The author, top right, with his father and brothers on Christmas in the early 1970s. This column appeared in The Providence Sunday Journal, December 15, 2019.
Looking back, South County was likely my parents’ last attempt to start anew.
In 1967, they built a shingled Cape on a quiet road just up from Salt Pond in Narragansett and moved our family of five there from Providence, only to turn us around 12 months later to move back to our old Elmhurst neighborhood. When my brothers and I learned about the return to the city, our sole concern was whether our new puppy could come with us.
“Of course she can,” my mother said.
I was 8 years old – too young to sense the reason for our family’s abrupt about-face. That became clear seven months later when, at the kitchen table after we had listened to a Celtics game on the radio, my father told my older brother, Rob, and me that he was leaving the following day. The words hit me like a thunderclap. As I heard Dad say he had made my mother unhappy for many years, I wanted to put my fingers in my ears.
Divorce rebooted our family in countless ways: Mom switched bedrooms with my younger brother, James, and me; my parents choreographed Saturdays to accommodate my father’s visitation rights. There were ups and downs to negotiate throughout the year, and I felt pangs from the split acutely during December, especially when I asked myself a single, nagging question: Where would Dad go for Christmas?
The answer, at first, was easy: after visiting with my brothers and me at home and exchanging gifts with us, he would spend the rest of the day with his mother.
Unlike the colorful, boisterous homes of the Italian relatives on my mom’s side, Nana Walsh’s house was quiet, neat, Scotch-Irish. A lace slipcover sat just so on the back of her armchair; an illustrated portrait of the mourned John and Robert Kennedy hung on a wall in her pantry. Still, my grandmother had a sweetness about her that was comforting, and I was happy Dad would be with her on December 25.
Eight years later, after Nana’s death, concerns about my father’s Christmas plans revisited me. By then, he had left his job at a top Rhode Island ad agency and hopscotched from apartment to apartment in Providence. He and my mother were rarely in contact, but there had been several phone calls after which she would say, with a combination of concern and dismay, that my father was “feeling good.” Those words troubled me; I was beginning to understand they really meant the opposite.
My father was reclusive, more comfortable with books than banter, but I always felt a connection with him. He encouraged me to read novels and write poems, and he brought me to shows at Trinity Rep. After we attended “The Iceman Cometh” together, Dad marveled at Richard Jenkins’ performance as Hickey, unraveling the complexities of the play’s protagonist for me.
That year, on Christmas morning, my brothers and I visited my father in his latest apartment, on Veazie Street. After exchanging gifts, we asked him what he had planned for the day, knowing that we, as usual, would be celebrating deep into the evening with my mother’s side of the family.
“I’m volunteering at a nursing home on the East Side,” he said. “That will give someone a chance to take the afternoon off.”
His words were as soothing as the warmth of the sun on a winter day.
The night before, during Midnight Mass at St. Pius, I’m sure I had heard the familiar passage from Luke’s gospel where the angels proclaim the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. But, on that Christmas, it was my father’s “goodwill toward men” that meant the most to me.
The best gifts aren’t always found under the tree.