childhood

It’s in the cards: Happy Father’s Day!

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 19, 2016.

In June 1969, sales of Father’s Day cards at La Salle Pharmacy in Providence were off by a couple dozen or so, thanks to my third-grade teacher, Miss Murphy.

Our school, recently renamed for Robert F. Kennedy, stood one block away from the pharmacy, and our classroom was on the always-hot second floor. It was there, on a muggy Friday afternoon, that Miss Murphy told our class we were going to be making Father’s Day cards. She handed out sheets of straw-colored construction paper as we fished stubby, late-in-the-year crayons from our desks.

“You don’t need to buy a card,” she said, fanning herself with one of the sheets as she paced around the room in her cat-eye glasses. “Just fold your paper in half and draw a picture of your father doing something he loves.”

I proceeded to put a band of green grass on the bottom of my folded page, a giant yellow sun at the top, and my best representation of my dad, Donald Walsh, pushing a lawn mower in the middle. I gave him blue pants and a red shirt, and put a big smile on his face. Inside, I wrote “Happy Father’s Day” in careful cursive.

Any photo of Dad in the yard performing this task would have told a different story: a squat bottle of Narragansett beer would sit on a fence post in the distance; a cigarette would dangle from Dad’s pursed lips; and there would be no smile, unless he was pushing the mower back into the shed, the weekly chore finished.

In fact, I’m pretty sure my father hated mowing the lawn. But that didn’t keep him from loving my card. He set it atop a bookcase for everyone to see.

Though widely celebrated, Father’s Day had yet to become an official federal holiday in 1969. That would happen three years later, when President Nixon signed a proclamation declaring the third Sunday in June as such. Makers of neckties, bourbon, golf clubs, and tobacco must have rejoiced.

Hallmark had to be thrilled too. Four decades later, Father’s Day remains among the most popular greeting card occasions, with people crowding the aisles in pharmacies and gift stores in search of the perfect sentiment.

Some 90 million Father’s Day cards will be purchased in 2016, according to the Greeting Card Association. Many of them will be Hallmark creations, designed to “recognize the dads in our lives with sincerity, laughter, distinctiveness, and impact.” The company’s website even provides tips on what to write in a card. I reviewed the sample messages with my departed father in mind.

“Dad, you made growing up fun!” Well, not always — certainly not that time my older brother slugged a baseball through the neighbors’ kitchen window and almost beaned their baby.

“Dad, you’re in all my favorite memories!” Well, maybe not all of them — not the first time I went parking with my girlfriend in the lot by the brothers’ residence at La Salle Academy.

“Dad, you taught me so many of the important things I know — including a few choice words for certain situations.” Bingo! My father could elevate cursing to performance poetry.

I have a stack of my children’s Father’s Day cards to me crammed into the top drawer of my bedroom dresser. I treasure them all, especially the one my son Evan made years ago when he was probably 6 or 7.

His deliberately lettered “Happy Father’s Day” sits amid earnest drawings in a rainbow of Crayola colors: a plaid easy chair with a matching green water bottle; a TV with rabbit ears; a football, a baseball, and a bat; a Red Sox coffee mug that appears to be doubling as an umbrella drink; and, yes, a lawn mower.

In my young son’s eyes, at least, I was a man of sport, leisure, and yard work.

If you’re lucky enough to receive a kid-made card today, be sure to tuck it away. Someday it will remind you just how sweet fatherhood can be.

Fake tree brought pure Christmas joy

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As published in the Providence Journal, December 20, 2015.

My brothers and I were home alone, watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on our black-and-white TV, when the doorbell rang. It was Mrs. Ricci, bundled against the cold, here to drop off a fake Christmas tree from the store where she worked.

We lugged the large cardboard box through the doorway.

“Your mother’s going to love it!” Mrs. Ricci said before disappearing back into the night.

I wasn’t so sure. My grandfather had suggested we get an artificial tree from Mrs. Ricci the previous Christmas. She lived downstairs from him in his double-decker, three blocks from our house in Providence. But my mom had declined. Instead, we had gone to the farmers’ market on Valley Street and picked out a lopsided balsam fir, as we had always done — except now my older brother, Rob, not my father, tied the tree to the top of our blue Ford Maverick.

At 14, Rob did a lot of things that our dad used to do when he lived with us.

I sensed my mom, along with Charlie Brown, didn’t like fake Christmas trees. I also sensed she didn’t like being told what to do — least of all by her father. But she had apparently relented, because now there was this artificial tree in our living room.

“Let’s put it up!” Rob said.

“Without Mom?” I said.

“We’ll surprise her.”

My stomach tightened. I was wary of surprises, especially ones that involved my mother. Hers was a house of rules, many of them posted on the refrigerator at eye level. And I was adept in my compliance. I made sure to get home in time for supper, loaded the dishwasher, and looked after my younger brother, James, then age 6 — all to avoid incurring Mom’s wrath.

Rob had no such anxieties.

“We’ve got an hour and a half before she gets back,” he said, pulling the fake tree out of the box.

Our mom was at her class at Johnson & Wales, where she was pursuing an associate’s degree in fashion merchandising. We didn’t know it then, but she had visions of opening a women’s clothing boutique someday.

She hadn’t gone to college after graduating from Mount Pleasant High School. At that time, her father said she had to go to work at his children’s-wear store on Federal Hill — she would replace her oldest sister, who was starting a family. My mom sold christening sets and communion dresses until she turned 23 and got married. And now, after the divorce, she had gone back to the store, working six days a week.

James and I ran to the chilly basement to excavate the Christmas decorations from some cabinets near the washer and dryer. Upstairs, Rob positioned the tree in the corner by the hi-fi.

We draped the synthetic branches with colored lights and hung all the familiar ornaments. Our favorites were the ones that we had made: a Table Talk pie tin graced by a glued-in illustration of the Nativity; a Popsicle-stick reindeer with a red-gumdrop nose; a construction-paper chain lovingly looped by one of us at Robert F. Kennedy School.

James set up the manger scene, careful not to inflict further injury on the plaster donkey whose broken leg was held together by a Scotch-tape cast. Rob and I put the electric candles in the windows, igniting their orange bulbs with a twist.

We turned off the overhead light. The living room, with a faint scent of plastic, glowed. The artificial tree suddenly felt a lot less fake.

We were back in the den, watching TV, when the front door creaked open.

“How nice to see the lights in the windows!” my mother called out.

We ran to the living room.

“Oh, my,” she said, gazing at the tree. “It’s absolutely beautiful!” She looked around the room, her face beaming. “You boys did all this for me?”

“Yes!”

Our mom stood motionless and silent for a moment, and then wiped one of her eyes. We hadn’t seen her so happy in a long time.

Christmas had come early.

Going to church, dog wouldn’t obey my commandments

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Published in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 15, 2015.

“Johhh-neee!”

My best friend, Chris, was calling from the driveway outside my house, in Providence. I went to the bedroom window, knocked on the pane, and held up an index finger to let him know I’d be right out. I wished we were heading off to shoot hoops at Nelson Street playground or to buy candy at Wolcott’s five-and-dime on Chalkstone Avenue. But it was Sunday morning. We were going to church.

Pulling a sweater on, I tiptoed past my mother’s bedroom. Attending Mass at St. Pius wasn’t a family affair in my house or in Chris’s, either. Our moms told us we had to go, and Chris and I, ages 9 and 10 respectively, obliged.

Bunking church, however tempting, was not an option. Informants loomed everywhere: grandparents up the street, family friends around the corner, aunts and uncles waving from cars. This was Elmhurst at its close-knit best, and worst. If we strayed on our five-block pilgrimage and played hooky, word would get back to our mothers fast. Penance would be severe.

Chris and I had walked two blocks when Georgie, my dog, whisked by us, nails scratching the sidewalk, tail wagging like crazy.

“I have to take her home,” I said. “Be right back.”

I grabbed Georgie’s collar and scooted her back to my house. She was a 35-pound mutt with a shaggy black coat and watchful eyes. I pushed on the back door to put her inside, but it was locked – and I didn’t have my key. I knew our front door was locked, too. It always was.

The thought of ringing the doorbell and waking my mother was as appealing to me as Brussels sprouts. She’d see I was running late.

Our small back yard was bounded by a chain link fence. I left Georgie there, latching the gate behind me. I hoped she wouldn’t escape.

I caught up with Chris and we resumed our trek. We kicked a soda can up the street and relived our epic day at Rocky Point amusement park the previous summer – until a bark cut us short. I spun around and there was Georgie, half a block away.

“Oh God,” I said. “She got out.”

I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled, “Go home!” I don’t know what I was thinking. Georgie wasn’t Lassie; we were still working on the commands “Sit!” and “Stay!”

“Let’s just get to church,” I said to Chris. “It’s too late to take her back again.”

We picked up our pace. Georgie continued to follow us, keeping her strategic half-block distance. When we reached St. Pius, I convinced myself she’d just wait at the door outside. What could happen?

As Chris and I entered church, our footsteps on the marble floor announced our tardy arrival. We sheepishly made our way to one of the rear pews.

The second reading was just beginning. I caught the attention of a child two rows in front of me. As I twisted my face and crossed my eyes to his smiles, I heard a faint, familiar sound – like scratching on a door. I turned to Chris. He was already whispering: “Is that Georgie?”

I smiled nervously. Chris laughed. More scratching. I pictured Georgie pawing at the church door, just as she scraped the back door at home when she wanted to come in.

We stood for the Gospel – Luke’s account of the loaves and fishes miracle. But as I listened, something distracted my ear … the click-click-click of nails on marble. Somehow Georgie had gotten in! Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her pass our pew and head for the altar, tail wagging.

The woman next to us murmured, “Good Lord!” The priest continued with the miracle story from the pulpit, unaware of his newest potential convert. I instinctively stepped toward the aisle, but Chris grabbed my arm.

“You can’t go get her!” he whispered. “You’ll look like an idiot!”

Neither of us moved. Georgie was almost at the Communion rail when an usher, in his Sunday best, scooped her up and carried her out of the church. She was good about it – didn’t even squirm.

We waited for the Gospel to end, then hurried out to look for Georgie. She greeted us with leaps and licks of joy. Chris and I took quick turns hugging her and, thankful for our deliverance, started for home. At last, we had a legitimate reason for missing Mass – even our moms would agree.

In our book, that truly was a miracle.

Pictured above: not Georgie (I didn’t have a photo handy from years ago), but kindred spirit Buddy, former fabulous woofie of the Fuller family in San Francisco.

Childhood Christmas still exists, if only in my dreams

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As published in the Providence Journal, December 21, 2014.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas (If Only In My Dreams)” was a Top Ten hit for Bing Crosby after its release in the midst of World War II. Written by lyricist Kim Gannon and composer Walter Kent, the song resonated with soldiers and their families, though Gannon reportedly once said he was thinking of anyone who is separated from loved ones at Christmas.

That was me back in 1980. I had spent the fall at school in Ireland and, thanks to my grandfather’s generosity, traveled to the continent after finishing the semester. On Christmas night, I stood in a Florence phone booth waiting for an operator to connect me to my mother’s apartment on Federal Hill.

I heard my mom’s faraway voice — “John?” — and then the hurrahs of my family and relatives. Closing my eyes, I could see the dining room and the Christmas lights and everyone gathered around the table. The mix of happiness and sadness I felt made my heart clench.

I couldn’t wait to speak to my younger brother, James. When he got on the phone — “Hey Johnny, what’s happening?” — it wasn’t the same voice I had left behind. Puberty had intervened and my little brother — born five years after I was — suddenly didn’t sound so little any more.

The last time I had seen him, in early September, he was speechless. We were standing with my mother by the railroad tracks at Union Station in downtown Providence. After two years at Brown, I was heading to the School of Irish Studies in Dublin, leaving my hometown — and family — for the first time. As the train approached, I kissed my mother goodbye and turned to James. His eyes were flooded with tears, and when I hugged him, his arms hung limp at his sides.

I, too, ached at the parting; James and I were tight.

When our parents had separated, my father left me a letter that said, in part, “Continue to be good to James. He’s the nicest little boy in the world and relies on you very much.” At the time, James was 3-1/2 years old. My mother, who would go back to work at my grandfather’s baby clothes store, was more succinct: “Look after your brother,” she said, staring me in the eyes.

So I did, and it seemed as if James and I were always together. We shared a bedroom; his space was mine and mine was his.

When we played basketball in the basement — shooting mini-balls at a bucket on a barstool — James was Walt Frazier to my Willis Reed. When we huddled up for football in the back yard — drawing plays in the dirt — James was Fran Tarkenton to my Ron Johnson.

And when my younger brother once asked why our father’s Saturday visits ended before our mother got home from work, I did my best to explain.

The last of 13 cousins, James always made a grand entrance at our extended family’s boisterous Christmas Eve gatherings. Amid the smoke and cocktails and holiday din, someone would yell out, “Hey, Santa’s here!” and down the stairs my brother would come, pillows bulging under his red robe, fake white beard masking his smiling face. Everyone cheered as our diminutive Santa handed out gifts — wine for the aunts, scotch for the uncles, pajamas for the girls, colored underwear for the boys.

As he grew up, James acquired a worldliness that came with being the “baby.” A cousin let him drive her car before he was a teen. And once, while visiting me at Brown, he disappeared into the night and discovered zombies at a fraternity bar.

My return from Europe confirmed what the sound of James’s voice had announced over the phone: he was taller, stronger, a boy no more. Two years later, after graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Coast Guard. I admired his guts; boot camp made my English degree seem like a trifle. On December 19, 1983, James boarded a bus for the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, N.J.

At Christmas dinner six days later, my grandfather rose at the head of the table, held up his glass, and said, “Here’s to our youngest family member, away serving our country.”

Glasses clinked, and my mother and aunt dabbed their eyes.

The Coast Guard launched my brother on a maritime career far from the life we navigated growing up.

That “home” of our childhood, both beloved and bittersweet, still exists — but only in our dreams.

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