Posts By johnwalshcopy

Following in Papa’s footsteps

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, August 18, 2019. Above, my grandfather, Vincent Pantalone, with one of his beloved cigars, outside his store on Federal Hill in Providence.

I landed my first summer job when I was 10. Or, more accurately, it landed me.

My employer was my grandfather, Vincent Pantalone, and despite my age, he was not found in violation of child labor laws. Papa’s specialty clothing store on Federal Hill in Providence — Vincent’s — had taken dozens of family members into its employ since opening in 1927. My rite of passage started in the early 1970s; I was the 12th of 13 grandchildren to do time there.

And what exactly did I do? Whatever Papa, my aunts, or my mother told me to do. That included stacking gift boxes behind the register; extracting pins from the store’s green, short-pile carpet; rolling down the squeaky awnings so merchandise in the showcase windows wouldn’t get bleached by the sun; and running errands. For my Friday night and Saturday shifts, I pocketed $10, a small fortune for a fourth-grader then.

On Saturday afternoons, my grandfather would place a quarter, a dime and a penny in my hand so I could fetch him two cigars at Leo’s Periodicals, across the street. Once, he almost burned the store down when he unwittingly knocked one of his lit stogies into a trash basket.

Fires notwithstanding, I watched Papa preside over the economic engine he built selling communion dresses, christening sets, back-to-school outfits, and the like. He was serious and industrious at work, and I made sure to look busy even when I wasn’t. But if a customer had an issue — the need for an exchange, perhaps, or some last-minute tailoring — my grandfather was quick to turn on his charm.

“Don’t worry,” he would say with a broad smile. “We’ll take care of you.”

Working at Papa’s store was the first in a series of summer jobs that took me through adolescence. I was a counselor-in-training at a Providence YMCA camp; a dishwasher at a fancy Atwells Avenue restaurant; the guy who changed the combinations of every locker at La Salle Academy before the start of the 1975-76 school year; and, in my dream job as a teen, a clerk at Midland Records on Thayer Street, in Providence, where one of my most important responsibilities was spinning LPs and cranking up the volume.

My Midland Records gig started in June 1978, the year teen summer employment in the United States hit its peak, at 58 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. By contrast, only about a third of teens — 34.6% — had a job last summer.

Why the drop? Researchers point to a number of factors, including fewer low-skill, entry-level jobs; more schools ending in late June and/or restarting before Labor Day; and more teens volunteering as part of their graduation requirements and to embellish college applications.

Too bad. Summer jobs can teach you lessons you won’t learn in school, including the satisfaction of earning a weekly paycheck (and the thrill of spending it). A job may even lead to a relationship that finds its way into your work life as an adult.

Such was the case with me. For five summers, my older brother, Rob, and I renovated properties together on Federal Hill. We sanded floors and hung sheetrock; scaled scaffolding to paint triple-deckers; reglazed windows and replaced doors; and lugged appliances up and down winding staircases.

Somewhere between the painting and the lugging, we discovered that we made a pretty good team.

Rob and I continue to work together today, following in Papa’s footsteps by running our own business, in this case an ad agency. A photo of our grandfather graces our conference room (in it, he is smoking a cigar — safely, outside his store). And the good-luck horseshoe that hung above the door at Vincent’s now hangs above ours.

Rob launched our agency in 1989 from a bedroom in his house. By the time I joined him three years later, he had moved into our first office.

Fittingly, it was right above Papa’s store.

Divine guidance from a mutt

IMG_9776As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, July 21, 2019.

It was an unusual conclusion to an Easter Sunday sermon: Last April, Father Tim handed everyone at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church a crisp dollar bill and asked that we give it to a stranger. We might also wish them a Happy Easter, the rector said, as we passed along “the surprise of grace.”

Half an hour later, with the bill neatly folded in the pocket of my button-down shirt, I did what I usually do after church: I took my dog, Rhody, for a walk.

Rhody’s a two-year-old rescue dog from Georgia, part black lab and part mystery. But more than anything, Rhody is super social. She wants to say hi to everyone, which usually means jumping up on people to give them a lick.

She’s kind of like my older brother, Rob, in that way (well, not the jumping and licking part). Rob has an outgoing warmth about him that I envy. When the two of us walk into a busy room, he gravitates to the crowd while I sidle to a wall.

I’ve discovered that being an introvert presents challenges when your dog is a social butterfly. Rhody’s always pulling me toward people and I’m usually pulling away, partly because I don’t want her to maul them but also because, honestly, that’s my comfort zone. So on Easter Sunday morning, when a middle-aged guy in workout gear approached us, I veered to the side of the road to give him a wide berth.

And then I remembered the dollar bill in my pocket – I’m supposed to give it to someone. Father Tim, you’re killing me.

I shortened up Rhody’s leash and moved back into the middle of the street. When the guy was within 10 feet of us, I said, “Good morning!”

Now Rhody’s tail was going like mad as she strained against her harness, eager to give this guy her two-paw greeting. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had quickened his pace and just given us a polite nod. But instead he stopped and asked, “What’s up?”

“I just came from church,” I said, keeping Rhody at bay. “The priest gave us all a dollar bill and asked that we pass it on to someone. So I want to give mine to you.” I handed him the bill. “Happy Easter.”

His face softened, and he smiled. “Wow,” he said. “Thank you!”

We went our separate ways, and as the guy walked on, I’m pretty sure he had a skip in his step that I hadn’t detected before. I noticed the same thing about mine.

My faith, at best, is a work in progress. I sit in the pews at St. Luke’s each week with my questions about God, even as I am comforted by the liturgy, lifted by hymns, and challenged by the words of a gifted rector.

When I shared my Easter Sunday story with my brother, it wasn’t lost on us that Father Tim and Rhody seemed to be on the same page. Love thy neighbor, right?

“You know what they say,” Rob joked. “Dog is God spelled backwards.”

That prompted me to investigate the connection between dogs and the Divine. What little the Bible says about man’s best friend isn’t very flattering.

But listen to Mark Twain: “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”

And Robert Louis Stevenson: “You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before us.”

And Will Rogers: “If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”

As I said, I’m not so sure about the afterlife. But at least I have Rhody in the here and now. And as long as I do, I’ll keep trying, to paraphrase C.J. Frick, to be the person my dog thinks I am.

 

The best seat at Fenway

2003_Walshes@fenwayAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 16, 2019.

Most of the books my father gave me sit on shelves, their stories as layered as my memories of him. If I’m lucky, I open to a flyleaf inscribed with Dad’s familiar hand and hear his voice again.

“Neat books need swell readers. So saith Dad. Love.” That note appears on the opening page of a John O’Hara novel given for Christmas in 1988. The unsteady strokes of a simpler message written five years later inside a spy thriller – “Happy birthday, John” – reveal my father’s failing health at the time.

One book he gave me was “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons” by Donald Hall. There’s no inscription from Dad in that one; I surmise he was fine with letting Hall’s words speak for themselves. And for good reason. In a series of elegant essays, the former poet laureate of the United States examines how sports and games connect people and bridge generations.

Many of Hall’s lines resonate with me, including this one: “Baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.” A recurring childhood memory of mine is listening to the Red Sox on the radio with Dad as we drove home from the beach to Providence.

Another moment in the book that I return to is “Baseball is fathers and sons. Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard.”

I can attest to that statement. First, the beating up part.

Our backyard was half dirt, half cement patio; my brothers and I played tackle football on all of it. These contests often degenerated into something we called “muckle the guy with the ball,” which was more rugby scrum than football. When darkness came, we took our game inside, hammering each other in the basement until the commissioner – Mom – intervened from the top of the stairs:

“Enough!”

In springtime, our backyard gridiron morphed into a baseball diamond. Thanks to Wiffle ball, we were able to “swing for the fences” without breaking nearby windows; the darting plastic orbs rapped off panes but didn’t break them. While my father was more academic than athletic, on Saturdays he would usually come outside to toss some pitches and take a few swings. Fast forward 25 years and I found myself instinctively doing the same with my young sons in the backyard at our house.

If playing baseball with Dad was fun, going to a Red Sox game with him was even better. We made the pilgrimage for the first time on the final day of the 1968 season. Unlike the monochromatic ballpark I saw on our black-and-white TV, Fenway that afternoon was a rush of color – green grass, red Citgo logo, endless blue sky, brilliant yellow foul poles.

The memory of that day was still vivid in my mind when I brought my sons to Fenway in 2003 for a Sox-Mariners game. Without looking at a seating chart, I had purchased tickets that I thought would give us a good view of Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle’s superstar right fielder. The boys, then 12 and 10, were big Ichiro fans.

We got to the park early and headed to our seats. Up and up we climbed into Fenway’s cavernous right field grandstand. I checked our tickets: Section 1, Row 18, Seats 1, 2, and 3. Up and up we continued, into the cool shade under the roof, until we finally reached our destination – the last row and very last three seats in the grandstand!

Past a green support column, we could see home plate – barely. Our view of Ichiro’s back wouldn’t be much better. I felt like Bob Uecker, the former major-leaguer-turned-beer-pitchman who, in his classic commercials for Miller Lite, always landed in the nosebleed section.

Still, with my two boys beside me, wide-eyed and laughing, I knew I had the best seat in the house.

The Frisbee’s sweet story

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 19, 2019. Artwork by Emma Rose Walsh.

It’s unlikely a bachelor of arts in Frisbeeology will be conferred by any of the nearly 3,000 colleges holding commencements in the United States this month. But the degree is not without precedent.

In 1984, at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., Johnny Dwork was handed a diploma for his self-designed “Flying Disc Entertainment and Education” major, which combined courses in business, psychology, and dance with the countless hours Dwork spent hucking a Frisbee outside of Hampshire lecture halls. The one-of-a-kind graduate went on to become a world-champion flying disc athlete.

Dwork’s degree was a full-circle moment. The Frisbee got its start, at least in part, on picturesque college quadrangles, some of them possibly here in Rhode Island. More on that in a moment.

Whirling Frisbees are as much a sign of spring as cherry blossoms and Little League uniforms. As many as 300 million plastic platters have been sold since the original Frisbee design was patented in 1958. And Ultimate Frisbee, now known simply as Ultimate, is in the offing to become an Olympic team sport in 2028.

The Frisbee’s march to the marketplace was a team sport, too, involving players who were 3,000 miles apart and unknown to one another.

In Bridgeport, Conn. during the first half of the 20th century, the Frisbie Pie Company sold baked goods to schoolchildren and nearby college students who, after consuming the confections, discovered the pie tins were ideal for playing catch. At Yale, undergrads yelled “Frisbie!” as they tossed the empty tins, alerting fellow students to the spinning discs heading their way. The Frisbie bakery’s success in Bridgeport led to additional shops in Hartford, Poughkeepsie, and Providence, so shouts of the pie maker’s name may have been heard on the campuses of Brown University and Providence College, as well.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, Fred Morrison and his future wife, Lucile, were having fun flipping a popcorn can lid to each other at the beach one day when a passerby offered them 25 cents for their makeshift toy. According to Morrison, “That got the wheels turning, because you could buy a cake tin for five cents, and if people were willing to pay a quarter for it, well, there was a business.”

For the next decade, Morrison worked to perfect his disc, creating multiple prototypes before settling on a plastic model, which he called the Flyin-Saucer. It became the archetype of all flying discs today. The inventor would later refine his toy’s design and dub the new version the Pluto Platter.

Morrison, who was awarded a U.S. design patent, sold the rights for the Pluto Platter to Wham-O in 1957. Based in Carson, Cal., the up-and-coming toy company had recently introduced the Hula Hoop with great success and would go on to create several of the most popular toys of the 1960s, including the Super Ball, Slip ’N Slide, and Silly String.

Wham-O’s executives soon discovered that “Pluto Platter” wasn’t flying with college kids back in New England, where the Frisbie name had stuck. So, in a moment of marketing brilliance, the company changed the disc’s name to Frisbee, altering the spelling of the bakery name by one letter to avoid trademark issues.

A market research team could have spent thousands of hours developing and testing new names for the Pluto Platter, but I doubt any would have topped Frisbee. The fun-sounding word instantly conjures up visions of aerodynamic wonder and athletic ballets while possessing a baked-in acknowledgment of a humble pie company’s key role in the Frisbee story.

Fred Morrison, upon learning that Wham-O had tossed his Pluto Platter moniker in favor of Frisbee, thought it was “a terrible name.” But after royalties made him a millionaire, the inventor revised his evaluation: “I wouldn’t change the name of it for the world.”

Easter eggs full of lore

red_eggAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, April 21, 2019.

Candy eggs were always awaiting my brothers and me on Easter morning but, as kids, we missed the symbolism.

Rob, James, and I would thunder down the carpeted stairway to the living room in our house on River Avenue in Providence to confirm an annual visitation even more outlandish than that of Santa Claus: a rabbit had somehow hopped into our home the night before and left us all kinds of goodies.

The origin of the Easter Bunny is a mystery. One explanation points to the springtime pagan celebration of Eostre, named for a Germanic fertility goddess whose symbol was a rabbit or hare, although the historical proof for such a connection is thin.

Stronger evidence exists concerning the Easter Bunny’s arrival here in America. According to Time magazine, German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s introduced the folkloric tradition of an egg-delivering hare to the colony. The custom eventually spread throughout the United States.

My brothers and I were oblivious to all this as we scoured our house in search of foil-wrapped chocolate eggs. We found them perched on picture frames, tucked inside bookcases, and set on windowsills behind drawn drapes. Sometimes a hidden egg would elude us for days or even longer; once, in the middle of summer, Rob found one nestled in a plant urn. Score one for the Easter Bunny (and Mom)!

Our mother ran a tight ship as a single parent, but on Easter morning, house rules were suspended. Breakfast included colored jellybeans and sickeningly sweet yellow marshmallow Peeps.

“Just make sure you brush your teeth before church,” she told us.

Ah, church. On ordinary Sunday mornings, sitting still in the pews for an hour-long Mass at St. Pius was a challenge; on Easter, when the length of the sermon seemed to double, as did the lines for Communion, I longed to hear those seven heavenly words: “The Mass is ended, go in peace.”

Christian fasting traditions contribute to the prevalence of eggs at Easter time. On the day before Lent, known as Fat Tuesday or Pancake Day, it was customary for the faithful to use up all the eggs and dairy in their household and then abstain from them for 40 days. There was a catch, however: no one told the hens. By the end of Lent, a family’s store of eggs would be larger than usual, necessitating quick consumption before they spoiled. Easter eggs to the rescue!

Since ancient times, eggs had been a symbol of rebirth and renewal in cultures around the world. Through a Christian lens, they came to represent the Jesus Resurrection story. And what a striking totem they could be.

Among Orthodox Christians, eggs are dyed red as a reminder of the blood Christ shed on the Cross. The hard shell is thought to represent Jesus’ sealed tomb, while cracking the egg open on Easter morning symbolizes his rising from the dead.

This tradition ties to the legend of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar after Jesus’ death. Holding an egg out to him, she announced “Christ is risen.” Tiberius replied that Jesus had no more risen than the egg in her hand was red – at which point, the shell turned crimson.

Eggs of a more temporal nature appeared in Russia between 1885 and 1917. Crafted by Peter Carl Faberge, these lavish, bejeweled orbs were commissioned by the Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II as Easter gifts for their wives and mothers. In 2007, one Faberge egg sold for $18.5 million.

Back on River Avenue, house rules were reinstated on the Monday after Easter.

“No candy until you get home from school,” Mom announced to my brothers and me in the kitchen at breakfast.

So to the pantry we trudged and reached for our favorite cereal: Sugar Pops.

Patrick, Joseph, and saintly parades

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, March 17, 2019. Above, poster for St. Joseph’s Day on Federal Hill in 1977.

Two Christian saints rub shoulders on the calendar this month, just as the Irish- and Italian-Americans did in the Providence neighborhood where I grew up in the 1970s.

Whether your last name was Reilly or Riccio, most kids in Elmhurst wore green to school on March 17 in honor of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. And then, two days later, many of us showed up garbed in red to celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph, whose intercessions were believed to have once saved Sicily from a severe drought.

What else do we know about Patrick and Joseph, and why are their respective feast days so beloved in these parts?

Details on both saints are sketchy, but of this we can be certain: Patrick was not Irish. Born in Britain when it was under Roman rule, he came to Ireland as a Christian missionary in the fifth century.

Patrick is said to have used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to Ireland’s druids and pagans. And legend has it he drove the snakes from the Emerald Isle, just as God had banished the serpent from the Garden of Eden. (For those keeping score at home, herpetologists tell us that Ireland has actually never been home to snakes.) March 17 is generally accepted as the date of Patrick’s death; hence, the timing of his feast day.

Interestingly, the first recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade was held not in Dublin or Galway, but in New York City in 1762 when Irish soldiers serving in the English army marched to honor their Catholic saint. Today, up to two million spectators gather for the festivities along Fifth Avenue. Closer to home, as many as 50,000 people trek to Newport’s annual parade, now in its 63rd year.

Joseph, husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the patron saint of Sicily. According to legend, he responded to Sicilian prayers during a severe drought in the Middle Ages. The rain came, a famine was avoided, and grateful believers honored Joseph with feasting and celebration, thus starting a tradition that continues throughout the world to this day.

In the late 19th century, Sicilian immigrants came to the United States largely through the port of New Orleans, and they brought their St. Joseph’s Day traditions with them. Soon parades honoring the saint were annual springtime events in the French Quarter. This year’s procession will take place on March 23, with marchers handing out silk flowers and fava beans, which is the crop that saved Sicilians from starvation during their historic drought.

Other cities in the United States with large Italian-American populations are known for their St. Joseph’s Day celebrations, as well, including New York, Syracuse, Hoboken, and, of course, Providence.

I was fortunate to have been behind-the-scenes for the St. Joseph’s Day festivities on Federal Hill in the mid-1970s after Atwells Avenue had been given a dramatic facelift. Decorative streetlamps now stood sentry over wide brick sidewalks, and a massive archway greeted visitors at the east end of the busy retail thoroughfare.

At home, my mother, who was secretary of the Federal Hill Businessmen’s Association, laid out silk sashes on our living room couch, to be worn by the politicians and dignitaries who would march in the parade. One year, my older brother’s roommate at the Rhode Island School of Design created the poster for the event. Fancy green type stood out against a screened archive photo of a marching band: Festa di San Giuseppe, March 19, 1977.

The weather was chilly that day, with the temperature only in the low 40s, but the freshly painted red-white-and-green traffic stripe in the middle of Atwells Avenue gleamed in the sun as thousands made their pilgrimage to the Hill.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! And, as corned beef and Guinness give way to zeppole and sambuca, Happy St. Joseph’s Day, too!

Birthday snapshots through the ages

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 17, 2019. Above, the author celebrates his 7th birthday at home in Providence in 1967.

I turn 59 this month.

As birthdays go, it’s not a noteworthy number.

I mean, it can’t hold a candle to, say, 40. For that birthday, my wife, Deb, threw a surprise party for me at our house. I opened the front door to the shouts and good wishes of more than fifty family members and friends. What a bash!

My 18th birthday was memorable, too. It fell five days after The Blizzard of ’78 had buried Rhode Island under more than two feet of snow. I spent my birthday night in a music store on Federal Hill where my older brother, Rob, worked. His boss was worried about post-storm looting, so he deployed the two of us to stand guard. It was dark and eerily quiet amid the unplugged Fender Stratocasters and Peavey amps as we fought to stay awake, but nothing happened.

Well, nothing but this: In celebration of my new “legal” status – 18 was the drinking age at the time – Rob placed a brown paper bag on one of the store counters. “Happy birthday,” he said as I slid the bottle out. It was a fifth of something called Rock and Rye – “Rock” as in rock-candy, I would learn. The sweetened concoction was the color of maple syrup. I took a swig from the bottle’s wide mouth and grimaced. Looters may not have caused any damage that night, but my birthday cocktail did.

My seventh birthday stands out, thanks to a photo my mother took. In it, I’m about to blow out the candles on my cake while sporting a construction-paper crown, likely made for me at school.

That black-and-white snapshot reminds me of another unforgettable birthday moment, this one belonging to my son Evan. When I suggested over breakfast one morning that he’d have fun at pre-school because it was his big day, he was unconvinced.

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

(Clearly, I was a more superficial child than my son, for there I am in Mom’s photo album, forever happy in my “stupid hat.”)

When my brothers and I were growing up, our mother’s age defied the passage of time, at least by her calculations. Each March, she’d tell us with playful certainty that she was turning 22. As we moved through adolescence, Mom finally made a concession to Father Time and upped her age to 33. And there it would stay, at least as far as she was concerned.

My brother Rob had other ideas. With a big party planned at our house to celebrate Mom’s 45th, he exercised his budding graphic design skills and spray-painted a birthday greeting on a white bed-sheet. The day of the party, while Mom was at work, I helped Rob and his Rhode Island School of Design roommate hang the sheet from the gutter above the front porch of our house, which stood on busy River Avenue in Providence.

“HAPPY 50TH, NORMA!” the birthday billboard proclaimed to the constant stream of passersby, most of them unaware of its inaccuracy.

One of my mother’s friends said she would have never forgiven her kids for doing such a thing. Lucky for us, Mom was a good sport, even if she did say the prank was “awful.” (Looking back, had we been better sons, the banner would have read “HAPPY 22ND!”)

A final memory for this account: As my 12th birthday approached, I received a card from my orthodontist. At the time, braces were not as prevalent as they are today, and I was self-conscious about my “tinsel teeth.”

Depicted on the front of Dr. Prescott’s card was a herd of buck-toothed cartoon animals, all of them beaming with braces. The caption read “Lots of people have them …”

Yeah, right, I thought. Then I looked inside: “BIRTHDAYS WE MEAN!”

My face broke into a silver smile.

 

 

Getting in the last word

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, January 20, 2019. Above: Cemetery headstone at St. Luke’s Church, East Greenwich, R.I.

Leave them laughing when you go.

That seems to be the idea behind some epitaphs, those phrases or statements inscribed on cemetery headstones.

George Carlin said he wanted his to be “He was here just a minute ago.” Groucho Marx proposed “Excuse me, I can’t stand up.”

Neither epitaph was ever actually carved in stone. Carlin was cremated, his ashes scattered; the only embellishment on Groucho’s grave marker is the Star of David.

But mixing mourning with mirth at gravesites is more common than you might think. If a quick Google search is to be trusted, there’s this gem from a couple laid to rest in the Washington, D.C. area: “We finally found a place to park in Georgetown!” And at a New Mexico cemetery, a headstone plays off the deceased’s last name: “Here lies John Yeast. Pardon me for not rising.”

British-Irish comedian Spike Milligan’s epitaph, translated from Gaelic, feigns indignation: “I told you I was ill.” Billy Wilder’s hits home with scribes: “I’m a writer but then nobody’s perfect.”

Some inscriptions strike us with their poignance. Visitors to Martin Luther King Jr.’s tombstone are familiar with the words it bears, echoing his most famous address: “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at last.” At Robert F. Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery, a low granite wall presents a quote from the impromptu speech that Kennedy gave hours after King’s assassination: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need … is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.”

Some epitaphs are sweet. George H.W. Bush’s simple gravestone is inscribed with his Navy number and words honoring his wife: “He loved Barbara very much.” Mary Tyler Moore’s reads “Her spirit a beacon, Her smile eternal, She made us better.” A statue of a resting angel at the actress’s grave bears the title of the theme song that opened her popular television show in the 1970s: “Love Is All Around.”

For writers and poets, a grave marker represents the last blank page. Emily Dickinson’s two-word epitaph is distinguished, like her verse, by its economy of expression: “Called back.” Dorothy Parker’s is almost as concise, if less otherworldly: “Excuse my dust.”

Oscar Wilde’s last words are often erroneously cited as “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.” (Wilde quipped about the decor in the room where he lay several weeks before he died, but his final spoken words reportedly were a mumbled Catholic prayer.) The Irish writer’s actual gravestone epitaph is taken from his poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which recalls his imprisonment for homosexuality in the 1890s. It reads, in part: “For his mourners will be outcast men, And outcasts always mourn.”

Shakespeare issues a warning to any who might meddle with his final resting place: “Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

For pop stars, referencing a lyric from a hit song is a common epitaphic practice. Frank Sinatra assures us “The best is yet to come.” Whitney Houston says “I will always love you.” Dee Dee Ramone offers “OK … I gotta go now.”

Not surprisingly, the epitaphs of entertainers are, well, entertaining. Jackie Gleason’s mausoleum reprises the catchphrase from the end of his variety show monologues: “And away we go!” Talk show host Merv Griffin’s headstone reads “I will not be right back after this message.” And I have nothing but respect for comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s chiseled one-liner: “There goes the neighborhood.”

But perhaps my favorite headstone valediction, fitting for the close of this column, belongs to Mel Blanc. The voice of hundreds of “Loony Tunes” cartoon characters, Blanc chose a signature line from Porky Pig to commend his spirit to perpetuity: “That’s all, folks!”

Christmas lessons from a wise man

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, December 16, 2018. Above, Charlie Brown and Linus appear in a scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” [AP, File/1965 United Feature Syndicate Inc.]

I knew teaching Sunday school the week before Christmas was going to be a challenge.  With Santa’s arrival looming, it was unlikely the second graders in my class at St. Luke’s Church in East Greenwich would stay still. So I threw out the lesson book and cued up “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on the video player. I didn’t think my diversion from the syllabus was sacrilege; after all, at the heart of the animated classic is a recitation of the Nativity story.

But that memorable scene almost didn’t make it to the screen.

Based on the acclaimed “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” offered charming social commentary and a hip jazz soundtrack when it first aired in 1965. The made-for-TV special opens with the forever-beleaguered title character out of sorts again, this time due to the commercialism that pervades the Yuletide season. Even directing a neighborhood Christmas play can’t shake Charlie Brown from his doldrums.

Finally, exasperated during a rehearsal, he cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” At which point, his friend Linus walks to center stage and, alone in a spotlight, recites the story of Jesus’s birth from the Gospel of Luke: “… For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord …”

The show’s producer, Lee Mendelson, and director, Bill Melendez, both advised against including the New Testament reading. Melendez told Schulz, “We can’t do this; it’s too religious.” But the “Peanuts” creator, a practicing Christian, was adamant. “Bill, if we don’t do it, who will?” he said. The scene was retained, and it is impossible to imagine the story without it.

It wouldn’t be the last time Schulz’s work courted controversy. Three years later, amid exploding racial tensions in cities across the United States, the cartoonist added Franklin, an African-American character, to the “Peanuts” gang. It was the first time a minority character appeared in a mainstream comic strip. When editors complained about certain strips featuring Franklin, Larry Rutman, the president of the company that syndicated “Peanuts,” requested changes. Years later, Schulz recounted his response: “Well, Larry, let’s put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?” The strips ran, unmodified.

Beyond Linus’s biblical reading, there were other concerns with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Mendelson worried that the pacing was too slow and bemoaned the absence of a laugh track, which Schulz had vetoed. Melendez was embarrassed by the simple animation. Network executives said the music and voices were wrong and, in true Charlie Brown fashion, anticipated absolute failure.

But Schulz and the American public proved them wrong. More than 15 million households tuned in, which was nearly half of all people watching TV that Sunday evening. The special elicited glowing reviews, including Lawrence Laurent’s quip in The Washington Post that “Good old Charlie Brown, a natural born loser … finally turned up a winner.”

Years later, the response from my second-grade church school class was equally triumphant. In subsequent Advent seasons, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” became an annual event for all of the Sunday school classes at St. Luke’s, as well as for some adult “kids.” Everyone would be still when, in the final scene, Linus relinquishes his ever-present blue security blanket to wrap the trunk of Charlie Brown’s sparse, needle-shedding Christmas tree. “I never thought it was such a bad little tree,” he says. “Maybe it just needs a little love.”

Whether one is Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, or anything else, Linus’s words in that final scene speak to a yearning that is fundamental to us all.

As the credits for “A Charlie Brown Christmas” rolled, the kids at St. Luke’s always clapped. I’d like to think that Charles Schulz, once a Sunday school teacher himself, would have been pleased.

 

Serving up prayers for Thanksgiving

Church_in_FogAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 18, 2018.

What’s your favorite holiday?

That’s a question my brothers and I asked each other as kids.

Christmas topped our lists, of course. How could any day compete with December 25 and the presents it brought?

If Thanksgiving ever received an honorable mention, it was for its one advantage over Christmas – you didn’t have to go to church!

Like most of our neighbors in the Elmhurst section of Providence, we celebrated Turkey Day in secular fashion, with family, football, and food. Watching the Macy’s parade on TV, I was unaware that our annual national feast had deep religious roots. But it does. The practice of observing prayer-filled days of thanksgiving, especially following good harvests, dates back to early American settlement communities.

On Oct. 3, 1789, George Washington issued his fledgling country’s first presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation. In it, he recommended that November 26 “be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” Washington attended services at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City that day. Then solemnity gave way to celebration, and the president provided the city’s imprisoned debtors with food and beer.

Presidents after Washington declared days of thanksgiving as well. According to the Plimouth Plantation Museum, by the 1850s almost every state and territory observed such celebrations, though not in any unified way. It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln that our national day of gratitude was formalized, due in large part to the persistent advocacy of one Sarah Josepha Hale.

Hale, often referred to as the Godmother of Thanksgiving, was a successful editor and writer who began campaigning for the nationwide holiday in the 1830s. Her letter to Lincoln in September 1863 urged him to “have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” The appeal, on the heels of the North’s victory at Gettysburg, must have struck a chord with the president, who felt it was his sacred duty to preserve the Union.

On October 3, 1863 – exactly 74 years after Washington’s proclamation – Lincoln invited “fellow citizens in every part of the United States … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

That timing remained unchanged until 1939 when November had five Thursdays, the last of which fell on the final day of the month. With the country still mired in the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week to the 23rd to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and, he hoped, spur retail sales. The change was not popular; 62 percent of Americans disapproved. The Republican mayor of Atlantic City, Thomas Taggert, criticized FDR for his action, derisively referring to the rescheduled holiday as “Franksgiving.”

A Commerce Department survey two years later reported that FDR’s brainchild had delivered little positive economic impact. Shortly afterward, a joint resolution of Congress, signed into law by the president, officially designated Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday in November – importantly, not the last Thursday as Lincoln had prescribed, thereby ensuring the holiday would never again fall as late as the 29th or 30th.

But it’s Lincoln’s proclamation that gives one pause now. In his younger years, Honest Abe was considered a religious skeptic. By 1863, however, his evolving spiritualism moved him to “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

The great man from Illinois had offered up a prayer that many of us are saying, in our own ways, this Thanksgiving as well.

 

 

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