cousins

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.

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?”

“No!”

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!

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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