Feeling the tug of family

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, November 20, 2022. Above, I’m seated on the floor, fifth from left, with my older brother and cousins at a family gathering circa 1965.

I wonder how my great-grandparents, Giovanni Pantalone and Grazia DiMaio, celebrated their first Thanksgiving.

Giovanni had arrived in Providence from Naples, Italy in 1906 with the couple’s oldest child, Mary. The following year, Grazia made the transatlantic passage with three more of their children, including Vincent, my grandfather. Like many Italian immigrants in Rhode Island, they settled in a small apartment on Federal Hill, where Giovanni had found work.

If my great-grandparents did celebrate Thanksgiving during their first year together in America, I imagine 9-year-old Vincent was skeeved out by the turkey. Years later, as the patriarch of our family, he insisted that we feast on capon instead, a castrated rooster fattened to be tender.

“It’s a cleaner bird,” Papa said.

By that time, the Pantalone family had flourished. Giovanni and Grazia’s seven children had 21 kids of their own, with 56 offspring following in the next generation.

My grandfather and his siblings had settled in and around Providence. Like immigrants before and after them, they relished the comfort and support that came with having proximity to kin in a new land. Into this loving family I was born, the 12th of Vincent’s 13 grandchildren.

The Pantalone embrace was sweetly felt at weddings and summer gatherings and especially on Thanksgiving Day, which saw my mother, brothers, and me crisscrossing a two-mile familial footprint in Providence’s Elmhurst and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods. We would trek to Academy Avenue for coffee and sweets with my mother’s cousins Tina and Gracie, whose towering duplex was a joyous extended-family hubbub; to Gentian Avenue for a quick visit with my Auntie Rita and her family, including my closest cousin, Tommy; back to our house on River Avenue to feed our dog and catch a bit of the Macy’s parade on our black-and-white Zenith TV; and then to Auntie Marie’s house on Winona Street, where adults sipped cocktails and kids quaffed Cokes. Uncle Harry made sure there was plenty of ice in the freezer.

Our feast would start with Italian wedding soup, so-called for its heavenly marriage of chicken stock, escarole, mini meatballs, and tiny pearls of pasta. I always asked for seconds.

One year, before we dipped our spoons in the first-course goodness, Papa offered a toast: “Without me, none of you would be here!” he said, raising his glass of wine. Everyone laughed, though I saw my mother shaking her head.

After we all had our fill of capon, Auntie Gracie and her family arrived from Greenville for coffee and dessert. With their move seven miles to the northwest, they were our modern-day Magellans. Other family members would one day venture farther away – to New York and Florida, Ohio and Colorado, California and beyond. But for now, Papa’s brood lived happily in Rhode Island. And I was too young to understand either the tug of the invisible ties connecting my brothers, cousins, and me to Giovanni and Grazia and their passage to America, or the uniqueness of the family closeness to which it gave rise.

Our Thanksgiving celebration continued deep into the night. Around the piano we gathered and sang, on-key and off-key, with smiles all around.

On the five-minute drive home, in the see-your-breath chill of my mother’s Ford Maverick, I was warmed by the sight of lights aglow in houses along River Avenue and by the certainty that in four weeks on Christmas Eve, we would all be back together again.

Glen-plaid suit no longer fit in

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, September 18, 2022. That’s me above, third from left, with my brother Rob, my grandfather, and my mom in Providence before a family wedding in 1982.

My godmother, Auntie Gerry, showered me with affection every time I walked into my grandfather’s clothing store on Federal Hill. She had come to work at Vincent’s as a 16-year-old, and was a natural at selling christening suits and First Communion dresses. Years later, I’d see her every Saturday when I reported for duty as the store’s stock boy.

The days were long, but Auntie Gerry made them fun.

“Let’s have Caserta for lunch,” she’d say, sending me around the corner to the bustling pizzeria with five dollars in hand.

“Let’s hit the jackpot,” she’d say, sliding me a scratch ticket and a penny. “If you win, we’ll split the money.”

Auntie Gerry didn’t have kids of her own, but she did have a legion of godchildren. And I was lucky enough to be one of them.

As my high school graduation approached, Auntie Gerry announced she was buying me a suit. “We’ll grab the bus and go downtown to Dino’s,” she said one Saturday morning.

We walked into the menswear store on Dorrance Street. It smelled like cologne.

“My godson is graduating from La Salle next month,” Auntie Gerry told the coiffed salesman with pride. My eyes landed on a checkered three-piece suit.

“Glen plaid,” the salesman said, inviting me to slide my arms into the jacket.

“Fancy,” Auntie Gerry said, smiling.

After several measurements, the deal was done. The suit, a smooth polyester blend, would be ready in a week. Auntie Gerry paid with cash and then took me to lunch next door at Duck Soup.

At my high school graduation, I felt resplendent in my tailored glen-plaid suit. I wore it to my cousin Steven’s wedding and to my cousin Paulie’s, too. Whenever I’d stop by my grandfather’s store, Auntie Gerry would ask me if the suit still fit.

“Still fits!” I’d say brightly.

And it still did during my senior year at Brown when, for a class dance at Rosecliff mansion in Newport, I pulled the plastic Dino’s garment bag out of my closet. At the dance, most of the guys sported blue blazers or seersucker suits. The coolest guys didn’t even wear a jacket. No one was clad in anything like my glen-plaid suit.

When I woke up in my girlfriend’s bedroom the next morning, the suit’s three pieces were draped over a chair.

“Oh, that suit!” my girlfriend said from her bed as I gathered my jacket, vest, and pants.

“What?” I said.

“It’s awful.”

I looked at the checkered pattern and then back at her, bewildered.

“Where in the world did it come from?” she said, laughing.

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t tell her my godmother had bought the suit for me and that’s why I loved it. I wanted to say it didn’t matter if it was glen plaid or pinstriped or whatever, not to me anyway. But I said nothing.

The following week, when I stopped by Vincent’s, Auntie Gerry called out from the back of the store: “Suit still fit?”

Masking the shame I felt for not having responded to my girlfriend’s comments, I called back: “Still fits!”

But I already knew. The glen-plaid suit would stay in my closet for Campus Dance and the rest of graduation weekend at Brown. While the suit still fit, I had succumbed to the pressure of fitting in.

When life was a day at the beach

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 17, 2022. That’s me, far left, second row, with my cousins at Scarborough Beach in 1963.

My family never went on summer vacations when I was a kid, at least not in the conventional sense.

Like many Rhode Islanders, we just went to the beach.

My grandfather owned a tidy red cottage with three bedrooms and one bath on Elizabeth Road in Narragansett to which his four daughters flocked with their children, all 13 of us. I was the second-youngest cousin.

On one hot July morning, my brothers, cousins, and I trekked three blocks to Scarborough Beach while our mothers made peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and Kool-Aid to bring for lunch. The painted white lines in Scarborough’s asphalt parking lot were cool tightropes beneath my bare feet, and the parched boardwalk was splinter-treacherous, although navigating it delivered a magnificent reward: the Atlantic Ocean.

There was one problem: no one was allowed in the water until our moms arrived. Mine had cautioned my brothers and me, more than once, that the dreaded undertow would pull us to our doom.

My older cousin Michael knew a good way to pass the time: skimboarding. At the shoreline, he hucked his waxed wooden disc in front of him as the water from a wave receded, chased after the skittering board and jumped on it with two feet, then glided effortlessly over the glistening shore, arms outstretched.

I did my utmost to mimic Michael’s carefree ride several times, but the board always skated out from under my feet, landing me backside-first on the shoreline mud and drawing whoops of laughter from my throng of brothers and cousins.

Less embarrassing was scouring the fine sand at Scarborough for money. My brother Rob, cousin Paulie, and I slowly walked up and down the beach, eyes searching for glints of silver. A nickel could get you a Hershey bar; a dime would buy you a Coke; and a quarter would be good for three games of pinball. We watched with envy as an old man in long pants waved his metal-detecting device over the sand and then bent down with a pail to sift for his payoff. “I want one of those gizmos for Christmas,” my brother said.

On this morning, the beach was stingy with its coins, but generous with cigarette butts and popsicle sticks. We immediately converted the sandy flotsam and jetsam into mini-catapults, pressing tan Marlboro or Winston filters against the top end of the half-dyed sticks while pushing our thumbs against the bottom to flick butts into the seaside breeze. We crouched in the sand below the boardwalk and took aim at unsuspecting passersby carrying beach chairs and umbrellas. (Our projectiles never hit their targets, which was surely a blessing – for us.)

At last, my mother and aunts arrived. Time to go in!

We dashed and splashed into the cool blue ocean, diving though the arc of a wave just before it crashed. Standing waist-high in the swirling sea, we saw a rising set of waves approach.

“Next one, next one!” a cousin shouted.

We rode the waves until our fingertips wrinkled, then ran up and laid our stomachs down on the hot sand. Shivers eventually quelled, we went back in, again and again.

At noontime, we sat at seafoam-green picnic tables on the boardwalk eating our peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, warm and gooey. Our mothers forbade us from going in the water right after lunch, saying we would get a cramp and drown. Unless, of course, the undertow got us first.

Rob, Paulie, and I went looking for our fortune in the sand again, waiting for a life-saving half-hour to pass.

Superman and me at Scarborough Beach

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 19, 2022. Above, my dad with my older brother Rob, left, and me at Scarborough Beach in 1961.

I envy them as they pass my house pulling red wagons with toddlers in tow: the new dads.

That was me 27 years ago when we moved to the neighborhood. Back when we had three children under age 5. Back when I was Superman.

My kids were all giggles and wide eyes when I spun a basketball on my index finger. They clapped when I made a kite soar against the cloudless sky at our Block Island rental. And if thunder cracked like gunshots during a summer storm, they climbed into my arms. I assured them the heavens would calm.

But when a fall gashed my younger son Evan’s hand in our backyard, his blood was my Kryptonite. I was Everyman, not Superman, face ashen and skin coated in sweat. 

My kids saw me as Everyman on other occasions, too, like when I cursed the drivers who cut me off on Route 95 and sometimes snapped at our dog and, achingly, when I was putting Evan to bed one night.

I don’t recall what prompted his question, but it startled me.

“Do you miss your dad?” he asked with an innocence that belongs only to children. My father died three months after Evan was born. The last time I had seen him, Dad had handed me the bill for his recent, long-overdue doctor’s visit.

“Yes, I do,” I said. Evan’s eyes asked me for more.

“You know what I think?” I said, my Everyman voice quavering. “My father’s alive every time we talk about him. Maybe that’s what heaven is.”

My 5-year-old set me straight. “You don’t really go to heaven,” he said matter-of-factly. “You’re buried. Heaven’s where you go in your head.”

I have often considered the shocking wisdom of my son’s words that night, and I’m thinking of them now.

In my head, I see my dad in black-and-white glossies from family photo albums: as a Marine Corps officer getting his commission, as a dean of students at Brown, smoking a cigarette and looking like George Peppard. 

I see him calmly whisking fourth-grade me to the emergency room at Roger Williams Hospital after I gashed my head on the corner of a coffee table while horsing around with my older brother.

And in a less-than-heavenly reverie, I see him 20 years later in his two-room apartment on Waterman Avenue in North Providence, writing a letter that recently came into my possession. It’s to his brother in New Hampshire. 

In his elegant hand, my dad notes that he “finally got an underpaying, paralyzingly dull job, low wages, no benefits, but thank God a check every week.” He reports he has emphysema and flashes his sharp wit: “The diagnostician wants to run a series of tests. I asked if he were paying.” He closes with reassurances: “I write only to inform not alarm you. You see, with you out there and the boys back here, I have a lot going for me.”

Now in my head, I go to another heaven – to Dad and me in the water at Scarborough Beach on a bright October day. I am 7 years old and feel the strong tug of the undertow as a rising wave approaches. My father is beside me, lean and athletic.

As the wave curls and begins to break, I dive to ride it, arms reaching for the shore. But the water pounds me and I am upended in the churning tumult until, yanking me upward by my wrists, Dad plucks me from the ocean chaos.

We stand in the white sea foam laughing, Superman and me.

Pie in the sky, Guccis in the window

As published in the The Providence Sunday Journal, April 17, 2022.

One week into my first job as a copywriter, I heard my mother’s skepticism as we stood by the cash register in her store on Federal Hill.

“It’s pie in the sky,” she said, referring to the advertising profession. “Do you really want to do that?”

It was too soon to tell. But getting paid to dream up headlines and write copy all day was a step up from busing tables at the Turk’s Head Club downtown, which had been my previous gig.

Still, I understood Mom’s wariness about Madison Avenue. Atwells Avenue was more to her liking.

Her father, Vincent, owned the iconic baby clothes store standing at the corner of Atwells and Acorn Street. And just two blocks east, past the sparkling fountain recently constructed in DePasquale Plaza, she had opened her own store – a teen and junior fashion boutique for women.

There was nothing “pie in the sky” about how my grandfather and mother made money. They purchased clothing and accessories from wholesalers and marked the items up “keystone” or double their cost. They had an eye for fashion, a flair for merchandising, and a gift for sales persuasion. Their stores thrived.

In the early 1980s, one accessory in my mother’s store surpassed all others in popularity. Even I recognized the double-G logo and signature red-and-green band of the famed Gucci brand. So what if the handbags were knockoffs?

Decades later, I found the movie “House of Gucci,” starring Lady Gaga and Adam Driver, wildly entertaining. Not surprisingly, one scene in particular made me lean forward: Gaga’s character, Patrizia Reggiani, takes issue with the counterfeit Gucci bags that are being sold in Manhattan, saying they are “junk.” But Driver, portraying her husband, the doomed Gucci heir, waves her off. “As far as fakes go, they’re pretty good,” he says with a smile. “I’d buy them.”

That’s what hundreds of shoppers did at my mother’s store. So, to help meet the ongoing demand, I took personal days from my ad-agency job two or three times a year to accompany Mom on buying trips to New York City.

We’d hustle into cavernous (and pre-rehab) Union Station, sending resident pigeons to the rafters before catching an early Amtrak train to the Big Apple. From Penn Station, we’d hike uptown to the garment district where my mother would barter for the best prices on blouses, skirts, denim jackets, and, yes, Gucci knockoffs.

We’d grab lunch at a sidewalk hot dog stand and, if necessary, buy cheap umbrellas from one of the street vendors who seemed to magically appear with the first drops of rain.

And when the day’s buying was done, we’d duck into a bar for cocktails and appetizers, then doze on the train ride back to Providence. Once home, we’d recount our adventures over dinner at Camille’s.

The goods arrived in Providence several days later, and we prepared them for sale. With the Gucci knockoffs, that meant stuffing the bags with crumpled newspaper, looping price tags around their handles, and positioning them strategically in the showcase window.

One day, my mother surprised me: “I’m thinking of running a small ad in the Journal’s Style section,” she said.

The one-column-by-three-inch ad an art director colleague and I created featured a pen-and-ink handbag illustration with a simple headline promise: “Lookalikes for less!”

It wasn’t pie in the sky as much as truth in advertising, and the fake Guccis flew out the door.

Making sense of my dog’s senses

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, January 16, 2022. Above, Rhody shortly after we rescued her.

Three gunshots pierce the early morning quiet and hit my dog, Rhody, in a place I can’t see.

It’s duck-hunting season down on Greenwich Cove. For about 60 days, random pops are the neighborhood’s alarm clock. And now Rhody, ears back and tail down, is shaking in the corner of my bedroom.

Don’t let her name fool you. She’s from Georgia, not Rhode Island, trucked here as a puppy with dozens of other strays and dropped off at Petco on Quaker Lane in Warwick for one of their raucous Saturday adoption events. When she burrowed into my daughter’s lap amid the clamor, we knew we had to take her.

Rhody’s sleek black coat is punctuated by two white dots on the top of her head. If she were an insect, antennae would rise from those dots, and we considered naming her Radar because of them. Like most dogs, her hearing is acute – four times as sensitive as mine, I’ve learned – and she cowers at the rumble of thunder, the howl of a windstorm, and the whoosh of an Amtrak train barreling through our town. The Fourth of July is a nightmare.

And yet there is something different about how the gunshots trigger her. Even when they are muffled by a blanket of fog at dawn, they can leave her panting and scurrying to our basement. That’s the thing about rescue dogs: They come to us with a past all their own, mysterious and inscrutable.

Rhody’s sense of smell is as impressive as her hearing. I marvel when she raises her nose at the sight of another dog more than a hundred feet away during our walks around Academy Field.

“Got your sniffer going, huh?” I say to her.

Dogs have as many as 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses compared to a mere six million for humans. And the part of their brains that decodes smells is proportionally 40 times greater than ours. 

Even more remarkable is the anatomy of the canine snout. While the human nose uses the same airways to breathe and smell, a dog has one for respiration and one for olfaction. And the pathway dedicated to sensing scents has accomplished astonishing feats. One drug-sniffing dog detected a plastic container stuffed with 35 pounds of marijuana submerged in a gas tank filled with gasoline. A cancer-sniffing dog kept nuzzling a patient in a spot that doctors had pronounced to be cancer-free; a subsequent biopsy revealed melanoma in a small fraction of the cells.

During duck-hunting season, I play music in the early morning in an attempt to drown out the random gunshot pops, but Rhody’s quivering exposes my folly. Wrapping her in a soft blanket seems to help in the same way it soothed our children years ago when they were babies. We have yet to invest in a so-called “thundershirt” or anxiety vest that the American Kennel Club recommends, but we aren’t ruling it out.

This past Fourth of July, the good doctors at Hill & Harbour Veterinary Center provided medication that allowed Rhody to ride out the evening fireworks with less panting and more sleep. Summer lightning storms are less predictable, though, and when one rolls through, chances are we’ll find her under a table or curled up in a corner.

Two more gunshots from the cove send Rhody to the basement. I make a note to call the vet for more medication while taking a small measure of comfort knowing the best prescription is already on the way: duck-hunting season ends on January 23.

Christmas ornaments celebrate family history

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, December 19, 2021. Above, a gingerbread man ornament made by Juliana Walsh.

They are the presents before the presents: the ornaments my family unwraps each year, one by one, to hang on our Christmas tree.

Some of them date back to B.C.: Before Children. That’s when my wife, Deb, and I threw raucous Christmas parties with one stipulation for entry: guests had to bring an ornament for our tree. 

We were in our mid-20s then, so naughty baubles mixed with nice ones. When our firstborn arrived four years later, the zonked-out Santas and badly behaving elves had to go.

Miraculously, several ornaments from those wild nights survive, and others have become keepsakes since. Every December we unearth them from the basement and peel back their tissue-paper wrappings with anticipation and delight.

So how did the whole tree-decorating custom come about?

Many credit German religious reformer Martin Luther with starting the Christmas tree tradition in the 1500s, and those first trees were decorated with candles, apples, and pastries. Three hundred years later, a German glassblower named Hans Greiner, perhaps unable to afford fancy edibles, decorated his Christmas tree with fruit- and nut-shaped pieces he created in his studio. In England, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, a native German, picked up on Greiner’s practice. And when dime-store magnate Frank Winfield Woolworth introduced glass adornments to his stores in the 1880s, the tree-decorating tradition went mainstream in the United States. 

On our tree, mass-produced ornaments – striped balls, clear icicles, gleaming snowflakes – hang side by side with one-of-a-kind treasures. 

A starfish plucked from Scarborough Beach and tethered to a red ribbon makes me think of the good friend who brought it to our first tree-decorating party decades ago. A colander spoon given by another good friend celebrates Deb’s ingenious cooking skills. A shoelace connecting a Guinness coaster, an Irish pound note, and a pack of shamrock seeds recalls my days in Dublin as a college student. 

There are nods to our children’s school-band instruments: a tiny Fender Stratocaster, a seahorse-sized saxophone, and a baby trumpet. A pacifier brings a chorus of laughter: As a toddler, our son Evan usually had one “bippie” in his mouth and another in his hand. The honor of hanging this childhood relic is always reserved for him.

Our son Peter’s first-grade school photo, mounted on a napkin and framed by Popsicle sticks, returns to the tree each year despite a bit of wear and tear, and all the more precious because of it.

And then there’s the light-brown gingerbread man my daughter, Juliana, made in pre-school – a masterpiece of construction paper and crayon, with three red buttons, two red eyes, and a sweet smile evoking the wonder and innocence of childhood.

We have feathered friends in our tree – partridges, penguins, and doves, and also a gold-crested Larry Bird figurine ready to launch a three-pointer in his green Celtics uniform. He is one of our many sports-themed ornaments.

For years we topped our tree with a beautiful papier-mâché angel, recalling the announcement of Jesus’s birth to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem. Alas, the fragile spirit in her flowing blue-and-white robe plummeted to the floor one evening and broke a wing. A Scotch-tape cast provided a temporary fix, but a Christmas or two later, we decided to ground her permanently after years of angelic service.

What were we going to top our tree with now?

I don’t remember much discussion. And I don’t know how the decision was made. But I do recall climbing up a rickety wooden ladder and, with the help of some picture-hanging wire, attaching Larry Bird to our Christmas tree’s uppermost reach.  

He had elevated his game yet again and has been the star atop our tree ever since.

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?”


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!

Reflections on stone walls and chimneys

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, July 18, 2021. Above, a stone wall on Third Beach Road in Middletown.

I double-knot my sneakers and start down Third Beach Road in Middletown, where my family has reunited for a vacation. Peabody’s Beach is less than a mile away.

The road is flanked on both sides by stone walls: some tidy, some crumbling, most wearing at least a few green splotches of lichen and moss. At one point, dozens of orange tiger lilies preen in the sun, their petals a bold antidote to the dull gray stones behind them.

A Robert Frost line echoes from a long-ago English class: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” Surveying the beautiful and intricate facades on either side of me, I disagree. They are magnificent.

Most of the stone walls in our region were built between 1810 and 1840, when New Englanders were primarily farmers. If you include New York, as many as 250,000 miles of these partitions rose up, amassing more rocks than it took to build the great pyramids of Egypt. The majority of the stones were “two-handers,” which meant one person could lift and carry them. 

The walls are an enduring testament to human persistence, born of necessity. As farmers cleared New England forests to make their land arable, they found rocks everywhere, left behind by glaciers. The farmers pulled the plow-stopping stones from the ground and deposited them along the edges of their fields, an unlikely combination of brute strength and artistry. 

But with each spring thaw, more stones emerged. “People in the Northeast thought that the devil had put them there,” writes stone wall expert Susan Allport. 

On my walk to the beach, near Indian Avenue, I see a stone wall trapped in the clutches of spiraling vines. By the mid-19th century, New Englanders began to abandon their fields as the fertile, rock-free midwestern plains emerged as the nation’s breadbasket. In the Northeast, agrarian subsistence gave way to jobs fueled by the American Industrial Revolution. Forests and vegetation returned to previously cleared tracts of land, ensnarling the walls farmers had painstakingly built and toppling them back to the ground.

Still, many walls were maintained for their sturdy demarcation of property lines, which Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” memorializes. In springtime, two neighbors walk the stone divide between their fields to determine what repairs are needed. Of the boulders they lift and reposition, one neighbor says, “We wear our fingers rough with handling them.”

When my wife and I bought Rose Cottage, the stone walls out back were piled not to clear a field, but rather to retain the yard’s sloping earth. We did install a barrier around the perimeter of our yard: a five-foot cedar fence to keep our children, all under 5 years old, from roaming the half block to Main Street. The wooden enclosure stood for almost two decades, its blond planks turning gray before succumbing section by section to winds and weather. Today, the last leftover boards provide fuel for our fire pit. Meanwhile, the stone walls continue to keep our tiered yard in check.

As Third Beach Road bends to the coastline, another stone artifact – a chimney – towers above the path to Peabody’s Beach. Like the walls along the road, the stack has stories to tell, I suspect, but they are indecipherable to me now. Passing by, I only know this: The house the chimney once served is long gone.

The words of another poet, Nikki Giovanni, come to mind: “Life is a marvelous, transitory adventure.”

I walk down the sandy path until it gives way to a wide strand. Beach umbrellas flutter, children laugh, a lone cloud floats in a perfect blue sky. I drink in the moment, as life-affirming and fleeting as an ocean wave.

Beach cottages built on a handshake

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 20, 2021. Above, my mother and I at our yellow beach house in Narragansett circa 1962.

My brother Rob recently purchased a home in the Nausauket section of Warwick. After spending months in Rhode Island’s current real estate jungle, he has wild tales to tell.

“I got outbid by $100,000 on a two-bedroom house near Pawtuxet Village,” he said with a laugh. “And they were paying cash.”

“Long way from when Mom and Dad built the beach houses,” I said.

In 1962, two cottages sprouted up in Narragansett on a gentle curve of a winding road that could have been named by a poet: Green Kinyon Driftway. My father had just turned 28, my mother 29.

“Pretty sure they paid $6,000 for the yellow house and $5,000 for the gray one,” Rob said, wistfully.

Mr. Windsor, who lived at the foot of the road in a weathered Cape overlooking Salt Pond, built the houses. They were both under 700 square feet. Before the first lumber delivery from Wakefield Branch arrived, my father asked the white-haired, bespectacled carpenter about signing a contract. More than once, Dad recounted the older man’s response.

“All I need is a handshake,” Mr. Windsor said.

As kids, Rob and I played Wiffle ball in the field between the cottages, which our parents rented out for most of the year. But we stopped our game whenever we heard Mr. Windsor’s green Ford pickup truck rattling down the road. As he drove by, our grandfatherly neighbor would lift his hands from the steering wheel and turn our way, sticking his thumbs in his ears, flapping his hands, and making funny faces. Rob and I howled and waved back.

When we weren’t playing Wiffle ball, we explored the woods that stood beyond the two cottages. Rob would flip over a rock, grab a squiggling snake right behind the head, and thrust it in my face. “Aren’t they cool?” he’d say as I recoiled.

And then there’s the time Rob dropped a hammer from the upper reaches of a maple tree, where he was building a fort. I stood at the foot of the tree, daydreaming. The plummeting mallet conked me on the head, laying me belly to the dirt like one of those snakes my brother loved.

Now Rob was on the ground and in my ear: “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry!” he pleaded. “Mom and Dad will kill us!” I fought back tears and rubbed my head – no blood, just an egg.

Rob grabbed the hammer and climbed back up the tree as I blinked to my senses. His pounding echoed in the salty morning air – until I heard wood cracking and branches snapping. I looked up and saw my brother backwards-somersaulting to the ground. He landed with a clump, and now it was me in his ear: “Don’t cry, don’t cry! Mom and Dad will kill us!”

Still alive, we trudged back to the gray house. 

“What were you guys doing?” our mother asked as she made us lunch.

“Nothing,” Rob said, though Mom must have heard the hammering. He and I exchanged conspiratorial smiles.

Our parents separated in 1969, and the beach properties were sold. Zillow estimates the current value of the yellow house at $395,000 while the gray house, expanded over the years, is pegged at $650,000. If they were for sale in Rhode Island’s booming real estate market today, they would likely garner more. And for good reason. The location is serene, with Salt Pond a short walk away and the ocean song of the Atlantic within earshot. 

I imagine the closings would be bittersweet for the sellers, life-changing for the buyers. And with papers signed and monies set in motion, there would be handshakes all around. 

But nothing like the one my dad shared with Mr. Windsor, long ago in a different and simpler time.

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