Posts By johnwalshcopy

What I wanted to be when I grew up

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 21, 2017.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 1.9 million students in the United States will graduate from college this year. By now, a certain question is as familiar to most of them as the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance”:

“So what are you going to do?”

Answers inevitably range from the vague to the speculative to the definitive. In my case, decades ago, it was a mash-up of all three.

After receiving my degree from Brown, I vaguely talked about getting a job as a writer. I speculated there might be an opportunity at the ad agency where I had done an internship. As for immediate employment, I was definitive: I would continue to bus tables at the Turks Head Club downtown.

Sixteen years earlier, Miss Carlone, my kindergarten teacher at Nelson Street School in Providence, had posed a similar question to my classmates and me: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

With her soft, fleshy arms and sweet voice, Miss Carlone reminded me of Mama, my beloved grandmother who lived upstairs from my family and sometimes took care of me. In September, my teacher’s maternal warmth had made my first-day-of-school jitters melt away.

Several hands shot in the air in response to Miss Carlone’s question. One kid said he wanted to be a fireman. Another was going to be a football player. A girl announced she’d like to become a teacher, which brought an approving nod from Miss Carlone.

And then it was my turn.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a bachelor,” I declared.

My classmates looked puzzled, and so did Miss Carlone – for a moment. Then she threw back her head and howled. Now I was puzzled. What was so funny?

“Tell us what a bachelor is, John,” Miss Carlone said kindly as she slid a finger beneath one of her moistened eyes.

That was easy – I just told everyone about my uncle. He lived with my other grandmother and had the upstairs of Nana’s bungalow all to himself. Once he set up two TVs in the living room so he could watch two basketball games at the same time. He sat back in his big leather recliner, eating peanuts and following the scores, until he fell asleep. What a life!

Most of my classmates continued to stare blankly at me while Miss Carlone fished a tissue out of the sleeve of her dress.

At dismissal time, Miss Durgan, the principal, appeared in our classroom door – usually a sign that something was wrong. But Miss Carlone simply asked me to reveal my life’s ambition again, after which the two educators laughed with abandon, like my aunts at a family party. I was still puzzled, but at least I wasn’t in trouble.

The following year, apparently, my career plans evolved. Thanks to my mother, a lined yellow paper of mine from first grade still survives. Titled “My Wish,” it reads: “If I had one wish, I would want to be a writer. And I would write stories for all the children.” There is no mention of my marital intentions.

My wish came true – sort of. Three months after graduating from Brown, I indeed landed a copywriting job at the ad agency where I had interned. I would eventually meet my wife there, too.

But at the Brown commencement in 1982, my future was as unclear as the dreary Providence weather that first Monday in June. The only thing I knew for sure was I now had an English degree.

Miss Carlone would have been amused to know it was a bachelor’s degree.

Sunday best, especially for Easter

vincents002_rw2The author’s grandfather, mother (front), and aunts in the backyard of their house in Providence in the late 1930s. As published in the Providence Journal, April 16, 2017. 

Pilgrims came for 73 years, thanks in large part to the retail Holy Trinity of Christmas, Easter, and Back to School. Those were the biggest selling seasons at the children’s clothing store on Federal Hill that bore my grandfather’s name: Vincent’s.

During the run-up to Easter, the store’s showcase windows displayed finely knit shawls, classic blue blazers, and delicate cotton baby bonnets, while racks inside catered to another beloved rite of spring: first holy Communions. Young girls in silky white dresses twirled in front of full-length mirrors, eliciting oohs and aahs from adoring mothers, grandmothers, and aunts.

As an entrepreneur, Papa’s eureka moment came in the mid-1920s when he recognized that most of the Hill’s Italian immigrant families, his included, always dressed up their children for church regardless of how tight money was. He also saw that parents and godparents would spare no expense in purchasing elegant christening sets to baptize their babies at one of the three Catholic churches that dotted a half-mile stretch of Atwells Avenue – Holy Ghost, St. John’s, and Mount Carmel. If he could provide such merchandise, along with a healthy dose of service and charm, my grandfather believed he was destined for success in good times and bad.

He was right. Two years after Vincent’s opened, the stock market crashed, unleashing the Great Depression. Meanwhile, though unemployment soared, holy water kept flowing at baptismal fonts, second-graders still made their first Communion, and families continued to go to Mass. Papa’s store thrived, especially around the holidays.

The tradition of donning new clothes on Easter has roots in pagan celebrations of the vernal equinox. Dressing up for church every Sunday, however, didn’t become customary until the Industrial Revolution. That’s when advances in textile manufacturing made finer wardrobe options available to the emerging middle class.

Despite the fashion dispensation inferred by the Old Testament words of 1 Samuel 16:7 – “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” – wearing one’s “Sunday best” became increasingly de rigueur for the faithful. God may not raise an eyebrow at a rumpled coat or scruffy pants, but what about fellow parishioners?

Not surprisingly, clothes were a form of religion in my family. Papa had the sleeves of his crisp white dress shirts hemmed a half-inch at the elbow so his cuffs peeked out perfectly from his suit jackets. And while the colors and patterns of his ties grew increasingly flamboyant as he got older, he had the self-confidence to make such bold sartorial statements with ease.

My mother’s sense of style was equally assured; no one could carry off a fancy Easter hat like she did. Later in life, her recollection of certain outfits, prompted by old photographs, was encyclopedic. In addition to reminiscing about the people and events in the photos, she would note a polka-dot raincoat that had been special-ordered for a niece or a satin christening set that had been passed down for generations.

My grandfather’s silver bullet for retail success would miss the mark today. Church attendance has fallen, and those who do slip into the pews often wear casual attire – jeans, sneakers, even Patriots and Red Sox jerseys. I confess that on occasion during the summer, I’ve recited the Nicene Creed in shorts and a pair of sandals. Papa would be aghast.

Still, on most Sundays, I reach into my closet and reflexively pull out a button-down shirt, creased black or gray pants, and polished shoes. On Easter, I’ll add a sport coat or opt for a tailored suit and stand in front of my bedroom mirror threading a half-Windsor knot two or three times until it’s perfect.

Invariably, the tie will be exuberant – a pink one with stripes or maybe a wide floral number with an explosion of color.

Of these particular choices, Papa would certainly approve.

Happy Easter!

 

March Madness recalls local legends

IMG_0096As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 19, 2017.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championship, better known as March Madness, kicked off last Tuesday, with 52 games scheduled through the weekend. Is your bracket busted yet?

“March Madness” entered the American sports lexicon in 1939, but in reference to the state high school basketball championship in Illinois, not the national collegiate tourney. The name only became associated with the NCAA in the 1980s, thanks to sportscaster Brent Musburger, who was familiar with it from his work in Chicago before joining CBS.

The 68-team tournament has given us other memorable terms, including Bracketology, which refers to the science of predicting the field and each round’s winners. In theory, every squad has a chance to run the table at the Big Dance, and I’m always rooting for a Cinderella or two to emerge.

According to the American Gaming Association, more than 40 million people filled out March Madness brackets this year. Beyond office-pool wagers, however, it’s easy to understand why college basketball’s annual extravaganza is so riveting.

While the NBA Finals have given us just 19 Game 7s in 70 years, the NCAA men’s tournament offers the drama of 67 such games – do or die for both teams – in three weeks. Having local quintets in the mix – the University of Rhode Island and Providence College both earned berths this year – makes the nationwide event even more compelling.

Brown University was the first Rhode Island school to receive an NCAA bid, in the tournament’s inaugural year. Brown was one of eight entrants, losing to Villanova 42-30 in the opening round.

The Bears returned to the tourney 47 years later, in 1986, and faced powerhouse Syracuse in its own Carrier Dome. Legend has it – or perhaps it was just my father’s whimsical musing as an alumnus – that Brown’s coach, Mike Cingiser, advised his players to grab the ball and run out of the Dome should they happen to score first. To their credit, the Ivy Leaguers were actually up by one midway through the first half before losing in a blowout.

URI has been to the tournament nine times, making a terrific run in 1998 that included knocking off top-seeded Kansas. The Rams came tantalizingly close to reaching the Final Four that year, but a late-game meltdown against Stanford resulted in a heartbreaking 79-77 loss in the quarterfinals.

Of all Rhode Island teams, Providence College has danced the most, with 19 tournament appearances and two thrilling advances to the Final Four. In 1987, a young Rick Pitino all but willed a group of overachievers, led by Billy Donovan, to the national semifinals, where they faced Syracuse – the same team that had obliterated Brown the previous year. The Friars’ three-point shooting, instrumental to their success all season long, finally betrayed them, and they lost to the Orange by 14. Meanwhile, Pitino and Donovan had been launched into basketball greatness.

Fourteen years earlier, in 1973, Providence made its first trip to the Final Four, squaring off against Memphis State in St. Louis. After Ernie DiGregorio whipped a did-you-see-that, 30-foot behind-the-back pass to Kevin Stacom for a lay-up on the game’s second play, PC seemed destined for the finals. Then Marvin Barnes, the team’s star center, twisted his right knee and March Madness turned into March Sadness for Friar fans. A 49-40 halftime lead evaporated as Memphis State exploited Barnes’s injury to win going away, 98-85.

Every March, I hear myself wistfully telling anyone who will listen – my kids, their friends, total strangers – that PC would have played undefeated UCLA for the national title in 1973 had Marvin not gone down. It’s as sure a marker of spring as chirping birds and blooming crocuses.

This year, the tournament’s famous nickname will become a misnomer by the last three games, with the semifinals and championship straddling the first weekend in April. Coincidentally, on the same day the NCAA men’s tourney wraps up in Phoenix, a different kind of madness will get underway in Boston.

Go Red Sox!

Mom was real-life Mary Richards

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 19, 2017.

Leave it to Mary Tyler Moore to provide a welcome respite from the political wrangling that dominates Facebook these days. Amid reports of the actress’s passing on January 25, my news feed filled with clips of the opening title sequence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the Emmy-winning sitcom in which Moore played the lead character, Mary Richards.

Comments in the posts were unusual in their unanimity. It seems just about everyone finds the “Love Is All Around” theme and Mary’s iconic hat toss irresistible.

The show was can’t-miss TV for my brothers and me growing up. Our mother was a fan, too, though I think she preferred the sharper social commentary of All In The Family, another 1970s sitcom classic.

“Your mother didn’t need to watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” my wife, Deb, said as we mourned Moore by watching episodes from the first season on Hulu. “She was living it.”

Deb was right. In 1970, the year the show debuted, Mom and Mary Richards shared the same hairdo, had the same fashion sense, and even walked the same way – briskly, with purpose. More important, they were both single working women in their 30s – something that could arch eyebrows then.

But there was one difference: Mom, recently separated and soon to be divorced from my father, was raising my two brothers and me.

James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, the creators of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, originally conceived of Mary Richards as a divorcee. While Moore and her husband and co-producer, Grant Tinker, loved the idea, the executives at CBS were not so enamored.

According to Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, the network believed American audiences wouldn’t tolerate a divorced lead in a series. CBS’s head of programming, Armstrong writes, “worried that Moore’s loyal fans would react badly to her being a divorcee, a status he thought implied a woman of lesser morals.” Only after Brooks and Burns rewrote Mary Richards’ backstory – she would be rebounding from a breakup with a fiancé, not a husband – did CBS green-light the show.

While the stigma of divorce was diminishing in the early 1970s, it was still prevalent enough to make me self-conscious about my family’s recent realignment. I didn’t want anyone to know about what had happened and felt an unspoken kinship with my one friend whose home was also “broken” – a common term at the time for families that had gone through a divorce.

My mother railed against the characterization of her family as “broken.” She told my brothers and me not to be fooled by appearances. “You see all the houses in this neighborhood?” she asked rhetorically one night at our kitchen table in Providence, pointing her fork at the street. “There’s a story behind every door, and it isn’t always Ozzie and Harriet.”

I busied myself with the food on my plate. There was an edge to Mom’s tone that betrayed an indignation I had never heard before. It made me feel uneasy and, at the same time, emboldened. My brothers and I would eventually embrace her rejection of the “broken home” narrative and voice it ourselves.

In the meantime, we watched Mom prosper. She earned a degree in retail merchandising at Johnson & Wales; opened her own teen and junior fashion boutique on Atwells Avenue; became a partner in two other successful entrepreneurial ventures; and served as an officer in the Federal Hill Businessmen’s Association.

After the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, tweaks were made to the lyrics of the opening theme song to reflect Mary Richards’ success at navigating life as an independent woman. “How will you make it on your own?” became “Who can turn the world on with her smile?” And “You might just make it after all” was replaced by the more affirmative “You’re gonna make it after all.”

With Mom, there was never any doubt.

 

Dreams from my own la la land

jw_lsa_bball001-rw1The author drives to the basket in a game between La Salle and Central at Rhode Island Junior College, now the Community College of Rhode Island, in February 1978. Providence Journal file photo. Column published in the Providence Journal, January 15, 2017.

Lying on my side at 6:30 a.m., I look out my bedroom window at a tangle of tree branches against the gray dawn sky before surrendering to the bliss of an REM slumber – and, it turns out, a few special moments at the TD Garden.

In my dream, I am playing basketball for the Boston Celtics. Fifty-six years old, 5 feet 8 inches, and on my game, I deliver a no-look pass to Al Horford for a slam dunk, drop a three-point bomb with Steph Curry in my face, and streak on a breakaway after picking Kevin Durant’s pocket.

But then, as often happens in my dreams, everything goes slo-mo. My legs turn to rubber, and I feel like I am hefting an orange wrecking ball to the hoop. My layup caroms off the side of the rim, as does my put-back attempt. I try again – and, bizarrely, the ball morphs into an unopened bag of Light ‘n Fluffy egg noodles that drops softly through the net just as the horn sounds. The crowd goes berserk. I pump my fist – in my dream and, apparently, in my bed because suddenly I am awake.

“You O.K.?” my wife, Deb, asks, lying next to me. I notice the morning sky has brightened.

“Never been better,” I say, laughing.

My dreams are rarely so triumphant. More often, I am like Danny in the movie “The Shining,” running away from an ax-wielding madman. Or I am roaming the hallways at La Salle Academy, trying to locate – without success – the classroom for an exam I must pass to get my high school diploma.

The word “dream” possesses an interesting duality. On one hand, it describes the images and emotions passing through our minds as we sleep – from the ordinary to the outlandish. On the other, it references our goals and aspirations when we are awake.

“Dream” derives from the Old English verb “dremen,” which meant “rejoice; play music.” That makes sense when you consider how often the topic has been mined in popular song – from Arlen and Mercer’s “This Time The Dream’s On Me” to Wilco’s “(Was I) In Your Dreams?” A 60s pop band from Britain went one step further, calling themselves Freddie and the Dreamers.

In the charming movie musical “La La Land,” Emma Stone’s character, Mia, sings about her inspiration for becoming an actress – a beloved aunt who once leapt without looking into a freezing Seine River: “She captured a feeling, sky without ceiling, sunset inside a frame … Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem.”

Dreams usually leave us questioning what prompted them. Freud famously said they were the fulfillment of a wish. Ebenezer Scrooge, in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” had a more physiologic explanation for the ghostly visit of his former business partner, Jacob Marley: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.”

I subscribe to Freud’s theory to explain my Celtics dream. As a 12-year-old, I spent hours in my basement mimicking Pete Maravich’s dribbling wizardry. I fantasized about making it to the NBA, despite my woeful shooting mechanics and less-than-promising genetics – Mom was 5 feet 1 inch and Dad was 5 feet 7 inches.

“You can’t bounce balls all your life,” my mother said one day when I came upstairs. Sure enough, six years later, after two or three tryouts for the team at Brown, the buzzer sounded on my basketball dreams.

Recently, sleep brought me more REM absurdities: I’m on a cruise – actually, the Block Island Ferry – and Bruce Springsteen is performing on the top deck. But I’m stuck in steerage, like Jack Dawson in “Titanic.” I finally sneak my way upstairs and catch a glimpse of the Boss and the E Street Band before being whisked away by a bouncer. I trip, and now I’m falling overboard in slo-mo …

I awake with a start beneath a sea of covers, and the spirits in the night are gone.

All I really wanted for Christmas

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal.

My younger brother, James, still believed in Santa Claus and I wasn’t about to tell him otherwise – not on Christmas morning. Besides, evidence of Santa’s visit to our Providence home was everywhere. The Stella D’oro cookies we had left out on the coffee table were gone, and there were gifts under the tree that hadn’t been there the night before.

James couldn’t wait to play with the toy that had been at the top of his list: Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots. The two of us frantically pushed on our plastic joystick controls, unleashing uppercuts in hopes of disengaging the opposing palooka’s head from his shoulders. Boxing was big in December 1971. Nine months earlier, Joe Frazier had defeated Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight crown. I had wanted Ali to win because my father was rooting for him. Dad had tried to explain to me why Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay and opposed the Vietnam War, but I didn’t really understand. I just knew Dad was for Ali, so I was, too.

My older brother, Rob, was thrilled with his new Panasonic cassette player and radio. We marveled at how it could record songs from our favorite pop music stations without picking up any room noise. After the breakup of the Beatles, we were always searching for new bands to listen to. I liked Badfinger and was pleased on Christmas morning when a present of telltale thinness turned out to be their latest LP. Still, I hoped rumors of a Fab Four reunion would someday come true.

“Go get dressed, boys,” my mother called out from the kitchen. “Your father will be here soon.”

It was the third Christmas since our parents had separated, and this time seemed easier. When my father moved out, I didn’t want anyone to know.

He left notes for my brothers and me, and I swallowed hard as I read mine: “The court has said I can’t be with you all the time. I don’t think Mommy was happy about this, but I didn’t help her make any other choice.” By the end, I was wiping my eyes: “Say your prayers, keep your room neat, and be a good boy. Mommy and I love you very much.” I hid the note in my sock drawer.

My father arrived with two large shopping bags filled with gifts. He and my mother exchanged polite hellos without making eye contact. I had never heard them argue or speak badly of one another, either before or after the separation.

The five of us gathered in the living room by the glowing tree, and Dad passed out presents: a microscope for Rob, a basketball board game for me, a Hot Wheels race track for James. Then it was our turn: Rob handed our father a footstool he had made in his junior-high woodworking class, and James and I gave him the striped blue tie our mother had helped us pick out at Midland Mall.

“What’s in the other bag?” Rob asked.

“That’s for you, Norma,” my father said, looking at my mother.

“Oh,” she said, surprised. Rob and I exchanged glances. This was a first since the split.

My dad lifted an old kerosene lantern from the bag and placed it carefully on the coffee table. The lamp’s metal had a blue-green patina, and a red bow was tied around the worn handle. My father said he had found it in South County. My mom loved antiques.

“Why, thank you, Donald,” she said softly. “How sweet of you.”

After my father left, I was happy to see Mom give the lantern a prominent place atop a bookshelf in the living room. I wanted to believe they still had affection for one another. Wasn’t the lantern proof of that?

The Beatles never reunited; neither did my parents. While a John Lennon lyric had told us “all you need is love,” I’d eventually come to understand that sometimes it’s more complicated than that.

 

Honest Abe a tonic for 2016 hangover

As published in the Providence Journal, Sunday, November 20, 2016.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is considered by many to be the greatest political speech in American history. It was delivered on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where four months earlier one of the Civil War’s bloodiest and most pivotal battles had been fought. In a scant 272 words, Lincoln reaffirmed the ideals of liberty and equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence and called for a new birth of freedom in the United States.

Initial reaction to the famous speech, however, was mixed.

While The Chicago Tribune wrote that “the dedicatory remarks of President Lincoln will live among the annals of the war,” The Chicago Times opined that “the cheek of every American must tinge with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

But in Massachusetts, the Springfield Republican wrote that Lincoln’s “little speech is a perfect gem; deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.”

After studying the Gettysburg Address as a high school junior, I rediscovered it in college – in an English class, to my surprise. The speech was included in my Norton Anthology of American Literature, alongside works by Emerson, Whitman, and Melville. I was happy to now consider Lincoln for his poetics as well as his politics.

His phrasing is memorable: “Four score and seven years ago …” His parallelisms are pleasing to the ear: “… we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” His tensions are beautifully balanced: “… we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain.” With the passage of time, one line has become exquisitely ironic: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

In his book “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” Garry Wills writes, “Hemingway claimed that all modern American novels are the offspring of ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ It is no greater exaggeration to say that all modern political prose descends from the Gettysburg Address.”

Given the rancor of this year’s presidential face-off, Wills’ choice of the word “descends” was prescient. There were low points aplenty, on both sides. It’s no wonder “Saturday Night Live” notched its best ratings in years as we howled at Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton and Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump.

But the election was no skit. And now, in the midst of our collective campaign hangover, I am looking for a tonic.

If I were in Washington, D.C., I’d take the Metro to Smithsonian Station, ride the escalator up to the National Mall, and head west. Approaching the Washington Monument, I’d see 50 American flags waving in the breeze. Crossing 17th Street, I’d hear fountains splashing at the World War II Memorial. And then I’d follow the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to the colonnaded temple that honors our 16th president.

Inside, I’d proceed to the south chamber and let my eyes land on the Gettysburg Address inscribed in Indiana limestone: “… government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In the north chamber, I’d read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “With malice toward none … let us strive on … to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

Leaving the memorial, I’d glance toward the distant Capitol. In 1861, its partially finished dome provided a symbolic backdrop at Lincoln’s first inauguration – the nation itself was a work in progress. “We are not enemies, but friends,” the new president said to the crowd. “We must not be enemies.” He closed with an impassioned appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

May such angels find us now.

 

Parental relics can be a mixed bag

img_4013_rw1As published in the Providence Journal, Sunday, October 16, 2016. Photo: Rob Walsh

Two blue storage containers await my attention. They are tucked away in the basement of the ad agency that my brother Rob and I own on Main Street in East Greenwich.

“We need to grab some beers and go through Dad’s stuff,” Rob says to me every six months or so, referring to the contents of the containers. I agree, without reservation. But then another half-year passes, and Rob says it again.

We have yet to part with any of our father’s buried treasures. From past efforts, I recall an unfinished short story in a file folder, a spiral notebook listing late-night shift times at a manufacturing facility off Route 146, and an eclectic collection of LPs — Sondheim, Springsteen, George Carlin.

Up on the second floor, cardboard boxes of our mother’s possessions sit in an unused office. Rob and I, along with our younger brother, James, moved them there shortly after Mom died three years ago. They hold ledgers from her store on Federal Hill; a tin box filled with recipes written in her hand; a vintage glass perfume bottle that always sat on her bedroom dresser.

Other parental belongings had been easier to part with. We gave furniture to the Salvation Army, and dropped off coats and shoes to St. Luke’s Church. But the items that remain are harder to relinquish. Mom’s oil paintings lean against a wall in the upstairs office; Dad’s Marine Corps uniform hangs in my closet at home.

The first time I pored through my mother’s stuff, weeks after she died, I was a mash-up of emotions. I smiled at the black-and-white photo of her as a teenager as she laughed with my father and their friends. I was grateful for the personal artifacts she had saved — grade-school essays by my brothers and me, birthday cards we had made for her, the family tree her cousin Grace had researched and carefully drawn up.

But my heart ached when I found Mom’s oversized 2013 calendar with her halting handwriting in almost every square — medication reminders and doctors’ appointments to deal with her failing eyesight and compromised breathing. I didn’t consider throwing the calendar away. I was nowhere near ready to let go of such vivid traces of her.

When my father had died years earlier, I counted myself lucky to have young children. Amid the grief, my 2-year-old and infant sons kept pulling me back to the present. There were meals to make, cries to soothe, bedtime stories to read, foreheads to kiss. A lyric from an R.E.M. song kept playing in my head: “These things they go away, replaced by every day.”

A good friend of mine, an Episcopal priest and psychotherapist, is fond of the word “unpack,” especially as it relates to sorting though deeply felt emotions. I’m sure he would counsel that curating parental belongings involves more than deciding whether to discard Mom’s favorite scarf.

I know going through my parents’ remaining possessions will generate feelings as messy as life itself. I’ll gaze at the smiles in their wedding-day portrait and scrutinize the legal correspondence that preceded their divorce decree. I’ll relish the opening page of my father’s master’s thesis on Graham Greene and reread newspaper clippings documenting the abrupt end of his career as a dean at Brown. Certain objects will remind me of the keen eye my mother had before losing her vision: a felt cloche hat, a carved antique mirror, flowing sketches that helped her earn her degree in fashion merchandising.

On a recent morning, I arrived at work and found Mom’s vintage glass perfume bottle sitting on my desk.

“I dug out that relic,” Rob said, walking into my office. “Go ahead — take a sniff, like we used to do as kids.”

I pulled out the stopper and held the bottle to my nose. The floral scent was faint and distant, with so many years gone by, but present enough to be instantly comforting.

This unpacking business is a mixed bag, to be sure — but not without the occasional sweet reward.

The last first day of school

emme_typewriterAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, September 18, 2016.

My daughter sat in our driveway behind the wheel of a charcoal gray SUV, eager to set off for her senior year at Syracuse. She had borrowed the Highlander from her girlfriend because neither of our family’s two cars was big enough to transport all her stuff.

“Roles reversed, Pops,” Juliana said playfully as I joined her in the front seat. It was true. For three years, I had always been the pilot on our excursions to and from upstate New York. This would be the first time my wife, Deb — nestled in the back seat amid duffel bags and pillows — and I would make the five-hour trek with our 21-year-old at the helm.

Julie is the youngest of our three children. For two decades, at the end of each summer, we have been stepping up to the academic starting line. With Julie’s graduation in May 2017, the marathon, in all likelihood, will be over.

Deb will never forget our son Peter’s first day of elementary school. In late August 1996, the two of them stood on our front porch looking up Peirce Street for the bus that would take Pete to kindergarten at Frenchtown School. They waited … and waited … and waited. The offices of the East Greenwich School Department are directly across the street from our house, and on that momentous morning, the superintendent eventually came out of the building.

“There’s been a mix-up,” he called out. “Can you drive him?”

Deb looked at Pete for signs of distress, but he just turned to her and smiled. “It’s OK, Mommy,” he said. “I like driving with you.” His disposition remains as even-keeled to this day.

Our son Evan’s temperament was more individualistic; conformity was never his thing. He rebelled against the training wheels on his bike and the bumpers at the bowling alley. And when I suggested over breakfast one morning that he’d have fun at preschool because it was his birthday, he was unconvinced.

“It’s a day like any other day,” he said, eyes fixed on his Fruit Loops. “They just give you a stupid hat.”

As the start of kindergarten neared for Evan, Deb and I worried about his willingness to even get on the bus. Transitions could be agonizing for him. On more than one occasion during preschool drop-offs, he had clung to Deb’s leg, prompting her to nickname him “The Human Barnacle.”

And yet, when the bus pulled up the first time, he jumped on with his friends Aidan and Wil, and never looked back. It was unforgettable because it was so uneventful.

Juliana couldn’t wait to go to kindergarten. At an orientation for families the week before classes began, she stood right up when the Frenchtown principal invited the children to take a practice ride on their school bus.

“Parents, feel free to join your child if you’d like,” the principal added.

Julie held up her hand to Deb, a 5-year-old traffic cop.

“Don’t move — I can do it myself,” she said, displaying a self-confidence that would only deepen in the years ahead.

Now, as Julie navigated the Highlander through Albany, Robert DeLong surfaced on her Spotify playlist, singing about how “a few years make a difference.”

“Appropriate,” she said, turning up the volume with a smile.

In Syracuse, we hauled Julie’s stuff up three flights to her sorority room and then said our good-byes, mother and daughter sounding their familiar refrain:

“Love you!”

“Love you more!”

In the driver’s seat again, I pulled onto the New York State Thruway with mixed feelings. I was relieved to have only one more tuition check to write, but reluctant just yet to put another family milestone in the rearview mirror.

Crossing the Hudson, Deb and I reminisced about no-show school buses, “stupid” birthday hats, and a little girl who once told us “I can do it myself” — a succession of family videos never taken, growing more vivid with each passing mile.

Going old school with my new mower

Lawn_Mower_JW

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, August 21, 2016.

White smoke belched from my gas-powered lawn mower, accompanied by random, and quite ominous, popping sounds.

“C’mon, Murray,” I said, calling the old mower by its brand name. “Just let me finish.”

I was in the middle of my front yard on a sunny Saturday morning. Since the previous summer, Murray had been revving erratically every time I mowed, but I’d hoped its dirt-caked engine would hang on long enough to get me through one more season.

The loudest pop yet punctuated the balmy air as Murray emitted a white valedictory puff and abruptly went silent. I pulled on the starter cord again and again, but it was no use: the mower was beyond resuscitation. Crows squawked a requiem from a telephone wire above.

I looked at my lawn: half was cleanly clipped and half was still shaggy, a hippie holdout for the moment. The time for a new mower had come.

Lawn mowers are a fairly recent invention. From ancient Rome to the 19th century, the scythe — a large, curved blade fastened to a long handle — was the principal tool for taming yard growth. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that a clever Englishman named Edwin Budding revolutionized how we cut grass.

Budding’s mower, made from wrought iron, featured a bladed reel or cutting cylinder mounted on a wheeled cart that was pushed from behind. It proved to be a welcome and efficient alternative to the scythe for manicuring yards and fields. In 1830, Budding was granted a British patent for his invention and not much has changed since then: modern reel mowers are remarkably similar to his original design.

My grandmother on the Walsh side had a reel mower that she kept in the basement of her Providence bungalow because there was no shed or garage. Getting the mower in and out of the cellar window — often my brother Rob’s job, with Nana’s help — took as much time and energy as cutting her grass did.

Things were easier down the street at my maternal grandfather’s double-decker. Papa did have a garage, where he stored his reel mower, and his lawn was smaller than Nana’s. But thanks to the perpetual shade thrown by River Avenue’s towering oak trees, grass was sparse in the front yard. Mowing produced more dust than clippings, and the stirred-up clouds invariably drifted across the driveway, giving Papa’s shiny black Buick Skylark a dull brown veil.

“I just had that car washed,” he said, shaking his head after I had mowed one day.

Later that summer, my grandfather replaced his front yard’s anemic grass patches with a new “lawn” — two raised beds of freshly poured cement which, in a nod to realism, Papa had tinted lime green. I loved to “water” the new hardscape, ridding it of acorns and dead leaves. Meanwhile, the pristine Skylark, no longer subjected to mower-driven dust storms, gleamed.

Now, with my Murray expired, I headed to Lowe’s to find a successor. I was browsing power mowers by Troy-Bilt and Bolens when it suddenly occurred to me: what about a reel mower? My front lawn wasn’t much bigger than Nana’s or Papa’s had been, and my back yard was mostly pea stones and flowerbeds.

I saw a Scotts 16-inch reel mower at the end of the aisle. It was love at first sight.

Back home, Scotts made good on its promise of “easy assembly without tools.” In less than 15 minutes, I was ready to finish trimming the shaggy portion of the lawn. I pushed the mower and was instantly soothed by its gentle snip-snip-snip sound. It was like hearing a favorite song from summers long ago.

My son Evan walked onto the front porch and looked at me, dumbfounded.

“What’s that?” he said.

“A lawn mower,” I said. It could have been a dinosaur bone.

Resuming my mowing, I heard Evan say, “That’s so cool!”

Hats off to Edwin Budding. After 186 years, his ingenious invention is still cutting it.

 

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