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

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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

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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.

 

Worn tin box is my time machine

IMG_6916_rw1As published in The Providence Journal, April 15, 2018. Photo: Rob Walsh

I cast my line into Google’s data ocean with the words “vintage recipe box” as my bait, and get a quick 3 million nibbles. I click for images and, after one scroll down, there it is: a red metal tin identical to the one that sat by my mother’s stove, and now sits on my desk.

According to eBay, Mom’s recipe box could fetch me $19.99, but I’m not selling. How can I? The worn tin is priceless – a treasure chest, a time machine, a family portrait.

After 60 years, the artwork on the box is more kitsch than cool. A fish peers at me one-eyed from a frying pan; an orange Jell-O mold is topped with a cherry or perhaps an olive – I’m not sure which. The bottom panel reveals a manufacturer’s pride: “Design Copyright by Stylecraft of Baltimore.” Such recipe files were popular in 1956, the year my parents got married.

While Mom’s cooking wasn’t fancy, it always “hit the spot,” especially her chicken cutlets, and macaroni and meatballs.

After I moved into my first apartment, I asked my mother for her meatball recipe. Instead of reaching for a pen, Mom reeled off a litany of ingredients that included ground beef, stale Italian bread, an egg, some milk, pepper, and a dash of garlic salt. I guess she presumed I would know what to do with them. It was years before I produced an edible orb.

This exchange left me with the sense that my mother was averse to writing down the secrets to her dishes, but her recipe box proves otherwise. It contains a hodgepodge of index cards, folded notes, newspaper clippings, and alphabetized dividers, which Mom clearly had no use for.

Today, almost five years after my mother’s death, the first recipe I pull out of the box is a family classic: Nonnie Caione’s Easter bread – a miracle of eggs, butter, sugar, aniseed, salt, sugar, yeast, and flour. By Palm Sunday every spring, a loaf would appear on our kitchen table, waiting to be sliced and then slathered with soft butter. As we relished each bite, Mom would celebrate her maternal grandmother, invariably noting, “Nonnie was tiny.” My brothers and I found this funny since, at 5 foot 1 inch, my mother was no Wilt Chamberlain.

A preprinted card from the Virginia Electric and Power Company lists standard measures on one side and a hamburger and vegetable casserole recipe on the other. It reminds me that, as newlyweds, my parents lived in Fredericksburg while Dad was training at the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in Quantico.

A recipe for veal and mushrooms is grease-stained, indelible proof of its deliciousness. The dish, from a dear family friend, became a favorite for special occasions and send-off dinners.

There are surprises. A Providence Journal clipping from the early 1980s details how to make President Reagan’s favorite macaroni and cheese. I don’t recall Mom liking mac and cheese all that much, but I do know she loved the Gipper. Who knew her recipe box would confirm her preferences at the ballot box, as well?

Two recipes stand out. One is for “gravy,” the meat-based tomato sauce that simmered on our stove every Sunday. No doubt this culinary prescription was given to my mother by her mother in our family’s version of Moses receiving the tablets. The other recipe, for meatballs, is equally sacred. It echoes my conversation with Mom from long ago: ground beef, stale Italian bread, an egg, some milk …

Recipes now come to me via Bon Appetit email blasts and Tasty videos on YouTube, which I love. Still, I’m holding on to the vintage red tin for the ingredients only it can serve up: my mother’s familiar handwriting; artifacts from my parents’ early life together; connection to foods my grandmother and great-grandmother once made.

It’s a family archive to be savored.

Lessons from a mutt

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, March 18, 2018. Photo by Juliana Walsh.

The description on the card attached to the metal crate was not definitive: “Lab mix.” But there was no question about the rescue puppy inside. When I saw her sleek, black coat, floppy ears, and dark, take-me-home eyes, any last resistance I had to my daughter’s campaign to get a new dog melted away.

While Labrador retriever cross breeds are popular these days, our puppy’s lineage is likely more complicated, verging toward mutt. She’s not a labradoodle (Labrador crossed with poodle) or huskador (husky crossed with Labrador); no clever portmanteau will neatly summarize her ancestry. For all we know, she’s a labraterrichow (Labrador mixed with terrier and chow) or some such.

Portmanteaus, which blend parts of two or more words to create a new one, shine in their service of hybrid dogs. We have puggles (pug crossed with beagle) and cockapoos (cocker spaniel crossed with poodle); schnoodles (schnauzer crossed with poodle) and pomskies (Pomeranian crossed with husky).

“Portmanteau” derives from the French word for a large traveling case that opens into two equal compartments. It was coined as a linguistic term by Lewis Carroll to describe the mashed-up words he created in “Through The Looking Glass,” which was published in 1871. In Carroll’s masterwork, “slithy” combines “slimy” and “lithe”; “galumph” merges “gallop” and “triumph”; “chortle” is the marriage of “chuckle” and “snort.” “You see it’s like a portmanteau,” Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice. “There are two meanings packed up into one word.”

If Carroll is the father of portmanteaus, James Joyce is their high apostle. His modernist novels give us “saddenly” (sad plus suddenly), “shim” (she plus him), and “individuone” (individual combined with one).

Portmanteaus allow us to describe the world with economy and wit. And when they are good, they have staying power. Note how “brunch” (the hybrid of breakfast and lunch), “guesstimate” (part guess and part estimate), “blog” (short for web log), “Chunnel” (the channel-crossing tunnel that runs between England and France), and “pixel” (combining picture and element) are now part of our everyday vernacular. Their portmanteau-ness has all but vanished.

Urban Dictionary (urbandictionary.com) is a crowdsourced font of portmanteau inventiveness and amusement. Here’s a recent sampling:

“Cellfish”: When someone continues talking on a cell phone even though it is rude or inconsiderate of others.

“Textpectation”: The anticipation one feels when waiting for a response to a text message.

“Nonversation”: Pointless small talk.

“Youniverse”: The worldview of a person who is exceedingly self-referential in conversation.

“Friyay!”: The last and most welcome day of the workweek.

“Carcolepsy”: A condition in which a passenger falls asleep as soon as a car starts moving.

“Epiphanot”: An idea that seems like an amazing insight to the conceiver but is in fact ordinary and mundane. (On more than one occasion, ideas for this column have qualified as “epiphanots.”)

Here in Rhode Island, the school district Chariho is a portmanteau combining the first letters of the three towns it serves: Charlestown, Richmond, and Hopkington. (I wonder if anyone suggested “Horicha” back when the district was established in 1958.) At my house, “vork” is what I often serve for dinner on Sundays – cutlets that look like veal but are actually made from pounded pork medallions. When I had the notion to rewire our dining room chandelier hours before our guests arrived for Thanksgiving one year, my wife, Deb, called it a “guydea.”

Our family can thank Dan Hurley and his URI men’s basketball team for helping us figure out our new pup’s name, if not her pedigree. After several monikers failed to gain consensus, “Rhody” jumped out at me while watching the Rams play on TV. Slam dunk!

As for Rhody’s ancestry, we’ll leave that to a DNA test. In the meantime, when people ask what kind of dog she is, we’ll just have to respond with a sort-of portmanteau: “Labradunno.”

 

Praying for our dog’s return

georgy girl001_2

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 18, 2018.

I wasn’t happy about my family’s move to Narragansett three weeks before I started second grade. I missed my best friend and next-door neighbor, Chris, in Providence. Instead of walking with him on the first day of school, I now had to take a bus, surrounded by strangers.

But things got better when my mother came home one afternoon with a shaggy black puppy with tan and white markings. Mom named the pup Georgy Girl, after the lead character in a recent popular movie.

My brothers and I loved to watch Georgy chase rabbits in a field near our new house, leaping and then disappearing in the tall grass. We laughed when she licked our faces, even though her tongue felt like damp sandpaper.

Thank God we got a dog because there weren’t many kids to play with in our neighborhood off of Point Judith Road. The area’s sparse year-round population prompted St. Mary Star of the Sea Church to recruit my older brother, Rob, and me to become altar boys. It didn’t matter that I had yet to make my First Holy Communion, normally a prerequisite to serving on the altar. Father Hughes, St. Mary’s kindly pastor, granted me dispensation; he needed help, and we lived nearby.

My debut was memorable, though not for spiritual reasons. When it was time for Father Hughes to prepare for the Consecration, I somehow dropped the silver hand washing basin, and it rolled in circles on the green-carpeted altar floor. Attempting to grab the bowl, I looked like Georgy chasing her tail.

Once I settled into my altar boy duties, the language of the liturgy captivated me, as did Father Hughes’ sonorous voice. With his incantations about angels and archangels and “the mystery of faith,” he sounded to me like God Himself.

That made it easy to accept things that might otherwise have vexed an 8-year-old mind, such as bread and wine turning into the body and blood of Christ, and God hearing me when I said my prayers.

The last of these, however, was put to the test later that fall when Georgy disappeared.

“I let her out this morning, and she never came back,” my mother told Rob and me after school one day. Her voice was filled with worry.

Rob and I set out for the leafless woods across from our house. Mom and my younger brother, James, jumped in her red Opel Kadett to comb the streets. When my father got home from work, he joined the search, heading toward Salt Pond. But at bedtime, Georgy was still missing. Unable to sleep, and as upset as I had been in my life till then, I prayed for our dog’s return.

The next 24 hours brought more of the same: anxious walks through the woods, drives through the neighborhood, and calls of “Georgy!” into the evening quiet.

There was still no scratch at the door. On this second night of separation, I tossed in my bed, whispering words to the darkness again.

And then, early the following morning, as my mother drove to the market across from St. Mary’s for a quart of milk, there was Georgy, sitting on the front stoop of a vacant summer cottage. Mom, who said our dog sprang into the car as happy as ever, honked the horn when she got back to our house, and Georgy greeted my brothers and me with leaps and licks and wags of her tail.

Had my prayers been answered? Did angels intervene? Or was it random luck that my mother had run out for milk at just the right time to find our missing dog? I would wrestle with such mysteries when I got older, but not on this day — not with Georgy safely delivered home and curled up on the couch in our den.

That night, after crawling into bed, I whispered a simple, two-word prayer to the darkness and beyond: “Thank you.”

Helping me hear my mother’s voice

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Above, the author, right, with his mother and brothers in December 1965.

As published in The Providence Journal, January 21, 2018.

Imperative verbs — that’s what I remember about my mother’s writing, at least from my early years. Before and after school, her kitchen-table notes delivered directives. “Don’t forget your lunch” was probably the most common one, followed by “Working until 5:30 — feed the dog and look after your brother.”

When I studied in Ireland as a college junior, Mom’s writing became more expansive. Her letters brought news of family gatherings, her store on Atwells Avenue, recent deaths. Here are excerpts from a note dated October 28, 1980: “Vinny’s getting married on November 23. It will be a small affair at The Golden Lantern. I’m sorry you’ll miss it.… Business isn’t bad – we’re paying the bills.… I wrote you that I had taken Georgie to the vet. Well, John, I’m afraid there wasn’t much that could be done.”

I loved getting Mom’s letters in Dublin, but they didn’t give me the sense that she liked to write. Her penmanship looked rushed. Between the lines, she seemed to be saying, “Oh, if we could just talk over coffee, that would be better.”

So it surprised me when, at age 71, my mother began writing reflections on her life – rich, evocative pieces that shared stories I had never heard before.

One recalled her dash home from Nelson Street School in Providence during the Hurricane of 1938: “Gravel underfoot jumped to life, stinging the back of my legs.” Another revealed Mom’s trademark cheekiness: “Being the youngest of the four girls at my house, my vocation in life was to get out of there.” Recollections from her early teens referenced a sister’s boyfriends: “Every one was movie-star material to me.” A sketch about my younger brother recounted the morning he left for the Coast Guard: “All pre-dinner cocktail highs from the celebration the night before were diluted by now.”

And then there was “The Blanket.” “I guess it’s a poem,” Mom said modestly, handing me the page. “A memory, really.”

My mother’s poem-memory brought me back to when our family lived downstairs from my maternal grandparents in a double-decker on River Avenue. I was in kindergarten at the time and didn’t realize that my grandmother was ill; I just knew Mama waved to my older brother and me from her kitchen window as we played football in the backyard. Nor was I aware that, as my baby brother slept in his crib, my parents’ marriage was quietly unraveling. What I did know is that I liked to watch “Get Smart” with Mom and Dad on Saturday nights because the show made them laugh together.

“The Blanket” let me see this world anew. It recalled a pink-and-white bedspread that my mother had received as a gift. The poem, in part, reads:

 

Guests, calling to visit, led me to lay

the blanket on my mother’s sickbed.

 

Its newness would certainly warn

the transporter being sent to take

my mother away

that she wasn’t ready yet!

 

Whose eyes would watch from the

second-floor window as the four-year-old

football hero ran for the touchdown pass?

 

Where would I find the approval she

gave me, in the midst of my own

chaos, I pressed my new baby into her arms?

 

In “How to Write a Memoir,” William Zinsser states: “There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative.” He calls memoir “a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”

My mother left behind a stack of photo albums, which include fading prints of her as a cheerleader at Mount Pleasant High School, a young mom in an East Side apartment, and a proud entrepreneur on Federal Hill.

But it’s her late-life writings that I treasure the most. In those black-and-white word snapshots, I hear her voice – human and funny and wise.

Fake tree brought pure Christmas joy

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As published in the Providence Journal, December 20, 2015.

My brothers and I were home alone, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on our black-and-white TV when the doorbell rang. It was Mrs. Ricci, bundled against the cold, here to drop off a fake Christmas tree from the store where she worked.

We lugged the large cardboard box through the doorway.

“Your mother’s going to love it!” Mrs. Ricci said before disappearing back into the night.

I wasn’t so sure. My grandfather had suggested we get an artificial tree from Mrs. Ricci the previous Christmas. She lived downstairs from him in his double-decker, three blocks from our house in Providence. But my mom had declined. Instead, we had gone to the farmers’ market on Valley Street and picked out a lopsided balsam fir, as we had always done — except now my older brother, Rob, not my father, tied the tree to the top of our blue Ford Maverick.

At 14, Rob did a lot of things that our dad used to do when he lived with us.

I sensed my mom, along with Charlie Brown, didn’t like fake Christmas trees. I also sensed she didn’t like being told what to do — least of all by her father. But she had apparently relented because now there was this artificial tree in our living room.

“Let’s put it up!” Rob said.

“Without Mom?” I said.

“We’ll surprise her.”

My stomach tightened. I was wary of surprises, especially ones that involved my mother. Hers was a house of rules, many of them posted on the refrigerator at eye level. And I was adept in my compliance. I made sure to get home in time for supper, loaded the dishwasher, and looked after my younger brother, James, then age 6 — all to avoid incurring Mom’s wrath.

Rob had no such anxieties.

“We’ve got an hour and a half before she gets back,” he said, pulling the fake tree out of the box.

Our mom was at her class at Johnson & Wales, where she was pursuing an associate’s degree in fashion merchandising. We didn’t know it then, but she had visions of opening a women’s clothing boutique someday.

She hadn’t gone to college after graduating from Mount Pleasant High School. At that time, her father said she had to go to work at his childrenswear store on Federal Hill — she would replace her oldest sister, who was starting a family. My mom sold christening sets and communion dresses until she turned 23 and got married. And now, after the divorce, she had gone back to the store, working six days a week.

James and I ran to the chilly basement to excavate the Christmas decorations from some cabinets near the washer and dryer. Upstairs, Rob positioned the tree in the corner by the hi-fi.

We draped the synthetic branches with colored lights and hung all the familiar ornaments. Our favorites were the ones that we had made: a Table Talk pie tin graced by a glued-in illustration of the Nativity; a Popsicle-stick reindeer with a red-gumdrop nose; a construction-paper chain lovingly looped by one of us at Robert F. Kennedy School.

James set up the manger scene, careful not to inflict further injury on the plaster donkey whose broken leg was held together by a Scotch-tape cast. Rob and I put the electric candles in the windows, igniting their orange bulbs with a twist.

We turned off the overhead light. The living room, with a faint scent of plastic, glowed. The artificial tree suddenly felt a lot less fake.

We were back in the den, watching TV when the front door creaked open.

“How nice to see the lights in the windows!” my mother called out.

We ran to the living room.

“Oh, my,” she said, gazing at the tree. “It’s absolutely beautiful!” She looked around the room, her face beaming. “You boys did all this for me?”

“Yes!”

Our mom stood motionless and silent for a moment, and then wiped one of her eyes. We hadn’t seen her so happy in a long time.

Christmas had come early.

Rescued at the Christmas concert

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As published in The Providence Journal, December 17, 2017.

The Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School Choir, of which I was a member, had just finished a rousing version of “Jingle Bells” when my heart started pounding. The moment I was dreading had finally arrived.

We were a bunch of Providence kids in our school’s gymnasium, where I had performed many times before, but as a point guard on Kennedy’s youth basketball team, not as a soloist at the annual Christmas concert.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was originally paired with another fifth-grader to sing a duet of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” the popular spiritual celebrating the birth of Jesus. But on the day of the concert, my fellow caroler was home with the flu.

My mind raced upon hearing the news in the schoolyard, and not to good places. I had to sing alone? What if I forgot the words to the verse my friend, the better singer, was to have sung? Or worse, what if I opened my mouth and nothing came out?

I had been selected for the choir two years earlier after being summoned, along with my third-grade classmates, to the music room in the school basement. Each of us sang a line or two from “Oh Susanna” as the choir director accompanied us on the piano. With her cat-eye glasses, muted floral dresses, and white pearls, she reminded me of my Italian grandmother. Apparently, my voice was OK; I passed the audition.

I loved to sing, especially to Beatles tunes, which I played on the hi-fi in our living room at home. However, being part of the school choir was anything but fun. Unlike my beloved grandmother, the choir director was stern and impatient; a flubbed lyric or missed beat elicited her immediate rebuke. It was only at the bi-annual concerts for our parents – one before Christmas and one in the spring – that we saw her smile.

Then, when I reached fifth grade, everything changed. Our drill-sergeant choir leader retired and was replaced by an engaging new director who wore cuffed bell-bottoms and bright scarves in her hair. At our first practice, she handed out percussion instruments for all of us to play. On another day, she spun Smokey Robinson’s pop hit “The Tears of a Clown” on her phonograph. Even better, she invited us to dance, and as we did, I couldn’t take my eyes off the girl I had a crush on.

Smokey’s voice was a distant echo as I made my way off the choral riser at the Christmas concert to perform my unplanned solo. I listened to my new choir director’s piano vamp, and then I began to sing:

“When I was a seeker, I sought both night and day. I asked the Lord to help me …”

Unfortunately, the Lord wasn’t much help that night; in the cavernous gym, my voice sounded as thin as a reed, and my neck muscles were taut, like cello strings. I thought I was going to faint – and then Christmas came early.

When I reached the chorus – “Go tell it on the mountain …” – I heard a low, rich voice behind me, welcome as a life raft. As I warbled on – “over the hills and everywhere …” I looked over to the piano. My choir director’s eyes were closed and her head was tilted back slightly, like she was singing to heaven. Her assured alto calmed me. In the second verse, I sang with more confidence. And when she syncopated a lyric as we repeated the chorus together, I felt the spark of her improvisation. At the song’s end, everyone clapped, and I took an awkward, happy bow.

Whenever I hear “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” it brings me back to a packed gymnasium at Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School; to a hip and gifted choir director; and to my mountaintop moment as a singer – the first and only one.

I really should have thanked my friend for getting the flu.

Still connected and still beautiful

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As published in The Providence Journal, November 19, 2017.

It would be a bicoastal celebration – Massachusetts and California – with the first part just up the road in Boston. Deb and I arrived at the Renaissance Hotel to begin our anniversary getaway, and there was an immediate hiccup. The twentysomething desk clerk informed us that our room had twin beds.

“That’s what happens with Groupon,” she added apologetically, her eyes fixed on her screen.

“We’ve been married for 30 years,” I said. “Doesn’t that at least merit a double?” I made a joke about Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, but only Deb laughed.

After tapping her keyboard with rapid-fire efficiency, the clerk told us she’d be happy to switch our room. She was also giving us free Wi-Fi.

That’s what three decades of marriage get you – free Internet access.

Deb and I were 24 when she peeked into my cubicle at the ad agency where we both worked. I was smitten by her easy laugh and the freckle on her lower lip. We shared a love of Talking Heads songs and Shakespeare’s sonnets, one of which we chose for a reading at our wedding ceremony three years later:

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments …”

Our early days were carefree and fun, with Deb’s outgoing personality balancing my introversion. When we went on weekend jaunts to Cape Cod, I wrote out the driving directions beforehand, while Deb struck up conversations with strangers along the way. Soon we had new friends.

Three children came in quick succession. Ours was a boisterous and happy house, with preschool artwork on the refrigerator, toys on the floor, and a sweet dog at the foot of someone’s bed each night.

When people asked how we managed the almost-constant commotion, Deb and I paraphrased a David Byrne lyric: “We’re making it up as we go along.”

But as years passed, we weren’t always in tune – about finances, about career paths, and, more distressingly, about what we wanted from one another. With increasing frequency, we got tripped up by the “impediments” we had so glibly dismissed on our wedding day. Our relationship had less spark and more friction, and our 20th anniversary passed with little fanfare.

When Deb suggested we “see someone,” as in a marriage counselor, all I heard was “failure.” When she said we needed help to figure things out, I countered that we’d work harder. Or I said nothing at all. It would be a year before I agreed to go with her to our first appointment.

The twice-a-month sessions surprised me, as did an early observation by our counselor: “You made progress just by coming here,” she said. “You both still care.”

Deb and I began to see how, for all our compatibility, we came from very different places. My grandparents were Italian and Irish immigrants; Deb’s roots went back to the American Revolution. My mother and father divorced before I was 10; Deb’s family had vacationed together in Florida and out West. My actions were usually premeditated; my wife lived in the moment. The list went on. Our marriage would either reconcile the gaps or accentuate the distance.

Couples therapy didn’t erase our differences, but it did lead us to new conversations and a renewed faith in one another. Eventually, we had the confidence to go it alone again.

Three months after Deb and I wed, Bruce Springsteen released “Tunnel of Love,” a 12-song meditation on relationships and marriage. On the title track, the Boss sings “it’s easy for two people to lose each other in this tunnel of love.” It’s my favorite Springsteen album; Deb’s, too.

On the Californian segment of our anniversary trip, we were drawn not to a tunnel, but to a bridge – the Bixby Creek Bridge, which traverses 714 feet over a steep canyon in Big Sur, audacious as a nuptial vow. Later, martinis in hand, Deb and I marveled at the iconic concrete span – still connected and still beautiful despite (or perhaps because of) its nicks and wear.

We could have been toasting ourselves.

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