EARLY DAYS

Tales from growing up – from family gatherings and first days of school to playing in the backyard

Keeping Armand close in my blueberry heart

Screen Shot 2020-05-17 at 6.52.23 AMAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 17, 2020. Above, the author accepts the championship trophy on behalf of Kennedy Recreation Center at the 1973 Serran Basketball Tournament as his coach, Armand Batastini, looks on at far right

In the Providence where I grew up, basketball was king, old-school coaches ruled, and no one did more for up-and-coming hoopsters than Armand Batastini.

The youth basketball legend brought my good friend John Reilly – “Reills” – and me together 47 years ago for an unforgettable season. When our coach passed away last month, I reached out instinctively to my old teammate.

“Sorry for losing touch for so long, brother,” I texted Reills, who lives in Florida. “Just wanted to let you know that Armand died on Saturday.”

“I’ll call you tonight,” came my friend’s quick reply. “A lot for me to reflect on.”

I felt the same way.

For 63 years, Armand mentored countless boys and girls, for which he was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame. Best known for his teams at St. Pius in the Elmhurst section of Providence, he also had a successful coaching stint at the neighborhood’s Kennedy Recreation Center, where Reills and I played for him.

On the phone that night, my friend reminded me that I once said practices with Armand were like “school after school.” During our two-hour workouts three afternoons a week, laughs were as rare as buzzer-beaters from half court. Failing to dive for a loose ball could trigger a favorite Armand trope – “You guys have hearts like blueberries!” – followed by another, more colorful anatomical reference, which would have made our mothers blush.

The man rarely used the whistle that hung around his neck; blessed with a commanding bark, he didn’t need to. But Armand’s heart was always in the right place. In his blue windbreaker and white Chuck Taylors, he was a tireless teacher. And just like us, he wanted to win.

“Remember when we practiced on Thanksgiving?” Reills asked.

How could I forget? My mother was annoyed when I left the house on that cold November morning, but we had a game the next day – against St. Pius, of all teams – and Armand knew the stakes.

“You’re playing for neighborhood bragging rights,” he said as he prepared us to face our parochial-school nemesis. He was right, of course – Kennedy Rec Center and St. Pius stood a mere six blocks apart. Our decisive victory the following night granted us a year of sidewalk swagger.

Before Magic and Madonna were known by a single name, he was “Armand” to us and everyone else. As a point guard under his tutelage for four years, I honed my dribbling skills and rid my game of “lollipop passes.” Our teams were good, especially in 1972-73, when we went 25-6 and ran the table at the Serran Tournament to cap our season. The championship trophy I accepted on behalf of our squad was huge, but the biggest reward that day was seeing the smile on my coach’s face.

Long after I played my final game for him, Armand had my back. As our neighborhood’s state representative, he cut through red tape to learn why I was denied a Pell Grant as a freshman at Brown University and helped me get the award the following year. After my wife, Deb, and I bought our first house – on Modena Avenue in Elmhurst – he stopped by to congratulate us, kissing Deb on the cheek as if she were family. And when my son Evan petitioned me to play AAU basketball – a world I knew nothing about – I knew where to turn for guidance: As always, Armand had the answers.

In 2018, the Pleasant View Recreation Center in Providence’s Fifth Ward was renamed the Armand E. Batastini Jr. Recreation Center. All of us who played for Armand know how deserving he was of such an honor.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a celebration of Armand’s life is planned for a future date.

His family may need to rent out the Dunk.

 

Thanksgiving served up “auntie” love

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The author’s “aunts” Grace Besachio and Tina Giuliano, fourth and fifth from the left, at a family wedding in 1956.

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 17, 2019.

The hiss of Mom’s hairspray on Thanksgiving morning announced that it was almost time to leave.

“Grab your coats, boys,” she called from the downstairs bathroom where she always put on her make-up. “We’re going to Auntie Big Gracie and Auntie Tina’s.”

Big Gracie and Tina were my mother’s first cousins, which technically made them first cousins once removed to my brothers and me; but we called the fun-loving sisters “aunties” out of respect. As for the “big” in Big Gracie’s name, it was confusing. The only thing outsized about my aunt was her personality – she stood 5 feet 2 inches, tops.

“Why do you call her Big Gracie?” a friend once asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “We just do.”

I would later learn that the “big” was bestowed on Gracie to distinguish her from a younger cousin – one of my mother’s sisters – who had the same name. She, of course, was known as Little Gracie.

As a kid in the late-1960s, it seemed I had loving Italian relatives on every other block in Providence’s Elmhurst neighborhood. Big Gracie and Tina lived side-by-side in a towering three-story duplex across from La Salle Academy. They each had four children, and on holiday mornings, the duplex was a hubbub of hugs and laughter, coffee and cordials, with non-stop spillover between the attached homes.

On this particular Thanksgiving, Big Gracie greeted us at her front door: “Norma and the boys are here!” she called out behind her.

“Hooray!” came back a shout from the rooms beyond.

With her easy smile and loving voice, my aunt ushered my brothers and me through the throng to her dining room table, which was laden with cookies, cakes, and candies. “Help yourselves, guys,” she said.

After a short stay on Big Gracie’s side of the festivities, it was time to visit Tina. In an ordinary house, this would have meant walking across the front lawn to the duplex’s other entrance. But this was no ordinary house. Years earlier, the two sisters had broken through a closet wall to create a secret passageway between their dining rooms, allowing them to visit each other without going outside.

Family lore has it that during one holiday gathering, a would-be suitor of Tina’s youngest daughter, fueled by holiday libations, sat dumbfounded as he watched a procession of people enter what was apparently a closet, only to have an entirely different group come out moments later. The young man resisted every impulse to flee, and he and my cousin eventually wed.

“Look who’s here!” Auntie Tina called out as my mother, brothers, and I emerged from the closet to make our second big entrance of the day under the same roof. “Norma and the boys!”

More laughter. More cookies. More hugs.

At one point, Auntie Tina asked me if she had forgotten to give me a gift for my birthday earlier that year. I was quick to say yes, though I didn’t actually remember.

“John!” my mother said, shooting me a look. Auntie Tina intervened.

“This is between John and me,” she said, shooing my mother away. Minutes later, when Mom wasn’t looking, Auntie Tina pressed a shiny silver dollar into my palm.

Mother-child relationships are a complex stew, one that nourishes, sustains, and sometimes boils over. Aunts are chicken soup. I remember mine with endless affection because, as James Joyce wrote, “love loves to love love.”

The word “aunt” derives from the Latin “amita,” a diminutive of “amma,” which is baby talk for “mother.” The etymology reflects an age-old truth: there’s a lot of our moms in our aunts.

Just the right amount, I think.

Living with life’s ups and downs

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 20, 2019.

My rake tugs at wet leaves beneath the birch tree in my backyard, making me think of the worn volume of Robert Frost poems that my friend Jim gave me after his father died.

“It was in Dad’s bookcase,” he said, handing me the slender paperback. “I want you to have it.”

My friend’s gesture didn’t surprise me; he was bighearted and knew I was a word guy. But the genre of the book caught me off guard. I would have pegged Jim’s dad as a reader of history and how-to guides, not poetry.

Like many students, I first encountered Frost in high school English when I was assigned to read “Birches” freshman year. To my ear, the words were no match for Bruce Springsteen lyrics. Later, as an English major in college, I was consumed by the classical allusions of Eliot and Yeats, and the riddles of Wallace Stevens. I smugly concluded that Frost’s work was inferior because, to my mind, it was less challenging. Jim’s gift gave me my comeuppance.

I began to read “Birches” the way I believe every poet wants his or her verse to be read: repeatedly. During dozens of journeys through the poem’s 59 lines, Frost’s wisdom emerged.

The speaker in the poem recalls climbing his father’s birch trees as a boy. Holding onto the top-most section of the snow-white trunks, he would fling himself outward feet first to bend the trees and rid them of their stiffness: “So was I once myself a swinger of birches / And so I dream of going back to be.”

What prompts this wish? The speaker is weary of considerations: “I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” Who can’t relate to his desire for a reprieve from life’s difficulties?

As a high-school freshman, my appreciation of Frost’s insight into the human condition was slight. Weariness wasn’t part of my 14-year-old world; my biggest concern was who my basketball team was playing next. I may have read Frost’s words, but I didn’t feel them.

Jim lived right across the street from me on River Avenue in Providence. Thanks to his parents’ diligence, their house was the tidiest on the block: shingles and shutters freshly painted, American flag flying from the front porch. I often saw his father in the driveway tending to his green Plymouth Fury. It gleamed in the morning sunlight.

When I visited Jim’s house, his mother was quick to ply me with brownies or a meatball sandwich. His dad was usually sitting in his living room chair, reading. He’d politely look up and say hello before returning to his newspaper or book. His stoic presence commanded my respect.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to suss out why Jim’s father was so reticent. As a Marine during World War II, he was part of a battallion that stormed Iwo Jima. At the end of his life, he told Jim what he had experienced on that island beach – things that were, until then, unspeakable.

In “Birches,” the speaker seeks a tree’s upper branches when “life is too much like a pathless wood.” His escape, however, is temporary; the birch eventually bends under his weight and sets him on the ground again. Frost offers this epiphany: “Earth’s the right place for love / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

I’m thankful for my friend’s gift – for the second chance it provided to discover a poet’s wisdom and the more complete picture it gave me of Jim’s father. Maybe I was wrong. Perhaps, in its own way, the modest Frost paperback really was a how-to book – about living with life’s ups and downs and finding reason, even on our toughest days, to land on the side of love.

It’s something I’m pretty sure Jim’s dad knew long before I did.

 

Lessons at a Monopoly board

Monopoly_v3As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, Sunday, September 15, 2019.

While my brother Rob and his affable friend Steve were majoring in landscape architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, I was studying English at Brown, and my roommate, Mark, was well on his way to becoming an electrical engineer.

The four of us, however, all minored in the same subject: Monopoly.

Several nights a week, around 9:30, Rob and Steve would scoot up College Hill to Sears 117, the cozy dorm room on Wriston Quad where Mark and I lived sophomore year. A Monopoly board sat on a makeshift table in the center of the room, with each player’s signature token poised on the Go square: the racing car (Mark), the cannon (Steve), the top hat (me), and a shiny penny (Rob, appropriately enough, since he was known for his parsimonious ways when haggling over deals).

Our boisterous games usually spilled into the early morning hours, fueled by beer and Seagram’s 7 whiskey. It was a long way from playing Monopoly as a kid – or “Monotony,” as one of my friends called it then. On good nights, Rob, Steve, Mark, and I would get in two games; over a weekend, maybe three or four.

Charles Darrow is cited by many as the inventor of Monopoly, which he sold to Parker Brothers in 1935. However, according to Mary Pilon, author of “The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game,” the origin of the game can be traced back three decades earlier to an artist, writer, feminist, and inventor named Elizabeth Magie.

In 1904, Magie received a patent for her brainchild – The Landlord’s Game – in which players circled a board buying up railroads and properties, and collecting rents. It was the progenitor of Monopoly as we know it today, but with a twist.

Pilon relates that there were two sets of rules for the game – “monopolist” and “anti-monopolist” – and that, as a staunch critic of the railroad and oil titans of the day, Magie wanted to demonstrate the evils of unrestrained greed. In 1906, she told a reporter that through her game, she hoped “men and women will discover that they are poor because Carnegie and Rockefeller, maybe, have more than they know what to do with.”

Interestingly, as Rob and Steve stumbled back down College Hill after our epic late-night Monopoly games at Brown, they likely passed “the Rock,” i.e., the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, named for the philanthropist son of the famed tycoon Magie railed against.

Homemade versions of The Landlord’s Game circulated up and down the East Coast, from the early 1900s right into the Depression. That’s how Darrow discovered the game, which he tweaked and renamed Monopoly. When Parker Brothers learned that Darrow wasn’t the game’s sole inventor, it paid Magie $500 for her patent. The rest is history.

Monopoly sold 278,000 copies in its first year; more than 275 million sets have been purchased since. And despite Magie’s hope that the game would alert players to the wrongs of accruing vast amounts of wealth at the expense of others, quite the opposite occurred. Once, on a family vacation, my 12-year-old daughter placed a hotel on Boardwalk – Monopoly’s most punishing rental – and then exploded with glee when I landed there to give her the game.

While Monopoly may be timeless, some of its particulars have evolved. Take the game’s beloved mustachioed mascot, originally known as Rich Uncle Pennybags. He still preens on one of the Community Chest cards, having won second prize (and $10) in a beauty contest. However, after an unfortunate name-change in 1999, Uncle Pennybags is now blandly known as Mr. Monopoly.

Not by Rob and me, though. When we formed a company to buy a building for our ad agency, the corporation’s name seemed pre-ordained, invoked from the Monopoly marathons of our college days.

Pennybags Realty closed the deal.

Following in Papa’s footsteps

vincent_pantalone

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, August 18, 2019. Above, my grandfather, Vincent Pantalone, with one of his beloved cigars, outside his store on Federal Hill in Providence.

I landed my first summer job when I was 10. Or, more accurately, it landed me.

My employer was my grandfather, Vincent Pantalone, and despite my age, he was not found in violation of child labor laws. Papa’s specialty clothing store on Federal Hill in Providence — Vincent’s — had taken dozens of family members into its employ since opening in 1927. My rite of passage started in the early 1970s; I was the 12th of 13 grandchildren to do time there.

And what exactly did I do? Whatever Papa, my aunts, or my mother told me to do. That included stacking gift boxes behind the register; extracting pins from the store’s green, short-pile carpet; rolling down the squeaky awnings so merchandise in the showcase windows wouldn’t get bleached by the sun; and running errands. For my Friday night and Saturday shifts, I pocketed $10, a small fortune for a fourth-grader then.

On Saturday afternoons, my grandfather would place a quarter, a dime and a penny in my hand so I could fetch him two cigars at Leo’s Periodicals, across the street. Once, he almost burned the store down when he unwittingly knocked one of his lit stogies into a trash basket.

Fires notwithstanding, I watched Papa preside over the economic engine he built selling communion dresses, christening sets, back-to-school outfits, and the like. He was serious and industrious at work, and I made sure to look busy even when I wasn’t. But if a customer had an issue — the need for an exchange, perhaps, or some last-minute tailoring — my grandfather was quick to turn on his charm.

“Don’t worry,” he would say with a broad smile. “We’ll take care of you.”

Working at Papa’s store was the first in a series of summer jobs that took me through adolescence. I was a counselor-in-training at a Providence YMCA camp; a dishwasher at a fancy Atwells Avenue restaurant; the guy who changed the combinations of every locker at La Salle Academy before the start of the 1975-76 school year; and, in my dream job as a teen, a clerk at Midland Records on Thayer Street, in Providence, where one of my most important responsibilities was spinning LPs and cranking up the volume.

My Midland Records gig started in June 1978, the year teen summer employment in the United States hit its peak, at 58 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. By contrast, only about a third of teens — 34.6% — had a job last summer.

Why the drop? Researchers point to a number of factors, including fewer low-skill, entry-level jobs; more schools ending in late June and/or restarting before Labor Day; and more teens volunteering as part of their graduation requirements and to embellish college applications.

Too bad. Summer jobs can teach you lessons you won’t learn in school, including the satisfaction of earning a weekly paycheck (and the thrill of spending it). A job may even lead to a relationship that finds its way into your work life as an adult.

Such was the case with me. For five summers, my older brother, Rob, and I renovated properties together on Federal Hill. We sanded floors and hung sheetrock; scaled scaffolding to paint triple-deckers; reglazed windows and replaced doors; and lugged appliances up and down winding staircases.

Somewhere between the painting and the lugging, we discovered that we made a pretty good team.

Rob and I continue to work together today, following in Papa’s footsteps by running our own business, in this case an ad agency. A photo of our grandfather graces our conference room (in it, he is smoking a cigar — safely, outside his store). And the good-luck horseshoe that hung above the door at Vincent’s now hangs above ours.

Rob launched our agency in 1989 from a bedroom in his house. By the time I joined him three years later, he had moved into our first office.

Fittingly, it was right above Papa’s store.

Patrick, Joseph, and saintly parades

Festa_Poster

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, March 17, 2019. Above, poster for St. Joseph’s Day on Federal Hill in 1977.

Two Christian saints rub shoulders on the calendar this month, just as the Irish- and Italian-Americans did in the Providence neighborhood where I grew up in the 1970s.

Whether your last name was Reilly or Riccio, most kids in Elmhurst wore green to school on March 17 in honor of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. And then, two days later, many of us showed up garbed in red to celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph, whose intercessions were believed to have once saved Sicily from a severe drought.

What else do we know about Patrick and Joseph, and why are their respective feast days so beloved in these parts?

Details on both saints are sketchy, but of this we can be certain: Patrick was not Irish. Born in Britain when it was under Roman rule, he came to Ireland as a Christian missionary in the fifth century.

Patrick is said to have used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to Ireland’s druids and pagans. And legend has it he drove the snakes from the Emerald Isle, just as God had banished the serpent from the Garden of Eden. (For those keeping score at home, herpetologists tell us that Ireland has actually never been home to snakes.) March 17 is generally accepted as the date of Patrick’s death; hence, the timing of his feast day.

Interestingly, the first recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade was held not in Dublin or Galway, but in New York City in 1762 when Irish soldiers serving in the English army marched to honor their Catholic saint. Today, up to two million spectators gather for the festivities along Fifth Avenue. Closer to home, as many as 50,000 people trek to Newport’s annual parade, now in its 63rd year.

Joseph, husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the patron saint of Sicily. According to legend, he responded to Sicilian prayers during a severe drought in the Middle Ages. The rain came, a famine was avoided, and grateful believers honored Joseph with feasting and celebration, thus starting a tradition that continues throughout the world to this day.

In the late 19th century, Sicilian immigrants came to the United States largely through the port of New Orleans, and they brought their St. Joseph’s Day traditions with them. Soon parades honoring the saint were annual springtime events in the French Quarter. This year’s procession will take place on March 23, with marchers handing out silk flowers and fava beans, which is the crop that saved Sicilians from starvation during their historic drought.

Other cities in the United States with large Italian-American populations are known for their St. Joseph’s Day celebrations, as well, including New York, Syracuse, Hoboken, and, of course, Providence.

I was fortunate to have been behind-the-scenes for the St. Joseph’s Day festivities on Federal Hill in the mid-1970s after Atwells Avenue had been given a dramatic facelift. Decorative streetlamps now stood sentry over wide brick sidewalks, and a massive archway greeted visitors at the east end of the busy retail thoroughfare.

At home, my mother, who was secretary of the Federal Hill Businessmen’s Association, laid out silk sashes on our living room couch, to be worn by the politicians and dignitaries who would march in the parade. One year, my older brother’s roommate at the Rhode Island School of Design created the poster for the event. Fancy green type stood out against a screened archive photo of a marching band: Festa di San Giuseppe, March 19, 1977.

The weather was chilly that day, with the temperature only in the low 40s, but the freshly painted red-white-and-green traffic stripe in the middle of Atwells Avenue gleamed in the sun as thousands made their pilgrimage to the Hill.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! And, as corned beef and Guinness give way to zeppole and sambuca, Happy St. Joseph’s Day, too!

Birthday snapshots through the ages

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 17, 2019. Above, the author celebrates his 7th birthday at home in Providence in 1967.

I turn 59 this month.

As birthdays go, it’s not a noteworthy number.

I mean, it can’t hold a candle to, say, 40. For that birthday, my wife, Deb, threw a surprise party for me at our house. I opened the front door to the shouts and good wishes of more than fifty family members and friends. What a bash!

My 18th birthday was memorable, too. It fell five days after The Blizzard of ’78 had buried Rhode Island under more than two feet of snow. I spent my birthday night in a music store on Federal Hill where my older brother, Rob, worked. His boss was worried about post-storm looting, so he deployed the two of us to stand guard. It was dark and eerily quiet amid the unplugged Fender Stratocasters and Peavey amps as we fought to stay awake, but nothing happened.

Well, nothing but this: In celebration of my new “legal” status – 18 was the drinking age at the time – Rob placed a brown paper bag on one of the store counters. “Happy birthday,” he said as I slid the bottle out. It was a fifth of something called Rock and Rye – “Rock” as in rock-candy, I would learn. The sweetened concoction was the color of maple syrup. I took a swig from the bottle’s wide mouth and grimaced. Looters may not have caused any damage that night, but my birthday cocktail did.

My seventh birthday stands out, thanks to a photo my mother took. In it, I’m about to blow out the candles on my cake while sporting a construction-paper crown, likely made for me at school.

That black-and-white snapshot reminds me of another unforgettable birthday moment, this one belonging to my son Evan. When I suggested over breakfast one morning that he’d have fun at pre-school because it was his big day, he was unconvinced.

“It’s like any other day,” he said in his raspy voice, eyes fixed on his Fruit Loops. “They just give you a stupid hat.”

(Clearly, I was a more superficial child than my son, for there I am in Mom’s photo album, forever happy in my “stupid hat.”)

When my brothers and I were growing up, our mother’s age defied the passage of time, at least by her calculations. Each March, she’d tell us with playful certainty that she was turning 22. As we moved through adolescence, Mom finally made a concession to Father Time and upped her age to 33. And there it would stay, at least as far as she was concerned.

My brother Rob had other ideas. With a big party planned at our house to celebrate Mom’s 45th, he exercised his budding graphic design skills and spray-painted a birthday greeting on a white bed-sheet. The day of the party, while Mom was at work, I helped Rob and his Rhode Island School of Design roommate hang the sheet from the gutter above the front porch of our house, which stood on busy River Avenue in Providence.

“HAPPY 50TH, NORMA!” the birthday billboard proclaimed to the constant stream of passersby, most of them unaware of its inaccuracy.

One of my mother’s friends said she would have never forgiven her kids for doing such a thing. Lucky for us, Mom was a good sport, even if she did say the prank was “awful.” (Looking back, had we been better sons, the banner would have read “HAPPY 22ND!”)

A final memory for this account: As my 12th birthday approached, I received a card from my orthodontist. At the time, braces were not as prevalent as they are today, and I was self-conscious about my “tinsel teeth.”

Depicted on the front of Dr. Prescott’s card was a herd of buck-toothed cartoon animals, all of them beaming with braces. The caption read “Lots of people have them …”

Yeah, right, I thought. Then I looked inside: “BIRTHDAYS WE MEAN!”

My face broke into a silver smile.

 

 

No place like home in a hurricane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Praying for our dog’s return

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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

22

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.

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