family

Feeling the tug of family

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, November 20, 2022. Above, I’m seated on the floor, fifth from left, with my older brother and cousins at a family gathering circa 1965.

I wonder how my great-grandparents, Giovanni Pantalone and Grazia DiMaio, celebrated their first Thanksgiving.

Giovanni had arrived in Providence from Naples, Italy in 1906 with the couple’s oldest child, Mary. The following year, Grazia made the transatlantic passage with three more of their children, including Vincent, my grandfather. Like many Italian immigrants in Rhode Island, they settled in a small apartment on Federal Hill, where Giovanni had found work.

If my great-grandparents did celebrate Thanksgiving during their first year together in America, I imagine 9-year-old Vincent was skeeved out by the turkey. Years later, as the patriarch of our family, he insisted that we feast on capon instead, a castrated rooster fattened to be tender.

“It’s a cleaner bird,” Papa said.

By that time, the Pantalone family had flourished. Giovanni and Grazia’s seven children had 21 kids of their own, with 56 offspring following in the next generation.

My grandfather and his siblings had settled in and around Providence. Like immigrants before and after them, they relished the comfort and support that came with having proximity to kin in a new land. Into this loving family I was born, the 12th of Vincent’s 13 grandchildren.

The Pantalone embrace was sweetly felt at weddings and summer gatherings and especially on Thanksgiving Day, which saw my mother, brothers, and me crisscrossing a two-mile familial footprint in Providence’s Elmhurst and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods. We would trek to Academy Avenue for coffee and sweets with my mother’s cousins Tina and Gracie, whose towering duplex was a joyous extended-family hubbub; to Gentian Avenue for a quick visit with my Auntie Rita and her family, including my closest cousin, Tommy; back to our house on River Avenue to feed our dog and catch a bit of the Macy’s parade on our black-and-white Zenith TV; and then to Auntie Marie’s house on Winona Street, where adults sipped cocktails and kids quaffed Cokes. Uncle Harry made sure there was plenty of ice in the freezer.

Our feast would start with Italian wedding soup, so-called for its heavenly marriage of chicken stock, escarole, mini meatballs, and tiny pearls of pasta. I always asked for seconds.

One year, before we dipped our spoons in the first-course goodness, Papa offered a toast: “Without me, none of you would be here!” he said, raising his glass of wine. Everyone laughed, though I saw my mother shaking her head.

After we all had our fill of capon, Auntie Gracie and her family arrived from Greenville for coffee and dessert. With their move seven miles to the northwest, they were our modern-day Magellans. Other family members would one day venture farther away – to New York and Florida, Ohio and Colorado, California and beyond. But for now, Papa’s brood lived happily in Rhode Island. And I was too young to understand either the tug of the invisible ties connecting my brothers, cousins, and me to Giovanni and Grazia and their passage to America, or the uniqueness of the family closeness to which it gave rise.

Our Thanksgiving celebration continued deep into the night. Around the piano we gathered and sang, on-key and off-key, with smiles all around.

On the five-minute drive home, in the see-your-breath chill of my mother’s Ford Maverick, I was warmed by the sight of lights aglow in houses along River Avenue and by the certainty that in four weeks on Christmas Eve, we would all be back together again.

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!

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.

Breathing together before the pandemic

IMG_6927As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, April 19, 2020. Above, the author and his son Peter at Paradise Cove in Malibu.

The email from my son Peter arrived in a distant world, one that included teens congregating in shopping malls and people watching basketball games in crowded bars. The coronavirus pandemic had yet to change all of our lives.

“I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to figure out what to give you for your birthday,” Pete’s email read, “but really, all I want is to spend some time with you. A long drive to the beach or an early-morning walk feels like a better gift than anything I could find on Amazon, so I’m bringing you to me.”

Attached was a ticket for a premium seat on JetBlue. I was thrilled: my firstborn, now 29, was flying me to Los Angeles in style.

The morning of my flight, I looked in the mirror and saw time markers: graying eyebrows and softening cheeks. On the bright side, aging as a parent can bring new joys.

My son has lived in California for six years. I had always thought his career in music would land him in New York City, but I have since learned that Los Angeles is where the action is, at least for him.

As we drove at 1 a.m. from Los Angeles International Airport to Pete’s place in Hancock Park after my arrival, the region’s notorious traffic was mercifully absent. Kobe Bryant’s face and poignant signs of grief over his recent death were everywhere — from brightly lit billboards to street-art murals on the sides of auto repair garages and sandwich shops.

It was my second trip to see Pete on my own. My wife, Deb, and I have visited him several times together, and our entire family made the trek from Rhode Island last November to celebrate Thanksgiving. Every visit is memorable, but Deb and I both find that our solo visits are singularly sweet.

When our kids were young, one of their favorite bedtime books was “The Relatives Came” by Cynthia Rylant. It’s the story of a big family reunion, with lots of hugging and laughing and “breathing together.” That’s what’s best about any visit to see Pete — having a few days to breathe together again.

This trip brought us to Paradise Cove in Malibu, Venice Beach, the magnificent Getty Center perched on a Santa Monica hilltop, and a host of coffee shops in between. We balanced highbrow culture with everyday fun; two hours at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was followed by a round of mini-golf. We ate cheeseburgers, drank beer, and walked Pete’s dog, Sam.

Through it all, we listened to music. I couldn’t help but think of how when Pete was a boy, we’d deconstruct pop songs as I drove him to school or guitar lessons. The tunes were usually favorite tracks of mine by Bruce Springsteen or James Taylor or The Replacements. Now Pete was the driver and, for much of the time, the deejay as well.

A turn onto Mulholland Drive sparked a conversation about pop music in the ’70s.

“What’s your favorite Jackson Browne song?” Pete asked me.

I cued up “The Road” on Spotify, which we were streaming on the car stereo: “Highways and dance halls, a good song takes you far …” Pete was right. Nothing from Amazon could top winding through Laurel Canyon with him, listening to tunes.

On the morning of my departure, in the pre-dawn darkness, an Uber swept me back to the airport. At my JetBlue gate, a woman diligently rubbed a disinfectant wipe over the armrests of her seat before sitting down. The following week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a stay-at-home order to his city’s residents. And nine days later, Gov. Gina Raimondo did the same here in Rhode Island.

Pete and I had reunited in the nick of time — safely, I hoped.

And now, who knows how long it will be before we have a chance to breathe together again. 

An unexpected gift from Dad

img_Christmas001

The author, top right, with his father and brothers on Christmas in the early 1970s. This column appeared in The Providence Sunday Journal, December 15, 2019.

Looking back, South County was likely my parents’ last attempt to start anew.

In 1967, they built a shingled Cape on a quiet road just up from Salt Pond in Narragansett and moved our family of five there from Providence, only to turn us around 12 months later to move back to our old Elmhurst neighborhood. When my brothers and I learned about the return to the city, our sole concern was whether our new puppy could come with us.

“Of course she can,” my mother said.

I was 8 years old – too young to sense the reason for our family’s abrupt about-face. That became clear seven months later when, at the kitchen table after we had listened to a Celtics game on the radio, my father told my older brother, Rob, and me that he was leaving the following day. The words hit me like a thunderclap. As I heard Dad say he had made my mother unhappy for many years, I wanted to put my fingers in my ears.

Divorce rebooted our family in countless ways: Mom switched bedrooms with my younger brother, James, and me; my parents choreographed Saturdays to accommodate my father’s visitation rights. There were ups and downs to negotiate throughout the year, and I felt pangs from the split acutely during December, especially when I asked myself a single, nagging question: Where would Dad go for Christmas?

The answer, at first, was easy: after visiting with my brothers and me at home and exchanging gifts with us, he would spend the rest of the day with his mother.

Unlike the colorful, boisterous homes of the Italian relatives on my mom’s side, Nana Walsh’s house was quiet, neat, Scotch-Irish. A lace slipcover sat just so on the back of her armchair; an illustrated portrait of the mourned John and Robert Kennedy hung on a wall in her pantry. Still, my grandmother had a sweetness about her that was comforting, and I was happy Dad would be with her on December 25.

Eight years later, after Nana’s death, concerns about my father’s Christmas plans revisited me. By then, he had left his job at a top Rhode Island ad agency and hopscotched from apartment to apartment in Providence. He and my mother were rarely in contact, but there had been several phone calls after which she would say, with a combination of concern and dismay, that my father was “feeling good.” Those words troubled me; I was beginning to understand they really meant the opposite.

My father was reclusive, more comfortable with books than banter, but I always felt a connection with him. He encouraged me to read novels and write poems, and he brought me to shows at Trinity Rep. After we attended “The Iceman Cometh” together, Dad marveled at Richard Jenkins’ performance as Hickey, unraveling the complexities of the play’s protagonist for me.

That year, on Christmas morning, my brothers and I visited my father in his latest apartment, on Veazie Street. After exchanging gifts, we asked him what he had planned for the day, knowing that we, as usual, would be celebrating deep into the evening with my mother’s side of the family.

“I’m volunteering at a nursing home on the East Side,” he said. “That will give someone a chance to take the afternoon off.”

His words were as soothing as the warmth of the sun on a winter day.

The night before, during Midnight Mass at St. Pius, I’m sure I had heard the familiar passage from Luke’s gospel where the angels proclaim the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. But, on that Christmas, it was my father’s “goodwill toward men” that meant the most to me.

The best gifts aren’t always found under the tree.

 

Thanksgiving served up “auntie” love

tina+big_gracie_1956

The author’s “aunts” Grace Besachio and Tina Giuliano, fourth and fifth from the left, at a family wedding in 1956.

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 17, 2019.

The hiss of Mom’s hairspray on Thanksgiving morning announced that it was almost time to leave.

“Grab your coats, boys,” she called from the downstairs bathroom where she always put on her make-up. “We’re going to Auntie Big Gracie and Auntie Tina’s.”

Big Gracie and Tina were my mother’s first cousins, which technically made them first cousins once removed to my brothers and me; but we called the fun-loving sisters “aunties” out of respect. As for the “big” in Big Gracie’s name, it was confusing. The only thing outsized about my aunt was her personality – she stood 5 feet 2 inches, tops.

“Why do you call her Big Gracie?” a friend once asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “We just do.”

I would later learn that the “big” was bestowed on Gracie to distinguish her from a younger cousin – one of my mother’s sisters – who had the same name. She, of course, was known as Little Gracie.

As a kid in the late-1960s, it seemed I had loving Italian relatives on every other block in Providence’s Elmhurst neighborhood. Big Gracie and Tina lived side-by-side in a towering three-story duplex across from La Salle Academy. They each had four children, and on holiday mornings, the duplex was a hubbub of hugs and laughter, coffee and cordials, with non-stop spillover between the attached homes.

On this particular Thanksgiving, Big Gracie greeted us at her front door: “Norma and the boys are here!” she called out behind her.

“Hooray!” came back a shout from the rooms beyond.

With her easy smile and loving voice, my aunt ushered my brothers and me through the throng to her dining room table, which was laden with cookies, cakes, and candies. “Help yourselves, guys,” she said.

After a short stay on Big Gracie’s side of the festivities, it was time to visit Tina. In an ordinary house, this would have meant walking across the front lawn to the duplex’s other entrance. But this was no ordinary house. Years earlier, the two sisters had broken through a closet wall to create a secret passageway between their dining rooms, allowing them to visit each other without going outside.

Family lore has it that during one holiday gathering, a would-be suitor of Tina’s youngest daughter, fueled by holiday libations, sat dumbfounded as he watched a procession of people enter what was apparently a closet, only to have an entirely different group come out moments later. The young man resisted every impulse to flee, and he and my cousin eventually wed.

“Look who’s here!” Auntie Tina called out as my mother, brothers, and I emerged from the closet to make our second big entrance of the day under the same roof. “Norma and the boys!”

More laughter. More cookies. More hugs.

At one point, Auntie Tina asked me if she had forgotten to give me a gift for my birthday earlier that year. I was quick to say yes, though I didn’t actually remember.

“John!” my mother said, shooting me a look. Auntie Tina intervened.

“This is between John and me,” she said, shooing my mother away. Minutes later, when Mom wasn’t looking, Auntie Tina pressed a shiny silver dollar into my palm.

Mother-child relationships are a complex stew, one that nourishes, sustains, and sometimes boils over. Aunts are chicken soup. I remember mine with endless affection because, as James Joyce wrote, “love loves to love love.”

The word “aunt” derives from the Latin “amita,” a diminutive of “amma,” which is baby talk for “mother.” The etymology reflects an age-old truth: there’s a lot of our moms in our aunts.

Just the right amount, I think.

The best seat at Fenway

2003_Walshes@fenwayAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 16, 2019.

Most of the books my father gave me sit on shelves, their stories as layered as my memories of him. If I’m lucky, I open to a flyleaf inscribed with Dad’s familiar hand and hear his voice again.

“Neat books need swell readers. So saith Dad. Love.” That note appears on the opening page of a John O’Hara novel given for Christmas in 1988. The unsteady strokes of a simpler message written five years later inside a spy thriller – “Happy birthday, John” – reveal my father’s failing health at the time.

One book he gave me was “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons” by Donald Hall. There’s no inscription from Dad in that one; I surmise he was fine with letting Hall’s words speak for themselves. And for good reason. In a series of elegant essays, the former poet laureate of the United States examines how sports and games connect people and bridge generations.

Many of Hall’s lines resonate with me, including this one: “Baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.” A recurring childhood memory of mine is listening to the Red Sox on the radio with Dad as we drove home from the beach to Providence.

Another moment in the book that I return to is “Baseball is fathers and sons. Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard.”

I can attest to that statement. First, the beating up part.

Our backyard was half dirt, half cement patio; my brothers and I played tackle football on all of it. These contests often degenerated into something we called “muckle the guy with the ball,” which was more rugby scrum than football. When darkness came, we took our game inside, hammering each other in the basement until the commissioner – Mom – intervened from the top of the stairs:

“Enough!”

In springtime, our backyard gridiron morphed into a baseball diamond. Thanks to Wiffle ball, we were able to “swing for the fences” without breaking nearby windows; the darting plastic orbs rapped off panes but didn’t break them. While my father was more academic than athletic, on Saturdays he would usually come outside to toss some pitches and take a few swings. Fast forward 25 years and I found myself instinctively doing the same with my young sons in the backyard at our house.

If playing baseball with Dad was fun, going to a Red Sox game with him was even better. We made the pilgrimage for the first time on the final day of the 1968 season. Unlike the monochromatic ballpark I saw on our black-and-white TV, Fenway that afternoon was a rush of color – green grass, red Citgo logo, endless blue sky, brilliant yellow foul poles.

The memory of that day was still vivid in my mind when I brought my sons to Fenway in 2003 for a Sox-Mariners game. Without looking at a seating chart, I had purchased tickets that I thought would give us a good view of Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle’s superstar right fielder. The boys, then 12 and 10, were big Ichiro fans.

We got to the park early and headed to our seats. Up and up we climbed into Fenway’s cavernous right field grandstand. I checked our tickets: Section 1, Row 18, Seats 1, 2, and 3. Up and up we continued, into the cool shade under the roof, until we finally reached our destination – the last row and very last three seats in the grandstand!

Past a green support column, we could see home plate – barely. Our view of Ichiro’s back wouldn’t be much better. I felt like Bob Uecker, the former major-leaguer-turned-beer-pitchman who, in his classic commercials for Miller Lite, always landed in the nosebleed section.

Still, with my two boys beside me, wide-eyed and laughing, I knew I had the best seat in the house.

Answers on Dad’s side are fleeting

Emma_typewriter_rw1-RGBAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 21, 2018.

The note from my uncle, the last one on my father’s side of the family, baffled me: “I have no information to share about my brothers’ military service or mine. I’m sorry.”

I had written to him on behalf of my younger brother, James, who served in the U. S. Coast Guard after graduating from high school. We knew that three of our uncles had fought in World War II, that one had gone to Korea, and that our father had been an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. Beyond that, details were scant.

“Nothing but respect for what Dad’s family gave this country,” James had texted me last Memorial Day from Florida, where he moved after completing his Coast Guard duty. “I would love to know more.” That prompted my letter.

My younger brother’s relationship with our Walsh-side relatives, including our father, ended soon after our parents divorced. While my older brother, Rob, and I were able to forge connections, however rocky, with Dad as adults, James became estranged from him. All that remained across their chasm of separation and silence was a common thread of military service.

The next time I spoke with James, I told him about our uncle’s response to my request.

“How can he have nothing to share?” I asked with an annoyance I thought my brother would echo. But he was understanding.

“Without even knowing what his reasons are, I accept them,” James said.

For more than three decades after my uncle left Rhode Island, he and I exchanged letters and cards, including a Mass card that arrived several days after my father died. I tucked these correspondences away in the top drawer of my dresser; I knew they represented my last line of communication with Dad’s family. However, after sending James a photograph of the latest note, I tossed it in the trash.

Six months later, a letter arrived from a close friend of my uncle’s whom I knew of but had never met. I feared the worst, but Jeremy simply wanted to let me know that my uncle had moved to a rehab facility where “he has enjoyed himself with new friends and with the right people taking care of him.”

My brother Rob and I made the three-hour trek to see our uncle on a Saturday afternoon. Jeremy had mentioned in his letter that there were memory issues, so I brought along my parents’ wedding album. After gathering in the facility’s library, we opened the album to a black-and-white photo of my handsome father and his four older brothers, all beaming in tuxedos at the Pawtucket Country Club in 1956.

My uncle, gray and bearded now, but with the same sparkling eyes, pointed to the faces.

“There’s Donald,” he said. “And Dick and Vin. And that’s Jimmy and me.”

He looked up brightly. “We grew up on Grand View Street,” he said. “The North Burial Ground was down the hill, across North Main Street. My father used to point at that graveyard and say to us, ‘If you act up, we’ll put you on the sled and you’ll end up there.’”

My uncle let loose a familiar, hearty laugh I knew from long ago. Rob and I laughed, too, just as we would every time we heard the story that afternoon. The memory issues were real. “Five boys under one roof,” my uncle said, shaking his head and smiling.

The ride home was bittersweet. Rob and I were grateful for our uncle’s good spirits despite the cloud of his dementia. But then I remembered my annoyance at his note and felt a pang of shame. He had even apologized.

The next day, I called my brother James. I finally had some answers for him, though not the ones he had been seeking.

 

A winning day on a rainy island

Yahtzee

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, July 15, 2018.

I awoke to the sound of rain pattering insistently at the bedroom window. “Might not be a beach day,” I thought.

My wife, Deb, and I were renting a house on Block Island for the week. It had become an annual tradition – taking our three children to this serene spot off the Rhode Island coast for a summer vacation. The kids called it Pork Chop Island because of its shape, so recognizable on souvenir T-shirts and hats. Deb and I called it heaven because it let us escape the hectic pace of everyday life at home, at least temporarily.

On sunny mornings, we’d ride boogie boards in the pristine surf at Mansion Beach. In the afternoon, the kids would set up a lemonade stand at the foot of our driveway on Spring Street to hawk cold drinks to people making the uphill trek to the Mohegan Bluffs. On clear nights, the five of us would gaze across Block Island Sound to Point Judith Light, 13 miles, and a universe, away.

From the look of things outside on this morning, however, such activities might have to wait until the following day.

We headed into town to have breakfast and kill time. At Aldo’s Bakery, Peter, our oldest, asked if he could have a mint chip ice cream cone instead of pancakes.

“Why not?” Deb said, loosening the parental reins. “It’s vacation.”

At Blocks of Fudge on Chapel Street, our 10-year-old, Evan, asked if he could get a bag of Skittles. It was 9:30.

“Why not?” I said, following Deb’s lead. “It’s vacation.”

After ducking into the arcade at the National Hotel during a downpour, Deb and I tried to coax the kids into going to the Island Free Library, which was right around the corner.

“Can we go back to the fudge store?” our daughter and youngest child, Juliana, asked.

We climbed into our minivan and drove at island speed, which is not a lot faster than walking, through the rain to our rental house. It was 10:15. What would we do all day?

Play cards and board games, of course. War, Go Fish, Pictionary, Blokus, Monopoly – they were as much a part of our summer vacations as sunburned shoulders and sandy towels, especially when the weather was crummy.

On this morning, we settled on Yahtzee, a perennial family favorite. The game incorporates elements of poker as players roll five dice on each turn to make various scoring combinations. A five-of-a-kind scores 50 points, the highest of any category.

On her first roll, Julie defied the 1-in-1,296 odds of having all five dice come up the same.

“Yahtzee!” she yelled, rising from the table with her hands over her head.

The rest of us had seen this before. Julie was a Yahtzee wunderkind, having once posted a score of 508. The chance of scoring 500 or more points in a single game is about 1 percent. I was generally happy to reach half that.

In a later game on this rainy day, after rolling two sixes and needing just one more to win, I shook the dice and watched a pair of threes and a five tumble onto the table. A curse flew from my lips.

“Dad!” my daughter said with feigned shock.

“It’s vacation!” I said with a grin as I scooped up the dice for yet another game. The kids erupted with glee.

Fast-forward 15 years to Father’s Day 2018. With Evan and Julie home to celebrate, Deb announced that she was “feeling a board game.” Sure enough, after lunch, the old, scuffed Yahtzee box came out. We put down our phones, picked up the dice, and played deep into the evening, just as we had done so often “on the Block.”

As usual, Julie seemed to notch the top score in most games, but that night, laughing and breathing together, we were all winners.

Worn tin box is my time machine

IMG_6916_rw1As published in The Providence Journal, April 15, 2018. Photo: Rob Walsh

I cast my line into Google’s data ocean with the words “vintage recipe box” as my bait, and get a quick 3 million nibbles. I click for images and, after one scroll down, there it is: a red metal tin identical to the one that sat by my mother’s stove, and now sits on my desk.

According to eBay, Mom’s recipe box could fetch me $19.99, but I’m not selling. How can I? The worn tin is priceless – a treasure chest, a time machine, a family portrait.

After 60 years, the artwork on the box is more kitsch than cool. A fish peers at me one-eyed from a frying pan; an orange Jell-O mold is topped with a cherry or perhaps an olive – I’m not sure which. The bottom panel reveals a manufacturer’s pride: “Design Copyright by Stylecraft of Baltimore.” Such recipe files were popular in 1956, the year my parents got married.

While Mom’s cooking wasn’t fancy, it always “hit the spot,” especially her chicken cutlets, and macaroni and meatballs.

After I moved into my first apartment, I asked my mother for her meatball recipe. Instead of reaching for a pen, Mom reeled off a litany of ingredients that included ground beef, stale Italian bread, an egg, some milk, pepper, and a dash of garlic salt. I guess she presumed I would know what to do with them. It was years before I produced an edible orb.

This exchange left me with the sense that my mother was averse to writing down the secrets to her dishes, but her recipe box proves otherwise. It contains a hodgepodge of index cards, folded notes, newspaper clippings, and alphabetized dividers, which Mom clearly had no use for.

Today, almost five years after my mother’s death, the first recipe I pull out of the box is a family classic: Nonnie Caione’s Easter bread – a miracle of eggs, butter, sugar, aniseed, salt, sugar, yeast, and flour. By Palm Sunday every spring, a loaf would appear on our kitchen table, waiting to be sliced and then slathered with soft butter. As we relished each bite, Mom would celebrate her maternal grandmother, invariably noting, “Nonnie was tiny.” My brothers and I found this funny since, at 5 foot 1 inch, my mother was no Wilt Chamberlain.

A preprinted card from the Virginia Electric and Power Company lists standard measures on one side and a hamburger and vegetable casserole recipe on the other. It reminds me that, as newlyweds, my parents lived in Fredericksburg while Dad was training at the Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in Quantico.

A recipe for veal and mushrooms is grease-stained, indelible proof of its deliciousness. The dish, from a dear family friend, became a favorite for special occasions and send-off dinners.

There are surprises. A Providence Journal clipping from the early 1980s details how to make President Reagan’s favorite macaroni and cheese. I don’t recall Mom liking mac and cheese all that much, but I do know she loved the Gipper. Who knew her recipe box would confirm her preferences at the ballot box, as well?

Two recipes stand out. One is for “gravy,” the meat-based tomato sauce that simmered on our stove every Sunday. No doubt this culinary prescription was given to my mother by her mother in our family’s version of Moses receiving the tablets. The other recipe, for meatballs, is equally sacred. It echoes my conversation with Mom from long ago: ground beef, stale Italian bread, an egg, some milk …

Recipes now come to me via Bon Appetit email blasts and Tasty videos on YouTube, which I love. Still, I’m holding on to the vintage red tin for the ingredients only it can serve up: my mother’s familiar handwriting; artifacts from my parents’ early life together; connection to foods my grandmother and great-grandmother once made.

It’s a family archive to be savored.

%d bloggers like this: