Birthday snapshots through the ages

john_7th_bday

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

img_6079

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

Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 7.46.15 AM

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.

 

 

Answers on Dad’s side are fleeting

Emma_typewriter_rw1-RGBAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 21, 2018.

The note from my uncle, the last one on my father’s side of the family, baffled me: “I have no information to share about my brothers’ military service or mine. I’m sorry.”

I had written to him on behalf of my younger brother, James, who served in the U. S. Coast Guard after graduating from high school. We knew that three of our uncles had fought in World War II, that one had gone to Korea, and that our father had been an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. Beyond that, details were scant.

“Nothing but respect for what Dad’s family gave this country,” James had texted me last Memorial Day from Florida, where he moved after completing his Coast Guard duty. “I would love to know more.” That prompted my letter.

My younger brother’s relationship with our Walsh-side relatives, including our father, ended soon after our parents divorced. While my older brother, Rob, and I were able to forge connections, however rocky, with Dad as adults, James became estranged from him. All that remained across their chasm of separation and silence was a common thread of military service.

The next time I spoke with James, I told him about our uncle’s response to my request.

“How can he have nothing to share?” I asked with an annoyance I thought my brother would echo. But he was understanding.

“Without even knowing what his reasons are, I accept them,” James said.

For more than three decades after my uncle left Rhode Island, he and I exchanged letters and cards, including a Mass card that arrived several days after my father died. I tucked these correspondences away in the top drawer of my dresser; I knew they represented my last line of communication with Dad’s family. However, after sending James a photograph of the latest note, I tossed it in the trash.

Six months later, a letter arrived from a close friend of my uncle’s whom I knew of but had never met. I feared the worst, but Jeremy simply wanted to let me know that my uncle had moved to a rehab facility where “he has enjoyed himself with new friends and with the right people taking care of him.”

My brother Rob and I made the three-hour trek to see our uncle on a Saturday afternoon. Jeremy had mentioned in his letter that there were memory issues, so I brought along my parents’ wedding album. After gathering in the facility’s library, we opened the album to a black-and-white photo of my handsome father and his four older brothers, all beaming in tuxedos at the Pawtucket Country Club in 1956.

My uncle, gray and bearded now, but with the same sparkling eyes, pointed to the faces.

“There’s Donald,” he said. “And Dick and Vin. And that’s Jimmy and me.”

He looked up brightly. “We grew up on Grand View Street,” he said. “The North Burial Ground was down the hill, across North Main Street. My father used to point at that graveyard and say to us, ‘If you act up, we’ll put you on the sled and you’ll end up there.’”

My uncle let loose a familiar, hearty laugh I knew from long ago. Rob and I laughed, too, just as we would every time we heard the story that afternoon. The memory issues were real. “Five boys under one roof,” my uncle said, shaking his head and smiling.

The ride home was bittersweet. Rob and I were grateful for our uncle’s good spirits despite the cloud of his dementia. But then I remembered my annoyance at his note and felt a pang of shame. He had even apologized.

The next day, I called my brother James. I finally had some answers for him, though not the ones he had been seeking.

 

No place like home in a hurricane

IMG_5823

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, September 16, 2018.

My mother didn’t watch much television back in the early 1970s; Dad, meanwhile, on his Saturday visits after my parents’ divorce, often called our 19-inch TV “the idiot box.” So that usually left my brothers and me in charge.

We tuned in re-runs of “Gilligan’s Island,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” and “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” and loved it whenever our Zenith set’s tin-foil-wrapped antenna delivered a Red Sox or Celtics game.

However, on a single Sunday evening each year, Mom ruled the channel dial. She would sit down in the den with a cup of tea just as the NBC announcer informed us that the “first 22 minutes of this program will be shown in black-and-white.” At our house, the subsequent 90 minutes were in black-and-white, too – a color television wouldn’t arrive until I was in junior high. But that didn’t matter. Even with a monochromatic Munchkinland, “The Wizard of Oz” was a marvel.

In the pre-cable TV era, the annual broadcast of the film was a “television event.” The first nine showings each garnered at least 49 percent of the national viewing audience; one network executive reportedly said, “That picture is better than a gushing oil well.”

Judy Garland, who plays the movie’s lead character, Dorothy Gale, was my mother’s favorite actress and entertainer. At first, I thought that was why Mom loved the film so much. As I got older, though, my understanding of her connection to “The Wizard of Oz” deepened.

Dorothy’s epiphany at the end of the movie aligned with my mother’s don’t-go-chasing-rainbows sensibilities, which visited themselves on my brothers and me often. “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard,” Dorothy tells Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. “Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

And then, many years later, I discovered another reason why “The Wizard of Oz” resonated so powerfully with Mom. After turning 70, she started writing sketches and poems – she called them memory pieces – and one of them, titled “Running Home,” provided me with new insights.

Rhode Island’s most violent hurricane in three centuries hit on September 21, 1938, when Mom was in first grade; she and her classmates were dismissed from Nelson Street School shortly before the worst of the storm struck. The hurricane left several hundred dead in its wake, many of them in Rhode Island.

According to state government archives, Block Island was “almost completely underwater.” Off the southwestern tip of Jamestown, Walter Eberle, assistant keeper of Whale Rock Lighthouse, lost his life when ferocious winds and waves decimated the 73-foot metal structure. Eberle had six children; his body was never found. In Providence, as the storm surged northward through Narragansett Bay, more than 13 feet of water flooded downtown, drowning several motorists in their marooned cars.

Prior to the surge, about two miles northwest of the State House, my mother raced up Smith Street. Years later, in her poem, she noted the gravel underfoot that “jumped to life, stinging the back of my legs.” She remembered “bare tree branches reaching out in fright.” She recalled having “only 10 houses to go. Run faster!”

No wonder Mom identified with Dorothy. At the beginning of “The Wizard of Oz,” the Kansas farm girl flees ahead of a tornado, only to find herself (and her dog, Toto) locked out of her aunt and uncle’s storm cellar.

My mother was more fortunate. Her father had built a sturdy brick home for his family off Smith Street on Modena Avenue, into which one terrified first-grader dashed during the Great Hurricane of 1938.

Looking back, Mom wrote: “It would be a year before ‘The Wizard of Oz’ made its debut, but as I burst through my back door, I already knew: there was no place like home – in a hurricane!”

 

 

 

Fenway game was a grand slam

Big_PapiAs published in The Providence Journal, August 19, 2018. Photo: John Walsh

With Mookie Betts, Chris Sale, and J.D. Martinez playing for the Red Sox these days, highlight-reel moments abound, all of which got me thinking about my top Fenway Park memories.

My first pilgrimage to the baseball shrine, for a Yankees game with my father on the last day of the 1968 season, was memorable for what didn’t happen. The Pinstripes’ Mickey Mantle, my boyhood hero, never stepped up to the plate. Unbeknownst to anyone, Mantle had played the final game of his career the day before. In five months, he would retire.

My next Fenway trek, with Dad and my brother Rob on September 2, 1971, was more satisfying. I had jilted the Mick-less Yankees in favor of Boston’s nine by then and cheered when Red Sox pitcher Sonny Siebert blasted two home runs in a contest against the Orioles. Not only did the right-hander drive in all the Sox runs; he also tossed a three-hit shutout.

Thirty years later to the day, on September 2, 2001, I was at Fenway again, this time with my college roommate, his two sons, and 33,730 other disbelieving spectators. Yankees ace Mike Mussina was one strike away from a perfect game – 27 batters up, 27 batters down. It would be only the 17th time in nearly a century that a major leaguer had attained pitching nirvana.

In the bleachers, the thought of being an eyewitness to such a rare sports feat had temporarily quelled the usual non-stop, beer-fueled jousting between Sox and Yankee fans. It seemed everyone, Fenway Faithful included, wanted to see Mussina throw one more strike.

Enter Carl Everett. With flashbulbs popping on a one-and-two count, Mussina fired a fastball high and outside – and the Sox pinch hitter stroked a clean single to left field. Leave it to the irascible Everett to deny Mussina, and the rest of us, a moment of baseball transcendence. The Yankee hurler retired the next batter, Trot Nixon, for a bittersweet win.

My most memorable trip to Fenway is one that I can’t entirely recall. My wife and I took our sons to see the Sox play the Blue Jays on July 3, 2005. In the grandstand above the first base line, in section 13, I sat next to a twentysomething woman decked out head to toe in David Ortiz gear. I heard someone call her Whitney; she clearly was a rabid fan.

In the bottom of the first, as Big Papi strode to the plate with two runners on, Whitney sprang to her feet, pleading for a hit. Ortiz obliged with a run-scoring single, and Fenway exploded. I rose to join the pandemonium just as the already-standing Whitney jerked her arm back with a triumphant fist pump. Her elbow clocked me square in the left temple, jolting me back into my seat.

Things get fuzzy after that. I remember that Whitney – which I have since realized rhymes with “hit me” – seemed unaware of her role as Muhammad Ali to my Sonny Liston. And then I forgot about the blow to my noggin – until I went to wash my hair in the shower the next morning. Ouch!

My doctor sent me for a CAT scan, which revealed a brain bruise. I was told the bruise would “resolve,” but that a second scan was needed to ensure the contusion was shrinking.

The following day, a radiologist greeted me with an impish smile.

“You were the talk of our staff meeting,” he said, leading me to the x-ray room.

“Really?” I said, my voice betraying concern.

“You’re the guy who got leveled by a girl, right?” he said. His cackle told me he wasn’t too worried about my condition; and my brain bruise did, indeed, resolve.

The box score from that Sox-Jays game highlights David Ortiz’s first-inning single, but it’s Whitney’s grand slam up in section 13 that I remember most.

 

A winning day on a rainy island

Yahtzee

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, July 15, 2018.

I awoke to the sound of rain pattering insistently at the bedroom window. “Might not be a beach day,” I thought.

My wife, Deb, and I were renting a house on Block Island for the week. It had become an annual tradition – taking our three children to this serene spot off the Rhode Island coast for a summer vacation. The kids called it Pork Chop Island because of its shape, so recognizable on souvenir T-shirts and hats. Deb and I called it heaven because it let us escape the hectic pace of everyday life at home, at least temporarily.

On sunny mornings, we’d ride boogie boards in the pristine surf at Mansion Beach. In the afternoon, the kids would set up a lemonade stand at the foot of our driveway on Spring Street to hawk cold drinks to people making the uphill trek to the Mohegan Bluffs. On clear nights, the five of us would gaze across Block Island Sound to Point Judith Light, 13 miles, and a universe, away.

From the look of things outside on this morning, however, such activities might have to wait until the following day.

We headed into town to have breakfast and kill time. At Aldo’s Bakery, Peter, our oldest, asked if he could have a mint chip ice cream cone instead of pancakes.

“Why not?” Deb said, loosening the parental reins. “It’s vacation.”

At Blocks of Fudge on Chapel Street, our 10-year-old, Evan, asked if he could get a bag of Skittles. It was 9:30.

“Why not?” I said, following Deb’s lead. “It’s vacation.”

After ducking into the arcade at the National Hotel during a downpour, Deb and I tried to coax the kids into going to the Island Free Library, which was right around the corner.

“Can we go back to the fudge store?” our daughter and youngest child, Juliana, asked.

We climbed into our minivan and drove at island speed, which is not a lot faster than walking, through the rain to our rental house. It was 10:15. What would we do all day?

Play cards and board games, of course. War, Go Fish, Pictionary, Blokus, Monopoly – they were as much a part of our summer vacations as sunburned shoulders and sandy towels, especially when the weather was crummy.

On this morning, we settled on Yahtzee, a perennial family favorite. The game incorporates elements of poker as players roll five dice on each turn to make various scoring combinations. A five-of-a-kind scores 50 points, the highest of any category.

On her first roll, Julie defied the 1-in-1,296 odds of having all five dice come up the same.

“Yahtzee!” she yelled, rising from the table with her hands over her head.

The rest of us had seen this before. Julie was a Yahtzee wunderkind, having once posted a score of 508. The chance of scoring 500 or more points in a single game is about 1 percent. I was generally happy to reach half that.

In a later game on this rainy day, after rolling two sixes and needing just one more to win, I shook the dice and watched a pair of threes and a five tumble onto the table. A curse flew from my lips.

“Dad!” my daughter said with feigned shock.

“It’s vacation!” I said with a grin as I scooped up the dice for yet another game. The kids erupted with glee.

Fast-forward 15 years to Father’s Day 2018. With Evan and Julie home to celebrate, Deb announced that she was “feeling a board game.” Sure enough, after lunch, the old, scuffed Yahtzee box came out. We put down our phones, picked up the dice, and played deep into the evening, just as we had done so often “on the Block.”

As usual, Julie seemed to notch the top score in most games, but that night, laughing and breathing together, we were all winners.

No end in sight to my fatherly watch

IMG_5434

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 17, 2018. Photo: Juliana Walsh

My wife’s request this Mother’s Day caught me by surprise.

“Let’s pull up the carpet in the hallway,” Deb said as I set a cup of coffee on her night table.

Our plan had been to drive to the beach to take a walk and grab some lunch. But with the air outside thick and damp with fog, Deb now thought a day of grunt work would be the perfect gift.

I understood why.

Ours is an old house, with projects beckoning around every corner, and removing the carpet in our entrance hallway had been at the top of Deb’s list. Despite our best efforts with a worn-out Dyson vacuum and a spot cleaner called the Little Green Machine, the tan, medium-pile rug bore marks left by years of family life, which included three kids, two dogs, and all the spills and tracked-in dirt that came with them. It was time for the carpet to go.

With mini-crowbars and pliers in hand, we went to work shedding the hallway of its nubby skin. The oak flooring beneath the rug gleamed. Extracting a staple from the wood with the zeal of a first-year dental student, I recalled that we had refinished the floors and stairs before moving in.

“And then we covered them up,” Deb said, with a laugh.

It was true. The sight one day of our 2-year-old teetering in socks at the top of the winding staircase, with its polished steps, made us panic. A rug would provide traction underfoot and, if he did tumble down, cushion his fall. At least that was our logic.

A week later, the carpet installer arrived, and the new rug provided us with peace of mind, however illusory.

On Mother’s Day morning, I dragged the first rolled-up carpet scrap to the edge of the sidewalk in front of our house as a foghorn sounded in the distance. My neighbor, retrieving groceries from his car, asked me what our plans for the day were.

“You’re looking at it,” I said, pointing at the shaggy tube.

“The gift that keeps on giving,” he said.

Inside, as Deb and I continued to peel away carpet, I remembered that we had put up a cedar fence in our backyard around the same time as when the rug had gone in. With our house less than a block from busy Main Street in East Greenwich, we wanted to make sure our kids, all under age 5, didn’t wander off. The once-proud fence stood for almost a decade and a half before it began succumbing to wood rot and hurricane winds.

By that time, our children were in their teens, and I finally admitted to myself that there was only so much we could do to shield them from the bumps and bruises that life inevitably serves up – the high school romance that ends abruptly; the last-second shot that clangs off the rim; the passing of a beloved grandmother. I might be able to soften those hurts, but I couldn’t make them go away. They were part of growing up.

By late afternoon, with the carpet removal complete, it occurred to me that none of our children had ever fallen down the stairs. Was the rug our salvation? Or were we simply lucky?

It didn’t matter. The slippery stairs were just one of thousands of concerns that came with parenting. And there’s no end in sight. While our kids have navigated their way into adulthood, our worries, unlike the rug, remain.

That night, the foghorn continued its serenade. As a boy at my family’s beach cottage in Narragansett, the deep, steady tones of the Point Judith Lighthouse horn were as soothing as a lullaby. But now, as I approach 30 years of fatherhood, the tenor notes of Warwick Light’s smaller horn strike me with their vigilance – cautionary, protective, distant, and yet so invisibly present.

 

Funny words are par for the course

funny_words

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 20, 2018.

I was watching golf on television when my daughter, age 8 or 9 at the time, asked me what “par” meant.

I understood her bafflement. As a family, we had only played at courses with windmills and waterfalls; shooting par wasn’t our concern at Mulligan’s Island or Adventureland.

So, on this day, I told Julie the term denotes the number of strokes a good golfer is expected to use to sink his or her ball on any given hole. And, being a word nerd, I wondered where par came from. A quick search at the then-new etymonline.com revealed that it’s Latin for “equal,” which makes sense. When you par a hole, you equal the expected score.

Par isn’t the only peculiar term you’ll hear on PGA broadcasts. In the early 20th century, “bird” was slang for anything excellent. Hence, holing your ball at one stroke below par became known as a birdie. Keeping with the avian theme, an eagle means you beat par by two strokes, and shooting three under par on a hole is known as an albatross. The rare seabird is an apt symbol for a rare score.

Tennis serves up its share of quirky words. “Love” is the one that stands out, but it has nothing to do with romance. Rather, it means zero, as in “Rafael Nadal is up 40-love.” A popular, but unproven, etymological theory is that love is an Anglicization of the French word “l’oeuf,” which means egg, owing to an egg’s resemblance to a zero.

Baseball is in a league of its own when it comes to lingo. The uncovered seats out beyond the outfield are called bleachers because, in the late 1800s, these seats were simple board benches that got bleached by the sun. Spectators there hope to catch a ball when a batter “goes yard” and hits a home run.

If a left-hander is on the mound, we might refer to him as a “southpaw.” I like the etymological explanation that says the word was coined because baseball diamonds typically oriented home plate to the west. That meant a pitcher’s left hand (or paw) would be to the south when facing a batter. However, the term is found in earlier references to boxing, where the ring’s orientation has no relation to the sun (and a pugilist’s haymaker may leave his foe seeing stars).

Former Red Sox southpaw Bill Lee sometimes threw an Eephus pitch, which is a low-speed, high-arching junk toss designed to catch hitters off guard. The irreverent hurler’s version of the pitch, dubbed a “Leephus,” didn’t fool Tony Perez in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series. The Cincinnati slugger smashed a dinger over the Green Monster, and the Reds went on to win the game and the championship. For years afterward, Lee quipped that the ball “is still rising.”

When benches clear for a baseball brawl, it may be called a “donnybrook,” a word that derives from a so-named suburb of Dublin, Ireland. In the 19th century, an annual fair in the town was known for such rowdiness; it was said that those gathered would sooner fight than eat. Bill Lee found himself in the middle of a donnybrook with the Yankees in 1976 and paid the price: torn ligaments in his pitching arm.

Umpires had tried, futilely, to intercede in the Sox-Yankees rhubarb (a synonym of donnybrook, with “barbarism” in its linguistic DNA). The word “umpire” is related to the Old French “nompere,” which means without peer or equal. The men in blue are certainly not the equals of the players; they always have the last say.

But try telling that to the fans (likely short for “fanatics”) in the bleachers. When they disagree with an umpire, they generally have another word for him: “bum” or “idiot,” if not something a lot more colorful.

On a sunny day at Fenway, that’s just par for the course.

 

%d bloggers like this: