Posts By johnwalshcopy

Lessons from a mutt

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, March 18, 2018. Photo by Juliana Walsh.

The description on the card attached to the metal crate was not definitive: “Lab mix.” But there was no question about the rescue puppy inside. When I saw her sleek, black coat, floppy ears, and dark, take-me-home eyes, any last resistance I had to my daughter’s campaign to get a new dog melted away.

While Labrador retriever cross breeds are popular these days, our puppy’s lineage is likely more complicated, verging toward mutt. She’s not a labradoodle (Labrador crossed with poodle) or huskador (husky crossed with Labrador); no clever portmanteau will neatly summarize her ancestry. For all we know, she’s a labraterrichow (Labrador mixed with terrier and chow) or some such.

Portmanteaus, which blend parts of two or more words to create a new one, shine in their service of hybrid dogs. We have puggles (pug crossed with beagle) and cockapoos (cocker spaniel crossed with poodle); schnoodles (schnauzer crossed with poodle) and pomskies (Pomeranian crossed with husky).

“Portmanteau” derives from the French word for a large traveling case that opens into two equal compartments. It was coined as a linguistic term by Lewis Carroll to describe the mashed-up words he created in “Through The Looking Glass,” which was published in 1871. In Carroll’s masterwork, “slithy” combines “slimy” and “lithe”; “galumph” merges “gallop” and “triumph”; “chortle” is the marriage of “chuckle” and “snort.” “You see it’s like a portmanteau,” Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice. “There are two meanings packed up into one word.”

If Carroll is the father of portmanteaus, James Joyce is their high apostle. His modernist novels give us “saddenly” (sad plus suddenly), “shim” (she plus him), and “individuone” (individual combined with one).

Portmanteaus allow us to describe the world with economy and wit. And when they are good, they have staying power. Note how “brunch” (the hybrid of breakfast and lunch), “guesstimate” (part guess and part estimate), “blog” (short for web log), “Chunnel” (the channel-crossing tunnel that runs between England and France), and “pixel” (combining picture and element) are now part of our everyday vernacular. Their portmanteau-ness has all but vanished.

Urban Dictionary ( is a crowdsourced font of portmanteau inventiveness and amusement. Here’s a recent sampling:

“Cellfish”: When someone continues talking on a cell phone even though it is rude or inconsiderate of others.

“Textpectation”: The anticipation one feels when waiting for a response to a text message.

“Nonversation”: Pointless small talk.

“Youniverse”: The worldview of a person who is exceedingly self-referential in conversation.

“Friyay!”: The last and most welcome day of the workweek.

“Carcolepsy”: A condition in which a passenger falls asleep as soon as a car starts moving.

“Epiphanot”: An idea that seems like an amazing insight to the conceiver but is in fact ordinary and mundane. (On more than one occasion, ideas for this column have qualified as “epiphanots.”)

Here in Rhode Island, the school district Chariho is a portmanteau combining the first letters of the three towns it serves: Charlestown, Richmond, and Hopkington. (I wonder if anyone suggested “Horicha” back when the district was established in 1958.) At my house, “vork” is what I often serve for dinner on Sundays – cutlets that look like veal but are actually made from pounded pork medallions. When I had the notion to rewire our dining room chandelier hours before our guests arrived for Thanksgiving one year, my wife, Deb, called it a “guydea.”

Our family can thank Dan Hurley and his URI men’s basketball team for helping us figure out our new pup’s name, if not her pedigree. After several monikers failed to gain consensus, “Rhody” jumped out at me while watching the Rams play on TV. Slam dunk!

As for Rhody’s ancestry, we’ll leave that to a DNA test. In the meantime, when people ask what kind of dog she is, we’ll just have to respond with a sort-of portmanteau: “Labradunno.”


Praying for our dog’s return

georgy girl001_2

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 18, 2018.

I wasn’t happy about my family’s move to Narragansett three weeks before I started second grade. I missed my best friend and next-door neighbor, Chris, in Providence. Instead of walking with him on the first day of school, I now had to take a bus, surrounded by strangers.

But things got better when my mother came home one afternoon with a shaggy black puppy with tan and white markings. Mom named the pup Georgy Girl, after the lead character in a recent popular movie.

My brothers and I loved to watch Georgy chase rabbits in a field near our new house, leaping and then disappearing in the tall grass. We laughed when she licked our faces, even though her tongue felt like damp sandpaper.

Thank God we got a dog because there weren’t many kids to play with in our neighborhood off of Point Judith Road. The area’s sparse year-round population prompted St. Mary Star of the Sea Church to recruit my older brother, Rob, and me to become altar boys. It didn’t matter that I had yet to make my First Holy Communion, normally a prerequisite to serving on the altar. Father Hughes, St. Mary’s kindly pastor, granted me dispensation; he needed help, and we lived nearby.

My debut was memorable, though not for spiritual reasons. When it was time for Father Hughes to prepare for the Consecration, I somehow dropped the silver hand washing basin, and it rolled in circles on the green-carpeted altar floor. Attempting to grab the bowl, I looked like Georgy chasing her tail.

Once I settled into my altar boy duties, the language of the liturgy captivated me, as did Father Hughes’ sonorous voice. With his incantations about angels and archangels and “the mystery of faith,” he sounded to me like God Himself.

That made it easy to accept things that might otherwise have vexed an 8-year-old mind, such as bread and wine turning into the body and blood of Christ, and God hearing me when I said my prayers.

The last of these, however, was put to the test later that fall when Georgy disappeared.

“I let her out this morning, and she never came back,” my mother told Rob and me after school one day. Her voice was filled with worry.

Rob and I set out for the leafless woods across from our house. Mom and my younger brother, James, jumped in her red Opel Kadett to comb the streets. When my father got home from work, he joined the search, heading toward Salt Pond. But at bedtime, Georgy was still missing. Unable to sleep, and as upset as I had been in my life till then, I prayed for our dog’s return.

The next 24 hours brought more of the same: anxious walks through the woods, drives through the neighborhood, and calls of “Georgy!” into the evening quiet.

There was still no scratch at the door. On this second night of separation, I tossed in my bed, whispering words to the darkness again.

And then, early the following morning, as my mother drove to the market across from St. Mary’s for a quart of milk, there was Georgy, sitting on the front stoop of a vacant summer cottage. Mom, who said our dog sprang into the car as happy as ever, honked the horn when she got back to our house, and Georgy greeted my brothers and me with leaps and licks and wags of her tail.

Had my prayers been answered? Did angels intervene? Or was it random luck that my mother had run out for milk at just the right time to find our missing dog? I would wrestle with such mysteries when I got older, but not on this day — not with Georgy safely delivered home and curled up on the couch in our den.

That night, after crawling into bed, I whispered a simple, two-word prayer to the darkness and beyond: “Thank you.”

Helping me hear my mother’s voice


Above, the author, right, with his mother and brothers in December 1965.

As published in The Providence Journal, January 21, 2018.

Imperative verbs — that’s what I remember about my mother’s writing, at least from my early years. Before and after school, her kitchen-table notes delivered directives. “Don’t forget your lunch” was probably the most common one, followed by “Working until 5:30 — feed the dog and look after your brother.”

When I studied in Ireland as a college junior, Mom’s writing became more expansive. Her letters brought news of family gatherings, her store on Atwells Avenue, recent deaths. Here are excerpts from a note dated October 28, 1980: “Vinny’s getting married on November 23. It will be a small affair at The Golden Lantern. I’m sorry you’ll miss it.… Business isn’t bad – we’re paying the bills.… I wrote you that I had taken Georgie to the vet. Well, John, I’m afraid there wasn’t much that could be done.”

I loved getting Mom’s letters in Dublin, but they didn’t give me the sense that she liked to write. Her penmanship looked rushed. Between the lines, she seemed to be saying, “Oh, if we could just talk over coffee, that would be better.”

So it surprised me when, at age 71, my mother began writing reflections on her life – rich, evocative pieces that shared stories I had never heard before.

One recalled her dash home from Nelson Street School in Providence during the Hurricane of 1938: “Gravel underfoot jumped to life, stinging the back of my legs.” Another revealed Mom’s trademark cheekiness: “Being the youngest of the four girls at my house, my vocation in life was to get out of there.” Recollections from her early teens referenced a sister’s boyfriends: “Every one was movie-star material to me.” A sketch about my younger brother recounted the morning he left for the Coast Guard: “All pre-dinner cocktail highs from the celebration the night before were diluted by now.”

And then there was “The Blanket.” “I guess it’s a poem,” Mom said modestly, handing me the page. “A memory, really.”

My mother’s poem-memory brought me back to when our family lived downstairs from my maternal grandparents in a double-decker on River Avenue. I was in kindergarten at the time and didn’t realize that my grandmother was ill; I just knew Mama waved to my older brother and me from her kitchen window as we played football in the backyard. Nor was I aware that, as my baby brother slept in his crib, my parents’ marriage was quietly unraveling. What I did know is that I liked to watch “Get Smart” with Mom and Dad on Saturday nights because the show made them laugh together.

“The Blanket” let me see this world anew. It recalled a pink-and-white bedspread that my mother had received as a gift. The poem, in part, reads:


Guests, calling to visit, led me to lay

the blanket on my mother’s sickbed.


Its newness would certainly warn

the transporter being sent to take

my mother away

that she wasn’t ready yet!


Whose eyes would watch from the

second-floor window as the four-year-old

football hero ran for the touchdown pass?


Where would I find the approval she

gave me, in the midst of my own

chaos, I pressed my new baby into her arms?


In “How to Write a Memoir,” William Zinsser states: “There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative.” He calls memoir “a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”

My mother left behind a stack of photo albums, which include fading prints of her as a cheerleader at Mount Pleasant High School, a young mom in an East Side apartment, and a proud entrepreneur on Federal Hill.

But it’s her late-life writings that I treasure the most. In those black-and-white word snapshots, I hear her voice – human and funny and wise.

Fake tree brought pure Christmas joy


As published in the Providence Journal, December 20, 2015.

My brothers and I were home alone, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on our black-and-white TV when the doorbell rang. It was Mrs. Ricci, bundled against the cold, here to drop off a fake Christmas tree from the store where she worked.

We lugged the large cardboard box through the doorway.

“Your mother’s going to love it!” Mrs. Ricci said before disappearing back into the night.

I wasn’t so sure. My grandfather had suggested we get an artificial tree from Mrs. Ricci the previous Christmas. She lived downstairs from him in his double-decker, three blocks from our house in Providence. But my mom had declined. Instead, we had gone to the farmers’ market on Valley Street and picked out a lopsided balsam fir, as we had always done — except now my older brother, Rob, not my father, tied the tree to the top of our blue Ford Maverick.

At 14, Rob did a lot of things that our dad used to do when he lived with us.

I sensed my mom, along with Charlie Brown, didn’t like fake Christmas trees. I also sensed she didn’t like being told what to do — least of all by her father. But she had apparently relented because now there was this artificial tree in our living room.

“Let’s put it up!” Rob said.

“Without Mom?” I said.

“We’ll surprise her.”

My stomach tightened. I was wary of surprises, especially ones that involved my mother. Hers was a house of rules, many of them posted on the refrigerator at eye level. And I was adept in my compliance. I made sure to get home in time for supper, loaded the dishwasher, and looked after my younger brother, James, then age 6 — all to avoid incurring Mom’s wrath.

Rob had no such anxieties.

“We’ve got an hour and a half before she gets back,” he said, pulling the fake tree out of the box.

Our mom was at her class at Johnson & Wales, where she was pursuing an associate’s degree in fashion merchandising. We didn’t know it then, but she had visions of opening a women’s clothing boutique someday.

She hadn’t gone to college after graduating from Mount Pleasant High School. At that time, her father said she had to go to work at his childrenswear store on Federal Hill — she would replace her oldest sister, who was starting a family. My mom sold christening sets and communion dresses until she turned 23 and got married. And now, after the divorce, she had gone back to the store, working six days a week.

James and I ran to the chilly basement to excavate the Christmas decorations from some cabinets near the washer and dryer. Upstairs, Rob positioned the tree in the corner by the hi-fi.

We draped the synthetic branches with colored lights and hung all the familiar ornaments. Our favorites were the ones that we had made: a Table Talk pie tin graced by a glued-in illustration of the Nativity; a Popsicle-stick reindeer with a red-gumdrop nose; a construction-paper chain lovingly looped by one of us at Robert F. Kennedy School.

James set up the manger scene, careful not to inflict further injury on the plaster donkey whose broken leg was held together by a Scotch-tape cast. Rob and I put the electric candles in the windows, igniting their orange bulbs with a twist.

We turned off the overhead light. The living room, with a faint scent of plastic, glowed. The artificial tree suddenly felt a lot less fake.

We were back in the den, watching TV when the front door creaked open.

“How nice to see the lights in the windows!” my mother called out.

We ran to the living room.

“Oh, my,” she said, gazing at the tree. “It’s absolutely beautiful!” She looked around the room, her face beaming. “You boys did all this for me?”


Our mom stood motionless and silent for a moment, and then wiped one of her eyes. We hadn’t seen her so happy in a long time.

Christmas had come early.

Rescued at the Christmas concert


As published in The Providence Journal, December 17, 2017.

The Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School Choir, of which I was a member, had just finished a rousing version of “Jingle Bells” when my heart started pounding. The moment I was dreading had finally arrived.

We were a bunch of Providence kids in our school’s gymnasium, where I had performed many times before, but as a point guard on Kennedy’s youth basketball team, not as a soloist at the annual Christmas concert.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was originally paired with another fifth-grader to sing a duet of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” the popular spiritual celebrating the birth of Jesus. But on the day of the concert, my fellow caroler was home with the flu.

My mind raced upon hearing the news in the schoolyard, and not to good places. I had to sing alone? What if I forgot the words to the verse my friend, the better singer, was to have sung? Or worse, what if I opened my mouth and nothing came out?

I had been selected for the choir two years earlier after being summoned, along with my third-grade classmates, to the music room in the school basement. Each of us sang a line or two from “Oh Susanna” as the choir director accompanied us on the piano. With her cat-eye glasses, muted floral dresses, and white pearls, she reminded me of my Italian grandmother. Apparently, my voice was OK; I passed the audition.

I loved to sing, especially to Beatles tunes, which I played on the hi-fi in our living room at home. However, being part of the school choir was anything but fun. Unlike my beloved grandmother, the choir director was stern and impatient; a flubbed lyric or missed beat elicited her immediate rebuke. It was only at the bi-annual concerts for our parents – one before Christmas and one in the spring – that we saw her smile.

Then, when I reached fifth grade, everything changed. Our drill-sergeant choir leader retired and was replaced by an engaging new director who wore cuffed bell-bottoms and bright scarves in her hair. At our first practice, she handed out percussion instruments for all of us to play. On another day, she spun Smokey Robinson’s pop hit “The Tears of a Clown” on her phonograph. Even better, she invited us to dance, and as we did, I couldn’t take my eyes off the girl I had a crush on.

Smokey’s voice was a distant echo as I made my way off the choral riser at the Christmas concert to perform my unplanned solo. I listened to my new choir director’s piano vamp, and then I began to sing:

“When I was a seeker, I sought both night and day. I asked the Lord to help me …”

Unfortunately, the Lord wasn’t much help that night; in the cavernous gym, my voice sounded as thin as a reed, and my neck muscles were taut, like cello strings. I thought I was going to faint – and then Christmas came early.

When I reached the chorus – “Go tell it on the mountain …” – I heard a low, rich voice behind me, welcome as a life raft. As I warbled on – “over the hills and everywhere …” I looked over to the piano. My choir director’s eyes were closed and her head was tilted back slightly, like she was singing to heaven. Her assured alto calmed me. In the second verse, I sang with more confidence. And when she syncopated a lyric as we repeated the chorus together, I felt the spark of her improvisation. At the song’s end, everyone clapped, and I took an awkward, happy bow.

Whenever I hear “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” it brings me back to a packed gymnasium at Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School; to a hip and gifted choir director; and to my mountaintop moment as a singer – the first and only one.

I really should have thanked my friend for getting the flu.

Still connected and still beautiful


As published in The Providence Journal, November 19, 2017.

It would be a bicoastal celebration – Massachusetts and California – with the first part just up the road in Boston. Deb and I arrived at the Renaissance Hotel to begin our anniversary getaway, and there was an immediate hiccup. The twentysomething desk clerk informed us that our room had twin beds.

“That’s what happens with Groupon,” she added apologetically, her eyes fixed on her screen.

“We’ve been married for 30 years,” I said. “Doesn’t that at least merit a double?” I made a joke about Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, but only Deb laughed.

After tapping her keyboard with rapid-fire efficiency, the clerk told us she’d be happy to switch our room. She was also giving us free Wi-Fi.

That’s what three decades of marriage get you – free Internet access.

Deb and I were 24 when she peeked into my cubicle at the ad agency where we both worked. I was smitten by her easy laugh and the freckle on her lower lip. We shared a love of Talking Heads songs and Shakespeare’s sonnets, one of which we chose for a reading at our wedding ceremony three years later:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments …”

Our early days were carefree and fun, with Deb’s outgoing personality balancing my introversion. When we went on weekend jaunts to Cape Cod, I wrote out the driving directions beforehand, while Deb struck up conversations with strangers along the way. Soon we had new friends.

Three children came in quick succession. Ours was a boisterous and happy house, with preschool artwork on the refrigerator, toys on the floor, and a sweet dog at the foot of someone’s bed each night.

When people asked how we managed the almost-constant commotion, Deb and I paraphrased a David Byrne lyric: “We’re making it up as we go along.”

But as years passed, we weren’t always in tune – about finances, about career paths, and, more distressingly, about what we wanted from one another. With increasing frequency, we got tripped up by the “impediments” we had so glibly dismissed on our wedding day. Our relationship had less spark and more friction, and our 20th anniversary passed with little fanfare.

When Deb suggested we “see someone,” as in a marriage counselor, all I heard was “failure.” When she said we needed help to figure things out, I countered that we’d work harder. Or I said nothing at all. It would be a year before I agreed to go with her to our first appointment.

The twice-a-month sessions surprised me, as did an early observation by our counselor: “You made progress just by coming here,” she said. “You both still care.”

Deb and I began to see how, for all our compatibility, we came from very different places. My grandparents were Italian and Irish immigrants; Deb’s roots went back to the American Revolution. My mother and father divorced before I was 10; Deb’s family had vacationed together in Florida and out West. My actions were usually premeditated; my wife lived in the moment. The list went on. Our marriage would either reconcile the gaps or accentuate the distance.

Couples therapy didn’t erase our differences, but it did lead us to new conversations and a renewed faith in one another. Eventually, we had the confidence to go it alone again.

Three months after Deb and I wed, Bruce Springsteen released “Tunnel of Love,” a 12-song meditation on relationships and marriage. On the title track, the Boss sings “it’s easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love.” It’s my favorite Springsteen album; Deb’s, too.

On the Californian segment of our anniversary trip, we were drawn not to a tunnel, but to a bridge – the Bixby Creek Bridge, which traverses 714 feet over a steep canyon in Big Sur, audacious as a nuptial vow. Later, martinis in hand, Deb and I marveled at the iconic concrete span – still connected and still beautiful despite (or perhaps because of) its nicks and wear.

We could have been toasting ourselves.

The lost and found wheelchair

IMG_0889As published in The Providence Journal, October 15, 2017.

We needed a wheelchair; otherwise, my mother would miss the show.

My daughter, Juliana, was performing in her last high school theater production, cast as Golde in “Fiddler On The Roof.” Mom, a longtime fan of Broadway musicals, knew the role better than anyone and said, with a grandmother’s certainty, that Julie was perfect for the part.

My mother had been less sure about whether she’d be able to attend. Two weeks earlier, a virus had slowed her down – an unwelcome add-on to the macular degeneration and breathing issues that she normally dealt with. But when I walked into her Warwick apartment on the Wednesday before Julie’s Saturday matinee, her voice was strong and her spirits high. She was coming to the show.

So we needed a wheelchair. There was no way Mom could make the trek from the parking lot to the auditorium at East Greenwich High School. And forget about any stairs.

My brother Rob mentioned there was a wheelchair in the coat alcove at St. Luke’s, our church, and when I called the office, the rector said we could borrow it. Julie was thrilled. Not only were her grandparents from Connecticut coming in for the show; now Nonnie would be there, too.

On Saturday, I went to St. Luke’s to get the chair. But when I looked in the coat alcove, it wasn’t there. I looked in another closet. Nothing. I looked in the office, the entrance foyer, the back of the church – no luck.

I looked at my phone. “Fiddler” was scheduled to start in less than an hour.

And then an angel appeared. My friend Ken was working with the youth group, making pizzas for a mission-trip fundraiser. It turns out he had a wheelchair at home, one his father-in-law had used for years. Ken said he’d be right back with it. Thank God! Thank Ken! He returned with the chair, and I slid it awkwardly into the trunk of my car.

The show was endearing in the way most high school productions are, with seasoned theater kids mixing with first-time performers. And thanks to the wheelchair, Mom was right in the front row to take it all in. When Julie sang Golde’s bittersweet duet with Tevye in the second act – “Do You Love Me?” – my mother fished a tissue out of her bag. I felt my eyes sting, too.

“You were marvelous,” Mom told her youngest grandchild after the show, giving Julie a kiss.

In deference to the cold, late-winter air, the two of them waited inside the glass-doored entrance of the high school as I retrieved my car. With the Elantra’s tailpipe puffing at the curb, I wheeled Mom out, helped her into the passenger seat, hustled around to the driver’s side, and jumped in to take her home.

That evening, when I returned to the high school to see the musical’s final performance, I noticed an unattended wheelchair on the sidewalk outside. Funny, I thought – it looks just like the one I borrowed from Ken, blue seat and all. What a coincidence.

It wasn’t until the following afternoon, as I loaded groceries into my empty trunk, that it hit me: There was nothing coincidental about the wheelchair the night before. In my haste to get Mom home, I had driven away without it. And now my mother’s voice came to me, straight from childhood: “You’d lose your head if it weren’t attached.”

I raced over to the high school and, to my relief, discovered the wheelchair orphaned in a wooded area by the parking lot. I wished the chair was equipped with a GPS tracker so I could review its adventures. I imagined hooting teenagers careening down darkened streets deep into the night.

As I hefted the wheelchair back into my trunk, I was thankful – for the generosity of friends, for the love and presence of grandparents, for the sweetness of young voices, and for the wheelchair itself, found and lost and found again.

It was a weekend I’ll always remember.

Seven blocks of pure freedom


As published in the Providence Journal, September 17, 2017.

Three brown-bag lunches sit on the kitchen counter, each one branded with my mother’s handwriting. My older brother, Rob, will take his to La Salle Academy where he is a freshman, while my younger brother, James, and I will carry ours to Robert F. Kennedy School. James is in first grade, I’m in sixth.


It’s Chris, my best friend, calling from the driveway on the side of our house. James and I jump up from the kitchen table.

“Don’t forget your lunches!” my mother says, stubbing out a Tareyton cigarette. A talk-show host chatters on the radio atop the refrigerator, but it’s Mom’s voice that registers with me. “Keep an eye on your brother,” she says in a tone that guarantees compliance. “I’ll be back from work when you guys get home.”

James and I bound into the crisp September air and start up River Avenue with Chris. We love walking to school. There are no parents, no teachers – just seven blocks of freedom along the tree-lined streets of Elmhurst.

“Want a Starburst?” Chris asks. My friend is easygoing, and mischievous in ways I envy. He’s also nice to James. My brother and I grab the soft candy chews from him and, in seconds, eradicate any good we might have done with our toothbrushes earlier that morning.

At Moorland Avenue, sharp barks turn our heads. It’s Killer, our name for the menacing German shepherd safely penned in the backyard of the Cape on the corner of Moorland and Rankin Avenue. Even though we are almost a block away, Killer ­is on his hind legs, pawing the air and barking at us ferociously. The heavy chain that tethers him to a clothesline pole is taut.

“I have dreams about that dog,” Chris says. “Bad dreams.”

Killer’s barking fades behind traffic noise as we continue up River Avenue. We check the English yew in front of a shingled double-decker. The previous fall, Chris planted an orange Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrapper deep in its branches.

“Still there,” he says with satisfaction. All is right with our world.

We reach Smith Street and have to wait for the stoplight to change. It’s a tricky three-way intersection, with Wabun Avenue complicating the automobile-and-pedestrian ballet. Years earlier, as a second grader, my brother Rob had run into the side of a moving station wagon here. When I asked him what happened next, he said the car kept going and so did he.

“I was late for school,” he said. “And I didn’t want Mom to find out.”

Chris, James, and I, safely through the Smith Street piece of the intersection, pop into Haskins Pharmacy. I dig three pennies from my pocket and slide them into the red gumball machine.

Back outside, we have to wait for the stoplight to change again, this time to get across River Avenue. Charlie, an old, one-eyed beagle, joins us on the corner. He belongs to Mr. Siravo, the fruit peddler who lives near Haskins. Charlie comes and goes as he pleases; his ability to navigate city traffic is a marvel to us.

“Hi, Charlie,” James says, and the graying dog gives my brother a sweet, one-eyed look, his tail wagging.

The light changes and Chris, James, and I cross, with Charlie in step. At Nelson Street playground, half a block from school, the three of us jump on the swings and swoop and soar until we can go no higher.

Riiinnngg! The first bell sounds. We run from the playground to the schoolyard. There’s still time for a race or two – down to the chain link fence and back. Go!

Riinng-riinng! It’s the final bell. Teachers appear, lines form, shoulders slump. Chris and James fall in with their classmates, I with mine.

In Miss MacDonald’s classroom, I see the day’s schedule written on the blackboard. One word stands out, like a gold star on a spelling paper: dismissal. It can’t come fast enough.

Seven blocks of freedom await us on the walk home.

Letter to editor, message to son

DW_letter_2_croppedAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, August 20, 2017.

The day Dad moved out of our family’s red bungalow in Providence, my mother handed me a letter written in his familiar hand.

The first line made my 9-year-old eyes well up: “Ever since you were a baby, I have marveled at how happy I was to be with you.” The second paragraph provided details I would someday understand: “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.” And toward the end, Dad made a request that would shape the rest of my childhood: “Continue to be good to little James. He’s the nicest little boy in the world. It’s very important to me that you be a good big brother to your little brother.”

My father had left a letter for my 12-year-old brother, Rob, too. But I doubted there was one for James — he was only 3.

My younger brother and I shared a room, and at night I would climb into his bed if the wind howled or we heard strange noises outside. At age 4 or 5, he asked me why Dad didn’t live with us, and I did my best to explain.

The question underscored how different James’ experience of the divorce was from Rob’s and mine. For us, there was a before and after; for him, there was only Dad’s absence, which became more pronounced once my father’s unpredictable Saturday visitations stopped altogether.

Rob and I managed to maintain relationships with our father as we grew older, but James, by his teenage years, had virtually no contact with him. When my younger brother enlisted in the Coast Guard right out of high school, my father, a former Marine, learned about it from me. Several months later, I gave Dad James’ boot camp graduation photo, which he framed and set by his TV. My brother’s crisp uniform and stern look made it clear he was “little James” no more.

James was assigned to the Point Charles, an 82-foot cutter stationed at Cape Canaveral, in Florida. On calls home, his stories about perilous rescues and high-speed chases made my mother proud and uneasy. She was less concerned about his boat’s security patrols just off the Florida coast prior to NASA’s space shuttle launches.

James took part in 11 shuttle liftoffs and, in January 1986, was deployed for his 12th when the Point Charles blew an engine en route to its position several miles offshore. The captain was ordered to limp on to Jacksonville, and the Point Charles was replaced by the Point Roberts for the impending launch of Challenger.

James would later say he was thankful not to have been an eyewitness to the space shuttle disintegrating in the sky.

Wreckage from the Challenger was retrieved from the Atlantic Ocean by a flotilla of Coast Guard and Navy vessels. With the Point Charles disabled, James and his fellow crew members had the solemn task of collecting debris that washed ashore.

On Feb. 5, eight days after the tragedy, The Providence Journal published reactions from its readers, one of which came from my father:

“With the media coverage attendant to the Challenger disaster, a thankless task may have gone overlooked by many Americans; namely, the sea-air rescue men and women, particularly the Coast Guard, working at the impact area off Cape Canaveral. Theirs is a useful, necessary, dangerous, lonely and, at times, distasteful mission. They do our dirty work quite well, I might add.”

My mother clipped the section from the paper and, after highlighting my father’s letter, sent it off to James. On his next call home, my brother thanked her. “Dad got it right,” he said.

Seventeen years earlier, Rob and I had gotten our letters; now James had his. It was as close to reconnecting as he and my father would come.

To this day, James keeps Dad’s letter, creased and yellowing, tucked away in a lockbox.

The world as one, thanks to rocket men

Buzz_AldrinAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 16, 2017. [Photo: NASA]

On July 20, 1969, the Boston Red Sox completed a weekend sweep of the division-leading Baltimore Orioles, but the Fenway faithful weren’t getting their hopes up. The Sox still trailed the powerhouse O’s by 11 games.

Besides, at least for the moment, another match-up had eclipsed baseball for the attention of most New Englanders, not to mention the rest of the world: The United States and the Soviet Union were in the ninth inning of their race to the moon, and the Americans were ready to close things out.

The Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the surface of the moon at 4:18 EDT that Sunday afternoon, fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the nation eight years earlier to accomplish the feat before the end of the decade. To say that JFK’s bold vision had captured the imagination of Americans is an understatement. References to space suffused pop culture in the 1960s and would continue to do so for years to come.

In our kitchens, we munched on Space Food Sticks and sipped Tang, the orange powdered breakfast drink that John Glenn had once quaffed in orbit; on our televisions, we watched “Lost In Space,” “Star Trek,” and “The Jetsons”; and on the radio, Sinatra advised that a girl’s kiss could “fly me to the moon.”

One of the most captivating songs to emerge during the Space Race was David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which tells the story of fictional astronaut Major Tom. The single, released five days before the Apollo 11 launch, traded on the ever-present danger inherent in space exploration. What if something went wrong, as it had with Apollo 1 when a cockpit fire took the lives of the three crew members? Or what if a spacecraft were unable to return home, as is the case with Major Tom? He leaves us with a wistful lament from the heavens: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.”

(Bowie’s hit was prescient: in April 1970, an oxygen tank explosion forced Apollo 13 to abort its lunar landing and raised the harrowing specter that the spacecraft and crew would be cast into orbital oblivion. Such a fate was averted, thanks to some improvised ingenuity by NASA.)

Earth was a tumultuous place in 1969 as protests against the Vietnam War raged in the United States, the Troubles escalated in Northern Ireland, and food blockades in the Biafran War caused widespread famine.

The moon landing provided a breathtaking, if fleeting, respite from worldly woes, as well as an unprecedented collective human event. More than half a billion people tuned in on television as the astronauts stepped onto the moon’s surface. Neil Armstrong spoke for all nations and peoples when he said, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Buzz Aldrin was more succinct, but equally poetic: “Magnificent desolation.”

Back on Earth, people marveled.

Novelist Vladimir Nabokov offered this in the New York Times the following day: “Treading the soil of the moon, palpating its pebbles, tasting the panic and splendor of the event, feeling in the pit of one’s stomach the separation from terra … these form the most romantic sensation an explorer has ever known.”

On CBS, Walter Cronkite said, “The least of us is improved by the things done by the best of us, because if we are not able to land at least we are able to follow.”

In the fall, my father gave my brothers and me a hardcover book commemorating the Apollo 11 mission. On the front flyleaf, he wrote: “Never forget the day man reached for the stars.”

But 48 years later, perhaps no statement is as poignant as the one inscribed on the stainless-steel plaque left behind by Armstrong and Aldrin: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

In today’s inflamed geopolitical climate, I am struck by the benevolence of those words and the unanimity, however idealistic, they expressed.



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