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.

Listening to the secrets in my heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driving home, Deb opened a bag of Swedish Fish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the Hill, paintbrush in hand

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 21, 2021.

The request came soon after my daughter announced she had found a new apartment.

“I’m hoping you can put your painting skills to work for me, Pops,” Julie said. “My bedroom could use a facelift.”

Once upon a time, when she was 3 or 4, I was at the center of Julie’s universe. I’d arrive home from work, and she would run down our front hall and leap into my arms. Now, as she approaches her 26th birthday, I am one planet among many in her orbit. Spending a day with her at her new place on Federal Hill, paintbrush in hand, would be a treat.

Driving to the Hill on the last Saturday in January was a full-circle moment for me. As college students, my brother Rob and I spent summers painting houses and renovating apartments between Atwells Avenue and Broadway. Our most memorable job was a six-unit behemoth at the corner of America and Africa streets. Two sisters lived on the second floor, and when Rob and I ascended our scaffold with pails of paint in the morning, Angie and Mary often appeared in the windows.

“Hello, boys!” one of them would say, lifting the screen. “How about some coffee?”

Four decades later, I pulled up to Julie’s new apartment on Carpenter Street and unloaded my gear: primer, eggshell, and semi-gloss paint; a small bucket of joint compound; a roller and an extension pole; and a new two-inch angled brush I bought just for the occasion.

Julie greeted me at the door with a feigned flourish: “My savior!” she said. 

We lugged the supplies upstairs, and I sized up her empty bedroom. Dust had darkened the ceiling, and a few small craters in the walls hungered for new plaster. I spread out my drop cloth, peeled off the joint compound lid, and dug into the soft gray mud with a putty knife.

I had painted Julie’s bedroom at home several times when she was growing up, but this was different. And, I realized, I was different.

When our three children were young, it seems my wife, Deb, and I were always rushing to get them somewhere: school, guitar lessons, basketball practice, play rehearsals. Eventually the destinations were farther away: colleges in Boston, New Rochelle, and Syracuse, and then apartments in Los Angeles and Providence. We watched with wonder and worry as our kids launched into the world, and at some point along the arc of parenthood, our time with them became less frequent and more precious.

The five of us last gathered in 2019, for Thanksgiving at my son Peter’s home in Los Angeles. For a week, we breathed the same air, ate the same food, slept under the same roof, and told the same stories, laughing to tears at shared memories we hold in our hearts.

That was before any of us had heard of COVID-19. I have my fingers crossed for a reunion this summer in Rhode Island, but in the meantime, I content myself with family sustenance in smaller portions.

“Need anything, Pops?” Julie called out from her new kitchen as the low January sun threw my shadow on a freshly primed wall. I dipped my angled brush into a neutral eggshell paint called Manchester Tan. 

“I’m good,” I called back, climbing the ladder with my loaded brush. “Better than good!”

Stroking a straight edge where the top of the wall meets the ceiling, I was thankful for the precision of new bristles and the chance to help my daughter get settled.

Thankful, too, to be at the center of her universe again for an afternoon.

Ninety seconds to say goodbye

My brother James and I in New York City in 1973, en route to Florida for a vacation with our mom.

The annual Army-Navy football game always makes me think of my younger brother, James, who claims it’s the best contest in sports.

“They’re all on the same team,” he once said to me, “except for one afternoon.”

Fresh out of La Salle, James had planned to enlist in the Army, until a close family friend directed him to the Coast Guard. My brother’s four years of service off the Georgia and Florida coasts prepared him for his life’s work captaining charters, working on tugs and, most recently, refurbishing vintage Riva wooden boats in Fort Lauderdale. His kinship with those serving in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces is deeply felt.

Before this year’s Army-Navy game, CBS aired a film celebrating the “same team” concept that James had first brought to my attention. I found one clip in the piece particularly riveting: parents and their respective cadets and midshipmen being told they had “90 seconds to say goodbye” before the young men and women began earning their commission as officers-in-training.

The poignance of that moment made me gasp, I told James on the phone.

He reminded me that our mom had asked if he wanted a ride downtown to the recruiting station the morning he left for boot camp and that he told her he would walk.

Years later, my mother wrote a bittersweet vignette about James’s departure from her apartment on Federal Hill, starting with these words: “He threw the knapsack over his shoulder, walked down the stairs and out the door. I stood watching this exodus, this walking away.”

The day after this year’s Army-Navy game, my brother brought up another family parting.

“Mom and I had that 90-second goodbye with you at the train station in Providence on your way to Ireland,” he texted me. “Profound day for us all.”

It was. James and I were tight despite the more than five years between us. When our parents separated, one directive from my mother superseded everything on my chore list: look after your brother, who was about to turn 4. And I did, happily. During our childhood years, whether we were walking to school, playing Wiffle ball in the backyard, or just hanging in the bedroom we shared, James was always on my radar.

I set out to study in Dublin at the start of my junior year at Brown, leaving my hometown and family behind for the first time. James had just turned 15. As the Amtrak train slid into Union Station, I kissed my mother goodbye and then turned to my brother. His eyes were flooded with tears, and when I hugged him, his arms hung limp at his sides. I tried to say something above the deafening screech of the braking train, but no words came out.

“I was gutted by that goodbye,” I texted James now. “Don’t think I had normal breathing until New Haven.”

“Gutted is an appropriate way to put it,” James texted back. “Having the closest person in my life go far away was a hard lesson.”

I watched the bouncing dots on my phone screen with anticipation, and then my brother’s message made me smile: “How cool is it that so many years later, we can be as close as ever and revisit our decisions in life.”

A quote attributed to Clara Ortega reads, “To the outside world, we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were.”

Almost 1,500 miles separate James and me now, but a phone call can make distance and time vanish. We re-tell jokes that no one else gets. And we resurrect childhood memories that leave us laughing and coughing and wiping our eyes.  

Still, I welcome the promise of the COVID-19 vaccine. I’m overdue to head south so my younger brother and I can breathe together again.

This old house: What were we thinking?

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, December 20, 2020. Above, Rose Cottage as depicted in the 1891 East Greenwich Academy catalog.

The for-sale sign had stood on the front lawn of Rose Cottage long enough for the elm towering overhead to shed its leaves twice, we would later learn. But the mid-19th-century home with its Italianate façade beckoned my wife, Deb, and me as though it had been built just for us.

What were we thinking?

We broke every commandment in the home-buying bible, starting with Thou Shalt Not Be Seduced By Fluffy Ad Copy. “Gaze at the stars from the romantic cupola!” read the kicker line in the listing. I should have known better. As a copywriter, I’d been writing stuff like that for years.

Sure, the painted lady’s gray clapboards looked as drab as a cloudy December day, which is when we first saw her, and the kitchen was a train wreck. But where others had detected deal-ending pitfalls — missing roof shingles, windows with no storms, an electric panel as old as Edison — we only saw potential. We walked through Rose Cottage’s high-ceilinged rooms with, it must be said, rose-colored glasses.

A week later, the real estate agent skipped to her office copier with our offer in hand, and soon Deb and I became Shelley Long and Tom Hanks in “The Money Pit.” Unlike the movie’s characters, however, we were not alone. We had two little boys, ages 3 and 1, and a third child on the way.

What were we thinking?

The romantic cupola leaked during storms. That first spring, a mama possum and her newborns took up residence in a basement closet. Soon, a clay sewer pipe choked with tree roots overflowed the second-floor toilet, and water poured into the TV room below. Our son Peter’s description of the scene became family lore: “Mommy, it’s raining inside.”

Deb navigated the almost-daily cataclysms and do-it-yourself projects better than I did, even as she referred to our abode as “Rose Thorn Cottage.” To get a respite, I took to raking the front lawn. People walking by, unaware of the chaos within, occasionally told me how much they admired my house.

“Want to buy it?” I would reply, only half-kidding.

Still, Rose Cottage had obvious charms. The views from the cupola, now watertight, were magnificent. At night, a necklace of lights on the Mount Hope Bridge twinkled from across Narragansett Bay. During the day, sunlight poured through stately 8-foot-tall windows in our kitchen and living room.

For many years, the house had been the residence of the principal of the East Greenwich Academy, which was located right across the street, and a popular gathering place for school meetings, receptions, socials, and teas. After the academy closed in 1943, Rose Cottage became, for a time, a nursing home. During one of my front-lawn raking escapes, a passerby pointed at the second floor and told me her grandmother had died up there.

“Sorry to hear that,” I said, wincing a little. I wanted to tell her I might be next to go.

A parade of contractors saved us, making badly needed heating, electrical, and plumbing upgrades. The dreary gray clapboards were painted a deep plum red, befitting the house’s name. And then came the more eye-catching projects: a sparkling new kitchen, a bathroom redo for the kids, and a master suite with access to the cupola and those starry-night views.

On a door jamb in the kitchen, names and lines chart the rising heights of our children and a dozen or so of their friends. It’s a sacred record of the passage of time, from grade school to college graduations, and all the life lived in between.

Someday, a new owner will paint over that history, and the next chapter in Rose Cottage’s story will be written. But for now, the house is ours, an old, memory-filled, comforting place.

What were Deb and I thinking? I’m pretty sure it was just that.

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