EARLY DAYS

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

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.

Seven blocks of pure freedom

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As published in the Providence Journal, September 17, 2017.

Three brown-bag lunches sit on the kitchen counter, each one branded with my mother’s handwriting. My older brother, Rob, will take his to La Salle Academy where he is a freshman, while my younger brother, James, and I will carry ours to Robert F. Kennedy School. James is in first grade, I’m in sixth.

“Johhh-neee!”

It’s Chris, my best friend, calling from the driveway on the side of our house. James and I jump up from the kitchen table.

“Don’t forget your lunches!” my mother says, stubbing out a Tareyton cigarette. A talk-show host chatters on the radio atop the refrigerator, but it’s Mom’s voice that registers with me. “Keep an eye on your brother,” she says in a tone that guarantees compliance. “I’ll be back from work when you guys get home.”

James and I bound into the crisp September air and start up River Avenue with Chris. We love walking to school. There are no parents, no teachers – just seven blocks of freedom along the tree-lined streets of Elmhurst.

“Want a Starburst?” Chris asks. My friend is easygoing, and mischievous in ways I envy. He’s also nice to James. My brother and I grab the soft candy chews from him and, in seconds, eradicate any good we might have done with our toothbrushes earlier that morning.

At Moorland Avenue, sharp barks turn our heads. It’s Killer, our name for the menacing German shepherd safely penned in the backyard of the Cape on the corner of Moorland and Rankin Avenue. Even though we are almost a block away, Killer ­is on his hind legs, pawing the air and barking at us ferociously. The heavy chain that tethers him to a clothesline pole is taut.

“I have dreams about that dog,” Chris says. “Bad dreams.”

Killer’s barking fades behind traffic noise as we continue up River Avenue. We check the English yew in front of a shingled double-decker. The previous fall, Chris planted an orange Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrapper deep in its branches.

“Still there,” he says with satisfaction. All is right with our world.

We reach Smith Street and have to wait for the stoplight to change. It’s a tricky three-way intersection, with Wabun Avenue complicating the automobile-and-pedestrian ballet. Years earlier, as a second grader, my brother Rob had run into the side of a moving station wagon here. When I asked him what happened next, he said the car kept going and so did he.

“I was late for school,” he said. “And I didn’t want Mom to find out.”

Chris, James, and I, safely through the Smith Street piece of the intersection, pop into Haskins Pharmacy. I dig three pennies from my pocket and slide them into the red gumball machine.

Back outside, we have to wait for the stoplight to change again, this time to get across River Avenue. Charlie, an old, one-eyed beagle, joins us on the corner. He belongs to Mr. Siravo, the fruit peddler who lives near Haskins. Charlie comes and goes as he pleases; his ability to navigate city traffic is a marvel to us.

“Hi, Charlie,” James says, and the graying dog gives my brother a sweet, one-eyed look, his tail wagging.

The light changes and Chris, James, and I cross, with Charlie in step. At Nelson Street playground, half a block from school, the three of us jump on the swings and swoop and soar until we can go no higher.

Riiinnngg! The first bell sounds. We run from the playground to the schoolyard. There’s still time for a race or two – down to the chain link fence and back. Go!

Riinng-riinng! It’s the final bell. Teachers appear, lines form, shoulders slump. Chris and James fall in with their classmates, I with mine.

In Miss MacDonald’s classroom, I see the day’s schedule written on the blackboard. One word stands out, like a gold star on a spelling paper: dismissal. It can’t come fast enough.

Seven blocks of freedom await us on the walk home.

Letter to editor, message to son

DW_letter_2_croppedAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, August 20, 2017.

The day Dad moved out of our family’s red bungalow in Providence, my mother handed me a letter written in his familiar hand.

The first line made my 9-year-old eyes well up: “Ever since you were a baby, I have marveled at how happy I was to be with you.” The second paragraph provided details I would someday understand: “The court has said I can’t be with you all the time. I don’t think Mommy was happy about this, but I didn’t help her make any other choice.” And toward the end, Dad made a request that would shape the rest of my childhood: “Continue to be good to little James. He’s the nicest little boy in the world. It’s very important to me that you be a good big brother to your little brother.”

My father had left a letter for my 12-year-old brother, Rob, too. But I doubted there was one for James — he was only 3.

My younger brother and I shared a room, and at night I would climb into his bed if the wind howled or we heard strange noises outside. At age 4 or 5, he asked me why Dad didn’t live with us, and I did my best to explain.

The question underscored how different James’ experience of the divorce was from Rob’s and mine. For us, there was a before and after; for him, there was only Dad’s absence, which became more pronounced once my father’s unpredictable Saturday visitations stopped altogether.

Rob and I managed to maintain relationships with our father as we grew older, but James, by his teenage years, had virtually no contact with him. When my younger brother enlisted in the Coast Guard right out of high school, my father, a former Marine, learned about it from me. Several months later, I gave Dad James’ boot camp graduation photo, which he framed and set by his TV. My brother’s crisp uniform and stern look made it clear he was “little James” no more.

James was assigned to the Point Charles, an 82-foot cutter stationed at Cape Canaveral, in Florida. On calls home, his stories about perilous rescues and high-speed chases made my mother proud and uneasy. She was less concerned about his boat’s security patrols just off the Florida coast prior to NASA’s space shuttle launches.

James took part in 11 shuttle liftoffs and, in January 1986, was deployed for his 12th when the Point Charles blew an engine en route to its position several miles offshore. The captain was ordered to limp on to Jacksonville, and the Point Charles was replaced by the Point Roberts for the impending launch of Challenger.

James would later say he was thankful not to have been an eyewitness to the space shuttle disintegrating in the sky.

Wreckage from the Challenger was retrieved from the Atlantic Ocean by a flotilla of Coast Guard and Navy vessels. With the Point Charles disabled, James and his fellow crew members had the solemn task of collecting debris that washed ashore.

On Feb. 5, eight days after the tragedy, The Providence Journal published reactions from its readers, one of which came from my father:

“With the media coverage attendant to the Challenger disaster, a thankless task may have gone overlooked by many Americans; namely, the sea-air rescue men and women, particularly the Coast Guard, working at the impact area off Cape Canaveral. Theirs is a useful, necessary, dangerous, lonely and, at times, distasteful mission. They do our dirty work quite well, I might add.”

My mother clipped the section from the paper and, after highlighting my father’s letter, sent it off to James. On his next call home, my brother thanked her. “Dad got it right,” he said.

Seventeen years earlier, Rob and I had gotten our letters; now James had his. It was as close to reconnecting as he and my father would come.

To this day, James keeps Dad’s letter, creased and yellowing, tucked away in a lockbox.

The world as one, thanks to rocket men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back on Earth, people marveled.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Navigating stormy days with Dad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are we going today?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What I wanted to be when I grew up

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

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

“So what are you going to do?”

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

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

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

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

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

And then it was my turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mom was real-life Mary Richards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Mom, there was never any doubt.

 

Dreams from my own la la land

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

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

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

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

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

“Never been better,” I say, laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All I really wanted for Christmas

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s in the other bag?” Rob asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Going old school with my new mower

Lawn_Mower_JW

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, August 21, 2016.

White smoke belched from my gas-powered lawn mower, accompanied by random, and quite ominous, popping sounds.

“C’mon, Murray,” I said, calling the old mower by its brand name. “Just let me finish.”

I was in the middle of my front yard on a sunny Saturday morning. Since the previous summer, Murray had been revving erratically every time I mowed, but I’d hoped its dirt-caked engine would hang on long enough to get me through one more season.

The loudest pop yet punctuated the balmy air as Murray emitted a white valedictory puff and abruptly went silent. I pulled on the starter cord again and again, but it was no use: the mower was beyond resuscitation. Crows squawked a requiem from a telephone wire above.

I looked at my lawn: half was cleanly clipped and half was still shaggy, a hippie holdout for the moment. The time for a new mower had come.

Lawn mowers are a fairly recent invention. From ancient Rome to the 19th century, the scythe — a large, curved blade fastened to a long handle — was the principal tool for taming yard growth. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that a clever Englishman named Edwin Budding revolutionized how we cut grass.

Budding’s mower, made from wrought iron, featured a bladed reel or cutting cylinder mounted on a wheeled cart that was pushed from behind. It proved to be a welcome and efficient alternative to the scythe for manicuring yards and fields. In 1830, Budding was granted a British patent for his invention and not much has changed since then: modern reel mowers are remarkably similar to his original design.

My grandmother on the Walsh side had a reel mower that she kept in the basement of her Providence bungalow because there was no shed or garage. Getting the mower in and out of the cellar window — often my brother Rob’s job, with Nana’s help — took as much time and energy as cutting her grass did.

Things were easier down the street at my maternal grandfather’s double-decker. Papa did have a garage, where he stored his reel mower, and his lawn was smaller than Nana’s. But thanks to the perpetual shade thrown by River Avenue’s towering oak trees, grass was sparse in the front yard. Mowing produced more dust than clippings, and the stirred-up clouds invariably drifted across the driveway, giving Papa’s shiny black Buick Skylark a dull brown veil.

“I just had that car washed,” he said, shaking his head after I had mowed one day.

Later that summer, my grandfather replaced his front yard’s anemic grass patches with a new “lawn” — two raised beds of freshly poured cement which, in a nod to realism, Papa had tinted lime green. I loved to “water” the new hardscape, ridding it of acorns and dead leaves. Meanwhile, the pristine Skylark, no longer subjected to mower-driven dust storms, gleamed.

Now, with my Murray expired, I headed to Lowe’s to find a successor. I was browsing power mowers by Troy-Bilt and Bolens when it suddenly occurred to me: what about a reel mower? My front lawn wasn’t much bigger than Nana’s or Papa’s had been, and my back yard was mostly pea stones and flowerbeds.

I saw a Scotts 16-inch reel mower at the end of the aisle. It was love at first sight.

Back home, Scotts made good on its promise of “easy assembly without tools.” In less than 15 minutes, I was ready to finish trimming the shaggy portion of the lawn. I pushed the mower and was instantly soothed by its gentle snip-snip-snip sound. It was like hearing a favorite song from summers long ago.

My son Evan walked onto the front porch and looked at me, dumbfounded.

“What’s that?” he said.

“A lawn mower,” I said. It could have been a dinosaur bone.

Resuming my mowing, I heard Evan say, “That’s so cool!”

Hats off to Edwin Budding. After 186 years, his ingenious invention is still cutting it.

 

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