As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 21, 2021.
The request came soon after my daughter announced she had found a new apartment.
“I’m hoping you can put your painting skills to work for me, Pops,” Julie said. “My bedroom could use a facelift.”
Once upon a time, when she was 3 or 4, I was at the center of Julie’s universe. I’d arrive home from work, and she would run down our front hall and leap into my arms. Now, as she approaches her 26th birthday, I am one planet among many in her orbit. Spending a day with her at her new place on Federal Hill, paintbrush in hand, would be a treat.
Driving to the Hill on the last Saturday in January was a full-circle moment for me. As college students, my brother Rob and I spent summers painting houses and renovating apartments between Atwells Avenue and Broadway. Our most memorable job was a six-unit behemoth at the corner of America and Africa streets. Two sisters lived on the second floor, and when Rob and I ascended our scaffold with pails of paint in the morning, Angie and Mary often appeared in the windows.
“Hello, boys!” one of them would say, lifting the screen. “How about some coffee?”
Four decades later, I pulled up to Julie’s new apartment on Carpenter Street and unloaded my gear: primer, eggshell, and semi-gloss paint; a small bucket of joint compound; a roller and an extension pole; and a new two-inch angled brush I bought just for the occasion.
Julie greeted me at the door with a feigned flourish: “My savior!” she said.
We lugged the supplies upstairs, and I sized up her empty bedroom. Dust had darkened the ceiling, and a few small craters in the walls hungered for new plaster. I spread out my drop cloth, peeled off the joint compound lid, and dug into the soft gray mud with a putty knife.
I had painted Julie’s bedroom at home several times when she was growing up, but this was different. And, I realized, I was different.
When our three children were young, it seems my wife, Deb, and I were always rushing to get them somewhere: school, guitar lessons, basketball practice, play rehearsals. Eventually the destinations were farther away: colleges in Boston, New Rochelle, and Syracuse, and then apartments in Los Angeles and Providence. We watched with wonder and worry as our kids launched into the world, and at some point along the arc of parenthood, our time with them became less frequent and more precious.
The five of us last gathered in 2019, for Thanksgiving at my son Peter’s home in Los Angeles. For a week, we breathed the same air, ate the same food, slept under the same roof, and told the same stories, laughing to tears at shared memories we hold in our hearts.
That was before any of us had heard of COVID-19. I have my fingers crossed for a reunion this summer in Rhode Island, but in the meantime, I content myself with family sustenance in smaller portions.
“Need anything, Pops?” Julie called out from her new kitchen as the low January sun threw my shadow on a freshly primed wall. I dipped my angled brush into a neutral eggshell paint called Manchester Tan.
“I’m good,” I called back, climbing the ladder with my loaded brush. “Better than good!”
Stroking a straight edge where the top of the wall meets the ceiling, I was thankful for the precision of new bristles and the chance to help my daughter get settled.
Thankful, too, to be at the center of her universe again for an afternoon.