fathers and sons

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.

 

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.

Navigating stormy days with Dad

fathers_day_003_2017As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 18, 2017.

Paul Simon is known for the chart-topping singles “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” as well as numerous other hits. But deeper cuts from his catalog can be equally rewarding.

“Rewrite,” from the 2011 album “So Beautiful or So What,” is one such tune. In it, Simon sings about a father who has to leave his family, though “he really meant no harm.” The dad in the song says he’s going to change the ending of his story, substituting a car chase and a race across the rooftops, “when the father saves the children and he holds them in his arms.”

After repeated listens, the insight of Simon’s lyrics resonated with me: Nearly all of us would like to rewrite at least a part of our past.

I was 9 years old when my parents separated and my father moved out of our house in Providence. The break-up unleashed a riot of emotions inside me, most of which I did everything I could to quell.

There was an upholstered rocking chair in our living room where I often sat and, in my mind, rewrote the story of my parents’ separation. The biggest change was transforming it into a reconciliation, but there were many others. Things were always better in the rewrite.

However, the reality was that my father now came to see my two brothers and me on Saturdays while Mom was at work.

On the first of these new Saturdays, he took us to Southwick Wild Animal Farm in Mendon, Massachusetts. It felt like a holiday. Mom had bought us new clothes to wear, and my dad took photos.

It would be years before I appreciated the efforts my parents each made to gracefully navigate those early post-breakup days – and how heart-wrenching it must have been for them.

When my father arrived at our house the following Saturday, I greeted him with anticipation.

“Where are we going today?” I asked.

“Nowhere,” he replied, a little curtly, and I immediately wished I could take back my words. I can only imagine the feelings I had unwittingly stirred up.

On a Saturday several years later, under threatening skies, my father and I did go somewhere – down to Narragansett to cut the grass at our beach house. Once a place where our family enjoyed summer vacations, the yellow cottage was now rented out. On weekends, Dad took care of any work that needed to be done there.

Light rain began to fall just as he and I finished mowing the lawn; we drove in his maroon Chevelle to Giro’s Spaghetti House in Peace Dale for a quick bite. My father had a couple of beers, but no whiskey. That was good.

It was pouring when we left the restaurant and started making our way north. On Route 95, a gust of wind slammed our car, and I grabbed the passenger-side door handle as we lurched out of our lane. My father turned off the radio. The windshield wipers beat like frantic metronomes, but they were no match for the storm. A proliferation of blurred brake lights ahead indicated what must have been a serious accident.

“I’m going to pull off,” Dad said. Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, he guided us down the next exit ramp.

We were in Warwick. Rain pounded the car as we crept along, but at least we weren’t on the highway anymore. I saw a sign for Providence.

“Don’t worry,” my father said. “We’ll make it back OK.” He offered me a roll of peppermint Life Savers, and I let go of the door handle to unwrap one.

It was still raining when Dad dropped me off at our red house on River Avenue. As he drove away, I headed for the rocking chair in the living room. But unlike in days past and days soon to come, no rewrite was required on this afternoon.

My dad had gotten me home. He was happy and so was I.

 

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The Ghosts Next Door

The house next door is empty and for sale, but the ghost of my father will always live there. He owned the Colonial at 118 Peirce Street in the early seventies. I remember coming to stay with him one weekend. We shot baskets at Academy Field. On Sunday morning, he brought me back home to Providence.

When I moved my family into Rose Cottage at 112 Peirce Street, I looked at my father’s old house and saw what hadn’t changed: the giant elm out front, the stone wall out back, the granite step at the front door… My eyes hadn’t changed, either, but they saw the world in a different light. More than twenty years had passed. My father had died in 1993, shortly after my second son, Evan, was born.

Dick Parenteau owned the house now. He would become a great friend and neighbor. In some ways, Dick reminded me of my dad. He was divorced, lived alone, smoked cigarettes, had a great sense of humor, loved cars, and was a sports nut. Like my father, he elevated cursing to performance poetry. When Dick launched into a diatribe about overpaid pro athletes – “Can you believe these !@#$ing guys!” – I heard my father. Dick was a !@#$ing godsend.

As Evan 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 said. With a four-year-old’s wisdom, Evan said, “Heaven’s where you go in your head.”

One day, Dick knocked at our door. He was bouncing on the balls of his feet. “C’mon,” he said, “I have something to show you.” I followed him to his house, and we made our way down the entry hall, through the TV room, and into the bedroom, where he was stripping the wallpaper. Dick pointed at one of the newly revealed walls. On the horsehair plaster, I saw the familiar, soothing curves of my father’s handwriting. Decades ago, he had tagged the wall with his signature – Donald E. Walsh.

I told Evan it was a little piece of heaven, brought to me by an angel.

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