My First Home: In Somerville, a not-so-rocky Mountain

My First Home Somerville
Neighborhood-Illustration-James Heimer
. —James Heimer for The Boston Globe

We had been renting in a multifamily near a busy intersection and had lost both our cat and my (parked) car to hit-and-runs, so we wanted our first home to be a single-family on a quiet street, still in Somerville.

We eventually found what we wanted on Mountain Avenue, a narrow dead end with parking on only one side of the street. Parking on both wouldn’t leave enough room for a scooter to get by.

The street became an extension of our three-story aluminum-sided house. A dead end is the urban version of a cul-de-sac. Multiple large Irish Catholic families used to live on the street, and everybody knew everyone. Helen O’Brien, a longtime English teacher at Somerville High School, was in the blue two-story single-family. She lived with her spunky 90-year-old mother, Josephine, and then alone after Josephine died. Helen became increasingly frail and reclusive but was still very much part of the neighborhood. She always remembered my son’s birthday, first with cards and then phone calls as she got older. She kept track of people and their comings and goings, sometimes without their knowledge, but always in the best interest of us “Mountaineers.’’

A number of homes on Mountain were built at the same time and with similar floor plans. Our house is a mirror image of the home across the street. The citywide building rush at the turn of the last century was to accommodate new workers at the brickyards and rendering plants. Somerville was once one of the most densely populated US cities. The houses were crammed with people (the family across the street had eight children), and there was hardly any room outside between one home and the next.

There is no record of when our house was built, but when a contractor was working on our back porch, he found newspapers that had been stuffed in the walls as insulation. Most of the paper had disintegrated, but there was an intact article from the Boston Evening Record on the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. I love that our house has a history.

These days the families are smaller, but the street still feels close-knit and safe. Years ago, when we had the ritual Jewish celebration for the birth of our son, everyone came. Helen shouted with joy, “We’ve never had a bris on the street!’’

On Mountain Avenue, we have had block parties, baby-sat at the last minute, established a private online group, and given one another flower cuttings. In winter, we get out our shovels to clear the big driveway at the end of the street. Unplowed, the street really is a mountain. We won’t be clearing Helen’s steps this year, though, at least not for her; she died recently. We will miss her.

Sarah Fishman, a writer and cable television host, lives in Somerville. Send comments and a 550-word essay on your first home to Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.