in her family to attend college, Acadia University in Nova Scotia, where she studied English Literature, and then Cornell, where she earned her doctorate in child developmental psychology.
After Cornell, during her year abroad in England, while visiting a pub in London’s Leicester Square, she met John Gourmelon, an apple-cheeked Brit. Unlike the other young men in her experience, he saw past her appearance as a large woman, saying, “I like women who’ve got substance.” Also, he made her laugh.
Joseph and Elenora didn’t find John Gourmelon nearly as amusing as Frances did. When they met him, he had alcohol on his breath. He had never held a steady job. They judged him as unworthy of their industrious, educated daughter. “He’s a loser,” Joseph said.
“I don’t care what you think,” Frances said, and married him anyway.
Three years later, after she filed for divorce on grounds of incompatibility, she made sure to admit to Joseph that he was right. But she kept her married name, Dr. Frances E. Gourmelon.
She opened a pre-school child care center in the North End.
Frances took her small wards on excursions to expose them to the world beyond their densely-packed neighborhood. On one such excursion, to the Boston Museum of Science, the van rented by her child care center overturned after swerving to avoid a collision. The driver and all of the six children who were riding in the van were killed. Frances, who was riding in the front passenger seat, survived with minor injuries.
An inquiry ruled that the tragedy was an accident caused primarily by the driver of the other vehicle. The children’s parents did not blame Frances.
Nevertheless, she blamed herself. Why had she survived while the children perished? She couldn’t accept that they were gone from all existence. At times, she thought she could hear the voices of little MingMei, and Minal, and Pamela, and Jeannie, and Malcolm, and Warren. She abandoned her career in child development. Instead, she would pursue a calling as a psychic medium. She would communicate with those who had passed to spirit including, she hoped, her lost babies, so that she could provide a channel between them and those they had left behind in the physical world.