FAMILY

To my dad, with love, on Father’s Day

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 21, 2020. Above, the author as a baby with his father, Donald Walsh, and his older brother Robert.

Dad,

I wish you could stop by my house today, as you always did on Sunday mornings until the end came in 1993. I’d make a fresh pot of coffee and cue up Stephen Sondheim on an infinite jukebox we call Spotify.

Much has changed since you died.

You’d be happy to learn that your boy Sondheim celebrated his 90th birthday this year, and saddened to know that another hero of yours, George Carlin, is gone.

Remember when you played Carlin’s “Class Clown” album for me as we cleaned the gray beach house in Narragansett? I think I was 13 years old. It was the first time I heard the comedian voice his take on Muhammad Ali’s defense for not going to Vietnam — “I’ll beat ’em up, but I don’t want to kill ’em.” Thanks for showing me, in that moment and so many others, how wordplay could be powerful, insightful and funny.

You can catch most of Carlin’s bits on a cool video-sharing platform called YouTube now.

You would have loved the internet, which hosts such things. I can see you binge-watching World War II movies, clips of Bill Russell’s old Celtics teams, and the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Netflix, a movie-streaming service, has your name all over it, too. I’d like to watch “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” with you, just to hear you say, once again, that the Academy blew it, that Spielberg’s masterpiece deserved the Oscar in 1983, not “Gandhi.” You always loved the underdog.

Speaking of which, the Red Sox have won the World Series four times since you’ve been gone. What in the name of Bill Lee (another hero of yours) is going on?

Championship banners aside, though, in some ways, the world hasn’t changed much at all since 1993. As I watched the demonstrations following George Floyd’s death, I wished I knew more about your days as assistant dean of student affairs at Brown University in the mid-’60s. According to a cousin, you and Charlie Baldwin, Brown’s activist chaplain at the time, once spent a month in the South protesting with the Freedom Riders.

You continued the work when you returned home. Mom saved the letters to the editor that you wrote, advocating for civil rights and supporting the desegregation of Providence public schools, which Robert, James and I attended.

This year, from mid-March to May 25, the op-ed pages of most newspapers were “all pandemic, all the time,” as one editor put it. But after George Floyd’s death, remarkably, COVID-19 was no longer the top story. That just shows how deeply the history and hurt of racial injustice are embedded in America’s soul.

Words spoken 52 years ago by your biggest hero, Robert F. Kennedy, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., still resonate today: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be Black.”

Your youngest grandchild, Juliana, born after you left us, marched in the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Providence a few weeks ago. On the morning of the rally, I texted her a photo of you from your days at Brown and said that you would have been proud of her. If the two of you get to meet in some celestial place, I can imagine you sharing another RFK quote with her: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.”

It’s hard to believe that you and I last spoke 27 years ago.

Still, every day and especially these days, you’re always with us.

Love, John

 

Breathing together before the pandemic

IMG_6927As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, April 19, 2020. Above, the author and his son Peter at Paradise Cove in Malibu.

The email from my son Peter arrived in a distant world, one that included teens congregating in shopping malls and people watching basketball games in crowded bars. The coronavirus pandemic had yet to change all of our lives.

“I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to figure out what to give you for your birthday,” Pete’s email read, “but really, all I want is to spend some time with you. A long drive to the beach or an early-morning walk feels like a better gift than anything I could find on Amazon, so I’m bringing you to me.”

Attached was a ticket for a premium seat on JetBlue. I was thrilled: my firstborn, now 29, was flying me to Los Angeles in style.

The morning of my flight, I looked in the mirror and saw time markers: graying eyebrows and softening cheeks. On the bright side, aging as a parent can bring new joys.

My son has lived in California for six years. I had always thought his career in music would land him in New York City, but I have since learned that Los Angeles is where the action is, at least for him.

As we drove at 1 a.m. from Los Angeles International Airport to Pete’s place in Hancock Park after my arrival, the region’s notorious traffic was mercifully absent. Kobe Bryant’s face and poignant signs of grief over his recent death were everywhere — from brightly lit billboards to street-art murals on the sides of auto repair garages and sandwich shops.

It was my second trip to see Pete on my own. My wife, Deb, and I have visited him several times together, and our entire family made the trek from Rhode Island last November to celebrate Thanksgiving. Every visit is memorable, but Deb and I both find that our solo visits are singularly sweet.

When our kids were young, one of their favorite bedtime books was “The Relatives Came” by Cynthia Rylant. It’s the story of a big family reunion, with lots of hugging and laughing and “breathing together.” That’s what’s best about any visit to see Pete — having a few days to breathe together again.

This trip brought us to Paradise Cove in Malibu, Venice Beach, the magnificent Getty Center perched on a Santa Monica hilltop, and a host of coffee shops in between. We balanced highbrow culture with everyday fun; two hours at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was followed by a round of mini-golf. We ate cheeseburgers, drank beer, and walked Pete’s dog, Sam.

Through it all, we listened to music. I couldn’t help but think of how when Pete was a boy, we’d deconstruct pop songs as I drove him to school or guitar lessons. The tunes were usually favorite tracks of mine by Bruce Springsteen or James Taylor or The Replacements. Now Pete was the driver and, for much of the time, the deejay as well.

A turn onto Mulholland Drive sparked a conversation about pop music in the ’70s.

“What’s your favorite Jackson Browne song?” Pete asked me.

I cued up “The Road” on Spotify, which we were streaming on the car stereo: “Highways and dance halls, a good song takes you far …” Pete was right. Nothing from Amazon could top winding through Laurel Canyon with him, listening to tunes.

On the morning of my departure, in the pre-dawn darkness, an Uber swept me back to the airport. At my JetBlue gate, a woman diligently rubbed a disinfectant wipe over the armrests of her seat before sitting down. The following week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a stay-at-home order to his city’s residents. And nine days later, Gov. Gina Raimondo did the same here in Rhode Island.

Pete and I had reunited in the nick of time — safely, I hoped.

And now, who knows how long it will be before we have a chance to breathe together again. 

Taking the time to smell the cookies

Emma_typewriter_rw1-RGBAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 16, 2020. Illustration by Emma Walsh.

The last straw was when I couldn’t smell the skunk.

On a warm evening last fall, as a refreshing breeze flowed through the living room while I watched a baseball game on TV, my wife began shutting all the windows. “You don’t smell that?” Deb asked in disbelief, moving briskly to the kitchen.

“Smell what?” I said from the couch.

“The skunk!”

My sense of smell had been receding for a year or so; now, clearly, it had gone totally dormant.

Made aware of the invading odor, I hustled upstairs to close the second-floor windows. I knew from experience how bad the stink could get; this wasn’t the first time we had been skunk-bombed.

The following morning, Deb informed me that the skunk stench had given way to the heavenly waft of her made-from-scratch chocolate chip cookies, which I could only imagine. When our daughter, home for the weekend, shouted approval from her bedroom – “Cookies for breakfast!” – I felt my smell blindness acutely.

“You have to get that looked at,” Deb said, referring to my non-functioning schnoz as she handed me a warm cookie. I bit into the soft gooiness, and the one-two punch of my affliction hit home. Not only had I lost my sense of smell; I couldn’t taste anything, either.

A month later, I saw an otolaryngologist who, after shining light and shooting spray up my nostrils, prescribed oversized antibiotic pills, plus a six-day regimen of prednisone. The kindly physician assured me the intervention would do the trick, restoring at least some sense of smell in less than a week. I was skeptical; I couldn’t remember the last time I had sniffed a trace of anything pleasant or putrid.

To my astonishment, the doctor was right. Two days later, as I sat in my kitchen listening to the coffee maker’s familiar gurgles and sighs, my nose detected the smoky aroma of a favorite French roast blend. It was like reconnecting with a long-lost friend.

“I can smell the coffee,” I told Deb.

“No!” she said. She grabbed a scented candle from the counter. “How about this?”

I held the jar beneath my nose and inhaled deeply. A rush of lavender filled my head.

“Yep!”

It was time to rediscover everyday smells, which now seemed extraordinary – the citrusy sweetness of an orange, the menthol from my aftershave, the comforting fragrance of laundry still warm from the dryer.

Beyond the joys of such here-and-now whiffs, my restored nose was poised to take me back in time, as well. Thanks to human anatomy, smell is the sense most closely related to memory. Incoming scents are processed by the olfactory bulb, which is directly connected to the hippocampus and amygdala, two areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional processing.

That’s why a gust of diesel fumes transports me to Dublin, Ireland, where almost 40 years ago, I rode double-decker buses to school and the pubs. Similarly, the earthy scent of fresh-cut grass places me outside my family’s yellow beach house in Narragansett in the mid-1960s, safe and happy as my dad pushes a whirring reel mower. And the unmistakable bouquet of New York System hot wieners connects me to midnight munch-outs with true-blue high-school friends by the basketball courts at Nelson Street playground in Providence.

With my sense of smell given back to me just in time for a milestone birthday, I am going to try to heed the words of golfing legend Walter Hagen: “You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.”

Flowers, yes. And the ocean air. A newborn’s skin. Sizzling bacon. An old baseball glove. Smoldering wood fires. My house when I return from vacation. Even the odious vapors of a skunk, for that matter.

They all remind me not to take the simple things in life for granted.

Remembering where I came from

Papa's_Manifest_Document

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, January 19, 2020. Above: Passenger manifest from the S.S. Romanic, which lists the author’s great-grandmother, Grazia Di Maio Pantalone, and four of her children.

The document announces its purpose in capital letters, accentuating a tone of authority: “LIST OR MANIFEST OF ALIEN PASSENGERS FOR THE UNITED STATES IMMIGRATIONS OFFICER AT PORT OF ARRIVAL.” A moment is frozen in time: the S.S. Romanic embarking from Naples, Italy for America on June 26, 1907.

So much for my vague “they came over on the boat” summations about my mother’s side of the family. The digitized manifest – Form 500 B from the United States Immigration Service – offers vivid details from a long-ago odyssey. At my computer, I zoom in on the names of Grazia Di Maio and Giuseppina, Vincenzo, Gerardo, and Filomena Pantalone, recorded with a fountain pen’s flourish on lines 17 to 21.

At first, my great-grandmother’s surname confuses me. Why isn’t she a Pantalone, like her children? Then I learn that, by law and to this day, Italian women keep their maiden name and have the option of adding their husband’s surname if they so choose.

Other surnames on the manifest echo those of my grade-school classmates who, like me, were part of the 20th-century Italian diaspora in Rhode Island: Lancellotti and Lauro, Spaziano and Santoro.

The columns to the right of each name add more color, including age – my grandfather, Vincenzo, was 9 – gender, marital status, ability to read or write, and nationality. All passengers were citizens of Italy, with the further distinction of being “Italian South,” as noted under a separate column entitled “Race or People.” A footnote explains that race “is to be determined by the stock from which aliens sprang and the language they speak.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, more Italians immigrated to the United States in 1907 than in any other year – 285,731 men, women, and children made the trek, which usually lasted around 10 days, depending on sea conditions.

To my great-grandmother’s dismay, the number of travelers on the S.S. Romanic was reduced by one when her 8-year-old daughter was not allowed to board due to an eye infection. Close inspection of the manifest reveals a check mark before the name of every passenger – except that of Filomena Pantalone! The child, my eventual great-aunt, remained in Italy with her grandparents and would arrive in America on a later passage. One can only imagine the heartbreak she felt, along with her mother and siblings, after such a gut-wrenching separation.

Another column in the manifest requests “the name and complete address of the nearest relative or friend in country whence alien came.” Francesco Di Maio of Teano is identified as the father of Grazia and grandfather of her children.

The last column indicates each immigrant’s final destination. Some were heading to Newark, New Jersey; some to Lawrence, Massachusetts; and some, like my intrepid great-grandmother and three of her children, to Providence, Rhode Island. Once there, they would reunite with Grazia’s husband, Giovanni (my great-grandfather), and oldest child, Mary, father and daughter having settled on Federal Hill the previous year.

Seven decades later, my brothers and I came to work for a wise and wisecracking entrepreneur on the Hill whose family had also immigrated to Rhode Island from Italy. Tommy stripped these trans-Atlantic voyages of any romance: “Who picks up their entire family and leaves everything behind to bob seasick in the ocean for more than a week and then land in a place where you don’t speak the language and aren’t entirely welcome?” He stabbed his Marlboro into an ashtray for emphasis. “You’d have to be pretty desperate, right?”

Language aside, it was likely the same for the Walsh side of my family – desperation born of the Irish Famine, perhaps? The story of America is written in countless chapters like ours.

I keep a printed copy of the manifest from my Italian forebears’ passage to the United States in a file along with my birth certificate.

It helps me remember where I came from.

An unexpected gift from Dad

img_Christmas001

The author, top right, with his father and brothers on Christmas in the early 1970s. This column appeared in The Providence Sunday Journal, December 15, 2019.

Looking back, South County was likely my parents’ last attempt to start anew.

In 1967, they built a shingled Cape on a quiet road just up from Salt Pond in Narragansett and moved our family of five there from Providence, only to turn us around 12 months later to move back to our old Elmhurst neighborhood. When my brothers and I learned about the return to the city, our sole concern was whether our new puppy could come with us.

“Of course she can,” my mother said.

I was 8 years old – too young to sense the reason for our family’s abrupt about-face. That became clear seven months later when, at the kitchen table after we had listened to a Celtics game on the radio, my father told my older brother, Rob, and me that he was leaving the following day. The words hit me like a thunderclap. As I heard Dad say he had made my mother unhappy for many years, I wanted to put my fingers in my ears.

Divorce rebooted our family in countless ways: Mom switched bedrooms with my younger brother, James, and me; my parents choreographed Saturdays to accommodate my father’s visitation rights. There were ups and downs to negotiate throughout the year, and I felt pangs from the split acutely during December, especially when I asked myself a single, nagging question: Where would Dad go for Christmas?

The answer, at first, was easy: after visiting with my brothers and me at home and exchanging gifts with us, he would spend the rest of the day with his mother.

Unlike the colorful, boisterous homes of the Italian relatives on my mom’s side, Nana Walsh’s house was quiet, neat, Scotch-Irish. A lace slipcover sat just so on the back of her armchair; an illustrated portrait of the mourned John and Robert Kennedy hung on a wall in her pantry. Still, my grandmother had a sweetness about her that was comforting, and I was happy Dad would be with her on December 25.

Eight years later, after Nana’s death, concerns about my father’s Christmas plans revisited me. By then, he had left his job at a top Rhode Island ad agency and hopscotched from apartment to apartment in Providence. He and my mother were rarely in contact, but there had been several phone calls after which she would say, with a combination of concern and dismay, that my father was “feeling good.” Those words troubled me; I was beginning to understand they really meant the opposite.

My father was reclusive, more comfortable with books than banter, but I always felt a connection with him. He encouraged me to read novels and write poems, and he brought me to shows at Trinity Rep. After we attended “The Iceman Cometh” together, Dad marveled at Richard Jenkins’ performance as Hickey, unraveling the complexities of the play’s protagonist for me.

That year, on Christmas morning, my brothers and I visited my father in his latest apartment, on Veazie Street. After exchanging gifts, we asked him what he had planned for the day, knowing that we, as usual, would be celebrating deep into the evening with my mother’s side of the family.

“I’m volunteering at a nursing home on the East Side,” he said. “That will give someone a chance to take the afternoon off.”

His words were as soothing as the warmth of the sun on a winter day.

The night before, during Midnight Mass at St. Pius, I’m sure I had heard the familiar passage from Luke’s gospel where the angels proclaim the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. But, on that Christmas, it was my father’s “goodwill toward men” that meant the most to me.

The best gifts aren’t always found under the tree.

 

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.

Lessons at a Monopoly board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pennybags Realty closed the deal.

Following in Papa’s footsteps

vincent_pantalone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fittingly, it was right above Papa’s store.

Divine guidance from a mutt

IMG_9776As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, July 21, 2019.

It was an unusual conclusion to an Easter Sunday sermon: Last April, Father Tim handed everyone at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church a crisp dollar bill and asked that we give it to a stranger. We might also wish them a Happy Easter, the rector said, as we passed along “the surprise of grace.”

Half an hour later, with the bill neatly folded in the pocket of my button-down shirt, I did what I usually do after church: I took my dog, Rhody, for a walk.

Rhody’s a two-year-old rescue dog from Georgia, part black lab and part mystery. But more than anything, Rhody is super social. She wants to say hi to everyone, which usually means jumping up on people to give them a lick.

She’s kind of like my older brother, Rob, in that way (well, not the jumping and licking part). Rob has an outgoing warmth about him that I envy. When the two of us walk into a busy room, he gravitates to the crowd while I sidle to a wall.

I’ve discovered that being an introvert presents challenges when your dog is a social butterfly. Rhody’s always pulling me toward people and I’m usually pulling away, partly because I don’t want her to maul them but also because, honestly, that’s my comfort zone. So on Easter Sunday morning, when a middle-aged guy in workout gear approached us, I veered to the side of the road to give him a wide berth.

And then I remembered the dollar bill in my pocket – I’m supposed to give it to someone. Father Tim, you’re killing me.

I shortened up Rhody’s leash and moved back into the middle of the street. When the guy was within 10 feet of us, I said, “Good morning!”

Now Rhody’s tail was going like mad as she strained against her harness, eager to give this guy her two-paw greeting. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had quickened his pace and just given us a polite nod. But instead he stopped and asked, “What’s up?”

“I just came from church,” I said, keeping Rhody at bay. “The priest gave us all a dollar bill and asked that we pass it on to someone. So I want to give mine to you.” I handed him the bill. “Happy Easter.”

His face softened, and he smiled. “Wow,” he said. “Thank you!”

We went our separate ways, and as the guy walked on, I’m pretty sure he had a skip in his step that I hadn’t detected before. I noticed the same thing about mine.

My faith, at best, is a work in progress. I sit in the pews at St. Luke’s each week with my questions about God, even as I am comforted by the liturgy, lifted by hymns, and challenged by the words of a gifted rector.

When I shared my Easter Sunday story with my brother, it wasn’t lost on us that Father Tim and Rhody seemed to be on the same page. Love thy neighbor, right?

“You know what they say,” Rob joked. “Dog is God spelled backwards.”

That prompted me to investigate the connection between dogs and the Divine. What little the Bible says about man’s best friend isn’t very flattering.

But listen to Mark Twain: “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”

And Robert Louis Stevenson: “You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before us.”

And Will Rogers: “If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”

As I said, I’m not so sure about the afterlife. But at least I have Rhody in the here and now. And as long as I do, I’ll keep trying, to paraphrase C.J. Frick, to be the person my dog thinks I am.

 

The best seat at Fenway

2003_Walshes@fenwayAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 16, 2019.

Most of the books my father gave me sit on shelves, their stories as layered as my memories of him. If I’m lucky, I open to a flyleaf inscribed with Dad’s familiar hand and hear his voice again.

“Neat books need swell readers. So saith Dad. Love.” That note appears on the opening page of a John O’Hara novel given for Christmas in 1988. The unsteady strokes of a simpler message written five years later inside a spy thriller – “Happy birthday, John” – reveal my father’s failing health at the time.

One book he gave me was “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons” by Donald Hall. There’s no inscription from Dad in that one; I surmise he was fine with letting Hall’s words speak for themselves. And for good reason. In a series of elegant essays, the former poet laureate of the United States examines how sports and games connect people and bridge generations.

Many of Hall’s lines resonate with me, including this one: “Baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.” A recurring childhood memory of mine is listening to the Red Sox on the radio with Dad as we drove home from the beach to Providence.

Another moment in the book that I return to is “Baseball is fathers and sons. Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard.”

I can attest to that statement. First, the beating up part.

Our backyard was half dirt, half cement patio; my brothers and I played tackle football on all of it. These contests often degenerated into something we called “muckle the guy with the ball,” which was more rugby scrum than football. When darkness came, we took our game inside, hammering each other in the basement until the commissioner – Mom – intervened from the top of the stairs:

“Enough!”

In springtime, our backyard gridiron morphed into a baseball diamond. Thanks to Wiffle ball, we were able to “swing for the fences” without breaking nearby windows; the darting plastic orbs rapped off panes but didn’t break them. While my father was more academic than athletic, on Saturdays he would usually come outside to toss some pitches and take a few swings. Fast forward 25 years and I found myself instinctively doing the same with my young sons in the backyard at our house.

If playing baseball with Dad was fun, going to a Red Sox game with him was even better. We made the pilgrimage for the first time on the final day of the 1968 season. Unlike the monochromatic ballpark I saw on our black-and-white TV, Fenway that afternoon was a rush of color – green grass, red Citgo logo, endless blue sky, brilliant yellow foul poles.

The memory of that day was still vivid in my mind when I brought my sons to Fenway in 2003 for a Sox-Mariners game. Without looking at a seating chart, I had purchased tickets that I thought would give us a good view of Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle’s superstar right fielder. The boys, then 12 and 10, were big Ichiro fans.

We got to the park early and headed to our seats. Up and up we climbed into Fenway’s cavernous right field grandstand. I checked our tickets: Section 1, Row 18, Seats 1, 2, and 3. Up and up we continued, into the cool shade under the roof, until we finally reached our destination – the last row and very last three seats in the grandstand!

Past a green support column, we could see home plate – barely. Our view of Ichiro’s back wouldn’t be much better. I felt like Bob Uecker, the former major-leaguer-turned-beer-pitchman who, in his classic commercials for Miller Lite, always landed in the nosebleed section.

Still, with my two boys beside me, wide-eyed and laughing, I knew I had the best seat in the house.

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