Few narratives, fiction or nonfiction, convey as warm and intimate a sense of Provincetown as Frank X. Gaspar‘s beguiling novel, Leaving Pico (University Press of New England, 1999). The story — about a transformative summer in the life of a Portuguese-American family and about our common hunger for just enough nobility to hold our heads high — is centered on the West End home of its young narrator, Josie Carvalho. So it’s inevitable, if treacherous, to look at 119 Commercial Street, where Gaspar grew up in the 1950s, and wonder just how much of this house is in Leaving Pico. But too literal a reading honors neither the real nor the fictional characters, nor Gaspar’s great imagination.
“The book is not a memoir, nor is it sociology or history,” Gaspar said in an interview presented on the University Press of New England website. “I made it up. Having said that, it is a story of a specific time and place and it is based on how I grew up. Fictional though it is, the book, I believe, captures the deep heart of that vanished world.”
One doesn’t have to look far at all to find superficial parallels between Josie’s home and that of Myrtle Rose (Gaspar) Sylvester (1917-2009), a nurse’s aid, and Manuel F. Sylvester (1912-1975), a laborer; their sons Frank Gaspar and William Sylvester (1954-2006); and Frank’s great aunt, Theophilia “Mattie” (Gaspar) Brown (1882-1958), who was born in the Azores, married a Coast Guardsman, and, for many years, conducted a millinery business at the house.
In Leaving Pico, we meet Josie’s great aunt, Theophila “Hettie” de Jesus (Carvalho) Dunne, who had come from the Azores, married a Coast Guardsman, and, Josie says:
Before I had come along, she had run a fairly successful millinery shop out of the parlor of our little house. The word milliners, which for so long had been a mystery to me, still swept across the front window of that room in peeling gold and black decals. Sacks of buckram and veils and a dozen faceless heads were still crammed in dusty boxes out in the woodhouse, and sometimes the old woman would still build hats for her Pico lady friends.
In a world of adults with all their mysterious rivalries (the Azoreans’ contempt for the mainlanders, whom they derogated as “Lisbons”) and their unfathomable sorrows, Josie’s great ally is his tale-telling, hell-raising grandfather John Joseph; his mother’s father and Theophila’s brother. Here again, it’s tempting to imagine the novel’s grandfather him as a resurrection of John Joseph Gaspie (1884-1961), Myrtle’s father and Theophilia’s brother, who came from Pico in the Azores and was for many years the shellfish warden of Provincetown. But that simplistic view would honor neither the real nor the fictional John Joseph, nor Gaspar’s imagination. As he explained:
John Joseph is based on what I think my grandfather would have been like had he lived in the world of the novel. I used his general physical characteristics and what mannerisms I can remember. I never fished or sailed with him or had storytelling sessions with him. He was a shadowy, larger-than-life figure for me. I loved him dearly. I left home at 17, but whenever I return to Provincetown, where my heart is and where at least some part of me will be scattered, I visit his grave and drink wine and talk with him. But I never had the relationship with my grandfather that Josie Carvalho has with his.
Frank X. Gaspar, photographed by David A. Lipton. The cover art for Leaving Pico is a detail from the painting View Down Nickerson Street, by Mary Hackett, in the collection of Wendy Everett. It was painted in 1946, the year Gaspar was born.
There is, however, one character in Leaving Pico that seems drawn totally from the reality of 119 Commercial Street, over whose back yard loomed the enormous old Cape Cod Cold Storage, run by the Atlantic Coast Fisheries combine by the time Gaspar was growing up. (The Coast Guard’s Station Provincetown now occupies the site.) The cold storage employed many of its neighbors, whose lives became attuned to its rhythms. In an e-mail message to me in 2010, Gaspar wrote:
The Cold Storage alone was so central to our lives, both as kids crawling all over the place and for our adults who, like the denizens of Cannery Row, made their way down the hill at the sound of the whistle. In my house we always had the thrumming of the freezer engines vibrating in the woodwork. It was a lovely, deep, warm sound, like living under the heart of a formidable mother.
There is no disguising its equivalent in the book, even under the name “North Atlantic Cold Storage.”
The Sylvester home, which remained in his mother’s ownership until 1995, had its own stories to tell; one of them deeply tragic. In 1958, Frank and William’s 18-month-old brother, Francis Roderick Sylvester, inadvertently pulled a cup of boiling water on top of himself, scalding his chest and — because he swallowed some of the water — his mouth, throat and lungs. The boy died in Wareham as he was being rushed by ambulance to Boston.
Gaspar was graduated from Provincetown High School in 1964 after playing the lead role of Elwood P. Dowd (the Jimmy Stewart part) in the senior play, Harvey. Mary-Jo Avellar was in the same cast. In 1966/67, during the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the Navy and served aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hornet, which was the primary recovery ship in 1969 for the Apollo XI space module that returned the first astronauts to walk on the moon. Gaspar holds a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of California at Irvine. A collection of his poems, The Holyoke, was published in 2007. His second novel, Stealing Fatima, was published in 2009.
“The art colony — let us focus on the writers — who wrote about the town did so always, and necessarily, from the perspective of the outsider,” Gaspar said. “This is especially true when writing about the Portuguese. I have always taken it as a personal charge to write about the Portuguese community there — my community — from the inside, from its heart.” In doing so, he has opened that heart to a much wider community.
¶ Adapted from Building Provincetown (2015)
William Barrell wrote on 27 May 2021: I lived at 119 Commercial Street, 1957/1961. We walked past it, and the top floor looked empty. We knocked and Mrs. [Myrtle] Sylvester came to the door. Yes, it was for rent — $20 a month. Hard to believe these days. Three large rooms with a kitchen. We both had a studio. We ran the Sun Gallery for two years; that was $400 for the season. Glory days. Manny Sylvester, the husband, was killed unloading fish. Hit in the head. There was an A&P across the street. [120 Commercial Street.] They were great days. Loved every one of them.
For further reading online
“An Interview With Frank X. Gaspar,” University Press of New England. Not dated.
Grave sites in Provincetown
Brown, Theophilia (Gaspar). Find a Grave Memorial 172084776.
Sylvester, Manuel. Find a Grave Memorial 54344157.
Sylvester, Myrtle (Gaspar). Find a Grave Memorial 172085076.