grandmothers

The lost and found wheelchair

IMG_0889As published in The Providence Journal, October 15, 2017.

We needed a wheelchair; otherwise, my mother would miss the show.

My daughter, Juliana, was performing in her last high school theater production, cast as Golde in “Fiddler On The Roof.” Mom, a longtime fan of Broadway musicals, knew the role better than anyone and said, with a grandmother’s certainty, that Julie was perfect for the part.

My mother had been less sure about whether she’d be able to attend. Two weeks earlier, a virus had slowed her down – an unwelcome add-on to the macular degeneration and breathing issues that she normally dealt with. But when I walked into her Warwick apartment on the Wednesday before Julie’s Saturday matinee, her voice was strong and her spirits high. She was coming to the show.

So we needed a wheelchair. There was no way Mom could make the trek from the parking lot to the auditorium at East Greenwich High School. And forget about any stairs.

My brother Rob mentioned there was a wheelchair in the coat alcove at St. Luke’s, our church, and when I called the office, the rector said we could borrow it. Julie was thrilled. Not only were her grandparents from Connecticut coming in for the show; now Nonnie would be there, too.

On Saturday, I went to St. Luke’s to get the chair. But when I looked in the coat alcove, it wasn’t there. I looked in another closet. Nothing. I looked in the office, the entrance foyer, the back of the church – no luck.

I looked at my phone. “Fiddler” was scheduled to start in less than an hour.

And then an angel appeared. My friend Ken was working with the youth group, making pizzas for a mission-trip fundraiser. It turns out he had a wheelchair at home, one his father-in-law had used for years. Ken said he’d be right back with it. Thank God! Thank Ken! He returned with the chair, and I slid it awkwardly into the trunk of my car.

The show was endearing in the way most high school productions are, with seasoned theater kids mixing with first-time performers. And thanks to the wheelchair, Mom was right in the front row to take it all in. When Julie sang Golde’s bittersweet duet with Tevye in the second act – “Do You Love Me?” – my mother fished a tissue out of her bag. I felt my eyes sting, too.

“You were marvelous,” Mom told her youngest grandchild after the show, giving Julie a kiss.

In deference to the cold, late-winter air, the two of them waited inside the glass-doored entrance of the high school as I retrieved my car. With the Elantra’s tailpipe puffing at the curb, I wheeled Mom out, helped her into the passenger seat, hustled around to the driver’s side, and jumped in to take her home.

That evening, when I returned to the high school to see the musical’s final performance, I noticed an unattended wheelchair on the sidewalk outside. Funny, I thought – it looks just like the one I borrowed from Ken, blue seat and all. What a coincidence.

It wasn’t until the following afternoon, as I loaded groceries into my empty trunk, that it hit me: There was nothing coincidental about the wheelchair the night before. In my haste to get Mom home, I had driven away without it. And now my mother’s voice came to me, straight from childhood: “You’d lose your head if it weren’t attached.”

I raced over to the high school and, to my relief, discovered the wheelchair orphaned in a wooded area by the parking lot. I wished the chair was equipped with a GPS tracker so I could review its adventures. I imagined hooting teenagers careening down darkened streets deep into the night.

As I hefted the wheelchair back into my trunk, I was thankful – for the generosity of friends, for the love and presence of grandparents, for the sweetness of young voices, and for the wheelchair itself, found and lost and found again.

It was a weekend I’ll always remember.

What I wanted to be when I grew up

jwalsh_I_want_to_be_002_RW2

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 21, 2017.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 1.9 million students in the United States will graduate from college this year. By now, a certain question is as familiar to most of them as the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance”:

“So what are you going to do?”

Answers inevitably range from the vague to the speculative to the definitive. In my case, decades ago, it was a mash-up of all three.

After receiving my degree from Brown, I vaguely talked about getting a job as a writer. I speculated there might be an opportunity at the ad agency where I had done an internship. As for immediate employment, I was definitive: I would continue to bus tables at the Turks Head Club downtown.

Sixteen years earlier, Miss Carlone, my kindergarten teacher at Nelson Street School in Providence, had posed a similar question to my classmates and me: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

With her soft, fleshy arms and sweet voice, Miss Carlone reminded me of Mama, my beloved grandmother who lived upstairs from my family and sometimes took care of me. In September, my teacher’s maternal warmth had made my first-day-of-school jitters melt away.

Several hands shot in the air in response to Miss Carlone’s question. One kid said he wanted to be a fireman. Another was going to be a football player. A girl announced she’d like to become a teacher, which brought an approving nod from Miss Carlone.

And then it was my turn.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a bachelor,” I declared.

My classmates looked puzzled, and so did Miss Carlone – for a moment. Then she threw back her head and howled. Now I was puzzled. What was so funny?

“Tell us what a bachelor is, John,” Miss Carlone said kindly as she slid a finger beneath one of her moistened eyes.

That was easy – I just told everyone about my uncle. He lived with my other grandmother and had the upstairs of Nana’s bungalow all to himself. Once he set up two TVs in the living room so he could watch two basketball games at the same time. He sat back in his big leather recliner, eating peanuts and following the scores, until he fell asleep. What a life!

Most of my classmates continued to stare blankly at me while Miss Carlone fished a tissue out of the sleeve of her dress.

At dismissal time, Miss Durgan, the principal, appeared in our classroom door – usually a sign that something was wrong. But Miss Carlone simply asked me to reveal my life’s ambition again, after which the two educators laughed with abandon, like my aunts at a family party. I was still puzzled, but at least I wasn’t in trouble.

The following year, apparently, my career plans evolved. Thanks to my mother, a lined yellow paper of mine from first grade still survives. Titled “My Wish,” it reads: “If I had one wish, I would want to be a writer. And I would write stories for all the children.” There is no mention of my marital intentions.

My wish came true – sort of. Three months after graduating from Brown, I indeed landed a copywriting job at the ad agency where I had interned. I would eventually meet my wife there, too.

But at the Brown commencement in 1982, my future was as unclear as the dreary Providence weather that first Monday in June. The only thing I knew for sure was I now had an English degree.

Miss Carlone would have been amused to know it was a bachelor’s degree.

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