Posts By johnwalshcopy

To my dad, with love, on Father’s Day

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 21, 2020. Above, the author as a baby with his father, Donald Walsh, and his older brother Robert.

Dad,

I wish you could stop by my house today, as you always did on Sunday mornings until the end came in 1993. I’d make a fresh pot of coffee and cue up Stephen Sondheim on an infinite jukebox we call Spotify.

Much has changed since you died.

You’d be happy to learn that your boy Sondheim celebrated his 90th birthday this year, and saddened to know that another hero of yours, George Carlin, is gone.

Remember when you played Carlin’s “Class Clown” album for me as we cleaned the gray beach house in Narragansett? I think I was 13 years old. It was the first time I heard the comedian voice his take on Muhammad Ali’s defense for not going to Vietnam — “I’ll beat ’em up, but I don’t want to kill ’em.” Thanks for showing me, in that moment and so many others, how wordplay could be powerful, insightful and funny.

You can catch most of Carlin’s bits on a cool video-sharing platform called YouTube now.

You would have loved the internet, which hosts such things. I can see you binge-watching World War II movies, clips of Bill Russell’s old Celtics teams, and the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Netflix, a movie-streaming service, has your name all over it, too. I’d like to watch “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” with you, just to hear you say, once again, that the Academy blew it, that Spielberg’s masterpiece deserved the Oscar in 1983, not “Gandhi.” You always loved the underdog.

Speaking of which, the Red Sox have won the World Series four times since you’ve been gone. What in the name of Bill Lee (another hero of yours) is going on?

Championship banners aside, though, in some ways, the world hasn’t changed much at all since 1993. As I watched the demonstrations following George Floyd’s death, I wished I knew more about your days as assistant dean of student affairs at Brown University in the mid-’60s. According to a cousin, you and Charlie Baldwin, Brown’s activist chaplain at the time, once spent a month in the South protesting with the Freedom Riders.

You continued the work when you returned home. Mom saved the letters to the editor that you wrote, advocating for civil rights and supporting the desegregation of Providence public schools, which Robert, James and I attended.

This year, from mid-March to May 25, the op-ed pages of most newspapers were “all pandemic, all the time,” as one editor put it. But after George Floyd’s death, remarkably, COVID-19 was no longer the top story. That just shows how deeply the history and hurt of racial injustice are embedded in America’s soul.

Words spoken 52 years ago by your biggest hero, Robert F. Kennedy, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., still resonate today: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be Black.”

Your youngest grandchild, Juliana, born after you left us, marched in the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Providence a few weeks ago. On the morning of the rally, I texted her a photo of you from your days at Brown and said that you would have been proud of her. If the two of you get to meet in some celestial place, I can imagine you sharing another RFK quote with her: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.”

It’s hard to believe that you and I last spoke 27 years ago.

Still, every day and especially these days, you’re always with us.

Love, John

 

Keeping Armand close in my blueberry heart

Screen Shot 2020-05-17 at 6.52.23 AMAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 17, 2020. Above, the author accepts the championship trophy on behalf of Kennedy Recreation Center at the 1973 Serran Basketball Tournament as his coach, Armand Batastini, looks on at far right

In the Providence where I grew up, basketball was king, old-school coaches ruled, and no one did more for up-and-coming hoopsters than Armand Batastini.

The youth basketball legend brought my good friend John Reilly – “Reills” – and me together 47 years ago for an unforgettable season. When our coach passed away last month, I reached out instinctively to my old teammate.

“Sorry for losing touch for so long, brother,” I texted Reills, who lives in Florida. “Just wanted to let you know that Armand died on Saturday.”

“I’ll call you tonight,” came my friend’s quick reply. “A lot for me to reflect on.”

I felt the same way.

For 63 years, Armand mentored countless boys and girls, for which he was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. Best known for his teams at St. Pius in the Elmhurst section of Providence, he also had a successful coaching stint at the neighborhood’s Kennedy Recreation Center, where Reills and I played for him.

On the phone that night, my friend reminded me that I once said practices with Armand were like “school after school.” During our two-hour workouts three afternoons a week, laughs were as rare as buzzer-beaters from half court. Failing to dive for a loose ball could trigger a favorite Armand trope – “You guys have hearts like blueberries!” – followed by another, more colorful anatomical reference, which would have made our mothers blush.

The man rarely used the whistle that hung around his neck; blessed with a commanding bark, he didn’t need to. But Armand’s heart was always in the right place. In his blue windbreaker and white Chuck Taylors, he was a tireless teacher. And just like us, he wanted to win.

“Remember when we practiced on Thanksgiving?” Reills asked.

How could I forget? My mother was annoyed when I left the house on that cold November morning, but we had a game the next day – against St. Pius, of all teams – and Armand knew the stakes.

“You’re playing for neighborhood bragging rights,” he said as he prepared us to face our parochial-school nemesis. He was right, of course – Kennedy Rec Center and St. Pius stood a mere six blocks apart. Our decisive victory the following night granted us a year of sidewalk swagger.

Before Magic and Madonna were known by a single name, he was “Armand” to us and everyone else. As a point guard under his tutelage for four years, I honed my dribbling skills and rid my game of “lollipop passes.” Our teams were good, especially in 1972-73, when we went 25-6 and ran the table at the Serran Tournament to cap our season. The championship trophy I accepted on behalf of our squad was huge, but the biggest reward that day was seeing the smile on my coach’s face.

Long after I played my final game for him, Armand had my back. As our neighborhood’s state representative, he cut through red tape to learn why I was denied a Pell Grant as a freshman at Brown University and helped me get the award the following year. After my wife, Deb, and I bought our first house – on Modena Avenue in Elmhurst – he stopped by to congratulate us, kissing Deb on the cheek as if she were family. And when my son Evan petitioned me to play AAU basketball – a world I knew nothing about – I knew where to turn for guidance: As always, Armand had the answers.

In 2018, the Pleasant View Recreation Center in Providence’s Fifth Ward was renamed the Armand E. Batastini Jr. Recreation Center. All of us who played for Armand know how deserving he was of such an honor.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a celebration of Armand’s life is planned for a future date.

His family may need to rent out the Dunk.

 

Breathing together before the pandemic

IMG_6927As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, April 19, 2020. Above, the author and his son Peter at Paradise Cove in Malibu.

The email from my son Peter arrived in a distant world, one that included teens congregating in shopping malls and people watching basketball games in crowded bars. The coronavirus pandemic had yet to change all of our lives.

“I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to figure out what to give you for your birthday,” Pete’s email read, “but really, all I want is to spend some time with you. A long drive to the beach or an early-morning walk feels like a better gift than anything I could find on Amazon, so I’m bringing you to me.”

Attached was a ticket for a premium seat on JetBlue. I was thrilled: my firstborn, now 29, was flying me to Los Angeles in style.

The morning of my flight, I looked in the mirror and saw time markers: graying eyebrows and softening cheeks. On the bright side, aging as a parent can bring new joys.

My son has lived in California for six years. I had always thought his career in music would land him in New York City, but I have since learned that Los Angeles is where the action is, at least for him.

As we drove at 1 a.m. from Los Angeles International Airport to Pete’s place in Hancock Park after my arrival, the region’s notorious traffic was mercifully absent. Kobe Bryant’s face and poignant signs of grief over his recent death were everywhere — from brightly lit billboards to street-art murals on the sides of auto repair garages and sandwich shops.

It was my second trip to see Pete on my own. My wife, Deb, and I have visited him several times together, and our entire family made the trek from Rhode Island last November to celebrate Thanksgiving. Every visit is memorable, but Deb and I both find that our solo visits are singularly sweet.

When our kids were young, one of their favorite bedtime books was “The Relatives Came” by Cynthia Rylant. It’s the story of a big family reunion, with lots of hugging and laughing and “breathing together.” That’s what’s best about any visit to see Pete — having a few days to breathe together again.

This trip brought us to Paradise Cove in Malibu, Venice Beach, the magnificent Getty Center perched on a Santa Monica hilltop, and a host of coffee shops in between. We balanced highbrow culture with everyday fun; two hours at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was followed by a round of mini-golf. We ate cheeseburgers, drank beer, and walked Pete’s dog, Sam.

Through it all, we listened to music. I couldn’t help but think of how when Pete was a boy, we’d deconstruct pop songs as I drove him to school or guitar lessons. The tunes were usually favorite tracks of mine by Bruce Springsteen or James Taylor or The Replacements. Now Pete was the driver and, for much of the time, the deejay as well.

A turn onto Mulholland Drive sparked a conversation about pop music in the ’70s.

“What’s your favorite Jackson Browne song?” Pete asked me.

I cued up “The Road” on Spotify, which we were streaming on the car stereo: “Highways and dance halls, a good song takes you far …” Pete was right. Nothing from Amazon could top winding through Laurel Canyon with him, listening to tunes.

On the morning of my departure, in the pre-dawn darkness, an Uber swept me back to the airport. At my JetBlue gate, a woman diligently rubbed a disinfectant wipe over the armrests of her seat before sitting down. The following week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a stay-at-home order to his city’s residents. And nine days later, Gov. Gina Raimondo did the same here in Rhode Island.

Pete and I had reunited in the nick of time — safely, I hoped.

And now, who knows how long it will be before we have a chance to breathe together again. 

My letters to Ireland come home

Emma_typewriter_rw1-RGBAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, March 15, 2020.

The letters reveal their treasures in different ways, reflecting the evolution of personal correspondence over the last 40 years. Some are on yellow foolscap, handwritten in blue ink. Some are typed, single-space, on translucent onionskin. And some are on white printer paper in a crisp Arial font. But they all have one thing in common: The letters were written by me.

Two years ago, I came into possession of them thanks to my dear friend Grainne, whose family I lived with as a student in Dublin, Ireland in 1980. After I returned home to Rhode Island, she and I began a correspondence that has spanned nearly four decades. Our back-and-forth is mostly digital now, which makes the physical letters I sent to Grainne and her husband, Sean, more precious. I’m grateful she returned them to me.

Grainne’s understanding of what the letters represent came from personal experience. She had recently found missives that she penned to her mother while attending school in Italy as a 16-year-old. “It can be quite an emotional experience,” she said of reading one’s long-ago reflections, “like they are from someone we don’t recognize – the person we were then, young and innocent.”

How true. I unfold one of the typewritten letters, from 1981, and am struck by the brash voice of a 21-year-old wannabe writer: “If I pursue a Hemingway-like career in Ireland, as you suggested, your house will be my first stop.” In another, sent a year and a half later, I report with relief that I had landed a job: “I was hired by an advertising firm as a copywriter. Not a novelist yet, but still a writer of sorts.”

The early letters serve up multiple references to Bruce Springsteen, whose latest album, “The River,” I had obtained during my Dublin stay. I’m reminded that I played the LP, frequently late at night, in Grainne and Sean’s living room, which was right below their bedroom – perhaps a bit too often and too loud. Having left “The River” behind, I suggested that Grainne give the album to her younger brother David or toss it in the fire, which she might find more satisfying.

A handwritten letter from 1986 brings news of romance: “Cupid’s arrow has pierced my heart and now I spend lots of time with Deb.” A laser-printed note from nine years later continues the story: “Well, now there are five of us – Deb, me, Peter, Evan, and … Juliana!”

A Christmas card from 1993, bearing news of my father’s death, makes my eyes sting: “He was only 59. I miss his wit, his Saturday afternoon musings on literature, his calls during basketball games.”

According to a study by the United States Postal Service, letters sent between households plummeted 61% from 2001 through 2016. The report concluded that “correspondence mail is fading as a channel of personal communication,” noting that emerging electronic alternatives provide an “almost perfect substitute.”

Almost perfect, to be sure. These days, email and Facebook Messenger allow Grainne and me to continue our correspondence with speed and ease. But I’m glad such platforms weren’t around 30 or 40 years ago; my letters to Ireland might or might not have survived in the cloud, but it’s unlikely they’d be in my hands now.

Of the 50 or so students that attended the School of Irish Studies during the fall of 1980, I was the one randomly assigned to board with Grainne and Sean’s family. Such luck was not lost on me. Here’s how I closed my first letter back to my kind and loving hosts: “How fortunate I was to have lived with you; how happy I was in your house!”

Today, the letters sit on my desk. The envelopes are like wrapping paper, and the pages within are gifts, filled with revelations.

Thank you, Grainne, for returning parts of my story to me.

 

 

Taking the time to smell the cookies

Emma_typewriter_rw1-RGBAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 16, 2020. Illustration by Emma Walsh.

The last straw was when I couldn’t smell the skunk.

On a warm evening last fall, as a refreshing breeze flowed through the living room while I watched a baseball game on TV, my wife began shutting all the windows. “You don’t smell that?” Deb asked in disbelief, moving briskly to the kitchen.

“Smell what?” I said from the couch.

“The skunk!”

My sense of smell had been receding for a year or so; now, clearly, it had gone totally dormant.

Made aware of the invading odor, I hustled upstairs to close the second-floor windows. I knew from experience how bad the stink could get; this wasn’t the first time we had been skunk-bombed.

The following morning, Deb informed me that the skunk stench had given way to the heavenly waft of her made-from-scratch chocolate chip cookies, which I could only imagine. When our daughter, home for the weekend, shouted approval from her bedroom – “Cookies for breakfast!” – I felt my smell blindness acutely.

“You have to get that looked at,” Deb said, referring to my non-functioning schnoz as she handed me a warm cookie. I bit into the soft gooiness, and the one-two punch of my affliction hit home. Not only had I lost my sense of smell; I couldn’t taste anything, either.

A month later, I saw an otolaryngologist who, after shining light and shooting spray up my nostrils, prescribed oversized antibiotic pills, plus a six-day regimen of prednisone. The kindly physician assured me the intervention would do the trick, restoring at least some sense of smell in less than a week. I was skeptical; I couldn’t remember the last time I had sniffed a trace of anything pleasant or putrid.

To my astonishment, the doctor was right. Two days later, as I sat in my kitchen listening to the coffee maker’s familiar gurgles and sighs, my nose detected the smoky aroma of a favorite French roast blend. It was like reconnecting with a long-lost friend.

“I can smell the coffee,” I told Deb.

“No!” she said. She grabbed a scented candle from the counter. “How about this?”

I held the jar beneath my nose and inhaled deeply. A rush of lavender filled my head.

“Yep!”

It was time to rediscover everyday smells, which now seemed extraordinary – the citrusy sweetness of an orange, the menthol from my aftershave, the comforting fragrance of laundry still warm from the dryer.

Beyond the joys of such here-and-now whiffs, my restored nose was poised to take me back in time, as well. Thanks to human anatomy, smell is the sense most closely related to memory. Incoming scents are processed by the olfactory bulb, which is directly connected to the hippocampus and amygdala, two areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional processing.

That’s why a gust of diesel fumes transports me to Dublin, Ireland, where almost 40 years ago, I rode double-decker buses to school and the pubs. Similarly, the earthy scent of fresh-cut grass places me outside my family’s yellow beach house in Narragansett in the mid-1960s, safe and happy as my dad pushes a whirring reel mower. And the unmistakable bouquet of New York System hot wieners connects me to midnight munch-outs with true-blue high-school friends by the basketball courts at Nelson Street playground in Providence.

With my sense of smell given back to me just in time for a milestone birthday, I am going to try to heed the words of golfing legend Walter Hagen: “You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.”

Flowers, yes. And the ocean air. A newborn’s skin. Sizzling bacon. An old baseball glove. Smoldering wood fires. My house when I return from vacation. Even the odious vapors of a skunk, for that matter.

They all remind me not to take the simple things in life for granted.

Remembering where I came from

Papa's_Manifest_Document

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, January 19, 2020. Above: Passenger manifest from the S.S. Romanic, which lists the author’s great-grandmother, Grazia Di Maio Pantalone, and four of her children.

The document announces its purpose in capital letters, accentuating a tone of authority: “LIST OR MANIFEST OF ALIEN PASSENGERS FOR THE UNITED STATES IMMIGRATIONS OFFICER AT PORT OF ARRIVAL.” A moment is frozen in time: the S.S. Romanic embarking from Naples, Italy for America on June 26, 1907.

So much for my vague “they came over on the boat” summations about my mother’s side of the family. The digitized manifest – Form 500 B from the United States Immigration Service – offers vivid details from a long-ago odyssey. At my computer, I zoom in on the names of Grazia Di Maio and Giuseppina, Vincenzo, Gerardo, and Filomena Pantalone, recorded with a fountain pen’s flourish on lines 17 to 21.

At first, my great-grandmother’s surname confuses me. Why isn’t she a Pantalone, like her children? Then I learn that, by law and to this day, Italian women keep their maiden name and have the option of adding their husband’s surname if they so choose.

Other surnames on the manifest echo those of my grade-school classmates who, like me, were part of the 20th-century Italian diaspora in Rhode Island: Lancellotti and Lauro, Spaziano and Santoro.

The columns to the right of each name add more color, including age – my grandfather, Vincenzo, was 9 – gender, marital status, ability to read or write, and nationality. All passengers were citizens of Italy, with the further distinction of being “Italian South,” as noted under a separate column entitled “Race or People.” A footnote explains that race “is to be determined by the stock from which aliens sprang and the language they speak.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, more Italians immigrated to the United States in 1907 than in any other year – 285,731 men, women, and children made the trek, which usually lasted around 10 days, depending on sea conditions.

To my great-grandmother’s dismay, the number of travelers on the S.S. Romanic was reduced by one when her 8-year-old daughter was not allowed to board due to an eye infection. Close inspection of the manifest reveals a check mark before the name of every passenger – except that of Filomena Pantalone! The child, my eventual great-aunt, remained in Italy with her grandparents and would arrive in America on a later passage. One can only imagine the heartbreak she felt, along with her mother and siblings, after such a gut-wrenching separation.

Another column in the manifest requests “the name and complete address of the nearest relative or friend in country whence alien came.” Francesco Di Maio of Teano is identified as the father of Grazia and grandfather of her children.

The last column indicates each immigrant’s final destination. Some were heading to Newark, New Jersey; some to Lawrence, Massachusetts; and some, like my intrepid great-grandmother and three of her children, to Providence, Rhode Island. Once there, they would reunite with Grazia’s husband, Giovanni (my great-grandfather), and oldest child, Mary, father and daughter having settled on Federal Hill the previous year.

Seven decades later, my brothers and I came to work for a wise and wisecracking entrepreneur on the Hill whose family had also immigrated to Rhode Island from Italy. Tommy stripped these trans-Atlantic voyages of any romance: “Who picks up their entire family and leaves everything behind to bob seasick in the ocean for more than a week and then land in a place where you don’t speak the language and aren’t entirely welcome?” He stabbed his Marlboro into an ashtray for emphasis. “You’d have to be pretty desperate, right?”

Language aside, it was likely the same for the Walsh side of my family – desperation born of the Irish Famine, perhaps? The story of America is written in countless chapters like ours.

I keep a printed copy of the manifest from my Italian forebears’ passage to the United States in a file along with my birth certificate.

It helps me remember where I came from.

An unexpected gift from Dad

img_Christmas001

The author, top right, with his father and brothers on Christmas in the early 1970s. This column appeared in The Providence Sunday Journal, December 15, 2019.

Looking back, South County was likely my parents’ last attempt to start anew.

In 1967, they built a shingled Cape on a quiet road just up from Salt Pond in Narragansett and moved our family of five there from Providence, only to turn us around 12 months later to move back to our old Elmhurst neighborhood. When my brothers and I learned about the return to the city, our sole concern was whether our new puppy could come with us.

“Of course she can,” my mother said.

I was 8 years old – too young to sense the reason for our family’s abrupt about-face. That became clear seven months later when, at the kitchen table after we had listened to a Celtics game on the radio, my father told my older brother, Rob, and me that he was leaving the following day. The words hit me like a thunderclap. As I heard Dad say he had made my mother unhappy for many years, I wanted to put my fingers in my ears.

Divorce rebooted our family in countless ways: Mom switched bedrooms with my younger brother, James, and me; my parents choreographed Saturdays to accommodate my father’s visitation rights. There were ups and downs to negotiate throughout the year, and I felt pangs from the split acutely during December, especially when I asked myself a single, nagging question: Where would Dad go for Christmas?

The answer, at first, was easy: after visiting with my brothers and me at home and exchanging gifts with us, he would spend the rest of the day with his mother.

Unlike the colorful, boisterous homes of the Italian relatives on my mom’s side, Nana Walsh’s house was quiet, neat, Scotch-Irish. A lace slipcover sat just so on the back of her armchair; an illustrated portrait of the mourned John and Robert Kennedy hung on a wall in her pantry. Still, my grandmother had a sweetness about her that was comforting, and I was happy Dad would be with her on December 25.

Eight years later, after Nana’s death, concerns about my father’s Christmas plans revisited me. By then, he had left his job at a top Rhode Island ad agency and hopscotched from apartment to apartment in Providence. He and my mother were rarely in contact, but there had been several phone calls after which she would say, with a combination of concern and dismay, that my father was “feeling good.” Those words troubled me; I was beginning to understand they really meant the opposite.

My father was reclusive, more comfortable with books than banter, but I always felt a connection with him. He encouraged me to read novels and write poems, and he brought me to shows at Trinity Rep. After we attended “The Iceman Cometh” together, Dad marveled at Richard Jenkins’ performance as Hickey, unraveling the complexities of the play’s protagonist for me.

That year, on Christmas morning, my brothers and I visited my father in his latest apartment, on Veazie Street. After exchanging gifts, we asked him what he had planned for the day, knowing that we, as usual, would be celebrating deep into the evening with my mother’s side of the family.

“I’m volunteering at a nursing home on the East Side,” he said. “That will give someone a chance to take the afternoon off.”

His words were as soothing as the warmth of the sun on a winter day.

The night before, during Midnight Mass at St. Pius, I’m sure I had heard the familiar passage from Luke’s gospel where the angels proclaim the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. But, on that Christmas, it was my father’s “goodwill toward men” that meant the most to me.

The best gifts aren’t always found under the tree.

 

Thanksgiving served up “auntie” love

tina+big_gracie_1956

The author’s “aunts” Grace Besachio and Tina Giuliano, fourth and fifth from the left, at a family wedding in 1956.

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 17, 2019.

The hiss of Mom’s hairspray on Thanksgiving morning announced that it was almost time to leave.

“Grab your coats, boys,” she called from the downstairs bathroom where she always put on her make-up. “We’re going to Auntie Big Gracie and Auntie Tina’s.”

Big Gracie and Tina were my mother’s first cousins, which technically made them first cousins once removed to my brothers and me; but we called the fun-loving sisters “aunties” out of respect. As for the “big” in Big Gracie’s name, it was confusing. The only thing outsized about my aunt was her personality – she stood 5 feet 2 inches, tops.

“Why do you call her Big Gracie?” a friend once asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “We just do.”

I would later learn that the “big” was bestowed on Gracie to distinguish her from a younger cousin – one of my mother’s sisters – who had the same name. She, of course, was known as Little Gracie.

As a kid in the late-1960s, it seemed I had loving Italian relatives on every other block in Providence’s Elmhurst neighborhood. Big Gracie and Tina lived side-by-side in a towering three-story duplex across from La Salle Academy. They each had four children, and on holiday mornings, the duplex was a hubbub of hugs and laughter, coffee and cordials, with non-stop spillover between the attached homes.

On this particular Thanksgiving, Big Gracie greeted us at her front door: “Norma and the boys are here!” she called out behind her.

“Hooray!” came back a shout from the rooms beyond.

With her easy smile and loving voice, my aunt ushered my brothers and me through the throng to her dining room table, which was laden with cookies, cakes, and candies. “Help yourselves, guys,” she said.

After a short stay on Big Gracie’s side of the festivities, it was time to visit Tina. In an ordinary house, this would have meant walking across the front lawn to the duplex’s other entrance. But this was no ordinary house. Years earlier, the two sisters had broken through a closet wall to create a secret passageway between their dining rooms, allowing them to visit each other without going outside.

Family lore has it that during one holiday gathering, a would-be suitor of Tina’s youngest daughter, fueled by holiday libations, sat dumbfounded as he watched a procession of people enter what was apparently a closet, only to have an entirely different group come out moments later. The young man resisted every impulse to flee, and he and my cousin eventually wed.

“Look who’s here!” Auntie Tina called out as my mother, brothers, and I emerged from the closet to make our second big entrance of the day under the same roof. “Norma and the boys!”

More laughter. More cookies. More hugs.

At one point, Auntie Tina asked me if she had forgotten to give me a gift for my birthday earlier that year. I was quick to say yes, though I didn’t actually remember.

“John!” my mother said, shooting me a look. Auntie Tina intervened.

“This is between John and me,” she said, shooing my mother away. Minutes later, when Mom wasn’t looking, Auntie Tina pressed a shiny silver dollar into my palm.

Mother-child relationships are a complex stew, one that nourishes, sustains, and sometimes boils over. Aunts are chicken soup. I remember mine with endless affection because, as James Joyce wrote, “love loves to love love.”

The word “aunt” derives from the Latin “amita,” a diminutive of “amma,” which is baby talk for “mother.” The etymology reflects an age-old truth: there’s a lot of our moms in our aunts.

Just the right amount, I think.

Living with life’s ups and downs

Birch_4

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 20, 2019.

My rake tugs at wet leaves beneath the birch tree in my backyard, making me think of the worn volume of Robert Frost poems that my friend Jim gave me after his father died.

“It was in Dad’s bookcase,” he said, handing me the slender paperback. “I want you to have it.”

My friend’s gesture didn’t surprise me; he was bighearted and knew I was a word guy. But the genre of the book caught me off guard. I would have pegged Jim’s dad as a reader of history and how-to guides, not poetry.

Like many students, I first encountered Frost in high school English when I was assigned to read “Birches” freshman year. To my ear, the words were no match for Bruce Springsteen lyrics. Later, as an English major in college, I was consumed by the classical allusions of Eliot and Yeats, and the riddles of Wallace Stevens. I smugly concluded that Frost’s work was inferior because, to my mind, it was less challenging. Jim’s gift gave me my comeuppance.

I began to read “Birches” the way I believe every poet wants his or her verse to be read: repeatedly. During dozens of journeys through the poem’s 59 lines, Frost’s wisdom emerged.

The speaker in the poem recalls climbing his father’s birch trees as a boy. Holding onto the top-most section of the snow-white trunks, he would fling himself outward feet first to bend the trees and rid them of their stiffness: “So was I once myself a swinger of birches / And so I dream of going back to be.”

What prompts this wish? The speaker is weary of considerations: “I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” Who can’t relate to his desire for a reprieve from life’s difficulties?

As a high-school freshman, my appreciation of Frost’s insight into the human condition was slight. Weariness wasn’t part of my 14-year-old world; my biggest concern was who my basketball team was playing next. I may have read Frost’s words, but I didn’t feel them.

Jim lived right across the street from me on River Avenue in Providence. Thanks to his parents’ diligence, their house was the tidiest on the block: shingles and shutters freshly painted, American flag flying from the front porch. I often saw his father in the driveway tending to his green Plymouth Fury. It gleamed in the morning sunlight.

When I visited Jim’s house, his mother was quick to ply me with brownies or a meatball sandwich. His dad was usually sitting in his living room chair, reading. He’d politely look up and say hello before returning to his newspaper or book. His stoic presence commanded my respect.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to suss out why Jim’s father was so reticent. As a Marine during World War II, he was part of a battallion that stormed Iwo Jima. At the end of his life, he told Jim what he had experienced on that island beach – things that were, until then, unspeakable.

In “Birches,” the speaker seeks a tree’s upper branches when “life is too much like a pathless wood.” His escape, however, is temporary; the birch eventually bends under his weight and sets him on the ground again. Frost offers this epiphany: “Earth’s the right place for love / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

I’m thankful for my friend’s gift – for the second chance it provided to discover a poet’s wisdom and the more complete picture it gave me of Jim’s father. Maybe I was wrong. Perhaps, in its own way, the modest Frost paperback really was a how-to book – about living with life’s ups and downs and finding reason, even on our toughest days, to land on the side of love.

It’s something I’m pretty sure Jim’s dad knew long before I did.

 

Lessons at a Monopoly board

Monopoly_v3As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, Sunday, September 15, 2019.

While my brother Rob and his affable friend Steve were majoring in landscape architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, I was studying English at Brown, and my roommate, Mark, was well on his way to becoming an electrical engineer.

The four of us, however, all minored in the same subject: Monopoly.

Several nights a week, around 9:30, Rob and Steve would scoot up College Hill to Sears 117, the cozy dorm room on Wriston Quad where Mark and I lived sophomore year. A Monopoly board sat on a makeshift table in the center of the room, with each player’s signature token poised on the Go square: the racing car (Mark), the cannon (Steve), the top hat (me), and a shiny penny (Rob, appropriately enough, since he was known for his parsimonious ways when haggling over deals).

Our boisterous games usually spilled into the early morning hours, fueled by beer and Seagram’s 7 whiskey. It was a long way from playing Monopoly as a kid – or “Monotony,” as one of my friends called it then. On good nights, Rob, Steve, Mark, and I would get in two games; over a weekend, maybe three or four.

Charles Darrow is cited by many as the inventor of Monopoly, which he sold to Parker Brothers in 1935. However, according to Mary Pilon, author of “The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game,” the origin of the game can be traced back three decades earlier to an artist, writer, feminist, and inventor named Elizabeth Magie.

In 1904, Magie received a patent for her brainchild – The Landlord’s Game – in which players circled a board buying up railroads and properties, and collecting rents. It was the progenitor of Monopoly as we know it today, but with a twist.

Pilon relates that there were two sets of rules for the game – “monopolist” and “anti-monopolist” – and that, as a staunch critic of the railroad and oil titans of the day, Magie wanted to demonstrate the evils of unrestrained greed. In 1906, she told a reporter that through her game, she hoped “men and women will discover that they are poor because Carnegie and Rockefeller, maybe, have more than they know what to do with.”

Interestingly, as Rob and Steve stumbled back down College Hill after our epic late-night Monopoly games at Brown, they likely passed “the Rock,” i.e., the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, named for the philanthropist son of the famed tycoon Magie railed against.

Homemade versions of The Landlord’s Game circulated up and down the East Coast, from the early 1900s right into the Depression. That’s how Darrow discovered the game, which he tweaked and renamed Monopoly. When Parker Brothers learned that Darrow wasn’t the game’s sole inventor, it paid Magie $500 for her patent. The rest is history.

Monopoly sold 278,000 copies in its first year; more than 275 million sets have been purchased since. And despite Magie’s hope that the game would alert players to the wrongs of accruing vast amounts of wealth at the expense of others, quite the opposite occurred. Once, on a family vacation, my 12-year-old daughter placed a hotel on Boardwalk – Monopoly’s most punishing rental – and then exploded with glee when I landed there to give her the game.

While Monopoly may be timeless, some of its particulars have evolved. Take the game’s beloved mustachioed mascot, originally known as Rich Uncle Pennybags. He still preens on one of the Community Chest cards, having won second prize (and $10) in a beauty contest. However, after an unfortunate name-change in 1999, Uncle Pennybags is now blandly known as Mr. Monopoly.

Not by Rob and me, though. When we formed a company to buy a building for our ad agency, the corporation’s name seemed pre-ordained, invoked from the Monopoly marathons of our college days.

Pennybags Realty closed the deal.

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