dads

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.

Living With The Ghosts Next Door

 

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As published in the Providence Journal on August 17, 2014.

The house next door was empty and for sale, but two ghosts still lived there: my father and my good friend, Dick. Each had once owned the historic colonial, which stands near the corner of Peirce and Dedford Streets in East Greenwich.

My father bought the house in the early 1970s after he and my mother separated. One Saturday, he picked me up in Providence to go stay with him overnight. I was 12 years old.

My dad could be distant, and not just because he no longer lived with us. As we drove south on Route 95 that day, Elton John played on the radio. My father sang along and drifted away — “Rocket man burnin’ out his fuse up here alone … ” But then he came back to me. Did I like the song? Who was I listening to these days? I loved talking with my dad about music or books or sports.

I also loved the notes he wrote to me. In letters and birthday wishes, my father’s remoteness vanished. His words were affectionate and knowing. And his penmanship was perfect.

His house on Peirce Street didn’t feel like home — it was dark and smelled old — but I was glad to be there. My dad and I went over to the basketball court at Academy Field to shoot some hoops. And when we returned to the house, he put George Carlin’s “Class Clown” on the record player.

I choked back my laughter when “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” came on. Those were words I couldn’t say anywhere. But my dad balanced a keen wit with a deep appreciation of the well-timed profanity. As he made sandwiches for us in the kitchen, he howled at Carlin’s famous bit — and, liberated by his laughter, so did I.

My father didn’t live in the Peirce Street house for long. It was just one of his many dwellings after he and my mother split, an odyssey that took him to Warwick, Providence and, finally, Centredale. But I never forgot that East Greenwich neighborhood. In 1994, when my wife and I decided to search for a bigger house for our growing family, we found one on Peirce Street — right next to my dad’s old place.

My father had died the previous year. I wondered who owned the colonial now. And then I met Dick. He had been living there for almost two decades.

Dick had a strong voice and quick smile. Like my dad, he lived alone, smoked cigarettes, loved sports, and could elevate cursing to performance poetry. When Dick launched into a diatribe about overpaid pro athletes or brazen politicians — “Can you believe these [bleeping] guys!” — I heard my father. For me, still feeling the loss, Dick was a [bleeping] godsend.

Everyone knew Dick as the Mayor of Peirce Street, yelling at cars that ran the stop sign, and chiding the town’s work crews.

But our family also knew him as the kind neighbor who placed the newspaper at our doorstep before we woke up; the belated Santa who arrived on Christmas morning with presents for our kids; the die-hard Patriots fan who took our young sons, along with his grandson, to a preseason practice at Bryant College. (“The boys watched Bledsoe,” Dick told us later. “I watched the cheerleaders.”)

As my younger son grew up, he was filled with questions. One night before bed, he asked me if I missed my dad. I told him yes, but that I felt my father was alive every time I spoke about him.

“Maybe that’s what heaven is,” I added.

With a 5-year-old’s matter-of-factness, my son set me straight: “You don’t really go to heaven,” he said. “You’re buried. Heaven’s where you go in your head.”

So much for sweet dreams.

One day, Dick knocked on our door. He was bouncing on the balls of his feet. “C’mon,” he said, “I’m stripping wallpaper and need to show you something.” I followed him next door, and we made our way to a downstairs bedroom.

Wet, torn wallpaper littered the floor. “Look what I found,” Dick said, pointing at one of the newly revealed walls. On gray horsehair plaster, I saw the familiar, soothing curves of my father’s handwriting. Years ago, when he owned the house, he had tagged the wall with his signature — Donald E. Walsh.

Later, I told my son the signature was a little piece of heaven, brought to me by an angel. He may not have believed me that time either.

But if there is such a place as heaven, and I am lucky enough to go there, I won’t be surprised if my dad and Dick are on the same bench, sharing a smoke and a laugh, and waiting for me.

 

 

 

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