dad

Letter to editor, message to son

DW_letter_2_croppedAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, August 20, 2017.

The day Dad moved out of our family’s red bungalow in Providence, my mother handed me a letter written in his familiar hand.

The first line made my 9-year-old eyes well up: “Ever since you were a baby, I have marveled at how happy I was to be with you.” The second paragraph provided details I would someday understand: “The court has said I can’t be with you all the time. I don’t think Mommy was happy about this, but I didn’t help her make any other choice.” And toward the end, Dad made a request that would shape the rest of my childhood: “Continue to be good to little James. He’s the nicest little boy in the world. It’s very important to me that you be a good big brother to your little brother.”

My father had left a letter for my 12-year-old brother, Rob, too. But I doubted there was one for James — he was only 3.

My younger brother and I shared a room, and at night I would climb into his bed if the wind howled or we heard strange noises outside. At age 4 or 5, he asked me why Dad didn’t live with us, and I did my best to explain.

The question underscored how different James’ experience of the divorce was from Rob’s and mine. For us, there was a before and after; for him, there was only Dad’s absence, which became more pronounced once my father’s unpredictable Saturday visitations stopped altogether.

Rob and I managed to maintain relationships with our father as we grew older, but James, by his teenage years, had virtually no contact with him. When my younger brother enlisted in the Coast Guard right out of high school, my father, a former Marine, learned about it from me. Several months later, I gave Dad James’ boot camp graduation photo, which he framed and set by his TV. My brother’s crisp uniform and stern look made it clear he was “little James” no more.

James was assigned to the Point Charles, an 82-foot cutter stationed at Cape Canaveral, in Florida. On calls home, his stories about perilous rescues and high-speed chases made my mother proud and uneasy. She was less concerned about his boat’s security patrols just off the Florida coast prior to NASA’s space shuttle launches.

James took part in 11 shuttle liftoffs and, in January 1986, was deployed for his 12th when the Point Charles blew an engine en route to its position several miles offshore. The captain was ordered to limp on to Jacksonville, and the Point Charles was replaced by the Point Roberts for the impending launch of Challenger.

James would later say he was thankful not to have been an eyewitness to the space shuttle disintegrating in the sky.

Wreckage from the Challenger was retrieved from the Atlantic Ocean by a flotilla of Coast Guard and Navy vessels. With the Point Charles disabled, James and his fellow crew members had the solemn task of collecting debris that washed ashore.

On Feb. 5, eight days after the tragedy, The Providence Journal published reactions from its readers, one of which came from my father:

“With the media coverage attendant to the Challenger disaster, a thankless task may have gone overlooked by many Americans; namely, the sea-air rescue men and women, particularly the Coast Guard, working at the impact area off Cape Canaveral. Theirs is a useful, necessary, dangerous, lonely and, at times, distasteful mission. They do our dirty work quite well, I might add.”

My mother clipped the section from the paper and, after highlighting my father’s letter, sent it off to James. On his next call home, my brother thanked her. “Dad got it right,” he said.

Seventeen years earlier, Rob and I had gotten our letters; now James had his. It was as close to reconnecting as he and my father would come.

To this day, James keeps Dad’s letter, creased and yellowing, tucked away in a lockbox.

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.

A soundtrack to early fatherhood

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 21, 2015.

Mrs. Chase was hard of hearing, a fact for which I was grateful to God on this particular evening.

At midnight, I slid “London Calling” by the Clash into the CD player and cranked up the volume. About two dozen people were jammed into my less-than-palatial third-floor apartment off Chalkstone Avenue in Providence, including my fiancée, Deb. My grandfather owned the property, and I was fortunate to live there for a very reasonable monthly rent.

The party was thick with smoke – cigarette and other kinds – and a parade of beer cans and liquor bottles marched across the kitchen counter. I opened a window. It was the middle of winter, but everyone was sweating. The shock of cold air coming into the room felt life-giving.

Some people shouted over Joe Strummer’s ranting vocals. Others abandoned conversation altogether and started pogo dancing in the living room, causing the floor to heave.

Mrs. Chase – in her 80s, barely five feet tall, and no pushover – lived alone in the apartment below. We were familiar in a way that is inevitable in a triple-decker. She knew I went to the drug store every day for a pack of Merits and would sometimes enlist me to buy her snacks or a quart of milk.

On the day after the party, I started down the back stairway with a profound headache and a trash bag full of clinking empties. Mrs. Chase’s door creaked open. Bad hearing notwithstanding, she must have registered the blowout raging above her the night before.

“I am so sorry,” I said, stopping on her landing. Mrs. Chase looked at me funny through her filigreed, cat-eye glasses. She was holding a dollar bill.

“The noise last night,” I said, rolling my eyes and pointing upstairs.

“The hi-fi was a little loud,” she said, matter-of-factly, handing over the dollar. “Would you mind getting me a bag of Funyuns at the Rite Aid?”

And that was that. I wanted to hug her.

Such was life for Deb and me in our carefree mid-20s. Back when I couldn’t play Talking Heads or the Replacements loud enough. Back when people had speakers the size of small refrigerators.

Then we got married, bought a house, and had our first child – the time-to-grow-up trifecta. Late-night parties gave way to early-morning feedings. Empty bottles of soy formula were now more likely to gather on the kitchen counter than Rolling Rocks. I quit smoking.

Sleep, or lack thereof, consumed our thoughts. In a moment of early parenting foresight, Deb and I splurged for a battery-powered baby swing over a cheaper, wind-up model. It was worth every cent. We’d nestle baby Pete into its quilted seat, flip the switch, and watch him succumb to the swing’s never-ending sway. It was a sure-fire remedy for crying, whining, crabbiness – or whenever Deb and I just needed a break. My wife christened the swing the Neglect-o-matic.

Our repertoire of sleep-inducing tactics omitted the most obvious one: keeping the house quiet – specifically, the “hi-fi.” We hardly lowered the volume, thanks to sage advice from Deb’s older brother, a lifelong musician and father of three. “Don’t turn it down and you’ll never have to,” Steve said. “Pete will grow up thinking all that noise is normal.”

He was right. We played music in the house and on the road, pretty much all the time, and it rarely disturbed our son’s dreams.

I did, however, modify my playlist – less head-banging stuff, more acoustic guitar. Sweet songs about early fatherhood resonated as never before: “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon; “Daddy’s Baby” by James Taylor; “St. Judy’s Comet” by Paul Simon; “Pony Boy” by Bruce Springsteen.

As I shared Cheerios, one by one, with baby Pete in our kitchen, these pop gems connected me to wisdom of the ages: being a young dad is wondrous and tiring, humbling and transformative.

And that came through, loud and clear, at any volume.

My Father’s Day playlist on YouTube, including the four songs referenced in this piece.

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