Mary Kavanaugh, Dorchester

Lucky is how she felt. Of all the first jobs, Mary Kavanaugh landed at Green Hills Irish Bakery, where they pushed her, and taught her, and nurtured her, and made her a part of their community from her first day of junior high to long after college ended. By the time she pulled herself away for a job as a nurse, it felt like the sadness of leaving home.

Here, in Mary’s own words, is how the Green Hills community prepared her for life:

“I started at Green Hills on my first day of my junior year of high school. I was 16. I didn’t know what white tea was. Apparently, that’s tea with 70 percent milk in it. That took some learning. They call rolls “baps” sometimes. I had no idea what that was, the first time I heard it. Some of them actually speak in Gaelic, which I found really frustrating because I couldn’t understand.

It was a very demanding, tough job, having to wake up at 4 in the morning. I was in school at the time, so trying to balance those two things, it was frustrating, and I didn’t always have an easy time. You could work up to 18 hour days, right before a holiday. But I would not have the work ethic that I have today if not for this place.

In my job now, in the nutrition department at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, just the way I handle things, the amount of time I put into things, it’s all because of everything that this place taught me about hard work.

Every morning, you would come in around 4:40, and you’d get everything set up. Then you would take a quick breakfast break. It was so quiet, none of the customers were here yet, and everything was fresh. Fresh baked goods and fresh coffee, and you’re the first to have it. So that was my 10 minutes to just gather myself, wake up fully because you’re still half asleep when you get into work. And then the craziness would happen: The rush from 5-6, with all the people who do construction and have early jobs, and the line would be out the door.

I mostly worked the counter. If they needed me to step in to decorate cupcakes or scoop cookies, I would do that, too—which is nice, because if you’re standing outside for 9 hours, and you’re going from customer to customer to customer, it gets to be a little bit much. So if you can go in the back and do a bit different job, let your mind clear a little bit, that’s always good.

There were the same bakers here my whole time, so we got very close. They’re very interesting folk. They don’t take any bullshit, pretty much. If you do something wrong, or mess up in some way, they’ll yell at you. But then five minutes later, they’re over it and on to the next thing, and will joke around with you.

There’s one woman who’s still working here, Geraldine. I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as her. She manages everything in the bakery. She’s here at 2:30, baking away, sometimes staying til it closes at 6:30 at night, doing everything she has to do to make things run smoothly. Last time I saw her was at her birthday party. It was her surprise 40th. It was right across the street, at the old Dorchester Post.

Working at the counter, there would probably be at least one person every day who I had met before but hadn’t seen in a really long time. So it was like a reunion every day. Green Hills is very well known in the community, it’s kind of the only place of its kind. They do sandwiches, breakfast sandwiches, bread, cake, coffee, catering—all in one place. So you see a lot of different people coming here for different reasons.

There were these women we called the church ladies (because they came from services at St. Brendans). They’d come in every day at 5:00, and they’d try to get the biggest table because there was usually about five of them. Every night, a different person would pay, and they’d get their teas and their coffees and gossip about the town. It was just so funny listening to them. I would think in my head: Is this what I’m going to be like when I’m 70 years old?

And then there were a lot of guys who would come after work until we had to kick them out—literally kick them out. I’d be like, “I’m bringing the gate down, you need to leave.” And of course I loved them dearly, but I wanted them to leave. They would just hang out here. I don’t think they wanted to go back home to housework and chores, like, “I’m going to go relax at Green Hills before I have to go deal with my wife” type of deal.

There was one guy who would come in, and he was very short with you, always “You should know what my order is.” And I actually told my dad about him. My dad would come in here all the time. So I saw them talking, and I was like, ‘Oh, you know him? He’s a jerk. He’s always mean to me.’ And he actually told me, ‘Oh, his wife had passed away. He wasn’t always like that.’ He had worked on my family’s roof years ago. You kind of learn that people go through experiences that change them and that maybe you can change them back and improve their mood.

It’s the little things that matter.  If you memorize their order. You see them at the door, you have their coffee ready, their muffin ready, whatever. Feeling like you took that extra time to get to know them is, I think, really important to people—that they’re not just another person who comes in and passes through. Like you actually mean something to them.

This comes up a lot in my work now.  I work in nutrition at the hospital, and all the meals are very timed, but there was this one woman who really liked coffee at 2:30 in the afternoon, and she told me that the first day. She was actually on bed rest, so she was there for about a month. Every day before I left, I would go upstairs and bring her her coffee, and it just meant the world to her—that I remembered to bring her her coffee, and see how she was, and that everything was okay for the day.

My last day at Green Hills was like every other day. But normally, you would leave around 2:30, and I ended up staying until like 5 or 6:00. I’m very bad with goodbyes. And I know with most things it’s not goodbye forever, but it was emotional. I was in the downstairs office with Geraldine, and she was just doing the billing and stuff, so I sat down there for a while. I think I just waited for more people to leave, so it was less people I had to say goodbye to.

I stayed for almost two years after college because I was afraid to leave. I was comfortable. It was close to my house. I knew everyone. I had my schedule down. And then, you know, I eventually had a wake up call, where I told myself, ‘You went to school for a reason. You need to move on and find something in your field, that you really care about.’

I still come back in, but it’s not the same. You’re not an employee, so you feel almost like you don’t belong, even though you do—you’re like, “Oh, I’ve worked here for so long, I’m part of the family”—but there’s that barrier at the counter that you don’t want to cross over.

I think what was really meaningful to me was when I told Geraldine I was leaving.  I said that I just wanted to, you know, find a job with what I studied in school, and that I’d been here for so long, and that I appreciated everything that they did for me. She was just so happy for me, and proud of me, that I was moving on.”

Mary was interviewed and photographed by story ambassador Gabbie Follett, her childhood friend. The interview was then transcribed and edited for length, clarity and flow by Cara Solomon, founder of Everyday Boston, in partnership with Gabbie. Cara wrote the intro text.

For more, read “Green Hills Irish Bakery Gives Back to Mark 25 Years” in The Dorchester Reporter.