Reflections on stone walls and chimneys

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, July 18, 2021. Above, a stone wall on Third Beach Road in Middletown.

I double-knot my sneakers and start down Third Beach Road in Middletown, where my family has reunited for a vacation. Peabody’s Beach is less than a mile away.

The road is flanked on both sides by stone walls: some tidy, some crumbling, most wearing at least a few green splotches of lichen and moss. At one point, dozens of orange tiger lilies preen in the sun, their petals a bold antidote to the dull gray stones behind them.

A Robert Frost line echoes from a long-ago English class: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” Surveying the beautiful and intricate facades on either side of me, I disagree. They are magnificent.

Most of the stone walls in our region were built between 1810 and 1840, when New Englanders were primarily farmers. If you include New York, as many as 250,000 miles of these partitions rose up, amassing more rocks than it took to build the great pyramids of Egypt. The majority of the stones were “two-handers,” which meant one person could lift and carry them. 

The walls are an enduring testament to human persistence, born of necessity. As farmers cleared New England forests to make their land arable, they found rocks everywhere, left behind by glaciers. The farmers pulled the plow-stopping stones from the ground and deposited them along the edges of their fields, an unlikely combination of brute strength and artistry. 

But with each spring thaw, more stones emerged. “People in the Northeast thought that the devil had put them there,” writes stone wall expert Susan Allport. 

On my walk to the beach, near Indian Avenue, I see a stone wall trapped in the clutches of spiraling vines. By the mid-19th century, New Englanders began to abandon their fields as the fertile, rock-free midwestern plains emerged as the nation’s breadbasket. In the Northeast, agrarian subsistence gave way to jobs fueled by the American Industrial Revolution. Forests and vegetation returned to previously cleared tracts of land, ensnarling the walls farmers had painstakingly built and toppling them back to the ground.

Still, many walls were maintained for their sturdy demarcation of property lines, which Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” memorializes. In springtime, two neighbors walk the stone divide between their fields to determine what repairs are needed. Of the boulders they lift and reposition, one neighbor says, “We wear our fingers rough with handling them.”

When my wife and I bought Rose Cottage, the stone walls out back were piled not to clear a field, but rather to retain the yard’s sloping earth. We did install a barrier around the perimeter of our yard: a five-foot cedar fence to keep our children, all under 5 years old, from roaming the half block to Main Street. The wooden enclosure stood for almost two decades, its blond planks turning gray before succumbing section by section to winds and weather. Today, the last leftover boards provide fuel for our fire pit. Meanwhile, the stone walls continue to keep our tiered yard in check.

As Third Beach Road bends to the coastline, another stone artifact – a chimney – towers above the path to Peabody’s Beach. Like the walls along the road, the stack has stories to tell, I suspect, but they are indecipherable to me now. Passing by, I only know this: The house the chimney once served is long gone.

The words of another poet, Nikki Giovanni, come to mind: “Life is a marvelous, transitory adventure.”

I walk down the sandy path until it gives way to a wide strand. Beach umbrellas flutter, children laugh, a lone cloud floats in a perfect blue sky. I drink in the moment, as life-affirming and fleeting as an ocean wave.

Beach cottages built on a handshake

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 20, 2021. Above, my mother and I at our yellow beach house in Narragansett circa 1962.

My brother Rob recently purchased a home in the Nausauket section of Warwick. After spending months in Rhode Island’s current real estate jungle, he has wild tales to tell.

“I got outbid by $100,000 on a two-bedroom house near Pawtuxet Village,” he said with a laugh. “And they were paying cash.”

“Long way from when Mom and Dad built the beach houses,” I said.

In 1962, two cottages sprouted up in Narragansett on a gentle curve of a winding road that could have been named by a poet: Green Kinyon Driftway. My father had just turned 28, my mother 29.

“Pretty sure they paid $6,000 for the yellow house and $5,000 for the gray one,” Rob said, wistfully.

Mr. Windsor, who lived at the foot of the road in a weathered Cape overlooking Salt Pond, built the houses. They were both under 700 square feet. Before the first lumber delivery from Wakefield Branch arrived, my father asked the white-haired, bespectacled carpenter about signing a contract. More than once, Dad recounted the older man’s response.

“All I need is a handshake,” Mr. Windsor said.

As kids, Rob and I played Wiffle ball in the field between the cottages, which our parents rented out for most of the year. But we stopped our game whenever we heard Mr. Windsor’s green Ford pickup truck rattling down the road. As he drove by, our grandfatherly neighbor would lift his hands from the steering wheel and turn our way, sticking his thumbs in his ears, flapping his hands, and making funny faces. Rob and I howled and waved back.

When we weren’t playing Wiffle ball, we explored the woods that stood beyond the two cottages. Rob would flip over a rock, grab a squiggling snake right behind the head, and thrust it in my face. “Aren’t they cool?” he’d say as I recoiled.

And then there’s the time Rob dropped a hammer from the upper reaches of a maple tree, where he was building a fort. I stood at the foot of the tree, daydreaming. The plummeting mallet conked me on the head, laying me belly to the dirt like one of those snakes my brother loved.

Now Rob was on the ground and in my ear: “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry!” he pleaded. “Mom and Dad will kill us!” I fought back tears and rubbed my head – no blood, just an egg.

Rob grabbed the hammer and climbed back up the tree as I blinked to my senses. His pounding echoed in the salty morning air – until I heard wood cracking and branches snapping. I looked up and saw my brother backwards-somersaulting to the ground. He landed with a clump, and now it was me in his ear: “Don’t cry, don’t cry! Mom and Dad will kill us!”

Still alive, we trudged back to the gray house. 

“What were you guys doing?” our mother asked as she made us lunch.

“Nothing,” Rob said, though Mom must have heard the hammering. He and I exchanged conspiratorial smiles.

Our parents separated in 1969, and the beach properties were sold. Zillow estimates the current value of the yellow house at $395,000 while the gray house, expanded over the years, is pegged at $650,000. If they were for sale in Rhode Island’s booming real estate market today, they would likely garner more. And for good reason. The location is serene, with Salt Pond a short walk away and the ocean song of the Atlantic within earshot. 

I imagine the closings would be bittersweet for the sellers, life-changing for the buyers. And with papers signed and monies set in motion, there would be handshakes all around. 

But nothing like the one my dad shared with Mr. Windsor, long ago in a different and simpler time.

Springing back to life at Academy Field

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 16, 2021. [PHOTO: DEB WALSH]

Outside my house, crows gather in a tree, their feathers black as an undertaker’s coat. The birds know nothing of the pandemic that shut Rhode Island down for more than a year.

The rest of nature is similarly oblivious. Bees buzz, green hosta spears poke through garden soil, pink cherry blossoms make their annual cheery visit. I’m reminded of a verse from Ecclesiastes: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever.”

While our planet has been spinning for more than four billion years, homo sapiens have only been aboard for roughly the last 300,000 trips around the sun. That makes us relative newbies, with vulnerabilities that are uniquely human. Hello, COVID-19.

And yet we persist. The plink of an aluminum bat distracts me from the funereal crows. Little League is back!

A springtime pleasure of mine is seeing kids swing for the fences at Academy Field, which is across the street from my house in East Greenwich. Watching an inning or two of Little League transports me to Nelson Street playground in the Elmhurst section of Providence, where I played youth baseball 50 years ago. We swung wooden bats then – crack! – but the game was the same. And certain memories stick with me like pine tar.

One such recollection: crouched behind home plate clad in my catcher’s gear – the tools of ignorance – I see my dad watching me play as he smokes a cigarette out beyond the center field fence. Another: after safely sliding into second base, I look past my team’s chain-link dugout and lock eyes with my fifth-grade sweetheart. And then there’s this one: back at home plate, I rise woozily after a runner barrels me over, bouncing my head off the cement-hard dirt. My big-hearted manager, Joe, runs to my aid.

“How many fingers?” he asks, showing me the back of his splayed hand.

“Five,” I say.

“Four, genius,” he replies, holding up a single digit. “Don’t you know this is a thumb?”

Hearing more plinks, I walk across the street to Academy Field. There were no games played here last spring – no collisions at home plate, no balls hit over the fence, no trips to Hilltop Creamery after thrilling victories. It was a season of loss for everyone. 

According to the East Greenwich Little League, Academy Field was “a scratched-out sandlot playing surface” in its first year of service in 1955. Today, it has a tidy grass infield. The diamond is perfectly nestled into one corner of what is a de facto neighborhood commons. Even better, the field sits below street level, and gentle grass slopes provide a natural grandstand for fans. 

And now I see familiar and reassuring rhythms return to this field of dreams. The pitcher winds up deliberately and arcs his fastball to the plate. The batter, swallowed up by a uniform two sizes too big, swings mightily. Plink! The ball rolls three or four feet at most. The pint-sized slugger runs like mad to first base. The play is close. “Safe!” the umpire shouts. 

Judging by the cheers, it must be the kid’s first hit ever. Even I’m smiling.

When I return home, the crows are still in the tree, and one of them greets me with a throaty caw. Often considered a symbol of death, the sizeable black birds are also said to represent transition, transformation, and new beginnings. After a year of lockdown and worry, I’m going with the rosier interpretation.

I hear another plink from across the street, and hope springs eternal, once again, in this old catcher’s heart.

Listening to the secrets in my heart

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, April 18, 2021.

The triumphant note, in bold black letters, greeted me at dawn from the kitchen counter: “I did it!” The pronoun needed no explanation. I knew “it” meant my wife, Deb, had scored us COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

We’d been trying for two weeks. Or, more accurately, Deb had been trying.

“I hit the refresh button for like the millionth time at 3 in the morning,” she said over coffee. “I was about to give up.”

Our slots were back to back at a CVS in nearby North Kingstown the following week. Nice work, Deb.

The word “vaccination” derives from the Latin “vaccinus,” which means “from cows.” In 1798, British physician Edward Jenner coined the term for the technique he used to prevent smallpox, a disease that once killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans annually. 

Jenner theorized that injecting people with cowpox, a similar but milder virus, would fortify a patient’s immune system against the smallpox scourge. He was right. In the 1800s, the French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur applied the term “vaccine” to all such inoculations.

When I was a boy, “vaccination” was not in my vocabulary, but “needle” sure was. That’s what delivered the battery of shots administered by my kindly pediatrician, Dr. Frank Giunta, to protect me from measles, mumps, polio, and more. My early fear of needles – trypanophobia – was intense, but I conquered it by age 6 or 7.

“Look how brave you are!” Dr. Giunta said the first time I held back my tears.

His voice was soothing, and the sleeves of his crisp white Oxford shirt were neatly folded at his elbows. When he placed his stethoscope on my bare chest, he said “Hello,” lowering his head and closing his eyes as he listened to the secrets my heart revealed to his ears alone.

Physicians face a daunting task: to keep us healthy or, at the very least, alive. The pandemic has shone a light on how vulnerable humans are to infectious disease. We all have expiration dates, uncertain yet inevitable, and we do our best to stave them off.

When Deb and I arrived at CVS, the mood at the vaccination station in the back of the store was festive. COVID-19 may have forced people to practice social distancing, but it also has given us common ground. Deb’s story of 3-in-the-morning appointment-making was echoed by two others.

A woman in scrubs called out my name, looking up from her tablet.

I took a seat and rolled up my sleeve. As the nurse rubbed my left arm with alcohol, I noticed I was sitting opposite a greeting card display. I felt a pinch as I scanned the “Get Well” messages.

Driving home, Deb opened a bag of Swedish Fish.

“Want one?” she asked, holding up a red chewy candy.

“Sure,” I said. It only seemed right to celebrate.

We were halfway home – to our house, of course, but also to putting COVID-19 in our rear-view mirror. Our second shots were scheduled for mid-April.

As I chewed the candy like a kid, I thought of Dr. Giunta. If he could listen to my heart now, what would he hear? A strong, consistent beat, like Ringo Starr in his Beatles prime? Or, God help me, the drumming mayhem of The Who’s Keith Moon? 

Or perhaps the good doctor would hear something else altogether. Maybe my heart would tell him how much I love Deb and my three children. How lucky I am to have my brothers. How playing fetch with my dog, Rhody, is a simple and profound joy.

Amid a receding pandemic, maybe my heart would tell Dr. Giunta how grateful I am for everyday blessings.

‘Sláinte!’ Appreciating random acts of kindness in Ireland

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, March 21, 2021. Above, scene by the side of the road in Caherdaniel, Ireland. [JOHN WALSH]

Dan Slattery and I stood on the side of the road, 19 miles from Killarney, where our train was scheduled to depart in less than two hours. On break from school in Dublin, we had spent a week hitchhiking around the Ring of Kerry, the famed route on Ireland’s southwestern coast. A slate-gray sky was quickly turning charcoal; soon it would be dark.

The rev of a car engine teased us; the green Escort was traveling in the wrong direction for our purposes. As it barreled by, the driver and passenger waved out of open windows. “Good luck!” one shouted.

“I guess we could go to the church,” I said, pointing to a solemn steeple rising above the town of Kenmare in the distance. 

Dan wiped the afternoon’s “soft rain” from his glasses with a handkerchief. “They’d have to take us in, right?” he said. He didn’t sound convinced.

I’d found myself marooned in Ireland before. In September, on the first day of classes, I had been standing at a curb in Dublin for 20 minutes when a white compact car pulled up.

“Waiting for the bus, are you?” the man at the wheel said, craning his head out the window. I nodded.

“Drivers went on strike last night,” he said. “Where are you going?”

The kindly Dubliner gave me a lift to school. When I asked him if the bus drivers had announced the strike beforehand, he cackled.

“Why would they do a thing like that?” he said out of the side of his mouth, his lit cigarette waving at me like a teacher’s ruler. “Defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?” 

It had been my very own “We’re not in Kansas anymore” moment.

Back on the side of the road with Dan, time passed, but few cars did. A cow mooed from a nearby pasture.

“She’s mocking us,” I said. “Moooove!”

It had taken us two days to hitch our way out of Caherdaniel, a small village on the outer reaches of the Ring, and we had to break the law to do it. After our repeated pleadings for a ride, a lorry driver delivering milk to the village’s only store finally relented.

“Lie down in back and keep your heads low,” he said, pointing to his truck bed. He told us the Gardai – Ireland’s national police – would revoke his license if they caught him transporting anyone.

The milkman brought us to his next stop, a chic hotel. There, Dan and I pooled our last soggy pound notes and hired a taxi. We had enough fare to reach Kenmare, one town short of our destination. The unsmiling driver opened the back doors of his black Mercedes Benz for us, bedraggled as we were. The car’s warm cabin and soft leather seats were an instant narcoleptic. 

“Here you go,” the driver said half an hour later, waking Dan and me. We clambered out of our temporary sanctuary and onto the roadside again.

It was 1980. There were no cell phones, no Zipcars, no public transportation circling the Ring of Kerry. At this point, Dan and I were wholly dependent on the kindness of strangers.

And then two appeared. The green Escort that had sped past us in the wrong direction now returned.

“Still here, are you?” the driver said, his car idling.

We explained our predicament.

“Hop in,” he said. “We’ll get you to your train alright. Might even have time to stop for a jar.”

Before dropping us at the quaint Killarney railway station, our rescuers treated us to pints of Guinness at a nearby pub.

Dan and I raised our glasses – to the lorry driver, to the black Mercedes, and especially to the fine lads sitting across from us.


Back to the Hill, paintbrush in hand

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 21, 2021.

The request came soon after my daughter announced she had found a new apartment.

“I’m hoping you can put your painting skills to work for me, Pops,” Julie said. “My bedroom could use a facelift.”

Once upon a time, when she was 3 or 4, I was at the center of Julie’s universe. I’d arrive home from work, and she would run down our front hall and leap into my arms. Now, as she approaches her 26th birthday, I am one planet among many in her orbit. Spending a day with her at her new place on Federal Hill, paintbrush in hand, would be a treat.

Driving to the Hill on the last Saturday in January was a full-circle moment for me. As college students, my brother Rob and I spent summers painting houses and renovating apartments between Atwells Avenue and Broadway. Our most memorable job was a six-unit behemoth at the corner of America and Africa streets. Two sisters lived on the second floor, and when Rob and I ascended our scaffold with pails of paint in the morning, Angie and Mary often appeared in the windows.

“Hello, boys!” one of them would say, lifting the screen. “How about some coffee?”

Four decades later, I pulled up to Julie’s new apartment on Carpenter Street and unloaded my gear: primer, eggshell, and semi-gloss paint; a small bucket of joint compound; a roller and an extension pole; and a new two-inch angled brush I bought just for the occasion.

Julie greeted me at the door with a feigned flourish: “My savior!” she said. 

We lugged the supplies upstairs, and I sized up her empty bedroom. Dust had darkened the ceiling, and a few small craters in the walls hungered for new plaster. I spread out my drop cloth, peeled off the joint compound lid, and dug into the soft gray mud with a putty knife.

I had painted Julie’s bedroom at home several times when she was growing up, but this was different. And, I realized, I was different.

When our three children were young, it seems my wife, Deb, and I were always rushing to get them somewhere: school, guitar lessons, basketball practice, play rehearsals. Eventually the destinations were farther away: colleges in Boston, New Rochelle, and Syracuse, and then apartments in Los Angeles and Providence. We watched with wonder and worry as our kids launched into the world, and at some point along the arc of parenthood, our time with them became less frequent and more precious.

The five of us last gathered in 2019, for Thanksgiving at my son Peter’s home in Los Angeles. For a week, we breathed the same air, ate the same food, slept under the same roof, and told the same stories, laughing to tears at shared memories we hold in our hearts.

That was before any of us had heard of COVID-19. I have my fingers crossed for a reunion this summer in Rhode Island, but in the meantime, I content myself with family sustenance in smaller portions.

“Need anything, Pops?” Julie called out from her new kitchen as the low January sun threw my shadow on a freshly primed wall. I dipped my angled brush into a neutral eggshell paint called Manchester Tan. 

“I’m good,” I called back, climbing the ladder with my loaded brush. “Better than good!”

Stroking a straight edge where the top of the wall meets the ceiling, I was thankful for the precision of new bristles and the chance to help my daughter get settled.

Thankful, too, to be at the center of her universe again for an afternoon.

Ninety seconds to say goodbye

My brother James and I in New York City in 1973, en route to Florida for a vacation with our mom.

The annual Army-Navy football game always makes me think of my younger brother, James, who claims it’s the best contest in sports.

“They’re all on the same team,” he once said to me, “except for one afternoon.”

Fresh out of La Salle, James had planned to enlist in the Army, until a close family friend directed him to the Coast Guard. My brother’s four years of service off the Georgia and Florida coasts prepared him for his life’s work captaining charters, working on tugs and, most recently, refurbishing vintage Riva wooden boats in Fort Lauderdale. His kinship with those serving in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces is deeply felt.

Before this year’s Army-Navy game, CBS aired a film celebrating the “same team” concept that James had first brought to my attention. I found one clip in the piece particularly riveting: parents and their respective cadets and midshipmen being told they had “90 seconds to say goodbye” before the young men and women began earning their commission as officers-in-training.

The poignance of that moment made me gasp, I told James on the phone.

He reminded me that our mom had asked if he wanted a ride downtown to the recruiting station the morning he left for boot camp and that he told her he would walk.

Years later, my mother wrote a bittersweet vignette about James’s departure from her apartment on Federal Hill, starting with these words: “He threw the knapsack over his shoulder, walked down the stairs and out the door. I stood watching this exodus, this walking away.”

The day after this year’s Army-Navy game, my brother brought up another family parting.

“Mom and I had that 90-second goodbye with you at the train station in Providence on your way to Ireland,” he texted me. “Profound day for us all.”

It was. James and I were tight despite the more than five years between us. When our parents separated, one directive from my mother superseded everything on my chore list: look after your brother, who was about to turn 4. And I did, happily. During our childhood years, whether we were walking to school, playing Wiffle ball in the backyard, or just hanging in the bedroom we shared, James was always on my radar.

I set out to study in Dublin at the start of my junior year at Brown, leaving my hometown and family behind for the first time. James had just turned 15. As the Amtrak train slid into Union Station, I kissed my mother goodbye and then turned to my brother. His eyes were flooded with tears, and when I hugged him, his arms hung limp at his sides. I tried to say something above the deafening screech of the braking train, but no words came out.

“I was gutted by that goodbye,” I texted James now. “Don’t think I had normal breathing until New Haven.”

“Gutted is an appropriate way to put it,” James texted back. “Having the closest person in my life go far away was a hard lesson.”

I watched the bouncing dots on my phone screen with anticipation, and then my brother’s message made me smile: “How cool is it that so many years later, we can be as close as ever and revisit our decisions in life.”

A quote attributed to Clara Ortega reads, “To the outside world, we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were.”

Almost 1,500 miles separate James and me now, but a phone call can make distance and time vanish. We re-tell jokes that no one else gets. And we resurrect childhood memories that leave us laughing and coughing and wiping our eyes.  

Still, I welcome the promise of the COVID-19 vaccine. I’m overdue to head south so my younger brother and I can breathe together again.

This old house: What were we thinking?

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, December 20, 2020. Above, Rose Cottage as depicted in the 1891 East Greenwich Academy catalog.

The for-sale sign had stood on the front lawn of Rose Cottage long enough for the elm towering overhead to shed its leaves twice, we would later learn. But the mid-19th-century home with its Italianate façade beckoned my wife, Deb, and me as though it had been built just for us.

What were we thinking?

We broke every commandment in the home-buying bible, starting with Thou Shalt Not Be Seduced By Fluffy Ad Copy. “Gaze at the stars from the romantic cupola!” read the kicker line in the listing. I should have known better. As a copywriter, I’d been writing stuff like that for years.

Sure, the painted lady’s gray clapboards looked as drab as a cloudy December day, which is when we first saw her, and the kitchen was a train wreck. But where others had detected deal-ending pitfalls — missing roof shingles, windows with no storms, an electric panel as old as Edison — we only saw potential. We walked through Rose Cottage’s high-ceilinged rooms with, it must be said, rose-colored glasses.

A week later, the real estate agent skipped to her office copier with our offer in hand, and soon Deb and I became Shelley Long and Tom Hanks in “The Money Pit.” Unlike the movie’s characters, however, we were not alone. We had two little boys, ages 3 and 1, and a third child on the way.

What were we thinking?

The romantic cupola leaked during storms. That first spring, a mama possum and her newborns took up residence in a basement closet. Soon, a clay sewer pipe choked with tree roots overflowed the second-floor toilet, and water poured into the TV room below. Our son Peter’s description of the scene became family lore: “Mommy, it’s raining inside.”

Deb navigated the almost-daily cataclysms and do-it-yourself projects better than I did, even as she referred to our abode as “Rose Thorn Cottage.” To get a respite, I took to raking the front lawn. People walking by, unaware of the chaos within, occasionally told me how much they admired my house.

“Want to buy it?” I would reply, only half-kidding.

Still, Rose Cottage had obvious charms. The views from the cupola, now watertight, were magnificent. At night, a necklace of lights on the Mount Hope Bridge twinkled from across Narragansett Bay. During the day, sunlight poured through stately 8-foot-tall windows in our kitchen and living room.

For many years, the house had been the residence of the principal of the East Greenwich Academy, which was located right across the street, and a popular gathering place for school meetings, receptions, socials, and teas. After the academy closed in 1943, Rose Cottage became, for a time, a nursing home. During one of my front-lawn raking escapes, a passerby pointed at the second floor and told me her grandmother had died up there.

“Sorry to hear that,” I said, wincing a little. I wanted to tell her I might be next to go.

A parade of contractors saved us, making badly needed heating, electrical, and plumbing upgrades. The dreary gray clapboards were painted a deep plum red, befitting the house’s name. And then came the more eye-catching projects: a sparkling new kitchen, a bathroom redo for the kids, and a master suite with access to the cupola and those starry-night views.

On a door jamb in the kitchen, names and lines chart the rising heights of our children and a dozen or so of their friends. It’s a sacred record of the passage of time, from grade school to college graduations, and all the life lived in between.

Someday, a new owner will paint over that history, and the next chapter in Rose Cottage’s story will be written. But for now, the house is ours, an old, memory-filled, comforting place.

What were Deb and I thinking? I’m pretty sure it was just that.

Giving thanks in a God-awful year

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 15, 2020. Shown above, St. Luke’s Church on Peirce Street in East Greenwich.

My dog and I have our morning routine, and in 2020, it’s the antidote to the uncertainties that COVID-19 and the presidential election have visited upon us. Well, upon me, that is. Rhody, immune to such human tribulations, wags her tail and waits patiently at the front door.

I retrieve her leash from the kitchen and resist the urge to grab my phone. I know I am just a click away from the latest warnings of the apocalypse. A prescient Jeff Tweedy lyric has been playing in my head for months: “Every generation thinks it’s the last, thinks it’s the end of the world.” Can you blame ours?

As Rhody and I set forth on our trek through the neighborhood on this particular morning, I decide to look for reasons to give thanks despite the haymakers that 2020 keeps throwing at us. Or perhaps because of them.

I’m grateful for the sweet black dog walking by my side, of course. After resisting my daughter’s persistent petitions to get a rescue pup, I finally caved one night after a couple of beers. Every day, Rhody plucks me from the depths of my ruminations and returns me to the present. My daughter chides me lovingly: “Who rescued who?”

I’m grateful for the children in my neighborhood who, throughout the pandemic, have scrawled riddles on the sidewalk with colored chalk. Rhody and I approach one now, and I read the question at my feet: “Where do you take a sick boat?” Several strides later, we get the punch line: “To the dock!” The pun, so innocent and fun, makes me chuckle.

It’s no laughing matter farther down Peirce Street, where leftover political signs still hawk candidates. Running for office would make me more squeamish than working in an emergency room, so I am grateful that both a cousin and a friend braved the fraught election season of 2020 — one Democrat, one Republican, each of them earnest, big-hearted guys. Regardless of the outcomes of their respective races — my cousin won, my friend fell short — our democracy is better for their efforts.

Rhody and I now stop at the foot of the towering steeple at St. Luke’s Church, where I am a parishioner. I am grateful for a homily delivered in October by Rector Tim Rich, in which he asked us to reflect on the familiar “love thy neighbor” commandment. It can be easy to love your neighbor, Tim asserted. But what about your enemy?

“In Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus challenging us to love our enemies, as well,” he said.

During the sermon, a commotion one block away on Main Street had filtered through the church’s open, stained glass windows: people whooping, horns blaring, motorcycles growling. I later learned that it was a Trump parade.

I’m told that a woman in the pews that day, a Biden supporter, drove down to Main Street after the service, by which time the parade had reversed itself and was heading back through town. Unable to make her turn as the boisterous partisan train passed by, the woman sat in her idling car for a minute or so, until a pickup truck slowed to let her proceed.

I wonder how that scene played out. Did the pro-Biden driver acknowledge her rival’s courtesy with a quick wave as she pulled onto Main Street? Did the Trump supporter wave back from his flag-festooned truck, unaware of the woman’s political persuasion? Would he have done the same had he known?

These questions start me down a rabbit hole about how disunited the United States has become …

And then, with an ear-flapping shake and shimmy, Rhody rescues me again, the metal tags on her collar playing their familiar jingle-jangle song.

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.

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