The world as one, thanks to rocket men

Buzz_AldrinAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 16, 2017. [Photo: NASA]

On July 20, 1969, the Boston Red Sox completed a weekend sweep of the division-leading Baltimore Orioles, but the Fenway faithful weren’t getting their hopes up. The Sox still trailed the powerhouse O’s by 11 games.

Besides, at least for the moment, another match-up had eclipsed baseball for the attention of most New Englanders, not to mention the rest of the world: The United States and the Soviet Union were in the ninth inning of their race to the moon, and the Americans were ready to close things out.

The Apollo 11 lunar module touched down on the surface of the moon at 4:18 EDT that Sunday afternoon, fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the nation eight years earlier to accomplish the feat before the end of the decade. To say that JFK’s bold vision had captured the imagination of Americans is an understatement. References to space suffused pop culture in the 1960s and would continue to do so for years to come.

In our kitchens, we munched on Space Food Sticks and sipped Tang, the orange powdered breakfast drink that John Glenn had once quaffed in orbit; on our televisions, we watched “Lost In Space,” “Star Trek,” and “The Jetsons”; and on the radio, Sinatra advised that a girl’s kiss could “fly me to the moon.”

One of the most captivating songs to emerge during the Space Race was David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” which tells the story of fictional astronaut Major Tom. The single, released five days before the Apollo 11 launch, traded on the ever-present danger inherent in space exploration. What if something went wrong, as it had with Apollo 1 when a cockpit fire took the lives of the three crew members? Or what if a spacecraft were unable to return home, as is the case with Major Tom? He leaves us with a wistful lament from the heavens: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do.”

(Bowie’s hit was prescient: in April 1970, an oxygen tank explosion forced Apollo 13 to abort its lunar landing and raised the harrowing specter that the spacecraft and crew would be cast into orbital oblivion. Such a fate was averted, thanks to some improvised ingenuity by NASA.)

Earth was a tumultuous place in 1969 as protests against the Vietnam War raged in the United States, the Troubles escalated in Northern Ireland, and food blockades in the Biafran War caused widespread famine.

The moon landing provided a breathtaking, if fleeting, respite from worldly woes, as well as an unprecedented collective human event. More than half a billion people tuned in on television as the astronauts stepped onto the moon’s surface. Neil Armstrong spoke for all nations and peoples when he said, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Buzz Aldrin was more succinct, but equally poetic: “Magnificent desolation.”

Back on Earth, people marveled.

Novelist Vladimir Nabokov offered this in the New York Times the following day: “Treading the soil of the moon, palpating its pebbles, tasting the panic and splendor of the event, feeling in the pit of one’s stomach the separation from terra … these form the most romantic sensation an explorer has ever known.”

On CBS, Walter Cronkite said, “The least of us is improved by the things done by the best of us, because if we are not able to land at least we are able to follow.”

In the fall, my father gave my brothers and me a hardcover book commemorating the Apollo 11 mission. On the front flyleaf, he wrote: “Never forget the day man reached for the stars.”

But 48 years later, perhaps no statement is as poignant as the one inscribed on the stainless-steel plaque left behind by Armstrong and Aldrin: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

In today’s inflamed geopolitical climate, I am struck by the benevolence of those words and the unanimity, however idealistic, they expressed.

 

 

Navigating stormy days with Dad

fathers_day_003_2017As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 18, 2017.

Paul Simon is known for the chart-topping singles “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” as well as numerous other hits. But deeper cuts from his catalog can be equally rewarding.

“Rewrite,” from the 2011 album “So Beautiful or So What,” is one such tune. In it, Simon sings about a father who has to leave his family, though “he really meant no harm.” The dad in the song says he’s going to change the ending of his story, substituting a car chase and a race across the rooftops, “when the father saves the children and he holds them in his arms.”

After repeated listens, the insight of Simon’s lyrics resonated with me: Nearly all of us would like to rewrite at least a part of our past.

I was 9 years old when my parents separated and my father moved out of our house in Providence. The break-up unleashed a riot of emotions inside me, most of which I did everything I could to quell.

There was an upholstered rocking chair in our living room where I often sat and, in my mind, rewrote the story of my parents’ separation. The biggest change was transforming it into a reconciliation, but there were many others. Things were always better in the rewrite.

However, the reality was that my father now came to see my two brothers and me on Saturdays while Mom was at work.

On the first of these new Saturdays, he took us to Southwick Wild Animal Farm in Mendon, Massachusetts. It felt like a holiday. Mom had bought us new clothes to wear, and my dad took photos.

It would be years before I appreciated the efforts my parents each made to gracefully navigate those early post-breakup days – and how heart-wrenching it must have been for them.

When my father arrived at our house the following Saturday, I greeted him with anticipation.

“Where are we going today?” I asked.

“Nowhere,” he replied, a little curtly, and I immediately wished I could take back my words. I can only imagine the feelings I had unwittingly stirred up.

On a Saturday several years later, under threatening skies, my father and I did go somewhere – down to Narragansett to cut the grass at our beach house. Once a place where our family enjoyed summer vacations, the yellow cottage was now rented out. On weekends, Dad took care of any work that needed to be done there.

Light rain began to fall just as he and I finished mowing the lawn; we drove in his maroon Chevelle to Giro’s Spaghetti House in Peace Dale for a quick bite. My father had a couple of beers, but no whiskey. That was good.

It was pouring when we left the restaurant and started making our way north. On Route 95, a gust of wind slammed our car, and I grabbed the passenger-side door handle as we lurched out of our lane. My father turned off the radio. The windshield wipers beat like frantic metronomes, but they were no match for the storm. A proliferation of blurred brake lights ahead indicated what must have been a serious accident.

“I’m going to pull off,” Dad said. Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, he guided us down the next exit ramp.

We were in Warwick. Rain pounded the car as we crept along, but at least we weren’t on the highway anymore. I saw a sign for Providence.

“Don’t worry,” my father said. “We’ll make it back OK.” He offered me a roll of peppermint Life Savers, and I let go of the door handle to unwrap one.

It was still raining when Dad dropped me off at our red house on River Avenue. As he drove away, I headed for the rocking chair in the living room. But unlike in days past and days soon to come, no rewrite was required on this afternoon.

My dad had gotten me home. He was happy and so was I.

 

What I wanted to be when I grew up

jwalsh_I_want_to_be_002_RW2

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 21, 2017.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 1.9 million students in the United States will graduate from college this year. By now, a certain question is as familiar to most of them as the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance”:

“So what are you going to do?”

Answers inevitably range from the vague to the speculative to the definitive. In my case, decades ago, it was a mash-up of all three.

After receiving my degree from Brown, I vaguely talked about getting a job as a writer. I speculated there might be an opportunity at the ad agency where I had done an internship. As for immediate employment, I was definitive: I would continue to bus tables at the Turks Head Club downtown.

Sixteen years earlier, Miss Carlone, my kindergarten teacher at Nelson Street School in Providence, had posed a similar question to my classmates and me: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

With her soft, fleshy arms and sweet voice, Miss Carlone reminded me of Mama, my beloved grandmother who lived upstairs from my family and sometimes took care of me. In September, my teacher’s maternal warmth had made my first-day-of-school jitters melt away.

Several hands shot in the air in response to Miss Carlone’s question. One kid said he wanted to be a fireman. Another was going to be a football player. A girl announced she’d like to become a teacher, which brought an approving nod from Miss Carlone.

And then it was my turn.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a bachelor,” I declared.

My classmates looked puzzled, and so did Miss Carlone – for a moment. Then she threw back her head and howled. Now I was puzzled. What was so funny?

“Tell us what a bachelor is, John,” Miss Carlone said kindly as she slid a finger beneath one of her moistened eyes.

That was easy – I just told everyone about my uncle. He lived with my other grandmother and had the upstairs of Nana’s bungalow all to himself. Once he set up two TVs in the living room so he could watch two basketball games at the same time. He sat back in his big leather recliner, eating peanuts and following the scores, until he fell asleep. What a life!

Most of my classmates continued to stare blankly at me while Miss Carlone fished a tissue out of the sleeve of her dress.

At dismissal time, Miss Durgan, the principal, appeared in our classroom door – usually a sign that something was wrong. But Miss Carlone simply asked me to reveal my life’s ambition again, after which the two educators laughed with abandon, like my aunts at a family party. I was still puzzled, but at least I wasn’t in trouble.

The following year, apparently, my career plans evolved. Thanks to my mother, a lined yellow paper of mine from first grade still survives. Titled “My Wish,” it reads: “If I had one wish, I would want to be a writer. And I would write stories for all the children.” There is no mention of my marital intentions.

My wish came true – sort of. Three months after graduating from Brown, I indeed landed a copywriting job at the ad agency where I had interned. I would eventually meet my wife there, too.

But at the Brown commencement in 1982, my future was as unclear as the dreary Providence weather that first Monday in June. The only thing I knew for sure was I now had an English degree.

Miss Carlone would have been amused to know it was a bachelor’s degree.

Sunday best, especially for Easter

vincents002_rw2The author’s grandfather, mother (front), and aunts in the backyard of their house in Providence in the late 1930s. As published in the Providence Journal, April 16, 2017. 

Pilgrims came for 73 years, thanks in large part to the retail Holy Trinity of Christmas, Easter, and Back to School. Those were the biggest selling seasons at the children’s clothing store on Federal Hill that bore my grandfather’s name: Vincent’s.

During the run-up to Easter, the store’s showcase windows displayed finely knit shawls, classic blue blazers, and delicate cotton baby bonnets, while racks inside catered to another beloved rite of spring: first holy Communions. Young girls in silky white dresses twirled in front of full-length mirrors, eliciting oohs and aahs from adoring mothers, grandmothers, and aunts.

As an entrepreneur, Papa’s eureka moment came in the mid-1920s when he recognized that most of the Hill’s Italian immigrant families, his included, always dressed up their children for church regardless of how tight money was. He also saw that parents and godparents would spare no expense in purchasing elegant christening sets to baptize their babies at one of the three Catholic churches that dotted a half-mile stretch of Atwells Avenue – Holy Ghost, St. John’s, and Mount Carmel. If he could provide such merchandise, along with a healthy dose of service and charm, my grandfather believed he was destined for success in good times and bad.

He was right. Two years after Vincent’s opened, the stock market crashed, unleashing the Great Depression. Meanwhile, though unemployment soared, holy water kept flowing at baptismal fonts, second-graders still made their first Communion, and families continued to go to Mass. Papa’s store thrived, especially around the holidays.

The tradition of donning new clothes on Easter has roots in pagan celebrations of the vernal equinox. Dressing up for church every Sunday, however, didn’t become customary until the Industrial Revolution. That’s when advances in textile manufacturing made finer wardrobe options available to the emerging middle class.

Despite the fashion dispensation inferred by the Old Testament words of 1 Samuel 16:7 – “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” – wearing one’s “Sunday best” became increasingly de rigueur for the faithful. God may not raise an eyebrow at a rumpled coat or scruffy pants, but what about fellow parishioners?

Not surprisingly, clothes were a form of religion in my family. Papa had the sleeves of his crisp white dress shirts hemmed a half-inch at the elbow so his cuffs peeked out perfectly from his suit jackets. And while the colors and patterns of his ties grew increasingly flamboyant as he got older, he had the self-confidence to make such bold sartorial statements with ease.

My mother’s sense of style was equally assured; no one could carry off a fancy Easter hat like she did. Later in life, her recollection of certain outfits, prompted by old photographs, was encyclopedic. In addition to reminiscing about the people and events in the photos, she would note a polka-dot raincoat that had been special-ordered for a niece or a satin christening set that had been passed down for generations.

My grandfather’s silver bullet for retail success would miss the mark today. Church attendance has fallen, and those who do slip into the pews often wear casual attire – jeans, sneakers, even Patriots and Red Sox jerseys. I confess that on occasion during the summer, I’ve recited the Nicene Creed in shorts and a pair of sandals. Papa would be aghast.

Still, on most Sundays, I reach into my closet and reflexively pull out a button-down shirt, creased black or gray pants, and polished shoes. On Easter, I’ll add a sport coat or opt for a tailored suit and stand in front of my bedroom mirror threading a half-Windsor knot two or three times until it’s perfect.

Invariably, the tie will be exuberant – a pink one with stripes or maybe a wide floral number with an explosion of color.

Of these particular choices, Papa would certainly approve.

Happy Easter!

 

March Madness recalls local legends

IMG_0096As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 19, 2017.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championship, better known as March Madness, kicked off last Tuesday, with 52 games scheduled through the weekend. Is your bracket busted yet?

“March Madness” entered the American sports lexicon in 1939, but in reference to the state high school basketball championship in Illinois, not the national collegiate tourney. The name only became associated with the NCAA in the 1980s, thanks to sportscaster Brent Musburger, who was familiar with it from his work in Chicago before joining CBS.

The 68-team tournament has given us other memorable terms, including Bracketology, which refers to the science of predicting the field and each round’s winners. In theory, every squad has a chance to run the table at the Big Dance, and I’m always rooting for a Cinderella or two to emerge.

According to the American Gaming Association, more than 40 million people filled out March Madness brackets this year. Beyond office-pool wagers, however, it’s easy to understand why college basketball’s annual extravaganza is so riveting.

While the NBA Finals have given us just 19 Game 7s in 70 years, the NCAA men’s tournament offers the drama of 67 such games – do or die for both teams – in three weeks. Having local quintets in the mix – the University of Rhode Island and Providence College both earned berths this year – makes the nationwide event even more compelling.

Brown University was the first Rhode Island school to receive an NCAA bid, in the tournament’s inaugural year. Brown was one of eight entrants, losing to Villanova 42-30 in the opening round.

The Bears returned to the tourney 47 years later, in 1986, and faced powerhouse Syracuse in its own Carrier Dome. Legend has it – or perhaps it was just my father’s whimsical musing as an alumnus – that Brown’s coach, Mike Cingiser, advised his players to grab the ball and run out of the Dome should they happen to score first. To their credit, the Ivy Leaguers were actually up by one midway through the first half before losing in a blowout.

URI has been to the tournament nine times, making a terrific run in 1998 that included knocking off top-seeded Kansas. The Rams came tantalizingly close to reaching the Final Four that year, but a late-game meltdown against Stanford resulted in a heartbreaking 79-77 loss in the quarterfinals.

Of all Rhode Island teams, Providence College has danced the most, with 19 tournament appearances and two thrilling advances to the Final Four. In 1987, a young Rick Pitino all but willed a group of overachievers, led by Billy Donovan, to the national semifinals, where they faced Syracuse – the same team that had obliterated Brown the previous year. The Friars’ three-point shooting, instrumental to their success all season long, finally betrayed them, and they lost to the Orange by 14. Meanwhile, Pitino and Donovan had been launched into basketball greatness.

Fourteen years earlier, in 1973, Providence made its first trip to the Final Four, squaring off against Memphis State in St. Louis. After Ernie DiGregorio whipped a did-you-see-that, 30-foot behind-the-back pass to Kevin Stacom for a lay-up on the game’s second play, PC seemed destined for the finals. Then Marvin Barnes, the team’s star center, twisted his right knee and March Madness turned into March Sadness for Friar fans. A 49-40 halftime lead evaporated as Memphis State exploited Barnes’s injury to win going away, 98-85.

Every March, I hear myself wistfully telling anyone who will listen – my kids, their friends, total strangers – that PC would have played undefeated UCLA for the national title in 1973 had Marvin not gone down. It’s as sure a marker of spring as chirping birds and blooming crocuses.

This year, the tournament’s famous nickname will become a misnomer by the last three games, with the semifinals and championship straddling the first weekend in April. Coincidentally, on the same day the NCAA men’s tourney wraps up in Phoenix, a different kind of madness will get underway in Boston.

Go Red Sox!

Mom was real-life Mary Richards

mtm

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 19, 2017.

Leave it to Mary Tyler Moore to provide a welcome respite from the political wrangling that dominates Facebook these days. Amid reports of the actress’s passing on January 25, my news feed filled with clips of the opening title sequence of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the Emmy-winning sitcom in which Moore played the lead character, Mary Richards.

Comments in the posts were unusual in their unanimity. It seems just about everyone finds the “Love Is All Around” theme and Mary’s iconic hat toss irresistible.

The show was can’t-miss TV for my brothers and me growing up. Our mother was a fan, too, though I think she preferred the sharper social commentary of All In The Family, another 1970s sitcom classic.

“Your mother didn’t need to watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” my wife, Deb, said as we mourned Moore by watching episodes from the first season on Hulu. “She was living it.”

Deb was right. In 1970, the year the show debuted, Mom and Mary Richards shared the same hairdo, had the same fashion sense, and even walked the same way – briskly, with purpose. More important, they were both single working women in their 30s – something that could arch eyebrows then.

But there was one difference: Mom, recently separated and soon to be divorced from my father, was raising my two brothers and me.

James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, the creators of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, originally conceived of Mary Richards as a divorcee. While Moore and her husband and co-producer, Grant Tinker, loved the idea, the executives at CBS were not so enamored.

According to Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s book Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, the network believed American audiences wouldn’t tolerate a divorced lead in a series. CBS’s head of programming, Armstrong writes, “worried that Moore’s loyal fans would react badly to her being a divorcee, a status he thought implied a woman of lesser morals.” Only after Brooks and Burns rewrote Mary Richards’ backstory – she would be rebounding from a breakup with a fiancé, not a husband – did CBS green-light the show.

While the stigma of divorce was diminishing in the early 1970s, it was still prevalent enough to make me self-conscious about my family’s recent realignment. I didn’t want anyone to know about what had happened and felt an unspoken kinship with my one friend whose home was also “broken” – a common term at the time for families that had gone through a divorce.

My mother railed against the characterization of her family as “broken.” She told my brothers and me not to be fooled by appearances. “You see all the houses in this neighborhood?” she asked rhetorically one night at our kitchen table in Providence, pointing her fork at the street. “There’s a story behind every door, and it isn’t always Ozzie and Harriet.”

I busied myself with the food on my plate. There was an edge to Mom’s tone that betrayed an indignation I had never heard before. It made me feel uneasy and, at the same time, emboldened. My brothers and I would eventually embrace her rejection of the “broken home” narrative and voice it ourselves.

In the meantime, we watched Mom prosper. She earned a degree in retail merchandising at Johnson & Wales; opened her own teen and junior fashion boutique on Atwells Avenue; became a partner in two other successful entrepreneurial ventures; and served as an officer in the Federal Hill Businessmen’s Association.

After the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, tweaks were made to the lyrics of the opening theme song to reflect Mary Richards’ success at navigating life as an independent woman. “How will you make it on your own?” became “Who can turn the world on with her smile?” And “You might just make it after all” was replaced by the more affirmative “You’re gonna make it after all.”

With Mom, there was never any doubt.

 

Dreams from my own la la land

jw_lsa_bball001-rw1The author drives to the basket in a game between La Salle and Central at Rhode Island Junior College, now the Community College of Rhode Island, in February 1978. Providence Journal file photo. Column published in the Providence Journal, January 15, 2017.

Lying on my side at 6:30 a.m., I look out my bedroom window at a tangle of tree branches against the gray dawn sky before surrendering to the bliss of an REM slumber – and, it turns out, a few special moments at the TD Garden.

In my dream, I am playing basketball for the Boston Celtics. Fifty-six years old, 5 feet 8 inches, and on my game, I deliver a no-look pass to Al Horford for a slam dunk, drop a three-point bomb with Steph Curry in my face, and streak on a breakaway after picking Kevin Durant’s pocket.

But then, as often happens in my dreams, everything goes slo-mo. My legs turn to rubber, and I feel like I am hefting an orange wrecking ball to the hoop. My layup caroms off the side of the rim, as does my put-back attempt. I try again – and, bizarrely, the ball morphs into an unopened bag of Light ‘n Fluffy egg noodles that drops softly through the net just as the horn sounds. The crowd goes berserk. I pump my fist – in my dream and, apparently, in my bed because suddenly I am awake.

“You O.K.?” my wife, Deb, asks, lying next to me. I notice the morning sky has brightened.

“Never been better,” I say, laughing.

My dreams are rarely so triumphant. More often, I am like Danny in the movie “The Shining,” running away from an ax-wielding madman. Or I am roaming the hallways at La Salle Academy, trying to locate – without success – the classroom for an exam I must pass to get my high school diploma.

The word “dream” possesses an interesting duality. On one hand, it describes the images and emotions passing through our minds as we sleep – from the ordinary to the outlandish. On the other, it references our goals and aspirations when we are awake.

“Dream” derives from the Old English verb “dremen,” which meant “rejoice; play music.” That makes sense when you consider how often the topic has been mined in popular song – from Arlen and Mercer’s “This Time The Dream’s On Me” to Wilco’s “(Was I) In Your Dreams?” A 60s pop band from Britain went one step further, calling themselves Freddie and the Dreamers.

In the charming movie musical “La La Land,” Emma Stone’s character, Mia, sings about her inspiration for becoming an actress – a beloved aunt who once leapt without looking into a freezing Seine River: “She captured a feeling, sky without ceiling, sunset inside a frame … Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem.”

Dreams usually leave us questioning what prompted them. Freud famously said they were the fulfillment of a wish. Ebenezer Scrooge, in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” had a more physiologic explanation for the ghostly visit of his former business partner, Jacob Marley: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.”

I subscribe to Freud’s theory to explain my Celtics dream. As a 12-year-old, I spent hours in my basement mimicking Pete Maravich’s dribbling wizardry. I fantasized about making it to the NBA, despite my woeful shooting mechanics and less-than-promising genetics – Mom was 5 feet 1 inch and Dad was 5 feet 7 inches.

“You can’t bounce balls all your life,” my mother said one day when I came upstairs. Sure enough, six years later, after two or three tryouts for the team at Brown, the buzzer sounded on my basketball dreams.

Recently, sleep brought me more REM absurdities: I’m on a cruise – actually, the Block Island Ferry – and Bruce Springsteen is performing on the top deck. But I’m stuck in steerage, like Jack Dawson in “Titanic.” I finally sneak my way upstairs and catch a glimpse of the Boss and the E Street Band before being whisked away by a bouncer. I trip, and now I’m falling overboard in slo-mo …

I awake with a start beneath a sea of covers, and the spirits in the night are gone.

All I really wanted for Christmas

jw-op-ed-final

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal.

My younger brother, James, still believed in Santa Claus and I wasn’t about to tell him otherwise – not on Christmas morning. Besides, evidence of Santa’s visit to our Providence home was everywhere. The Stella D’oro cookies we had left out on the coffee table were gone, and there were gifts under the tree that hadn’t been there the night before.

James couldn’t wait to play with the toy that had been at the top of his list: Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots. The two of us frantically pushed on our plastic joystick controls, unleashing uppercuts in hopes of disengaging the opposing palooka’s head from his shoulders. Boxing was big in December 1971. Nine months earlier, Joe Frazier had defeated Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight crown. I had wanted Ali to win because my father was rooting for him. Dad had tried to explain to me why Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay and opposed the Vietnam War, but I didn’t really understand. I just knew Dad was for Ali, so I was, too.

My older brother, Rob, was thrilled with his new Panasonic cassette player and radio. We marveled at how it could record songs from our favorite pop music stations without picking up any room noise. After the breakup of the Beatles, we were always searching for new bands to listen to. I liked Badfinger and was pleased on Christmas morning when a present of telltale thinness turned out to be their latest LP. Still, I hoped rumors of a Fab Four reunion would someday come true.

“Go get dressed, boys,” my mother called out from the kitchen. “Your father will be here soon.”

It was the third Christmas since our parents had separated, and this time seemed easier. When my father moved out, I didn’t want anyone to know.

He left notes for my brothers and me, and I swallowed hard as I read mine: “The court has said I can’t be with you all the time. I don’t think Mommy was happy about this, but I didn’t help her make any other choice.” By the end, I was wiping my eyes: “Say your prayers, keep your room neat, and be a good boy. Mommy and I love you very much.” I hid the note in my sock drawer.

My father arrived with two large shopping bags filled with gifts. He and my mother exchanged polite hellos without making eye contact. I had never heard them argue or speak badly of one another, either before or after the separation.

The five of us gathered in the living room by the glowing tree, and Dad passed out presents: a microscope for Rob, a basketball board game for me, a Hot Wheels race track for James. Then it was our turn: Rob handed our father a footstool he had made in his junior-high woodworking class, and James and I gave him the striped blue tie our mother had helped us pick out at Midland Mall.

“What’s in the other bag?” Rob asked.

“That’s for you, Norma,” my father said, looking at my mother.

“Oh,” she said, surprised. Rob and I exchanged glances. This was a first since the split.

My dad lifted an old kerosene lantern from the bag and placed it carefully on the coffee table. The lamp’s metal had a blue-green patina, and a red bow was tied around the worn handle. My father said he had found it in South County. My mom loved antiques.

“Why, thank you, Donald,” she said softly. “How sweet of you.”

After my father left, I was happy to see Mom give the lantern a prominent place atop a bookshelf in the living room. I wanted to believe they still had affection for one another. Wasn’t the lantern proof of that?

The Beatles never reunited; neither did my parents. While a John Lennon lyric had told us “all you need is love,” I’d eventually come to understand that sometimes it’s more complicated than that.

 

Honest Abe a tonic for 2016 hangover

As published in the Providence Journal, Sunday, November 20, 2016.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is considered by many to be the greatest political speech in American history. It was delivered on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where four months earlier one of the Civil War’s bloodiest and most pivotal battles had been fought. In a scant 272 words, Lincoln reaffirmed the ideals of liberty and equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence and called for a new birth of freedom in the United States.

Initial reaction to the famous speech, however, was mixed.

While The Chicago Tribune wrote that “the dedicatory remarks of President Lincoln will live among the annals of the war,” The Chicago Times opined that “the cheek of every American must tinge with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

But in Massachusetts, the Springfield Republican wrote that Lincoln’s “little speech is a perfect gem; deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.”

After studying the Gettysburg Address as a high school junior, I rediscovered it in college – in an English class, to my surprise. The speech was included in my Norton Anthology of American Literature, alongside works by Emerson, Whitman, and Melville. I was happy to now consider Lincoln for his poetics as well as his politics.

His phrasing is memorable: “Four score and seven years ago …” His parallelisms are pleasing to the ear: “… we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” His tensions are beautifully balanced: “… we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain.” With the passage of time, one line has become exquisitely ironic: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

In his book “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” Garry Wills writes, “Hemingway claimed that all modern American novels are the offspring of ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ It is no greater exaggeration to say that all modern political prose descends from the Gettysburg Address.”

Given the rancor of this year’s presidential face-off, Wills’ choice of the word “descends” was prescient. There were low points aplenty, on both sides. It’s no wonder “Saturday Night Live” notched its best ratings in years as we howled at Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton and Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump.

But the election was no skit. And now, in the midst of our collective campaign hangover, I am looking for a tonic.

If I were in Washington, D.C., I’d take the Metro to Smithsonian Station, ride the escalator up to the National Mall, and head west. Approaching the Washington Monument, I’d see 50 American flags waving in the breeze. Crossing 17th Street, I’d hear fountains splashing at the World War II Memorial. And then I’d follow the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to the colonnaded temple that honors our 16th president.

Inside, I’d proceed to the south chamber and let my eyes land on the Gettysburg Address inscribed in Indiana limestone: “… government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In the north chamber, I’d read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “With malice toward none … let us strive on … to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

Leaving the memorial, I’d glance toward the distant Capitol. In 1861, its partially finished dome provided a symbolic backdrop at Lincoln’s first inauguration – the nation itself was a work in progress. “We are not enemies, but friends,” the new president said to the crowd. “We must not be enemies.” He closed with an impassioned appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

May such angels find us now.

 

Parental relics can be a mixed bag

img_4013_rw1As published in the Providence Journal, Sunday, October 16, 2016. Photo: Rob Walsh

Two blue storage containers await my attention. They are tucked away in the basement of the ad agency that my brother Rob and I own on Main Street in East Greenwich.

“We need to grab some beers and go through Dad’s stuff,” Rob says to me every six months or so, referring to the contents of the containers. I agree, without reservation. But then another half-year passes, and Rob says it again.

We have yet to part with any of our father’s buried treasures. From past efforts, I recall an unfinished short story in a file folder, a spiral notebook listing late-night shift times at a manufacturing facility off Route 146, and an eclectic collection of LPs — Sondheim, Springsteen, George Carlin.

Up on the second floor, cardboard boxes of our mother’s possessions sit in an unused office. Rob and I, along with our younger brother, James, moved them there shortly after Mom died three years ago. They hold ledgers from her store on Federal Hill; a tin box filled with recipes written in her hand; a vintage glass perfume bottle that always sat on her bedroom dresser.

Other parental belongings had been easier to part with. We gave furniture to the Salvation Army, and dropped off coats and shoes to St. Luke’s Church. But the items that remain are harder to relinquish. Mom’s oil paintings lean against a wall in the upstairs office; Dad’s Marine Corps uniform hangs in my closet at home.

The first time I pored through my mother’s stuff, weeks after she died, I was a mash-up of emotions. I smiled at the black-and-white photo of her as a teenager as she laughed with my father and their friends. I was grateful for the personal artifacts she had saved — grade-school essays by my brothers and me, birthday cards we had made for her, the family tree her cousin Grace had researched and carefully drawn up.

But my heart ached when I found Mom’s oversized 2013 calendar with her halting handwriting in almost every square — medication reminders and doctors’ appointments to deal with her failing eyesight and compromised breathing. I didn’t consider throwing the calendar away. I was nowhere near ready to let go of such vivid traces of her.

When my father had died years earlier, I counted myself lucky to have young children. Amid the grief, my 2-year-old and infant sons kept pulling me back to the present. There were meals to make, cries to soothe, bedtime stories to read, foreheads to kiss. A lyric from an R.E.M. song kept playing in my head: “These things they go away, replaced by every day.”

A good friend of mine, an Episcopal priest and psychotherapist, is fond of the word “unpack,” especially as it relates to sorting though deeply felt emotions. I’m sure he would counsel that curating parental belongings involves more than deciding whether to discard Mom’s favorite scarf.

I know going through my parents’ remaining possessions will generate feelings as messy as life itself. I’ll gaze at the smiles in their wedding-day portrait and scrutinize the legal correspondence that preceded their divorce decree. I’ll relish the opening page of my father’s master’s thesis on Graham Greene and reread newspaper clippings documenting the abrupt end of his career as a dean at Brown. Certain objects will remind me of the keen eye my mother had before losing her vision: a felt cloche hat, a carved antique mirror, flowing sketches that helped her earn her degree in fashion merchandising.

On a recent morning, I arrived at work and found Mom’s vintage glass perfume bottle sitting on my desk.

“I dug out that relic,” Rob said, walking into my office. “Go ahead — take a sniff, like we used to do as kids.”

I pulled out the stopper and held the bottle to my nose. The floral scent was faint and distant, with so many years gone by, but present enough to be instantly comforting.

This unpacking business is a mixed bag, to be sure — but not without the occasional sweet reward.

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