EARLY DAYS

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

Free autographs were a sign of the times

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 15, 2022. Illustration by Emma Walsh.

Getting the autograph of your favorite professional baseball or basketball player in 1968 cost you six cents – the price of a first-class postage stamp. 

As a young fan, I made treks to the mailbox on the corner of Smith Street and River Avenue in Providence with a sealed white envelope in my hand and the cloying taste of stamp glue still in my mouth. The mailbox swallowed my letter, and all I could do was wait.

In that pre-digital, pre-email world, through the marvel of the postal service, my handwritten letters would, at least in theory, reach Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees and Sam Jones of the Boston Celtics. Each would see, after my effusive two-sentence declaration of his athletic greatness, that I was asking for his autograph. 

For weeks, I checked our mailbox at home. Finally, an envelope with my name on it arrived, postmarked New York, and I carefully slid out my treasure: a glossy black-and-white photo of Mickey Mantle with his signature on it. Two days later, there was another envelope, postmarked Boston, and now I had Sam Jones’s autograph, too.

Sounds quaint, for sure, especially when you consider what a big business sports memorabilia has become. By 2021, it was estimated to be a $15 billion industry annually and growing fast.

Autographed photos like the free ones I was sent as an 8-year-old are the second most popular item in the memorabilia market, topped only by autographed jerseys. And today’s John Hancocks don’t come cheap. Athletes now command handsome fees for attending signing events and charge $20, $50, $100, or more for a quick swipe of their pen.

And then there’s this: a Mike Trout baseball card bearing the three-time MVP’s signature was recently discovered in an attic in New Hampshire. Its value hovers around $10,000 – a grand slam for the woman who found it.

Back in my childhood bedroom, I noticed a difference between the two signed photos that I had thumbtacked to my bulletin board. Mickey Mantle’s autograph was printed, not written; when I rubbed over the letters with my thumb, they didn’t smudge. The Sam Jones autograph had been scribed by hand: the photo of him in his white Celtics uniform was debossed ever so slightly by the markings of a ball-point pen.

Something else made Jones’s autograph stand out. In addition to his signature, there was a message for me: “With kind regards to John.”

Had Sam written those words himself?

All this came back to me last New Year’s Eve upon seeing reports of Jones’s death at age 88. Just two months earlier, he had been named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team with the likes of better-known superstars such as Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James.

A tribute in the Boston Globe celebrated the quiet and gracious man who, after retiring in 1969 as a 10-time NBA champion, became a substitute teacher for 30 years in Montgomery County, Maryland. When students asked what brought him back to middle school after reaching the heights of basketball glory, Jones said he always wanted to be a teacher and, besides, he was too old to guard those young bucks in the NBA now.

According to the Globe piece, a student learned of Mr. Jones’s exceptional bona fides on the day class pictures were handed out. He asked his favorite substitute to sign one of his photos. 

I smiled as I read of the Celtic great complying with the star-struck student’s request – just as, I am all but certain, he had responded to mine.

Following in my children’s Converse footsteps

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 20, 2022.

Who was Chuck Taylor anyway?

I didn’t have a clue, but his name was on the sneakers I coveted as a kid. Converse Chuck Taylors – “Cons” or “Chucks” for short – were worn by 80% of college and professional basketball players in the 1960s. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points wearing them one night.

In 1968, I was an 8-year-old working on my behind-the-back dribble at Kennedy Recreation Center in Providence. Would a pair of Chucks up my game? I was counting on it.

Turns out Chuck Taylor was a journeyman semi-pro basketball player from the Midwest who suited up for a string of teams in the 1920s, including the Columbus Commercials and, presciently, the Akron Firestone Non-Skids. Legend has it, he walked into the Converse factory in Malden, Massachusetts one day complaining of sore feet. He also had an idea or two about how the company could improve its recently introduced basketball shoe.

Taylor must have been a better salesman than set shooter because by 1932, canvas Converse high-top sneakers bore a patch with his signature. Chuck Taylor All-Stars had arrived.

When I first set foot in the Kennedy Rec gym, I was wearing a pair of sneakers my mother had bought for me at Grants department store. Their plastic soles were hard as ice, and I skated across Kennedy’s blond hardwood floor every time I tried to come to a stop. After begging my father for a pair of Cons, he took me downtown to Geller’s on Washington Street. I walked out wearing a pair of Coaches – a Converse sneaker similar to Chucks, but three dollars cheaper. It was a step in the right direction.

When I did finally lace up my first pair of Chucks as a freshman point guard at La Salle, Converse’s foothold on the basketball shoe market was beginning to wane. Adidas, Puma, and Nike were making inroads, and by my senior year, I was one of only a few players on our team still wearing the iconic canvas high-tops. My favorite Converse tagline – “Limousines for the feet” – may have been a copywriting masterpiece, but it stretched credulity when I compared my sweat-stained kicks to a fancy pair of leather Nikes or Pumas. Chucks as basketball shoes were now less like limousines and more like Model Ts.

Converse upped its game in the 1980s with the introduction of its own leather basketball shoes, the Pro and the Weapon. The company also snared endorsements by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson who, in addition to skyrocketing their sport’s popularity as they faced off in three epic NBA Finals, hawked the Converse brand in television and print advertisements.

And what about Chucks? Did they fade away like the two-handed set shot and underhand free throw? Far from it, thanks to an embrace from counterculture music icons ranging from the Ramones and the Sex Pistols to Joan Jett and Kurt Cobain. Cons were classic, affordable, and cool, and their street chic endures to this day. Just ask Vice President Kamala Harris, who proclaims, “It’s either Chucks or heels. Always has been!”

Closer to home, I praised my daughter’s fashion sense when she walked into our kitchen one day wearing a pair of light-blue Chucks. And my son Evan recently returned from Los Angeles sporting black high-top Cons.

I’d like to think my kids are following in my footsteps, but I know better. As I lace up my first new pair of Chucks in almost 40 years – to wear to the office and rock invisibly during Zoom meetings – I realize I’m following in theirs.

Portrait of an invisible boy

John Walsh as a third-grader at Robert F. Kennedy School. As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 21, 2021.

It didn’t make sense.

Less than a year after my parents had built a brand-new house in Narragansett, they sold it and moved our family back to Providence. 

I returned to my old elementary school in Elmhurst, and things were different. After Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the name of the school had been changed to honor him, and a two-story addition now housed four new classrooms and a sparkling gymnasium.

Things were different at home, too. Seven months after we moved back to Providence, my dad moved out. It unleashed a riot of emotions in me, but I betrayed none of them. The next day, I sat in Miss Murphy’s third-grade class with an acute awareness: despite the tumult I felt in my stomach, I looked exactly the same as I did the week before. No one knew my parents were splitting up, and I was determined to keep it that way.

The sparkling new Kennedy gym served as an after-school rec center, which was run by a no-nonsense basketball coach named Armand. One day, he asked me my name.

“Oh, you’re Donald’s son,” he said.

As a fourth-grader the following fall, I made the Kennedy team. Armand told us we would practice three days a week, from 3:30 to 5:30.

“Three-thirty means you should be here at 3:15,” he added.

The gym may have been new, but Armand was decidedly old school. He smoked Lucky Strikes and inked precise plays on sheets of white paper clenched by a clipboard. When I threw a “lollipop pass” at our team’s first practice, his reproach was thunderous.

Incongruously, we all called our fearsome coach by his first name, which could be comical. Given my Rhode Island accent, I thought “Armand” was spelled “Almond” – like an Almond Joy candy bar.

I soon discovered I felt no joy at his rigorous two-hour practices. So I skipped one. And then another. And the next time I set foot in the Kennedy gym, Armand’s voice found me instantly.

“Walsh!”

He strode past me in his low-cut white Chuck Taylors, pointing to the door I had just walked through. I followed him into the hallway.

“Where have you been?” Armand said. The disappointment in his voice stung.

I couldn’t tell him that on one day I had opted to play touch football on Rankin Avenue with my friends Chris and Billy and George. Or that on the other I had gone to my cousin Tommy’s house. I especially couldn’t tell him I didn’t actually want to play organized basketball, at least not yet. In Armand’s commanding presence, I couldn’t say a thing.

“What’s wrong, son?” he said. I felt shame rising up in me, similar to when I lied to a friend about why my dad’s maroon Chevelle was seldom in our driveway anymore.

As I turned away to hide my tears, Armand’s voice broke the hallway silence. It was soft and confidential.

“I know things have been tough for you at home,” he said. It wasn’t why I had skipped practice, but Armand’s words touched a part of me that I wanted to hide from the world.

“It’s OK,” he said as I wiped my eyes. “Come try out for the team again next year.”

I did, and played on Armand’s Kennedy squads until I reached high school – likely more than 100 games and 250 practices.

What I remember most about it all isn’t a thrilling win or a heartbreaking loss. What has stayed with me for more than 50 years is Armand’s kindness that day in the hallway, before I ever donned a blue-and-gold Kennedy uniform.

Thanks to him, the boy I had tried so hard to make invisible had been seen.

Beatles had nothing on my band of brothers

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, August 15, 2021. Above, the author, far left, second row, with cousins at Scarborough Beach in 1963.

Fifty-six years ago, on August 15, the Beatles bounded onto a ramshackle stage above second base at Shea Stadium and launched a new era. It was the first major stadium concert by a rock and roll band, with more than 55,000 attendees, mostly teeny boppers, screaming deliriously throughout the Fab Four’s 30-minute set. Of the spectacle, John Lennon would later say, “At Shea Stadium, I saw the top of the mountain.”

Closer to sea level here in Rhode Island, another seismic event took place on that day, noted by fewer people, but life-changing nevertheless, at least for me: my younger brother, James, was born.

I was 5 years old, so my memories of that summer are formed more by family lore and black-and-white photos than actual recall. In one snapshot, my mother is standing at the edge of the water at Scarborough Beach, very pregnant in a flower-print sundress. I suspect she was watching my older brother, Rob, and me ride waves with first cousins from the Pantalone side of our family. There were 12 of us then: Vinny and Ricky and Paulie and Michael and Lorri and Jeannie and Tommy and Steven and David and Anne and Rob and me, the youngest – but not for long.

Longer than my mother expected, though. A succession of hot, humid days arrived after her early-August due date, but not my brother-to-be.

At my grandfather’s red beach house in Narragansett, I imagine Mom’s cousin Gracie or Tina or Etta voicing impatience with mock annoyance and good-humored empathy: “Norma, where is this baby?” I can see one of Mom’s sisters – Gracie or Rita or Marie – shooing her away from the stove where Sunday gravy is burbling. “Go sit down,” one of them would have said. “I’ll make the macaroni.”

The world I remember as a 5-year-old is a never-ending parade of Italian relatives – an affectionate pinch of my cheek one day, a corrective “scoopalone” to the back of my head the next, all in the name of love.

Three blocks up from Scarborough, on Elizabeth and Sewell Roads, five cottages owned by family members stood within shouting distance of one another. Amid the mounting anticipation of my brother’s birth, I imagine Gracie or Tina calling out into the sunrise quiet while everyone is still in bed: “Norma, did you have that baby yet?”

“No!”

Finally, the day came. As the Beatles prepared to take the stage at Shea Stadium, I envision my father helping my mother into their blue Plymouth Valiant and taking her to Lying-In Hospital. Rob and I likely stayed with one of our aunts at the beach. Maybe a black rotary phone rang. I imagine my Aunt Marie’s sweet smile as she gave us the news: “You guys have a baby brother!”

One scene is clear in my memory. Two or three days later, my dad drove Rob and me back from the beach to our double-decker on River Avenue in Providence to meet James for the first time. Rob dashed into the living room, raced past my mother who was sitting on the couch, and disappeared into our bedroom. Then he raced back out.

“Where is he?” Rob said, eyes wide with worry.

“Right here, Robert,” my mother said softly. She was cradling our new brother in her lap.

That night, Rob, James, and I lay asleep under the same roof for the first time. While the Fab Four would split up five years after their mountaintop moment at Shea, our band of three has been together ever since.

Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Springing back to life at Academy Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Five,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening to the secrets in my heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driving home, Deb opened a bag of Swedish Fish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sláinte!’ Appreciating random acts of kindness in Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We explained our predicament.

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

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

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

“Sláinte!” 

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

tina+big_gracie_1956

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

Birch_4

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.

 

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