fatherhood

An unexpected gift from Dad

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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.

 

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 first day of spring like no other

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 20, 2016.

I felt myself blacking out, but there was a silver lining: at least I was in a hospital.

My wife, Deb, and I were taking the new parents’ tour at Women & Infants. It was the middle of February, and our first child was due the following month.

We stood in the crowded delivery room with the other couples from our childbirth class. For as long as I could remember, I’d been squeamish at the sight of blood. Now, the mere thought of it was making me woozy.

Once, when I was 9 or 10, I clipped my forehead on the corner of a coffee table while playing dodgeball with my older brother in the basement of our house in Providence. I lay face down on the floor, moaning.

“Get up, you baby,” my brother said.

I lifted my head and saw a pool of blood the size of a salad plate on the tan linoleum floor.

“Dad!” I screamed.

My father was staying with us that evening, until my mother got home from her class at Johnson & Wales. It was an arrangement they had made after the divorce.

Upstairs in the bathroom, my dad pressed a towel against my head.

“I’m dizzy,” I said.

“You’ll be OK,” he said calmly, “but we have to go to the emergency room.”

I don’t remember the drive down Pleasant Valley Parkway or getting stitches at Roger Williams Hospital. I only recall how relieved I felt at the sound of my father’s voice.

Such relief was nowhere to be found during the tour at Women & Infants. Sweating beneath my woolen winter coat, I tried not to listen as our teacher rattled on about umbilical cord clamps, vacuum extractors, and other ominous-sounding delivery room devices. Her detailed explanation of meconium aspiration — a potential complication for newborns — didn’t seem to unnerve anyone else. Meanwhile, my legs felt rubbery and spots floated in front of my eyes.

Panicking, I bolted for the door, staggered out into the hallway, and collapsed on a nearby chair. Shedding my coat, I put my head between my knees and tried to calm myself with long, deep breaths.

Moments later, Deb and our teacher came to my aid as the class filed out behind them.

“You OK?” the teacher said.

“He’s not good with medical stuff,” Deb whispered.

“I’ll be all right,” I said in a throaty voice, my head still bowed.

I saw Nikes and Timberlands shuffling by on the shiny floor. A mom-to-be sarcastically said what everyone must have been thinking: “Oh, he’s going to be a big help.”

I had come to the same conclusion. How would I ever make it through the actual birth?

Not that it mattered. As one of the docs at Deb’s obstetrics practice had said to me, “If you faint, we’ll just slide you out of the way.”

Five weeks later, on an unseasonably warm day, Deb and I paced up and down a sunny hallway at Women & Infants — the same hallway I had fled to during my hospital tour meltdown. Deb was in labor; we were told walking might hasten our baby’s arrival.

When we returned to the delivery room, Stephen Sondheim’s “Into The Woods” came on the TV as if on cue. My father had introduced the Tony Award-winning musical to Deb and me soon after we got married. We loved its cautionary meditation on children and parenting, though it would be years before we truly appreciated the show’s nuances.

I managed to remain vertical through Deb’s delivery. After the birth, someone even mentioned meconium, but it didn’t faze me. And soon I was holding our baby — all six pounds and eight ounces of him.

“Welcome, little man,” I said softly.

Twenty-five years ago, the first day of spring was my first day of fatherhood. Just before midnight, I drove home from the hospital with the sunroof open.

The air was filled with promise like never before.

On fences, children, and letting go

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, September 20, 2015.

Twenty years ago, when my wife, Deb, and I had a fence put up around the perimeter of our backyard in East Greenwich, a line from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” came to me:

“Good fences make good neighbors.

But our fence was less about neighbors than about children. We had two boys, ages 4 and 2, and a new baby was on the way. With our house smack-dab in the middle of town, half a block from busy Main Street, we needed to make sure our kids didn’t wander off.

Good fences make good barricades.

Our lot sits on a hill, and the backyard slopes precipitously. That didn’t seem to concern the burly, good-natured guys who did the installation. They navigated the tricky terrain masterfully and, after two days, the cedar fence gathered our boys in a fragrant embrace.

Over the ensuing years, within the fence’s confines, our children ran through sprinklers and built snow forts; chased our dog and tried to dig to China; tossed Wiffle balls and played manhunt.

At the same time, northeasters slammed the fence’s flat boards and squirrels gnawed on the arbor above the gate. When frost heaves left four or five sections askew, I had to call the installers back to re-set the posts.

As our kids grew older, the backyard gave way to the front door in their daily comings and goings. Out they bounded to music lessons, basketball games, drama rehearsals, or to just hang with friends. Somehow, seemingly overnight, the fence’s containment services were no longer needed.

Good thing.

The first break came when Hurricane Irene whipped through Rhode Island in 2011. I watched from my kitchen window as one of the fence’s back sections listed awkwardly, a wooden sail in the storm.

I rushed down with clothesline rope to tether the flailing section back to its post. Irene scoffed at me with a whoosh of wind and rain. Afraid the next gust would hurtle the rack of wood onto a neighbor’s car, I laid the section flat on the ground, hefted six cobblestones onto it, and prayed.

The cobblestones (or my prayers) did the job. But after the storm, the fence wobbled badly on either side of the missing section. The entire back run needed to be replaced, the fence guys told me; most of the posts and crosspieces were rotted. When I heard the price — and thought of pending college tuition payments — I asked the guys to simply take the battered back run away.

Miraculously, the fence’s side runs held on — until Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Two sections on the northern edge of the yard fell, and those that remained upright were now more vulnerable than ever. Storms no longer needed a name to pose a threat. The mere mention of heavy winds had me peering outside with trepidation.

One blustery Saturday morning, I looked out my kitchen window and, again, noticed a gap in the fence — this time, a section was breaking ranks on the southern property line. I grabbed my drill and headed out to the yard. I pulled the straying section back in line with its post-mate; a fifty-cent brace from Benny’s would reunite them.

But when I leaned into my churning drill, it pushed right through the mushy wood. The brace and the screw fell to the ground, and the fence resumed its tilting.

As I searched for the screw in the leaves below, I thought of my children. My older son was in Los Angeles, chasing pop music dreams. His brother was on a train to New York, trying to kick-start his own path in the recording industry. And my daughter was asleep upstairs, perhaps dreaming of a college campus far away from the backyard of her childhood. In less than a year, she would leave, too.

A different line from Frost’s poem spoke to me now:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

I abandoned my mending and went back inside.

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.

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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