More than a right, voting is my responsibility

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 18, 2020.

The first presidential campaign that I remember dates back to 1968. As a second grader, I didn’t have a clue about politics, but I did sense that my father loved Bobby Kennedy.

The New York senator’s late run for the Democratic nomination had caused a stir. In cities across the country, he attracted crowds like a rock star, and I thought Roy Lichtenstein’s pop-art portrait of him on the cover of Time magazine, which I saw on Dad’s night table, was cool.

But on a Wednesday morning in early June, when I turned on the TV before getting ready for school, I knew something was wrong. Instead of the familiar opening to “Gilligan’s Island” – “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip” – a black-and-white video of a woman in tears holding a handkerchief to her mouth flickered on the screen. The somber voice of a newscaster told me why.

I ran upstairs to my parents’ bedroom.

“Dad,” I said in the open doorway. “Bobby Kennedy was shot.” 

After I repeated myself, a bit louder the second time, my father sprang from his side of the bed. “No, he wasn’t!” he said in a voice I had never heard before. Rushing past me in only his boxers, he bolted down the carpeted stairs.

Years after the assassination, I would come to learn why Dad loved Bobby Kennedy. There were the shared Irish Catholic roots, of course, and the causes RFK championed, including his embrace of the civil rights movement. As assistant dean of student affairs at Brown University, my father had spent a month in the South protesting with the Freedom Riders.

But of equal importance to Dad was Kennedy’s eloquence. Of the many notes my father wrote to me, more than one included RFK’s famous paraphrase of a line from a George Bernard Shaw play: “Some people see things as they are and say, why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?”

After Kennedy’s death, Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination, only to be defeated in November by Richard Nixon. But my most vivid memory from 1968 is of that fateful morning in June. I hear my father’s anguished voice and see his shirtless body and, most of all, sense the vulnerability that comes with caring deeply for something or someone you believe in. 

Dad would have given five stars to “Surviving Autocracy,” Masha Gessen’s sobering account of the Trump presidency. The book closes with lines from a Langston Hughes poem, which imagines not an America that once was, but one that can be: 

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

I can hear my father: “Now that would be great!”

A friend of mine, Guatemalan by birth, recently became a US citizen. When I spoke with her earlier this month, we touched on familiar topics – life during the pandemic, her children’s return to school, the unhinged presidential debate.

“We’ll see what happens on Election Day,” Lilian said. When she told me she would be voting for the first time, her voice conveyed excitement and gratitude for a civic right that I have always taken for granted.

Were my father here, I suspect he’d share another Kennedy quote with me, one that is pertinent in an America where only 58% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential election: “Elections remind us not only of the rights but the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.”

Never has living up to those responsibilities seemed so important.

Love story with an unexpected ending

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, September 20, 2020.

My mother brought up the plot again during one of my Saturday afternoon visits to her apartment.

She wasn’t talking about the most recent episode of “Mad Men,” her favorite TV series at the time. No, at age 75, she was thinking about a neatly defined chunk of earth, perhaps at St. Francis Cemetery on Smithfield Avenue in Pawtucket or St. Ann’s in Cranston. A burial plot.

“We have to figure out where I’m going,” she said.

“No place soon,” I replied, looking for a laugh. Mom stayed on point.

“We’ve got to talk about these things,” she said with a resigned smile.

Her own parents were buried alongside each other at St. Francis. We had visited their gravesite recently. But when it came to Mom’s final resting place, she would be on her own. She and my father had split when I was 9 years old.

The reasons for their breakup were a mystery to me then. In the midst of the pre-divorce separation, I sometimes whispered to the darkness at bedtime, praying for a reconciliation.

“I’ll always love your father,” my mother told me years later. “I just couldn’t live with him.” Dad echoed her words, at least the eternal part.

I didn’t realize it when they divorced, but my parents’ kindness in speaking of one another, absent other feelings, was a gift to my brothers and me. It also revealed how complicated relationships can be.

Unlike my mother, Dad had no concerns about his burial. “Get a Druid to send me off,” he once told me, flashing his wicked sense of humor as he smoked a Winston in my living room. When he died suddenly two years later, my brothers, mother and I hastily made arrangements with Boyle Funeral Home in Providence.

There was no funeral Mass — Dad hadn’t gone to church in decades — but we did request that a Catholic priest attend the wake to say a prayer. The one who showed up on that crisp October morning had a shock of white hair, thick glasses, and an Irish brogue. When he stood by my father’s ashes to address the gathering, he asked that we all bow our heads and remember “our beloved Ronald.” Problem was, my father’s name was Donald.

Head still bowed, I snuck a look at my brothers. Their eyebrows were raised like mine. The priest’s faux pas may have left other families aghast, but for ours, it was as if Dad had returned in that moment to reaffirm a maxim he lived by: life is absurd. The stammering clergyman corrected my father’s name at its next mention; I’m pretty sure Dad would have been disappointed.

We chose Swan Point Cemetery for his burial. My mother insisted on paying for the plot, while my brothers and I covered the cost of the bronze grave marker. “Will there be a second name on the plaque?” the gentleman at Swan Point politely inquired. No, we said. Dad was flying solo, as usual.

Two decades later, as my brothers and I went through Mom’s belongings after her passing, we discovered an unmarked envelope tucked away in an embroidered green purse. It was a letter from my father, written five years after he had moved out of our house. Dad’s wit and sarcasm are nowhere to be found in the two typewritten pages. He rues not having met expectations, “even my own.” And the last sentence made my eyes well up: “The only one I ever truly loved was you.”

My mother eventually told us her final wishes. When I visited Swan Point months after her death, a blanket of damp leaves obscured the bronze marker at the gravesite that once memorialized Dad alone. Kneeling down, I brushed the fallen foliage off the plaque, which now had two names instead of one.

My mother and father, together again.

Going to the beach, with new appreciation

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, August 16, 2020. Above, Deb Walsh at Scarborough Beach, August 1, 2020.

I open the car trunk one last time. Blanket? Check. Chairs? Check. Fleece and jacket? Check and check. It’s early Saturday evening, and my wife and I are engaged in a quintessential Rhode Island ritual. We’re going to the beach.

Our inaugural trek together 35 years ago constituted a first date of sorts, at least in my mind. We were in the “just friends” stage of our relationship, and I had hopes of changing that. Despite the time of year – February – a walk along the gentle bend of Narragansett Town Beach seemed like the perfect way to woo a pretty 24-year-old girl from Connecticut.

“My family goes to Cape Cod in the summer,” Deb said, as the two of us leaned into a brisk wind, our shadows made long by the low winter sun. When I told her I had never been to the Cape, she couldn’t believe it.

Like many native Rhode Islanders, I had found no reason to look beyond the state’s gorgeous local beaches. As a boy, I rode the waves at Scarborough with my brothers and cousins. And as a teen, I sat on the sea wall in Narragansett with my friends.

By then, Rhode Island had been officially dubbed “the Ocean State,” a deft bit of marketing since humans are ineluctably drawn to the sea.

At a dinner for America’s Cup crews at The Breakers in Newport in 1962, President John F. Kennedy said, “It is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean.”

The Persian poet Rumi put it more succinctly: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.”

Six months after Deb and I took our chilly shoreline walk in Narragansett, I got my Cape Cod baptism when we spent a weekend in Provincetown. (My wooing had worked.) The coarse sand at Herring Cove Beach made me long for the softness underfoot that Rhode Island beaches provide, and there wasn’t much surf, but the views across the bay on a cloudless Saturday were spectacular. I was broadening my horizons.

It continued after Deb and I started our family. Summer vacations took us to the ocean, three children in tow. To Scarborough, of course, but also to Mansion Beach and the Mohegan Bluffs on Block Island; to Bass River Beach on the Cape with Deb’s parents; and to State Beach and South Beach on Martha’s Vineyard.

And it continues to this day. When we visit our oldest son in California, we always drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to Paradise Cove, Point Dume, or Zuma Beach in Malibu. The coastline out west is a striking confluence of mountains and sea, with wide ribbons of sand along the water’s edge.

With the sun already low in the sky, Deb and I arrive at Scarborough Beach South. It’s almost 7:00 p.m., so we pull right in and park in the grass lot. We grab our stuff from the trunk of the car and walk down a path walled by beach roses. The ocean comes into view at the end of the path, and we find a spot on the cool fine sand.

Five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, I have a new appreciation for familiar things: the salty tang that beach breezes bring; the curl of a cresting wave; the ocean’s eternal song. I am grateful that, as a Rhode Islander, such beauty is never more than a short drive away.

A full moon rises in the pink-blue sky as Deb and I commune with the sea and the sand once again.

 

Masks have never been so revealing

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, July 19, 2020. Illustration by Emma Walsh.

Our family dog, Rhody, waits by the front door, nose to the mail slot.

“Ready to roll?” I ask, as I approach with her leash. She’s a Lab mix, and her black tail wags wildly. This is our routine, before I leave for work and when I get home. COVID-19 has turned much of our world upside-down, but walks through the neighborhood with my dog survive.

After harnessing Rhody, I pull my gray cloth face mask over my head and tuck its pleated cotton beneath my chin – a new part of our routine, thanks to the pandemic.

Our usual route takes us up Peirce Street to the towering granite steeple of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where we turn left and proceed past the church’s gated graveyard. Beyond, the manicured green expanse of a Little League field beckons with innocence.

On this day, with youth baseball on hold because of the virus, the empty diamond is not a field of dreams, but one of memories. Mine take me back to my days as a 12-year-old catcher, when I wore a mask of a different sort.

Back then, as I bounded out the door for games, my mother’s voice filled my ears: “Watch out for your teeth!” She had nothing to worry about, at least not when I was crouched behind home plate. Foul tips may have chipped red paint off my metal catcher’s mask, but my crooked pearly whites, clad in braces, were protected within.

Rhody and I circle the bases, meander in the outfield, and then head home. As we turn right at the St. Luke’s steeple, I see a fellow walker approaching. I pull my mask up over my nose and mouth; she secures hers, ear to ear. Courtesies extended, we pass each other with a wordless wave.

Later, when I visit Thorpe’s Liquor Store, a different kind of encounter ensues. After grabbing a six-pack of beer, I approach the cashier. A man about my age is at the counter ahead of me. I leave a good distance between us, as is the custom in these pandemic days. The guy’s mask hangs loosely on his face.

“Give me a quick-pick,” he says to the cashier, pointing to the lottery ticket terminal that is on the counter to my right. And then I see the guy sizing me up.

“I don’t bite,” he says. It takes me a moment to register that he is talking to me. I chuckle beneath my mask and say nothing.

“Jesus, they said to stay six feet apart, not twelve,” the guy says, jousting more than joking. He motions to the staggered tape markings on the floor. I look down and realize he’s right; I had unknowingly stopped two markings away from him, not one.

As the lottery terminal spits out the guy’s ticket, I shuffle a step or two forward – a half-hearted conciliation, I guess. Thinking back, I wish I hadn’t.

And that’s where we are in America today. Confrontation has replaced conversation; divisiveness derails dialogue. And wearing a mask – or not – is perceived as a political statement.

In characterizing the world’s battle with COVID-19, one physician has said, “It’s humans against microbes, not humans against humans.” Try telling that to the guy in Thorpe’s or the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In his inaugural address, another president famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” With those words, John F. Kennedy called on every American to do what is needed to advance the common good. Today, that means wearing a face covering when social distancing is not possible.

Unlike the mask I had as a Little League catcher, the one I wear now primarily protects others.

For most of us, there may be no higher form of public service.

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.

%d bloggers like this: